It’s not that Sanders and Clinton have starkly different ideologies, nor that Trump and his rivals differ dramatically when it comes to policies. First and foremost, this result is a reaction against, and a rejection of, the party machines. The upstarts are cohering support around a critique of the elite, including the elites which run their respective parties. Furthermore, supporters of Trump and Sanders often cite the poor personal qualities of the establishment candidates, which is understood as a wider problem among members of the party elites.
Discontent with the political establishment has been a gathering storm for some time now. Trust in politicians is at a record low. People have been leaving the two main parties, and becoming unaffiliated. And the establishment appears to take them for granted. Many voters feel they are treated like fodder, expected to turn out on election day even though nothing has been done for them since the previous election. And worse still, some voters (like the white working class) are effectively considered dumb and bigoted, by both left and right. Such a situation can only go on for so long, and last night was the revenge of the neglected and denigrated.
Adding fuel to the fire has been the way the party leaders have ineptly responded to the emergence of Trump and Sanders. Their counterattacks have backfired on them, and actually provided more support for the insurgents. Consider the ways the party elites have mishandled their responses:
- Dismiss: At first, both Trump and Sanders were written off as non-entities, and assumed ‘unelectable’ (many still call them unelectable). But much of the initial criticism was focused on their style, rather than the substance of their arguments, whether it was Trump’s rudeness and comb-over, or Bernie’s age and eccentricities (including his resemblance to Larry David).
- Patronise: Party big wigs then decided they would simply lay down the law, and hope everyone would fall in line. Trump was declared ‘not a conservative’ (as if his supporters cared about that label), and his supporters were derided as boobs. On the Democrat side, we had Madeleine Albright warn that there was a ‘special place in hell’ for women who didn’t support other women (that is, vote for Hillary). That made it all the more pleasing to see a majority of women in New Hampshire say they’d rather go to hell than vote Hillary.
- Try to steal arguments: When it came to countering the rebels’ political arguments, the party establishments found it hard to do. So, in many cases, they decided to try to nick the rebels’ arguments and hope no one would notice. Hence, Clinton, the recipient of donations from Goldman Sachs and other banks, tried to claim the mantle of fighting Wall Street. And, on the Republican side, Trump’s rivals said that they, too, didn’t like Muslims entering the country, and would out-do The Donald in ‘carpet-bombing’ (as Ted Cruz put it) ISIS. No wonder many found such ‘me too’ appeals so unconvincing.
- Just give up: In recent weeks, as Trump and Sanders have gained in support, we have started to see signs of the other candidates conceding to those once considered the barbarians at the gate. Rumours abound that the elites within the parties are ready to drop the establishment candidates and support the outsider. Already certain Republicans, like elder statesman Bob Dole, have said they’d rather support Trump than Cruz. Expect to see more announce for Trump and Sanders in the near future.
For the party-establishment types who want to fight, New Hampshire indicates some troubles ahead. On the Democrat side, yes, Hillary still has big structural advantages, in terms of money and support from the so-called super-delegates (additional delegates, representing about a third of total Democrat delegates, who are unelected; if the primaries end in a close finish between Clinton and Sanders, the super-delegates should swing it for Clinton). But the enthusiasm and momentum is on the Sanders side. And the big, and possibly insurmountable, problem facing Hillary is that the race has become a verdict on her, personally. This means that any political arguments she can muster in response to Sanders may be ignored, because Hillary is just too flawed a messenger.
Last night was particularly bad for the Republican establishment’s plans. They had hoped that their favoured son, Marco Rubio, would see off the other ‘establishment lane’ candidates. But those hopes were dashed on Saturday night, when Rubio had a disastrous debate performance (in response to the criticism that he was too scripted and repetitive, Rubio decided to repeat the same talking point over and over – leading him to be dubbed ‘Marco Roboto’). In New Hampshire, the establishment’s preferred candidates (Rubio, Jeb Bush and John Kasich) ended up bunched up around 10 to 11 percent of the vote, and therefore all go forward, leaving the party still badly splintered.
The Republican establishment might take solace in the fact that the combined vote of all of the candidates acceptable to them adds up to more than Trump’s total, but there is no sign of these votes being consolidated by a single candidate anytime soon. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that, if a single opponent does eventually emerge, they can actually beat Trump and/or Cruz.
Of course, it’s still very early. Trump versus Sanders may be a real possibility, but so is Bush versus Clinton, despite their recent travails. Nevertheless, last night the voters delivered a negative verdict on the political elites of both parties, a verdict that should have the elites very worried.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.
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