Conventional wisdom dictates that the presidential race is typically won by the candidate best able to appeal to the collective better angels of the American public, the person who can make us believe that hope and change, for example, is actually possible. The vote for president has almost always been an aspirational one; we vote for someone who we believe is the embodiment of what we want ourselves and our country to be.
In 2016, that bit of conventional wisdom is wrong, Doug Sosnik, a top aide in the Clinton White House, argues in a new memo outlining the landscape on which the presidential and congressional contests are being fought.
"In this period of profound alienation, with both parties engaging in harsh ideological primaries, the public is likely to view the entire political process as a race to the bottom," Sosnik writes. "They will be inclined to view their choice for president through the prism of which candidate is the least flawed and poses the least threat to their future well-being."
Sosnik's conclusion is both a) right and b) not all that surprising. For anyone who has watched the 2016 race play out, it should come as no shock that conventional wisdom is wrong -- that up is down and left is right.
Take Donald Trump's debate performance on Saturday night in South Carolina. He was, at turns, petulant, dismissive and ill-informed. Such a performance in any other election cycle would have led to voters wondering whether he was really up to the job -- and a likely dip in his polling. In this election? Trump remains ahead -- with almost double the support of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who are tied for second place heading into the South Carolina primary on Saturday.
Trump's entire candidacy, in fact, is illustrative of Sosnik's point: The real estate mogul is presenting a sort of dystopian view of America -- things are bad and not getting better -- and casting himself as the lone, last chance the country has to turn itself around. In normal times, that would be the kiss of death. In this race, it has been a rocket that Trump has ridden to the top of the polls.
As important as Sosnik's diagnosis of the state of the American electorate is, his explanation of how we got here -- a mix of anger and anxiety born of economic uncertainty and a belief that the "way things are" -- is no longer operative in modern American life. He writes:
The country is undergoing the most significant economic, technological, and demographic changes since the Industrial Revolution. Such change in any one of these areas would test our ability to adapt. But the fact that we are experiencing all of these shifts at the same time has exacerbated Americans’ fears and fundamental distrust of those in power. The public has concluded that our 20th century institutions are incapable of dealing with 21st century challenges.
That last sentence is of critical import to understanding both the rise of Trump (and Bernie Sanders) and to grasping what is going on in the 2016 contest more broadly. People are losing faith in virtually every major institution in this country -- from the presidency to the Supreme Court to the church to the police. This chart from Sosnik makes that disappearing faith plain.
What's worse is that nothing has filled the void left by people's declining faith in institutions. There is no "new way" to replace the failing "old way" of doing things. That leaves people at sea -- and makes them anxious and angry.
"It is not an overstatement to say that the failures of our leaders and governmental institutions have brought our political system to the brink of implosion," Sosnik concludes.
Enter Trump, who not only channels their anger but, somehow, eases their anxiety with his bravado. The slogan "Make America Great Again" is perfectly pitched to just such an electorate.
Or, enter Sanders, who promises political revolution to overthrow the corrupt masters of the universe who have been feathering their nests at the expense of the average person for decades now.
Both views rely on a fundamental belief that things are bad and getting worse, and that the only way to arrest that free fall is to try something absolutely radical. That absolute radicalism to the political process just happens to be what Trump and Sanders are selling -- albeit in different ways. (Trump's radicalism is largely tonal; Sanders's promises of overthrow and upheaval are based on policy prescriptions.)
This is not an election about what we can be as a country. It's one about what we aren't. And the two candidates seen as truth-telling outsiders are cleaning up -- and, if Sosnik is right, may continue to do so.