Political establishment underestimates appeal of extreme candidates

Michael Jensen

The 2016 presidential race was supposed to be an inevitable, dynastic dispute between the Clinton and Bush families. That’s not what’s happened. Donald Trump, a flamboyant reality TV star, and Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, have disrupted the race with their astonishingly successful populist campaigns. Trump has considerable leads over his GOP competitors in every early primary state. Sanders is leading in New Hampshire, competitive in Iowa and gaining momentum across the board. Regardless of which candidates win these early primaries, wishful thinking amongst the political establishment has caused pundits to consistently underestimate Trump and Sanders, as well as the widespread voter dissatisfaction fueling their campaigns.

The mainstream media’s deluge of premature political obituaries, smug dismissals and condescending lectures directed at Trump and Sanders reveals a peculiar mix of arrogance and anxiety. Pundits began predicting Trump’s demise almost as soon as he announced his candidacy. His popularity has been growing ever since. Many media outlets have already endorsed Clinton over Sanders, largely downplaying his chances of winning the democratic nomination. The media can endorse whichever candidate they choose, but their criterion for endorsement often do not reflect those of average Americans. In January, the renowned statistician Nate Silver predicted Clinton had an 82% of winning Iowa, despite multiple polls showing Sanders in the lead. It’s entirely possible that Trump and Sanders will lose, but pundits seem to be reassuring themselves rather than looking at the evidence. Their gloomy predictions are certainly at odds with the large crowds and grassroots fervor these anti-establishment campaigns have generated.

Perhaps mainstream pundits and political elites are happy with politics as usual, content with compromise and slow, incremental change. Perhaps they rightly believe our imperfect system is the best we can realistically aspire to. But for the disaffected and disenfranchised, political pragmatism will never hold the same allure as bold rhetoric and radical populism. It’s a reality the establishment ignores at its peril.

Many pundits appear to believe that America has entered a post-ideological, post-historical paradigm in which globalization, capitalism and racial harmony are inevitable. This narrative overlooks widespread, bipartisan anger with the status quo and naively presumes the political extremism, violence, racism, ideological struggles and class conflicts which characterized the previous century could never happen again. It takes our political establishment for granted and dismisses the appalling inequalities which still permeate our society.

Conventional wisdom holds that contemporary America is a politically moderate, center-right country where tolerance prevails and capitalism is next to godliness. However, considering more Millennials hold favorable views of socialism than capitalism and the undeniable support Donald Trump’s enjoys because of his increasingly racist, xenophobic and misogynistic rhetoric, this narrative has been called into serious question. Millions of disaffected Americans from virtually every demographic are hungry for change and raging against the machine. This anger isn’t new, but the way Americans are expressing it–by flocking to extreme candidates–is. Maybe candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders aren’t going away anytime soon. Maybe the supposedly reasonable, centrist America we’ve grown up hearing about doesn’t exist anymore.  

Jensen is a neuroscience junior from The Woodlands. Follow him on Twitter @michaeltangible.