As insurgents rise in both parties the Democratic and Republican establishments are protesting that demagogic outsiders are seducing a doltish electorate. That is ironic since preying on an uninformed electorate is exactly the business the establishment is in.
Politicians feign adherence to the will of the people but actually respond to party interests, including those of “intense policy demanders” – like business, unions, pro-lifers, pro-choicers, etc. Blessedly for insiders the electorate does not pay much attention to politics. As the authors of The Party Decides write, inattention promotes an “electoral blind spot” “in which parties can do whatever they wish because voters are not carefully monitoring them or perhaps simply don’t care what to government is doing.”
In 2016 the establishment has two unique problems. First thanks to the Great Recession, misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obamacare, deficits, and ISIS, rank and file voters are paying attention and blaming the establishment. Second, rank and file voters are no more realistic and informed than they usually are.
Take the Democrats. The non-Trump story of the week is that polls are showing that Bernie Sanders may defeat Hillary Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire. (Polls are instruments that report the aggregated opinions of the people who are not paying attention). In the 538 Endorsement Primary Hillary Clinton has 458 points and Bernie Sanders has two. Democratic elites are starting to go after Sanders. Paul Krugman has been pointing out the problems with Sanders health care and financial reform plans, here and here. It seems improbable that a political party would nominate someone who is not a member of the party, or that the nation would elect a 73 year old socialist. It seems just as unlikely that a President Sanders could advance his program given the lack of support from the party whose nomination he seeks. Perhaps the usual workings of politics have been suspended. The latest CNN/UNH/WMUR poll in New Hampshire has Sanders leading 60%-33% over Clinton. Feel the Bern.
On the Republican side things are much worse. At least the Democratic establishment is fulfilling its job, which is to mug Sanders. The Republican establishment is afraid to attack Trump. The prime alternative to Trump right now is Senator Ted Cruz. Many Republicans (especially those who personally know him) think Cruz is worse than Trump. The New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks has called for an establishment conspiracy against Trump, Cruz, and what they represent.
Actually there are two establishments in the Republican Party, which makes it hard to continue referring to one of them as fringe. On Tuesday Trump got the endorsement of the MaMa Grizzly of the Tea Party establishment, Sarah Palin. Cruz has done well with the Iowa religious and talk show establishment, the one that believes shutting down the government would be a fine policy. So now there is an entire segment of the establishment that is delusional.
Trump’s appeal is that he “tells like it is.” “It” isn’t like Trump says “it is” but his fans think “it is.” We’ll just ban Muslims, build a fence on the southern border and make Mexico pay for it, bomb the shit out of ISIS, and make America great again. Simple.
And people believe it. Reading the daily interviews of Trump rally attendees is like having a front row seat at the Twilight Zone. Here’s my favorite recent remark, from Iowa evangelical Buford Arning: “We’ve had an administration the last eight years of someone that never ever hired anybody and was responsible for a payroll, who filled 90 percent of his cabinet with academia, teachers and professors.”
It reminds me of Jim consoling Sheriff Bart in Blazing Saddles:
What did you expect? "Welcome, sonny"? "Make yourself at home"? "Marry my daughter"? You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know... morons.