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Opinion

The Political Renaissance: Why 2020 is Different than 2016

“Ann, which Republican candidate has the best chance of winning the general election?” The sole Trump supporter in the room, Ann Coulter quickly responds, “of the declared ones? Donald Trump.” After a millisecond of silence, left wing pundit Joy Reid stares straight at the camera, mouth agape, as the audience erupts into laughter.

When this episode of Real Time with Bill Maher aired on June 19, 2015, it seemed impossible that a flashy, billionaire reality TV star would ever lead the free world. 

But then Donald J. Trump won. To the political experts, pollsters, and journalists who knew two weeks before the election that “Trump’s chances of winning are approaching zero,” his victory was antithetical to everything they knew to be true. 

This misalignment between the way things went and the way things should have went catalyzed some much-needed soul searching within the Democratic Party. In an unexpected turn of events, conventional political analysis, calibrated and honed with years of empirical election data, missed the mark. 

Polling methodology relies on a target sample being representative of a larger electorate. This isn’t the case in a populist election, where sentimental messages and charged rhetoric energize those desperate for change. In these scenarios, traditional political “expertise” is useless. In 2016, pollsters underestimated Trump turnout for three different groups: A majority of undecided voters, ~6.7 to 9.2 million Obama voters, and 70% of disenfranchised rural voters all picked Donald J. Trump. 

The 2020 elections, however, likely hold a far different outlook. From a glance, we seem  doomed to repeat 2016. Again, the top establishment candidate is a senile Washington insider too financially tethered to Wall Street and special interest groups to take any bold positions on economic inequality, climate change, or really anything. Biden is almost indistinguishable from Clinton in his support of the Iraq War, advocacy for mass incarceration, emphasis on Obama’s past achievements, and shady family ties.

Conversely, in comparison to Hillary Clinton, whose powerful donor network and influence over the DNC guaranteed her a primary victory, Biden’s loss of momentum in primary polls and fourth place funding at this stage seem rather odd. 

Unfortunately for Biden, things have changed in this upcoming election. In the ominous words of every high school history teacher who struggles to keep their students’ attention, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Rehashing Hillary’s failed campaign with a new name attached to it simply will not work for Biden. 

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The best explanation for this divergence in primary performance is a paradigm shift amongst the electorate. The 2016 election represents the end of a political era, or as Emilie Simpson of Foreign Policy puts it, the end of the “Two-Hundred Year Era of Left and Right.” 

Empirics help contextualize this story. Pew research, spanning five decades, finds that public trust in political representatives has consistently dwindled from 73% in 1958 to 20% in 2015. In recent years, financial stress coupled with the increasing distrust in government has bottled up anxiety and pressure for millions of Americans. For the 140 million Americans who can’t afford a single $400 emergency expense and the millions of people whose livelihoods are threatened by declining manufacturing employment and automation, opportunity is an exotic luxury. 

And in the hands of a populist, the hope of opportunity is a powerful carrot to dangle in front of a vulnerable electorate. This is why a post election analysis by FiveThirtyEight finds that economic anxiety was one of the biggest drivers of Trump’s victory, even after controlling for factors like race. 

Populism was undoubtedly a response to the electorate’s demand for political change, demonstrated by the overwhelming support that small donors poured into the Trump and Sanders campaigns. 

Both candidates challenged the traditional binaries of the two party system in their abject rejection of the Democratic and Republican establishments. They voiced a silent majority left behind by the system by mobilizing rage against “millionaires and billionaires” and the “political elites,” bringing their critiques of capitalism  and urban elitism to mainstream political discourse.  In doing so, they harnessed the electorate’s collective angst to burst the fragile yet enduring bubble that is the Republican-Democrat dichotomy. 

Moreover, this paradigm shift among the American people has only grown over time, especially as millennials have come to dominate the electorate. In a recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll, 31% of young voters disagreed with the notion that the Democratic Party “cares about them,” while only 38% agreed. Simply put, the future does not favor the establishment. 

Even Jill Biden, the former Vice President’s wife, admits that other candidates “might be better on health care than Joe.” Half-assing a redemption narrative, she adds, “But you’ve got to look at who’s going to win this election.” The Biden Camp’s self-aware pivot to capitalize on his “electability” is strategic in theory. Given their candidate’s mistreatment of women and segregationist past, it makes sense to aggressively market his singular strength– the perception that he is “electable.” Sadly for Biden, being lukewarm is a far cry from being electable. 

“The notion that a candidate can’t win because they are too far to the left and not close to the center is absolute nonsense,”explains Allan Lichtman, Distinguished Professor of History at American University and author of The Keys to the White House, to The Politic. That tunnel vision is a problem, he adds, because “a lot of [Biden’s] momentum is based off of the false notion that he is electable.”

In fact, peddling the notion of “electability” is a way for older, establishment candidates like Clinton or Biden to avoid discussing real policy. This is why Lichtman, who has successfully predicted nine straight elections since 1984, “would abolish [‘electability’] from the English language.” 

The term “electable” is a fiction propagated by Democratic elites.  They use it to legitimize the candidacies of uninteresting insiders. In particular, it legitimizes those who have spent years playing the game– trading political favors for money and having their strings pulled. Oftentimes, “electable” is code for entrenched.

When Clinton and Biden advertise their Obama-Era experiences, they alienate the very people who voted for him. While Obama is generally seen as an establishment politician now, he was not seen as one when he ran for President. At the time, he was a symbol of “hope and change” against the status quo. Ironically, the millions of Obama voters hopped aboard the Trump train in 2016 represent precisely where Democratic strategy falls short. If mainstream partisan issues like immigration, gun control, or birth control were the key voting issues in 2016, then those same people would have picked Mitt Romney in 2012. Likely, the same anti-establishment values that drew these voters towards Obama motivated them to vote for Trump. 

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While many liberals are concerned about the prospect of another Trump victory as Biden loses momentum, these fears are misplaced. Far left candidates are the best shot Democrats have to win the White House. In many ways, anti-establishment voices like Bernie address many of the issues that drew people to Trump in the 2016 election. Like Trump, Sanders has publicly denounced the “millionaire billionaire class” and called for a “political revolution.” 

Unlike Trump, Sanders has detailed policy proposals to do so, from a $15 minimum wage to public funding of election campaigns and a plan to overturn Citizens United. Additionally, Bernie categorically rejected Wall Street and corporate donations, raising more than $77 million from small donors instead. He brought the passion and enthusiasm that Trump exuded, while grounding his ideas in real policy. This is why a Gravis Marketing report reveals that, if the DNC had not rigged the game through the Donna Brazile debate question scandal and biased superdelegate system, Bernie would have beaten Trump by “historic margins”. 

Today, the world faces many increasingly daunting challenges: far-right nationalism is on the rise, automation and AI threaten the livelihoods of billions, and human extinction is looming on the horizon. 

Despite these challenges, the future looks bright. After the political schisms of 2016, the war is no longer between Democrats and Republicans, but the political machine and the American people. The unprecedented midterm voter turnout produced the most diverse array of congress members in history, indicating a new American political renaissance against the status quo. The movement champions Democratic Socialist philosophy and ebbs with the vitality of the forgotten and disenfranchised. 

In this new era, Democrats can win, as long as the DNC gives newer, bolder candidates a voice over the more “electable” options. Otherwise, Trump’s “chances of winning” are going to “approach zero” again.