Listen carefully as enthusiasts describe the appeal of Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump and a disturbing pattern emerges. You won’t hear much about policy proposals. You won’t hear much about competence or qualifications for the job. Nobody in either camp seems to care a great deal about what their candidate might do if the dog actually catches the car.
What you will hear are complaints. Other candidates “aren’t listening.” “The system” is dominated by money. My candidate is the only one with the courage to tell the truth. A few complaints might relate to policy in some distant way. Supporters may mention inequality or immigration or some other headline concern. However, deconstruct comments from the two candidates’ supporters and they all revolve around the same core of abstract grievances.
All the energy in our early 2016 campaign season is being generated by candidates at either end of the spectrum who are promising the same singular achievement – breaking our political system. Sanders and Trump use different rhetoric and branding to describe exactly the same product. Neither candidate is a credible national leadership figure. Neither candidate’s enthusiasts articulate any credible political program. Both candidates are offering voters a chance to address a single, pressing grievance – our political system is failing to respond to my needs. Forget the policy platforms, or lack of one, both candidates are offering a political program that replaces the citizen with the consumer.
Those on both sides who emphasize the differences between the two candidates are talking past each other. Yes, Sanders has held elective office. He has been a gadfly, Socialist Senator from Baja Canada. He is not a member of the party whose nomination he seeks. He has never played a meaningful role in any major legislation. As a career politician in a tiny state, he won all of his offices with fewer votes than it takes to become mayor of a large city.
Meanwhile Trump is a reality TV star and political tourist who seems to hold no political views beyond noisy racism and a firm belief in his own fantasticness. By contrast, Sanders is a nice, humble, earnest guy – just like Ron Paul, who has issued detailed position-statements on a wide variety of issues. Their differences are as relevant to the office they seek as their respective hairstyles.
Sanders does not attract crowds because of his leadership credentials or policies. Few who have actually looked at them (anyone?) seriously expects that he could implement those policies. No one seriously believes that he is more capable of serving as the lead administrator of a $4tr government than his Democratic rival. Just like Trump, Sanders’ appeal is fundamentally negative. Both candidates are running against politics rather than for any elected position. They are expressions of frustration, not aspiration.
Both of these candidates embody the tension between our duties as citizens and our desires as consumers. They represent our frustration with a political culture premised on collective duties next to an economic culture premised on atomized, instantaneous, individual satisfaction.
Commentators all over the spectrum are consistently describing this phenomenon as a failure of our political system. “The system” no longer “hears” ordinary people. This critique usually centers around the influence of money in our politics, but this is a strange scapegoat.
Money matters, but it has never in our history mattered less than it does now. In our grandparents’ childhood you could still literally buy a Senate seat in a scene on state house floors that very nearly resembled an auction. Before Nixon there were no enforceable campaign finance laws at the Federal level.
This is not about money. It is not about a failure of “politicians” or “government.” We own this government collectively in a truer sense than any human beings have ever owned their government. We own its failures absolutely. Sanders and Trump are emblematic of our own collective failure to adapt to a changing world.
Blaming the system is a lazy escape. We are increasingly unwilling to invest the time and energy required to operate and adapt our political system. There has never been a point in our history when our government has been more keenly and assiduously responsive to the needs of ordinary citizens. When people talk about the failure of government to represent their needs they aren’t comparing the present to the past, they are comparing citizenship to consumption. Consumers make lousy citizens.
A political system that capably and responsibly addresses the public needs of 350 million highly diverse people is not going to “listen to me.” Politics is not Burger King. You cannot have it your way. There is one gateway to healthy expression in an electoral democracy – participate personally in small-scale grassroots organizations with a presence in your local community. Research indicates that about 1% of American voters consistently do this. Few people do it because it has become the most costly thing in the world to do. In an economic environment this free, nothing is more expensive than my time and attention.
Two hundred years of progressively more democratic representative government taught us to be citizens. Global capitalism has, over the course of a few decades, taught us to be consumers.
Capitalism assigned value based on the results of individual transactions, at a moment in time, in which neither of the parties has any duties to each other beyond the exchange. Capitalism places enormous social and economic power in the hands of consumers.
Citizenship is dull and demanding, fraught with compromise. As citizens, our individual desires are constantly tempered by the needs of our neighbors, the consequences of our choices, and constraints imposed by basic human compassion.
Consumption is exciting and fast. As a consumer there are no interests in play beyond my own. I have no obligations to my vendors beyond a contract premised on money. As a consumer, whatever fails to accommodate my personal needs and feelings in any particular moment can be discarded without a thought.
Citizenship is premised on a network of shared duties extending over time, even beyond my own lifespan. Consumption is premised on my personal needs as they may be expressed in a momentary transaction.
Politics is just the tip of this melting iceberg. What sits beneath the decay of our political institutions is a wider social phenomenon born of global capitalism and consumer ideology. As Robert Putnam has so capably documented in his work, beginning with Bowling Alone, our personal engagement in social institutions, often referred to as social capital, has entered a phase of steep decline.
From Boy Scouts, to youth sports, to PTAs and churches, almost any institution that demands an investment of time, energy and compromise collectively with those around us is experiencing a steep decline in engagement. Churches that required a personal investment of effort and attention are being swept aside by churches that treat attendees like customers. Fewer people than ever have time for PTAs or school board meetings, but yoga studios are booming.
Global capitalism has been a massive force for human wellbeing, more potent and beneficial than Gandhi, Jesus, Mother Teresa and Oprah all rolled together. No transformation that powerful can occur without placing enormous evolutionary demands on our social structures. We are not adapting. At this stage, as liberal democracy and market economics just completed their triumph, they are already being battered to shreds by forces we barely attempt to understand.
The book, The Politics of Crazy: How America Lost Its Mind and What We Can Do About It, describes this phenomenon and offers a set of recommendations for how we can adapt. It would be a mistake to try to shut down the growth of global capitalism. Its negatives are vastly outweighed by its benefits. Successful adaptation requires recognizing new demands and building institutions that can flourish under these changing conditions. We can do this, but throwing support behind grievance candidates incapable of governing is not going to get us there.
In the meantime, the energy we spend on entertainers like Sanders and Trump is an investment in self-destruction. They are selling the same product using different theme music. One may be bombastic while the other is grandfatherly, but neither makes a credible claim to competence as a national executive leader. Representative politics can survive under global capitalism, but only if we have the intelligence and maturity know the difference between citizenship and consumption. If we insist that politics be entertainment, we will forever be led by clowns.