Few people believe Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have much in common. But while Sanders and Trump may be polar opposites in some respects, they’re alike in some very fundamental ways. And their popularity is driven by some of the very same reasons.
Congress’ job approval rating is 16%. Dysfunctional government was the single most important problem Americans mentioned in Gallup polls throughout 2015. Both Trump and Sanders are anti-establishment, which appeals to voters’ frustration. Both threaten to use the muscle of executive office to force change in the way they see fit.
The problem is, muscle and force do not lead to freedom, democracy, or a healthy political system of checks and balances.
Today only a third of Americans are satisfied with the way our system of government is working (down by half from 15 years ago). World history shows that today’s conditions are ripe for a charismatic leader who promises to impose utopian solutions. Whether it’s bringing wage equality to the masses or protecting our nation from foreign intruders, when the people lose faith in their system, they seek outspoken leaders who pledge to bring order to the chaos.
As Gallup points out, the rhetoric of candidates from both parties is very much alike: politicians are too beholden to political parties, to the rich and influential, and to big business to stick to principle or represent the people. Voters are very receptive to this message. Polls show that the very liberal, the very conservative, and many in between agree that Congress doesn’t operate with the best intentions of the people in mind. One third of Americans consider these issues a crisis.
But what typically happens is politicians point their finger at the other party and ignore the misdeeds of their colleagues. Trump and Sanders are appealing because they’re willing to speak out against the political elite in their own parties. Many voters see no other alternative to fix a broken system.
After all, back in 2008, Barack Obama promised that putting an end to the inappropriate influence of lobbyists in Washington would be a top priority of his administration. Yet little changed in eight years, and any small strides Obama did make have now been reversed by the Democratic National Committee.
What happened to his priority? Politicians continued to put partisan loyalty and the success of their party over ethical behavior. This “win at all costs” mentality is exactly what Americans have been complaining about.
Real change would require that politicians not only take a hard look at their own behavior, but call out the improper actions of fellow party members. The problem is, that’s usually political suicide.
For example, senators avoid reprimanding others from their own party on the Senate floor, especially their party leadership. But Ted Cruz broke that rule when he publicly confronted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for lying about a deal McConnell had struck. McConnell had denied working with several senators to vote for a major trade bill in exchange for the majority leader’s help in reviving the Export-Import Bank.
“I think it’s totally inappropriate, out of order, and I resent the hell out of it,” said former Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott of Cruz’s condemnation of McConnell. “It’s not good for the institution, it’s not good for the party, it’s not good for America.”
Republican Rand Paul says that he shares many of Cruz’s frustrations with Congress but told Fox News that Cruz “is pretty much done for and stifled, and it’s really because of personal relationships” that Cruz lost within the party. Without the endorsements and backing of other Republican senators, Cruz’ popularity has continued to slip.
Hillary Clinton is a politician who works within the system. An illustration of her party allegiance is her censure of Bernie Sanders at a recent debate. “The kind of criticism we’ve heard from Sen. Sanders about our president, I expect from Republicans,” she stated. “I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama.”
Clinton’s mentality has helped her win approval of the political elite and the staunch partisans of her party. But does America benefit when politicians suppress criticism of their leaders?
Voters from both parties are reaching for extremes to solve this problem. The difference is that many on the left think that it will take the humanitarianism of a socialist to to break up the crony capitalism and the stranglehold of party brass, while the right thinks a blunt and savvy business outsider who knows the game is the answer.
In a way, our political parties have become caricatures of themselves. In the past, opponents have accused Democrats of being closet socialists and Republicans of being arrogant and greedy capitalists. While neither depiction accurately describes the typical Democratic or Republican voter, some of the 2016 presidential candidates fit the bill all too closely.
But while all the presidential candidates have acknowledged that government dysfunction is a problem, no candidate has devoted much time to specifics on how they’d fix it. Though two-thirds of Americans say they don’t trust Congress to work in their best interest, the common theme from every candidate, particularly Trump and Sanders, is that their party needs to expand the power and control of government, ignore concerns of the other side, and fight harder to win partisan battles.
The focus of candidates on both sides is what actions they’ll compel Congress to take if they’re elected president. Rather than proposing harmony, they advocate using the heavy hand of government to push through their prefered causes. This leads voters to become sidetracked by partisan arguments on immigration, minimum wage, health care or gun control. And while these are all important issues, they distract us from the core problems of government that continue to worsen.
This exacerbation of the culture war leaves Americans fighting the wrong battle. While voters clash over whether to be ruled from the left or the right, any suggestion of bipartisan collaboration to prohibit back-room political deals, eliminate pork barrel spending, or purge special interest influence is hopeless.
For Americans who’ve become fed up with the duplicity of Washington, voting against the establishment seems worthwhile. Except that the outsider candidates plan to carry on the same bad habits, only intensified.