People don’t like being told what to do. Americans in particular. We don’t like “presumptive” candidates and inevitability. Yet that’s what both major political parties have tried to hand us in the current presidential race: candidates who are heirs apparent to political dynasties.
At the start of this election cycle, the powers that be were telling us about the near inevitability of a fall campaign between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. They had the money, they had the name recognition. It was all over but the shouting.
Now here we are at the start of 2016, and Clinton’s lead over a self-described socialist independent (Bernie Sanders) for the Democratic nomination is shrinking dramatically. Bush is struggling to even maintain a viable candidacy, far behind Donald Trump – who’s anything but a lockstep Republican dogmatist. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find two people who have behaved less like party loyalists over the past couple of decades than Sanders and Trump.
Meanwhile, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is weighing an independent run.
It’s amazing that political operatives haven’t caught on to what’s happening and, more importantly, why it’s happening. This isn’t your typical election cycle, in which populist candidates emerge, gain brief traction, then are cowed into submission by party machines spinning retread propaganda. Here’s why this is happening.
Lesson No. 1: You don’t win by running out the clock. Any sports fan knows this. How often have you watched your team try to sit on a lead or switch to a “prevent defense,” only to see hungrier opponents seize the opportunity to steal the game. They sense your team’s fear. They smell blood. And they pounce.
This is what happened to Hillary Clinton when she willingly donned the mantle of “presumptive” nominee back in 2008. She tried to sit on her lead, milk her “aura of inevitability” for all it was worth … and watched a hungrier Barack Obama sprint past her like the Roadrunner to claim the nomination.
The pragmatic Clinton wants to continue Obama’s policies; the revolutionary Sanders wants to build on them. Guess which sounds more exciting to the Democratic voter?
Lesson No. 2: You don’t win if you can’t learn from history. If the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results,” Clinton’s halfway there (while, ironically, seeking to present herself as the most rational of candidates). She’s following the same kind of strategy that lost her the nomination in 2008 and expecting it to work better against Sanders than it did against Obama. Perhaps she assumes Sanders to be a weaker candidate than Obama was. But it’s helpful to remember that she didn’t view Obama as a major threat early in 2007, either.
As Lao Tzu said, “There is no greater danger than underestimating your opponent.” She appears to have done it again.
Lesson No. 3: Like it or not, it’s a game. Some might take offense at my use of sports analogies, but the candidate who loses sight of the fact that politics is blood sport does so at his or her own peril.
Regardless of what you think of him or his policies, Trump seems to understand this perhaps better than any other candidate in the race today: “Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score,” he once said. “The biggest excitement is playing the game.”
Many of us complain, in high-minded fashion, about negative campaigns and the horserace aspect of politics, but we still watch – just as we still gravitate toward negative headlines in print and online. There are times we say one thing because we’re embarrassed to admit the truth in polite company. If everyone else is high-minded, we want to appear that way, too.
But not if someone is telling us we need to appear that way. The same people who give in to peer pressure on a regular basis will balk at “going along to get along” the minute someone comes right out and tells them what to do. Once the pressure shifts from subtle to overt, from suggestion to expectation, we do an about-face and tell the self-proclaimed authorities and experts where to stick their presumptions.
Yes, elections are more than Monday Night Football on a debate stage. Policies are at stake that can change the course and quality of lives across the nation and beyond. But whether it be the NFL or the stock market, Americans have been brought up to believe that competition weeds out the less fit and creates the kind of success that benefits us all.
We declared our independence from a monarchy, and we don’t want to go back. Sure, we like all the pomp and circumstance surrounding our idols and icons, but we want to be the ones holding the crown at their coronation. We don’t like arriving late to the show and finding someone else has made the decision for us.
If people try telling us who we’re supposed to support, we’re likely to flip them the bird and vote the other way. That’s one reason Obama won in 2008, and it’s the same reason Trump and Sanders are seeing such strong support as we enter 2016.
People are telling us, “You can’t support him,” at which point we tune them out and refuse to hear them tell us why. Their reasons might be valid or not, but we don’t care. What we care about is that someone has presumed to try to tell us what to do.
Lesson No. 4: The familiar may be comforting, but if we perceive our lives to be less than what they should be, we’ll look elsewhere for answers. Fresh faces will trump (pun intended) staid guardians of the status quo when the deep flaws in that status quo are on display.
In the past, the status quo usually carried the day. But two things have changed that have upended the conventional wisdom behind running traditional “safe” campaigns.
- The Great Recession. Many Americans still feel as though they’re caught in it, either because they have yet to recover financially or because things have gotten better so gradually it’s hard to notice an improvement. The status quo hasn’t been nearly as attractive as it used to be since 2007. That’s almost a decade now, and the longer the situation persists, the more deeply an aversion to “good enough” becomes in our psyche. Running a safe campaign won’t work the way it once did until/unless the middle class is firing on all cylinders and prosperity touches a broad swath of economic sectors.
- Social media. Our immediate, online connections to one another have empowered us like never before. We don’t get our news exclusively from “authoritative” sources anymore, but from each other. The more effective social media are at providing an alternative voice for the voter, the more attractive alternative voices will be among candidates for public office. We vote for people who reflect our values, and those values are shifting right along with our level of connectivity. We’re realizing that, more than ever before, we can circumvent the “system” and call the shots ourselves now. People spouting rehearsed lines sound less and less authentic because we’re talking more to people who “go from the gut” and “tell it like it is” – each other.
Old-school politicians are still playing by the old rules. But once the game start to change, those rules matter less than they used to. Eventually, it becomes a whole new ballgame.
At this point, traditional candidates like Hillary Clinton still have a lot of tools at their disposal: party backing, deep-pocketed backers, ballot access, etc. Clinton may well win the Democratic nomination, but if she continues to "sit on her lead," she may find herself without a lead to sit on. On the other side, Trump has maintained his top-dog standing in the polls far longer than any of the "experts" predicted he would.
Whoever the nominees are and wherever we are in the course of our political evolution, it will be fascinating to see how it all plays out - both this year and long-term.
Let the games begin.