Both Trump and Sanders, in very different ways, are saying: you know, America’s leadership class has been very busy, but it hasn’t really been taking care of business. And they are telling the people to rebuke their leadership for that by throwing them out. They may be the wrong tribunes of that sentiment – Trump certainly is. But how is that impulse not exactly the right response to elite decadence?
Put bluntly: if the American people are sick of precisely the sorts of “do something” actions that Douthat highlights as signs of decadence, who, in this primary, are they supposed to vote for?
I think that’s right, and I’d say that the truly strange thing is that this reaction hasn’t come much sooner. Douthat starts his column by asking why this is happening now as opposed to a few years ago in the immediate aftermath of the crash and the recession. The failed leadership and the public’s frustrations with their failures were there all along. My guess is that it is happening now because this is the first truly open contest for the nomination in both parties since the 2008 crash, and because the overwhelming elite response to the financial crisis and recession has been to go back to business as usual. Many Republicans can see that their party leaders are committed to continuing or reviving policies that have done nothing for them, and many Democrats can see that their party is in thrall to a candidate closely tied to the financial and political classes that they distrust and loathe. This isn’t so much a reaction against “decadence” as it is a pointed rejection of the elite consensus on many major issues and of the kinds of leaders that maintain it. They’re not protesting over the fact that our society isn’t “advancing” as it once did. They’re objecting to being led in the same direction that they’ve been badly led for decades. As vague or unworkable as their proposals may be, Trump and Sanders are offering voters a chance to go in another direction, and a lot of them are eager to take it.
Republican elites are always trying to sell their party on getting the U.S. involved in foreign conflicts, so it is no surprise that the top two candidates at the moment are some of the only ones explicitly arguing that the U.S. shouldn’t take sides in Syria’s civil war. Republicans may be ready to support fighting wars that they perceive to have something to do with national security, but they have no appetite for sending Americans to police foreign wars for the sake of global “leadership.” It appears they are going to vote accordingly. There is bipartisan support for any and every trade agreement that comes along, and skepticism of those agreements is always dismissed and/or vilified, so it was only a matter of time before candidates espousing that same skepticism would reflect popular frustration on this issue. The most obvious disconnect on the Republican side is on immigration, where Republican elites are strongly in favor of pushing for a liberalization of immigration policy that the vast majority of the party’s supporters doesn’t want. Twice in the last decade party leaders have trying pushing through an immigration bill that their voters hated, and twice they have been stopped. Then those same leaders wonder why most Republicans are getting behind candidates arguing for a radically different position on immigration from theirs.
Just as some other major parties in the Western world have neglected and ignored their constituents’ interests and views for decades on the assumption that they had “nowhere to go” (see Labour in the U.K. for a prime example), our major parties have done to same to millions of their voters. The leaders of the major parties now face a reckoning for their neglect of and poorly-hidden contempt for their voters.