The “Laser Pointer” Approach
When I was in high school, without fail, there would be one at every school-wide assembly. A little red dot would dance around the stage for a while, intermittently blinding the speakers. Someone with a laser pointer would have to be rooted out from amongst the audience. Plenty of us students thought of the behavior as dangerous and rude, but not one of us was confused about the motivation: Spend enough time in a public high school, and you will feel guided in a way that, while not malevolent, is frustratingly beyond your control, mostly unresponsive to your input. Not even the student council president is consulted on hiring decisions, department eliminations, or educational strategies. But that little metal device can let a disenfranchised high schooler prove to themselves that they exist. The seemingly unflappable principal will flinch at the red blast just as any student would. Press a tiny button, and your consistent world changes slightly. This feeling of wanting to change something that seems indifferent to your individual actions isn’t just for high school kids. Sporting events and concert halls have had to ban laser pointers for fear of blinded performers. Everyone wants to prove that they are part of the same human experience as the public figures in front of them.
Now, against many predictions, Trump is the GOP presidential nominee and Brexit has succeeded. While Trump faces the possibility of a historical electoral rebuke in November, his candidacy has taught us a lot about the state of modern American elections. A political elite used to filtering our possible futures down to a few well-vetted choices before putting them to a vote was caught completely unawares. Pundits have wondered if Brexit’s nationalist-populist syndrome would lead Donald Trump to presidential victory in the United States. And they should wonder. The machinations of political power haven’t failed – the economy has improved, unprecedented economic inequality hasn’t led to skyrocketing poverty rates, and we aren’t fighting major wars at the scale we have in the past. In fact, it’s possible the stability itself has become a liability.
Political analysts have tried to play catch up as their predictions of Trump’s political demise collapse. Journalists have doubled down on “shoe-leather” reporting, asking every question we can think of to delve into the mind of the Trump voter. The answers are striking — an unexpected number of Primary voters were deciding between Bernie Sanders and Trump. Many point to Trump’s “straight talk,” or “telling it like it is.” Journalists, in turn, have come up with possible underlying causes ranging from neuroscience to nationalism. Many of these are real contributing factors, but they leave a lot of open questions about how these movements gained such traction and why it has happened now.
One of the most interesting things that Trump voters tend to say they like about him is that he will “shake things up.” This may seem like an obvious answer, but combined with the points mentioned above it points to a more nuanced sentiment. As Americans and American viewpoints have become more diverse (and likewise in the UK), our political parties have broadened their policy umbrellas to maintain their appeal with about half of the electorate. Even the UK, with its ostensibly coalition government, has traded prime ministers between only its Labour and Conservative parties since 1922. Broadening policy platforms at the same time your constituents become more diverse has the increasing effect of disenfranchising everyone. While the ideological consistency of their members have actually increased, Trump has proven that this is a result of an increasingly combative party identity rather than real common ground on policy.
By the 2000s, US political parties, which still seemed very different from within the traditional political machine, were nearly indistinguishable to voters. By the end of Bush’s second term, this unrest had spawned the laser pointer effect – activists in both parties were falling all over themselves to prove that they could affect any sort of change. Obama exploited Clinton’s looming inevitability, riding his message of change to the White House. The GOP, a party with extremely disciplined leadership, faced threats from the bottom as the grassroots Tea Party followed a strategy of supporting any candidates that conventional wisdom didn’t think could be elected.
Despite these early experiments in unrest, Obama’s tenure was the last straw. Yes, racists and nationalists felt particularly disenfranchised by this worldly figure. But the true problem was that he was just a pretty good president. Again, from inside the establishment, Obama seemed to live up to his promise to be a change candidate: He passed the political holy grail of health care reform and pulled the economy out of a tailspin. He defied a stubborn Congress with executive actions to protect illegal immigrants and various civil rights. But at the same time he continued much of the status quo, pursuing free trade partnerships, drawing out military quagmires, and compromising with big business. A nation that in the previous century had seen world wars, massive civil rights movements, and twelve constitutional amendments, was nonplussed by the comparatively minor change it had wrought. We all wanted to know that we could still move in a drastically different direction if we wanted.
Make Them Flinch
The feeling that nobody gets their way when a large, extremely diverse population is funneled into only two party platforms isn’t an irrational one. You don’t have to be unemployed, working for minimum wage, or living on the Mexican-American border to be dissatisfied that you have to choose between political parties that you disagree with more often than not. And you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to feel unrepresented in this political climate. Everyone wonders, like the angsty high-schooler at an assembly, whether their chosen leaders actually answer to them. Everyone wonders how they could ever tell if their voting booth was broken, or if the choices on the ballot don’t represent any real shift of power. In our Age of Billionaires, this feeling is only amplified. Citizens’ response is often a sort of “democracy test.” People need to know that they can still effect change, that they’re not riding on invisible rails.
The clearest evidence of this as a root cause of this year’s populist unrest is the incredible lack of policy overlap in the various movements. Sanders and Trump have little in common except the promise of drastic change. In fact, Trump’s only really solid policy position, aside from immigration, is his willingness to change everything. And yet, a March NBC poll suggested that 8% of Trump voters and 7% of Sanders voters would consider voting for the other candidate. This represents a pretty large swath of the population essentially disregarding any single policy position in favor of a general idea of change.
In a way though, 2016 has already proven the power of the people. Trump is the GOP nominee, and Clinton narrowly escaped Sanders’ populist uprising. The UK, against the advice of nearly every member of the ruling class across the political spectrum, has voted to leave the European Union. Many pro-Brexit voters even expressed regret that their side won, indicating that for them the vote really may have been about experimenting with power. This year, the people have proven that there is no unseen barrier between audience and performer — that they can in fact make them flinch.
This is the part of the post where a call for reason and temperance is expected. The good citizen-journalist explains that now that populism has proven its point we can all settle down to a new era of establishment reign under somewhat different party platforms. But the truth is that in both the US and the UK, there is no easy way forward for our political systems. Once the party umbrella has become too broad to maintain its fragile coalition, there is no compromise that will properly appease. What follows will be a fundamental shift in our countries’ political systems. Whether that will come in the form of strong third party options, or more years of 2016’s populist instability remains to be seen. What is certain is that even a Clinton victory and a reversal of the Brexit decision won’t bring us back to the status quo. Now that the people have proven their power, they plan to use it.