With the Iowa caucuses in the rear view mirror, our Presidential campaign begins to clarify a bit. Candidates drop out, others give mixed signals, still others need to quit but haven’t figured it out yet. Most of that action is on the Republican side, but that’s where most of the candidates are. When you have about four times as many candidates as you need to have, a lot of dropping out is in order.
The fact that the Republicans have so many candidates is a product of many things, not the least of which is that the Republican Party still believes in the electoral process to effect change while the Democrats do not. Which one is right is a central question, not only here but in Europe, where the EU has worked hard to insulate itself from popular opinion expressed in elections, with dubious consequences.
Irrespective of their idea of how things get done, the Democrats have to nominate someone to warm the seat in the Oval Office, lest someone else spoil the parade. The Democrats pride themselves in being the party of the future, demographically, sexually, economically, etc. In particular the Democrats believe themselves to be the party of the Millennials. So why has their contest come down to a slugfest between two old white people, while all the blacks, Hispanics, etc., are in the other horse race?
In his book 1973 Nervous Breakdown, Andreas Killen ends with the statement “…the crises of the 1970’s are not so easily buried; indeed they have reemerged with new intensity in our own time.” To a large extent, the American left defines the “future” as the fulfilment of the revolution that took place in American culture in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the two Democrats struggling for their party’s nomination represent two different sides of that revolution.
In one corner is Bernie Sanders, who is the “purist” of the two. It’s time, Bernie tells us, to finish the revolution, to put away the boorish bourgeois, capitalist system that produced the phonies our parents were and come into the economic utopia we’ve always known was out there but were blocked from its entry by another generation of greedy phonies.
In the other corner is Hillary Clinton. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what she really is, but her career speaks of someone who, like many of her contemporaries, picked themselves off of the floor after the revolution and realised that they’d never get where they wanted to go without working within the system as it was. That included her marriage to Bill, complete with tolerance for his Scots-Irish penchant for both womanising and not rocking the boat, doing things like balanced budgets and welfare reform.
Bernie for his part has the support of the young, who really are supposed to be the future of both party and country. The people who support him have been inculcated by a generation of hippie dreamers in the ideals of the 1960’s; the dreamers were better at infiltrating the bureaucracy while their conservative opponents went from election to election.
Hillary for her part has the support of her fellow Boomers and the non-white groups which make up a great deal of the Democrat party’s base. Most of Bernie’s base–young or old–is white; part of the party’s long term strategy is to ride the increasing non-whiteness of the country to a permanent majority.
At this point, unless Bernie can break out of his white Millennial base, he’s finished; he’s only dragging the process out. So what do we learn from all of this?
First, this will probably be the last election where the legacy of the 1960’s and 1970’s will be fought out in this way on the left. Barack Obama is, in many ways, an end-run around this conflict. Follower of the 1960’s ideal (and radicals like Bill Ayers) he is; typical product of this country he is not. But now the day of reckoning has come.
Second, the left isn’t as unified as its media boosters would have us believe. If the Democrats ever get to a permanent majority, the first result of it will be a split, pretty much along the divide we’re seeing now. The non-white constituencies simply do not operate in the same way as their (mostly) upscale white ones do; we’re already seeing that in the re-segregation of our college campuses and “safe spaces” for different groups. The real end-game for identity politics is a type of millet system, but the Democrats are simply too “American” to take full advantage of this, at least on a national scale.
The Democrats have this last problem, but the Republicans have it even more. The Republican Party has proven its ability to produce a diverse field for President, but its own ideological commitments will make outreach to those groups difficult.
The question neither side has a really good answer for is whether their idea will make for a greater country. In the case of the hippie dreamers on the left, such a question is absurd: to their mind the world will be a better place if America is diminished, and Obama’s foreign policy is a reflection of that conviction. On the right translating populism into success is a tricky proposition, which is one reason Donald Trump’s candidacy is so problematic.
In the next few weeks we’ll see which hippie dreamer comes out on top. This election is very important, but it’s really hard to see a good outcome. At best we can hope for yet another holding pattern while avoiding being caught in the crossfire between the hippie dreamers.