They're still not telling the real story: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and the analysis you won't hear on cable news

From Fox News to MSNBC, the pundits are too obsessed with this very second to notice the massive changes underfoot

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published May 7, 2016 1:30PM (EDT)

Chuck Todd, Wolf Blitzer, Megyn Kelly   (AP/Reuters/ Steve Marcus/Charles Dharapak/Brendan McDermid)
Chuck Todd, Wolf Blitzer, Megyn Kelly (AP/Reuters/ Steve Marcus/Charles Dharapak/Brendan McDermid)

After every presidential primary, we were treated to a new round of conventional wisdom about what things mean for both parties going forward. Yet, there's every reason to be deeply skeptical of these discussions among people who never saw either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders coming. They represent a chattering class that both expected and normalized a “war of dynasties” between Bushes and the Clintons, then marveled at the “depth” of the Republican bench, and spent months obsessing over whether Joe Biden would run, as if he were a figure of mythic proportions.

You can laugh, if you want, but the out-of-touch nature of these treasured campaign narratives now lives on in a new form: an obsessive focus on this election cycle, when, if anything, the one thing it has to tell us is that much larger, long-range changes are afoot, and have been creeping up on us, below the radar, for quite some time. If you're going to cover politics almost exclusively as a horse race, it makes perfect sense, of course. But that narrow-minded focus is an integral part of the very system that voters are furiously struggling to reject.

More than ever, we have to ask, why should the conventions or the elections be the framework for all we think? Even if Trump's presidential run ends ruinously in November, Trumpism will remain, along with the GOP's profound vulnerability to the forces Trump has unleashed. Similarly, even if Sanders fails to overtake Clinton's delegate lead, his voters clearly represent the future of the Democratic Party, and Stan Greenberg, pollster for both Bill Clinton and Al Gore, seems justified in his warning last October that it’s a mistake for Democrats to run for Obama’s “third term.” “That’s not what the country wants. It’s not what the base of the Democratic Party wants. The Democratic Party is waiting for a president who will articulate the scale of the problems we face and challenge them to address it,” he said.  

So party leaders on both sides—as well as bipartisan media figures—are simply whistling past the graveyard, perhaps with a slightly different tune just now, but still deeply devoted to reporting, analyzing and discussing things in a way that avoids as long as possible the profound changes that are clearly under way, and the equally profound changes that people are hungry for.   

If past looming disasters we've ignored can teach us anything, it's that this is exactly what we shouldn't be doing. We need to be thinking as clearly and explicitly as we possibly can about the change process under way in our political system—including the objective realities driving it, as well as the deep socio-cultural and psychological forces at work, forces so deep that they are even reshaping how we think of terms like liberalism and conservatism.

At the satellite overview level, theoretical-biologist-turned-human-history-data-analyst Peter Turchin told Salon last November about long-term cycles of increased competition pushing civilizations to peaks of instability, followed by swings back toward greater cooperation. “When the elite are prosocial, when they're cooperative, the society is governed well; and when the elite eventually become less prosocial, that's when all kinds of troubles happen,” Turchin said. “In the United States, 50-year instability spikes occurred around 1870, 1920 and 1970, so another could be due around 2020,” he added.

Societies run on cooperation, but that means that the question of who counts as a member can be crucial, which helps explain the stakes in the very different politics of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Sanders' call for a broadly cooperative turn is unambiguous—the more so as he's expanded his platform to include a strong social justice platform in response to early Black Lives Matter protests. His support for immigration reform and respect for Islam—even Palestinian rights—are further reflections of his inclusive universalism. 

But Trump's cooperative argument is complicated by the central concern of conservatives down through the ages—the question of group privilege. This includes the full range of sub-questions: who calls the shots, who's included in the social compact, how it's policed and who is excluded, even demonized. While Trump may cross a lot of lines drawn by today's tottering conservative elite establishment, he is undeniably focused on these underlying core conservative concerns, and as Corey Robin has pointed out, redefining what conservatism means at moments of high stress is a typically conservative move.

Thus, the question on the left is can Clintonian incrementalism possibly deliver the kind of sweeping reorientation that Turchin's study of history sees coming, while the question on the right is what's driving Trump's redefinition of conservatism, and what chance is there for different sorts of resolution to the tensions fueling that redefinition. Whatever happens this election cycle can only raise these questions, not answer them.

We got an early taste of the forces behind Trump from political scientist Richard M. Skinner last September. He wrote a post at the Brookings Institute’s FixGov blog looking at five long-term factors contributing to Trump's emergence, and I interviewed him for a story here exploring them at greater length. The factors were: authoritarianism, ethnocentrism, lack of ideology, distrust and negative partisanship. While there's been some scattered mention of other factors, the most focused attention has  been on the role of authoritarianism, epitomized by Amanda Taub's superb article "The rise of American authoritarianism," which places Trump's emergence into an historical context of long-term worldview evolution and partisan polarization (as described in the book "Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics" by political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler), and combines that dynamic view with a detailed snapshot via a Morning Consult poll on the subject.  As Taub described Hetherington and Weiler's findings:

Much of the polarization dividing American politics was fueled not just by gerrymandering or money in politics or the other oft-cited variables, but by an unnoticed but surprisingly large electoral group — authoritarians.

Their book concluded that the GOP, by positioning itself as the party of traditional values and law and order, had unknowingly attracted what would turn out to be a vast and previously bipartisan population of Americans with authoritarian tendencies.

In their book, they describe authoritarianism as a worldview capable of organizing and orienting a variety of different issues:

By worldview, we mean a set of connected beliefs animated by some fundamental, underlying value orientation that is itself connected to a visceral sense of right and wrong. Politics cleaved by a worldview has the potential for fiery disagreements because considerations about the correct way to lead a good life lie in the balance. Specifically, we demonstrate that American public opinion is increasingly divided along a cleavage that things like parenting styles and "manliness" map onto. We will call that cleavage authoritarianism.

And in a 2009 discussion forum on their book, they described how its influence as a worldview spread across issue domains over time:

That evolution started with race and ‘law and order’ in the 1960s, continued with the emergence of feminism and differing approaches to the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, and hardened following the rise of gay rights, terrorism, and immigration as high-profile issues in the 1990s and 2000s.

In the end, Taub suggests, “the rise of authoritarianism as a force within American politics means we may now have a de facto three-party system: the Democrats, the GOP establishment, and the GOP authoritarians.” In her final paragraph, she writes:

For decades, the Republican Party has been winning over authoritarians by implicitly promising to stand firm against the tide of social change, and to be the party of force and power rather than the party of negotiation and compromise. But now it may be discovering that its strategy has worked too well — and threatens to tear the party apart.

I believe this is a real possibility, but I don't believe it's due to authoritarianism alone. The other factors Skinner pointed to are implicated as well. First, there's a close relationship between authoritarianism and ethnocentrism, which has been observed statistically for decades. In my article discussing Skinner's analysis, I wrote:

[E]thnocentric voters oppose spending on means-tested programs such as welfare and food stamps, which they (mistakenly) perceive as primarily benefiting minorities not like them [chart], while supporting spending on Social Security and Medicare, which are seen quite differently as benefiting a truly deserving white middle class [chart].

Trump appeals to such voters in ways that “true conservatives,” scheming to end Social Security and Medicare, obviously cannot, even as he is much more forceful than they are in castigating Muslims and immigrants.

Second, there's a similar synergy with a long-term dynamic of declining trust, the subject of another book by Hetherington, "Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism." As the publisher’s description explains:

As people lost faith in the federal government, the delivery system for most progressive policies, they supported progressive ideas much less….

Growing distrust feeds into a more threatening worldview, which in turn feeds into authoritarianism. They are distinct, but clearly related phenomena, and declining trust fits snugly into Turchin schema. “Cooperation is unraveling at several multiple levels,” he told Salon in November. “First of all there is much less willingness to cooperate between the rulers, and the ruled, you can see that expressed in the declining measures of the public trust, for government, and similar things.” Turchin also saw it reflected in higher levels of elite anti-social behavior, and here Trump has been pushing the envelop in both respects, turning distrust onto everyone standing in his way—Fox News, Pope Francis, whoever—even as he claims to be a unifier. But again, he's only advancing a logic that's been growing in force for decades.

Third, there's the dynamic of negative partisanship—another phenomena reflecting increased elite competition in Turchin's framework. Skinner cited Trump's identification with birtherism, and his attacks on Obama as “other” as a key to establishing his Republican identity, regardless of his past affiliations and transgressions. “Today, the issues all the fall on the same divide, you see major cultural divisions in society fall along the same divide, race, religion, and so on,” Skinner told me. “And that seems to be accentuating the sense of the other party being not just mistaken, but really just alien.”

However, there's another consideration influencing how negative partisanship works: the asymmetry between conservatives/Republicans and liberals/Democrats described by political scientists Matt Grossman and David Hopkins, which has other significant impacts on the race as well.. As Grossman explained, “[T]he Republican Party is based on an ideological movement, around conservatism, as a set of broad ideas and principles, and the Democratic Party is much more a coalition of social group that have specific concerns, and usually have particular policy goals that they want to try to achieve.” Hence, pragmatic compromise is second nature to Democrats, while refusing to budge on principle is second nature to Republicans. This, in turn, fuels profound misunderstanding, as Ezra Klein put it:

Democrats tend to project their preference for policymaking onto the Republican Party — and then respond with anger and confusion when Republicans don't seem interested in making a deal. Republicans tend to assume the Democratic Party is more ideological than it is, and so see various policy initiatives as part of an ideological effort to remake America along more socialistic lines.

Ever since Bill Clinton's election in 1992, Democrats have been touting their pragmatism and eagerness to work across the aisle with Republicans and those aligned with them, patterning their market-oriented neoliberalism more along the lines of Ronald Reagan than any Democratic predecessor, only to be relentlessly attacked by Republicans in return. Negative partisanship inhibits any Republican gestures toward compromise, rewards intransigence, and helps move the GOP to the right. But, over the long run, negative partisanship moves Democrats right as well, inhibiting criticism from the left on the ground that it “helps Republicans.” The fighting spirit critics exemplify is perceived as Republican-friendly as well.  Such arguments preempt serious consideration of the substantive criticisms being made, further consolidating the Democrat's rightward drift. We're seeing this dynamic once again in how Sanders' criticisms of Clinton are being dismissed, not just by her campaign, but by the broader establishment she represents. Thus, negative partisanship has helped shift the entire political spectrum to the right, while increasing the importance of fighting over that of actually governing effectively.

But negative partisanship has also brought us to a crisis point, as the GOP's ideological grounding in conservatism has brought it to a crisis point of near collapse. Social conservatism has failed to return us to the 1950s, as gay marriage so forcefully underscores, while economic and foreign policy conservatism brought us the signature failures of the Bush administration: 9/11, the Iraq War and the Great Recession. Denial has risen sharply as the failures have mounted, but it can only hold out for so long. Conservatism desperately needs reinvention, as does the GOP, since it's so much of a conservative party.

This brings us to the last factor Skinner pointed to, which he described as “lack of ideology,” but which actually turns out to be something far more subtle. Skinner pointed to the classic work of Philip Converse, who found that only a very small fraction of voters (about 3 percent) reasoned about political issues in ideological terms—terms that serve to organize the political world in terms of what goes with what. Trump appeals to the large mass of less politically sophisticated voters for whom the rules of ideology are virtually unknown, and do not apply—or so I thought, when I wrote that piece.

Since then, however, I've come across the work of Stanford sociologist Amir Goldberg (here and here), who used 20 years of polling data from the American National Election Survey to study how people's opinions aligned. Goldberg used a sophisticated technique, relational class analysis, which revealed three distinctly different patterns of how people organize issue orientations:

[T]he American public is composed of three groups, each characterized by a different structure of beliefs: ideologues [33 percent of the population], whose organization of political attitudes on all issue domains is consistent with the prevalent liberal-conservative polarity; alternatives [40 percent of the population], who dissociate between moral and economic conservatism by adopting what are normally considered liberal views on moral issues and conservative views on economic and civil rights issues, or vice versa; and agnostics [27 percent of the population], whose political beliefs are only weakly associated with one another. This division has been consistent throughout the 20-year period under investigation.

 Goldberg's approach disentangles questions of how people intuitively see the world from questions of political sophistication.  There are plenty of ideologues who are not that sophisticated—10 times more than the 3 percent identified by Converse. That's not to say that education more broadly is irrelevant; it's just one of a range of demographic variables Goldberg uses to explore the distribution of these views. His approach reveals that a much more nuanced view of public opinion is called for. Libertarians, who are socially liberal and economically conservative, are precisely the opposite of Trump's prime targets, ethnocentrics who are socially conservative and economically liberal, but both groups structure their beliefs according to the same “alternative” logic. That logic is less tightly interconnected than the standard logic, but it is systematically coherent on its own terms. GOP elites are predominately conservative—both socially and economically—but they do include a significant libertarian minority. Trump's voter base has nothing in common with them. For him to reshape the party it would mean a massive replacement—or else conversion—of the party's existing elite, which would have far-reaching ramifications.

So what would that outcome look like?

Long-time Salon contributor Michael Lind recently penned a piece for the New York Times looking ahead to a possible political realignment, “Trumpism and Clintonism are the Future,” which has some interesting thoughts on the subject but is notably not a response to what's been happening this election cycle. In fact, his analysis is basically unchanged from his earlier views on realignment, here in 2014, for example. In that analysis, he began with the observation that younger millennial voters were far more socially liberal than earlier generations, and predicted the eventual withering away of social conservatism, leading to “a dramatic realignment in American politics... likely to reshape the two major parties” based on “public philosophies or political worldviews.”

With social conservatism dropping out of the picture, Lind argues, there wouldn't be any significant number of today's conservatives, or what he calls “populists”—economically liberal social conservatives. Only liberals and libertarians would remain, but Lind gives them new labels, “populiberals” and “liberaltarians,” and attaches associations that suggest something more going on, particularly when he argues for a partisan-ID reversing geographic/demographic fit: Populiberals (whom he identifies with support for universalist programs like Social Security and Medicare) fit well with “Republican-leaning red suburbs, exurbs, and rural regions,” he argues, while liberaltarians (whom he identifies with means-tested programs like Food Stamps and welfare) fit more naturally with “Democratic-leaning blue urban areas.” It could happen, I suppose. After all, today's Democratic “blue states” represent the GOP's original 1860s strongholds, while today's GOP has the stronger claim on the once-Democratic “Solid South.” But Lind accomplishes the switcheroo far too easily, without even acknowledging that something a bit unusual is going on.

Lind's New York Times piece goes a bit further: Donald Trump fills the role of populiberal avatar, while Hillary Clinton is the liberaltarian champion.  It's easy to see why he gives gives Bernie Sanders short shrift: he's devised a new political typology where Sanders doesn't fit, even though the initial logic seems to point straight at him—he's certainly more of social and economic liberal than Donald Trump ever dreamed of being.

While I applaud Lind's willingness to think in such large-scale terms, two major flaws jump out immediately. The first is his confusion about the nature of “social conservatism.”  He sees it in terms of a specific package of issues, which genuinely do seem to be in decline with younger voters. But the essence of conservatism, as I mentioned above, is how  it deals with questions of group privilege—who calls the shots, who's included in the social compact, how it's policed and who is excluded, even demonized. “Social conservatism” is a huge slice of  all this, and it's not going away overnight just because some of the specific lines of who's in and out have to be redrawn, along with some new explanations of why. That's what Donald Trump is doing right now, in a manner that aligns with decades of authoritarian evolution, as well as the other factors previously cited—ethnocentrism, distrust, and negative partisanship. So long as structures of social privilege, who's in and who's out, are being defended social conservatism is still very much alive.

The second problem with Lind's analysis is more subtle. It rests on a failure to recognize Amir Goldberg's category of “alternatives,” who operate on a logic that puts libertarians at one pole and ethnocentrics (culturally conservative economic liberals) at the other. Among ideologues, it might make sense to simply lop off one category, reducing the more complex category of conservatives to simply being libertarians. But among alternatives it simply won't work. The categories are fundamentally dyadic/oppositional: you get rid of one and you get rid of its opposite as well. We may not yet have a very good understanding of the “alternatives,” but the simple fact of their existence is a warning sign that we need to be much more careful in characterizing how different people think.

Still, whatever problems Lind's analysis may have, it is certainly the kind of thinking we need to have much more of. He's absolutely right that the weakening of the social conservative agenda among younger voters is a foretaste of likely major changes yet to come. But we're only just beginning to gain an understanding of the full range of cross-cutting forces at work. Trump has begun trying to redraw the lines for what social conservatism may look like, and it remains to be seen if others will step up to try to draw lines differently.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side—as I've noted repeatedly, here, here, here and here—Sanders represents a revitalized New Deal-style social democratic vision, characterized by universalist programs like free public education, Medicare and Social Security, in which the fruits of a successful economy are broadly and equitably shared by all. It represents the kind of fundamental shift in logic to a broadly cooperative social order that's exactly what we need to reverse our current trend toward social instability, even crisis.

In contrast, Clinton argues for updating 1980s “New Democrat”-style improvements within a capitalist meritocratic system, expanding opportunities for the most successful individuals of formerly excluded groups, but leaving the underlying logic of selective individual success in place, with narrowly-tailored means-tested programs purported to serve those left furthest behind. The game of musical chairs can be improved significantly, Clinton argues, if only everyone is allowed to play and “compete equally,” but Sanders points out that the game is rigged: a shortage of chairs is the whole point of the game.

Horse-race coverage has reinforced Clinton's repeated efforts to blur the differences between their different visions. A shift to a more extended framework would serve to help sharpen public understanding of the profound differences involved, so don't expect to see it any time soon. Within the political establishment today, it's not in anyone's short-term interest to look out for the public good. That's what a rigged system is all about. Which is why Sanders' campaign could be perfectly justified in writing its own rules. They are waging a battle for the soul of the party and the country. Anyone who thinks it will end in a few weeks or months is missing the big picture. Which is just what the establishment is hoping for... still.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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