I know that this election has been a bummer for many of us. The Republican frontrunners seemed like they would be run-of-the-mill neocons engaging in increasingly hostile coded language, but instead at the end we got someone openly appealing to white nationalist and bigoted sentiment and a real Christian theocrat (Trump and Cruz, respectively). In the Democratic Party, we elected another Clinton, even though it’s increasingly apparent that even if the DNC had just insured the votes were counted honestly (let alone if they hadn’t used surrogates to spur anti-Sanders opinion, funneled state party money into Hillary’s pockets, and scheduled the Democratic debates to crickets) Sanders could very well have emerged victorious or at least made a much stronger case for a contested convention. We’ve seen neo-Nazi arguments get a mainstream imprimatur, whether it’s Steve King’s blather about non-white “sub-groups” (which is of course fundamentally traitorous libel against millions of Americans who at the very least contributed their sweat, blood and tears to this nation, the one that one would think Steve King would view as the one that counts) or David Duke dusting off the anti-Semitic rhetoric and hiding his Klan hood one more time in an attempt to run in Louisiana. It’s easy for progressives to be disheartened. Hell, it’s easy for anyone to be disheartened. There are a lot of venerable conservatives now shedding a tear as a narcissistic fire elemental sets their beloved party ablaze. The party of Lincoln became the party of a man who equated not getting STDs from his promiscuity to fighting a war for his country.
But don’t despair.
This has been the best election in years.
This has been the first time it’s felt anything like a democracy in decades.
I’m 30. I’ve been voting since 2004. I’ve been diligently political since 2000. In March or so of last year, I was fully expecting to be voting Green, as I always have, and ignoring whatever Democratic party hack and Republican party hack would happen. I was expecting that it would be a rerun of 2012: Clinton v. Bush, which would basically be, well, Clinton v. Bush again, but also Obama v. Romney again.
Instead, we had a Republican race with a tremendous variety of people and ideologies. You had businesspeople, doctors, Senators and Governors. You had religious conservatives, small-government conservatives, strong security conservatives, and people with bizarre theories about pyramid grain storage. You even had a pretty cool libertarian. (Rand Paul and his father both deserve to be the subject of several essays and a lot has been written about them, but suffice it to say that while I think they’re a lot more fraudulent than they’re usually held up as, they’re still objectively different from the rest of their Republican brethren, and Paul deserves mad props both for his filibuster on drone issues and his real effort to reach out to minorities).
And in the Democratic race? A Jewish grandpa became the darling of the millennial crowd. You had Jim Webb, a Reaganite who had vaguely transitioned into the Democratic Party; Martin O’Malley, a literal Wire character put on the debate stage with some very specific ideas for police reform and a lot of real progressive cred; Lincoln Chafee, a fairly hardcore liberal who had been courting the libertarian small-tax folks for the last few years; and, of course, Hillary Clinton, a Blue Dog Democrat whose relatively progressive history on education and women’s issues had transitioned into an incredibly hawkish position from her tenure as Secretary of State.
It was a crowded field, as Stephen Colbert mocked in his “Hungry For Power Games” segment. But it was a really diverse one. Both people on the far right and far left finally had someone who would be more than merely palatable to vote for. Sanders was a progressive that could capture even the Chomskyite crowd.
Sanders and Trump both got people to the polls in ways that haven’t been seen in a long time. While many of us are likely to despise the white nationalist and white supremacist voices that Trump gave voice to, the fact is that they at least had a voice at all. And frankly, it’s quite clear that their voices being silenced while getting coded language directed at them has been the worst of both worlds. The two-faced
Ultimately, the dysfunction of both the Republican and the Democratic Parties led the most hated candidates in each race to get chosen. For the Republicans, it was due to Trump’s ability, as David Pakman put it, to mobilize nativism, authoritarianism, and “low-information voters” with simple rhetoric that made him stand out against relatively milquetoast and fakey establishment rivals, as well as his built-in celebrity factor. For the Democrats, it was the sheer power of Hillary’s machine and her name factor combined with the DNC having gone all-in on choosing her ahead of time no matter what the polls indicated about who could beat Trump or Cruz.
But remember: While these are the two most hated major Presidential candidates in history, they emerged from a process that was for the first time truly something resembling a democratic system. It’s not like the DNC hasn’t had its finger on the scale before, and Republicans have certainly managed to use a rhetoric of fear before (Bush’s strategy in 2004, anyone?) Even as political scientists repeatedly confirm that America is much more of an oligarchy than a democracy, for the first time in decades voters had choices within the two major parties that had viable chances of winning and really bucked the trends. Again: Whatever one thinks of Trump or Sanders, objectively speaking they match Europe’s far-right and center-left parties, and suddenly that spectrum of opinion was really available.
Just think about our last three elections. In 2004, Bush, by then having to defend increasingly-disastrous policies in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the inklings of serious economic trouble, went up against Kerry, who had traded in his anti-war credentials for being a tin soldier. You had a man who flubbed his lines going up against a man who didn’t seem to have anything interesting to say. In 2008, you had Obama, a highly corporatized Democrat who managed to tap into public resentment and a need for hope after the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression, going up against McCain, a career Republican with maverick principles who betrayed all those principles in 2008 in order to appease the fundamentalists. In 2012, you had Obama, coming off of disastrous implementation of Obamacare and the failure to fulfill his promises of hope, against Romney, a businessman and a Mormon who just failed to excite the base.
Every single one of these campaigns, and the midterms between them, were defined by corporatist candidates that took money from big donors (and, after Citizens United, PACs and super-PACs). You had a very narrow set of policy disputes. Heck, even Obama’s big and epoch-making success, finally getting government involved in healthcare, was literally floating a plan from the far-right Heritage Foundation. No one was talking about complying with the UN, or cutting corporate welfare, or challenging corporate domination, or really regulating businesses, or slashing wasteful military budgets. These candidates all just assumed that it was okay for the U.S. to intervene anytime and anywhere it wanted.
Then along came Sanders, who had a principled reason to take no money from very large donors or PACs, and Trump, who lucked into it as a strategy but still managed to run with the anti-elite rhetoric when he saw that it was working. Even now as Trump has transitioned into accepting donor money, he still is not toeing the Koch line. Now, to be clear, that’s because what he proposes is even worse than the standard corporate Republican. No one wants to vote for the Joker unless they want the world to burn, and the rich have too much invested in the world to roll those dice. But the poor and middle-class white folks who feel that the economy and an increasingly multicultural pop culture has left them behind? Why not take a shot?
This is going to be an ugly, low-turnout election. But for the first time, America is airing both its dirty laundry and its greatest hopes. The public face of American democracy has finally become racialized in a way that its private face always was, and now the Republicans have lost the ability to pretend that their party hasn’t both coddled bigots and entrenched the power of those bigots to continue to convert people. Women are seeing that 51% of the population might finally have a head executive that matches their sex and does sometimes care about the issues that specifically affect them. There are millions of people who finally heard someone speaking what they view as sense. Issues like casino capitalism, Tobin taxes, whether we should be in NATO at all, the TPP, and disengagement from America’s imperialist role in foreign policy that usually are just settled by default off-camera got public discussion. If you discuss politics or social issues with anyone, you’ll find that a lot of people have gotten a lot more interested. Sure, that’s meant misinformation and a Presidential candidate retweeting fascists and white supremacists, but that’s the cost of democracy!
And while that last line sounds facetious, it is. Democracy is messy. It’s often ugly. But it’s preferable to the quietest tyranny, because the quiet in such situations is always superficial. It’s a fitting tribute to this year that the moment that the first female candidate for a female got a fart-in protest from her political rivals. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
This article was written by Frederic Christie, a writer for dusk magazine.