Mainstream commentators-- both liberal and conservative-- would like us to believe that Presidential contests are like beauty pageants. Primaries allow the two-party “beauties” to appear before the judges (the voters) to show their wares. Televised debates are meant to expose the contestants’ political personalities. And, in the fine tradition of high-school-civics-book democracy, the people are allowed to decide the winners.
As polished and innocent as this shallow imagery appears, it hides a far more insidious process.
A far better comparison would be with the delightful humbuggery of the Wizard of Oz. Like Dorothy, we are deceived into confusing fantasy with reality. And our corporate media refuses to pull back the curtain to expose the deceit.
Take the Republican primary, for example. With 16 (or more) candidates announced as primary contestants, it looks like the textbook-picture of democracy: a political flavor for every Republican. Of course the truth is that most of the candidates have no hope of winning the nomination, but do hope to gain political advantage, jobs, or future consideration. Many candidates appeal to the storm troopers of the Republican Party, the angry bigots, religious zealots, and unhinged war mongers; these forces serve as a social base for a future fascism. But they present a painful contradiction for the Republican Party, a party first and foremost serving the interests of monopoly capital. They can, and have won regional and local power, but they will not win a national election. The leaders of the Republican Party know this. They also know that the vulgar xenophobic right will not necessarily or consistently carry out the corporate agenda.
That's why the Donald Trump campaign is such a problem for the Republicans.
A recent lengthy Wall Street Journal commentary (July 25/26, 2015) featured on the front page of the week-end Review section addresses this problem. Written by a prominent senior fellow at the right-wing Hoover Institute, Peter Berkowitz, the article expresses the tensions in the Party and calls for reconciliation, while promoting the interests of wealth and corporate power. Clearly, the Trump phenomenon is of big concern to Republican king makers. Berkowitz euphemistically distinguishes between “social conservatives” and “limited-government conservatives.”
His social conservatives are the Republican neo-fascists, the Doctor Strangeloves, who would like to boil minorities in oil, nuke the Iranians, and impose Old Testament law on the US. Since World War II, they have been both an essential element of the Republican electoral effort and a hindrance to winning national office. Republican leadership trumped nuke-happy General Douglas MacArthur with the saner, business-friendly, and genial General Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. When Barry Goldwater, a nuclear terrorist and neo-segregationist, won the 1964 nomination and was crushed in the general election, the point was driven home: the wacky-wing of the Republican Party must be mollified, but kept out of national contests.
While Reagan courted and appeased the social conservatives, his imprint is most felt with his restructuring of the relation of labor-to-capital, to the benefit of capital. To that extent, he was the ultimate limited-government (read: corporate) Republican. He served capital well, while fostering a small-town, Midwestern tradition-loving image to appease the rabid-right. While he may have been the ultimate con man, his ease in constructing images and his persuasiveness account for the respect won from supposed political adversaries like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
The Reagan approach-- attack taxes, unions, public services, benefits, pensions, etc. while coddling the haters and those rushing toward Armageddon-- served as the template for Republican national politics until our time. Unfortunately, Donald Trump-- a figure with B-grade acting chops rivaling Ronald Reagan's-- threatens to break the template. Trump's independence imperils Party stability. His open disdain for the rules and conventions demanded by the Republican leadership upsets the process. His imperviousness to Party criticism frightens the Party's watchdogs. His freedom from financial entanglements beyond his own resources erases possible leverage. But most of all, Trump's threat to run in the general election terrorizes Party big wigs.
Trump has brought Republican social conservatism to center stage, presenting a possibly fatal problem to the Party. While some polls show him with a lead, that lead constitutes, at best, 16% of the possible Republican primary voters. Republican leaders know that that will not translate into a majority in a general election, given an electorate largely hostile to the Republican Fringe. Berkowitz, fearing a debacle, urges moderation. He cites rising star Governor Nikki Haley as an example of the kind of tactical acumen needed in this campaign. Her ready sacrifice of the symbolic Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina state capital demonstrated her “maturity,” while safely securing the symbol for “...'those who wish to show their respect for the flag on their private property'.” The games our politicians play!
For Berkowitz, the options are clear. The candidates best representing Republican interests are the limited-government (corporate) candidates, namely, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker. At the same time he believes that they must be good at “blending and balancing the demands of both schools.”
No one should be confused by the conciliatory tone. Berkowitz and the Republican leadership prefer, insist upon a candidate dedicated first and foremost to serving monopoly capital. They will not allow a campaign sacrificed to nut-case principles. But insofar as Trump may provoke a bloody split or bolt the Party, they are filled with dread.
Undoubtedly, they will get a corporate candidate (likely Jeb Bush, who is raising funds at an unprecedented pace), but at what price?
Leftists can only wish that the Democratic Party had these issues. We can only imagine that Hillary Clinton wakes up every night in a cold sweat, dreading the next morning's news about Bernie Sanders. That is not happening.
Unlike the Trump campaign, there is no danger of the Party's left wing (the so-called “progressives”) bolting or disrupting the general election. Sanders has assured the Party establishment that he will not run independently of the Democratic Party or attack the Party or the primary victor. He guarantees that he will remain loyal to the Party throughout the general election-- a loyal soldier. He refuses to attack Clinton, arguing that he prefers the high road. In other words, he eschews Trump's independence.
Like Trump, Sanders polls as high as 16% among Democratic primary voters, far below Clinton's numbers. But unlike Trump, his most loyal followers pose no threat, make no demands on the Party leaders.
As millions of dollars flow into Clinton's campaign coffers, she benefits from both the Sanders and the Trump campaign. The afterglow of the Sanders' populist revival will deflect critics of her corporate allegiances and rabid foreign policy. Trump’s rousing of the Republican Taliban will rekindle the “defeat the ultra-right” crowd who always accept the Party's tacking to the right to win over the “vital” center. We've seen this script before.
So we stand in 2015 in the same position we stood in 2007. The media and commentariat are doing their best (hundreds of millions of advertising dollars are engaged) to create the excitement of a contest where the outcome will ultimately be decided more by fundraisers than by voters. Campaign veterans in both parties estimate that the winning candidate and (her) opponent will spend over a billion dollars before the election.
In this context, a polite “insurgency” within the Democratic Party will not leave a lasting mark on the political scene. To make a difference, an insurgent would need to begin years before an election and build a formidable mass base to counteract the power of money and the entrenched Democratic leadership. The candidate would need to commit to building a movement that would encompass state and local organizations while promising to sustain movement building beyond the current and even future elections. That has not happened in the past and appears most unlikely with the Sanders campaign.
For young idealists inspired by Sanders's departure from political banality, one can only hope that they will learn valuable lessons about the institutional inertia of the two parties and shed any illusions about “knights in shining armor.” Less optimistically, quixotic campaigns like Sanders's, and Howard Dean's before him, can leave a stain of cynicism and inaction.
Is Bernie-mania a second coming of Obama-mania, an exercise of fantasy politics on the part of the left? The test for Sanders supporters who are seasoned veterans of the political wars will come when Clinton wins the Democratic primaries. Will they docilely rally behind her and work for another pro-corporate, war-mongering candidate offering a dubious lesser-of-two-evils? Or will they seek a principled third party candidate (like Jill Stein) who offers a long, unsure, and arduous path, but a path possibly offering real change?