The support for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders reflects age-old concerns among US voters rather than new anxieties, says Adam Gopnik.
I am without exception the worst prognosticator ever to have even briefly attempted the craft of political punditry. I peer into my crystal ball and the clouds part and the beckoning finger of Fate calls me on – but what she shows me coming is never actually on its way.
In the early noughties I explained to listeners that Nicolas Sarkozy, the French presidential candidate, was putty in the hands of his more regal opponent, Dominique De Villepin – a prediction so wrong (Sarkozy became president once and is running again) that the other day I could not even recall the name of the candidate I wrongly chose. I explained to my readers not long after that Michael Ignatieff was an irresistible force in Canadian politics – but he wasn’t – and I thought Al Gore was just as irresistible in 2000.
What is lovely about the life of a pundit is that there is no penalty ever paid by anyone for being wrong about everything. Wrong as I am, there are those still wronger, and at least I am not loud. In 2012, every single right-wing political pundit in America was busy explaining to every other one why Barack Obama was doomed. They really believed it, too. When I need cheering up, I simply go to YouTube and watch their faces alter on election night. My own political sympathies apart, it is a study in the vanity of human wishes, and of the beautiful fragility of human pomposity. But there they are all without exception, back at the job, and all as sapient and complacent as they were the time before. If horse racing tipsters were as wrong as often, they would soon be expelled from the track.
So my attempt to crystal-ball the current US political primaries should be bracketed by a complete disclosure that I will be wrong. My theory, though, is that there is somewhat less than meets the eye in the double triumph this week of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the tiny (and unrepresentative) northern state of New Hampshire – but this theory should itself be taken with the right tablespoon of salt. Being wrong all the time at least gives you one advantage – you remember the landscape on which you stumbled before. Failure sharpens the eye.
A consensus has emerged around the week’s news – it is that the American electorate is “angry” or “alienated” and that “outsiders” with extreme programmes are suddenly potent in a way they have never been before. I think this is misleading. Journalists, it should first be said, will say such things. Since news is reported once a month or a week or, these days, every other minute, the seismograph of daily occurrences looks hyper-important – there must be a neat causal connection between something new that can be shown to be happening and the way that people choose to vote. This seems so obvious that to state it seems to be stating the inarguable. Of course, the way people vote today depends on the things that happened the month or day before.
But against this, I sometimes wonder if there is not more truth in a kind of Devil’s Advocate Theory of social change. That would be a theory that proposes that in modern democracies, ideologies remain remarkably constant from decade to decade and even from year to year. The bearers of those ideas alter, and circumstances can sometimes alter enough to give those bearers access to the power that they lacked before. But contingency and chance work their way across a field of more or less fixed choices with less alteration in real numbers than the over-eager daily reporting will be inclined to suggest. The field on which modern politics takes place is more like a series of fixed magnetic poles of varying strengths, pulling people towards them and then repelling them.
Change does happen, of course, but the play of possibilities remains remarkably stable from decade to decade. This is not because the world is impervious to change, but because the political poles represent permanent features of modern life. The continuities and the contingencies – and, often, the stubborn resistance of voters to what would seem to be their own self-interest – are really more striking than the neat flow of economic cause and political effect.
We see, for instance, Reagan and Thatcher as irresistible forces, propelled by a renaissance of right-wing thought and votes. But both were immeasurably assisted by local oddities – Margaret Thatcher by the triangular politics of Britain, and the Falklands War, and Ronald Reagan by the over-hyped American/Iranian hostage crisis. A successful hostage rescue – and it was a very near thing – would have seen Jimmy Carter re-elected, and eventually credited with the economic recovery.
So, Donald Trump’s message resonates with the voters, we are told! But in truth Trump has a smaller percentage of the Republican vote in New Hampshire than the right-wing populist nationalist Pat Buchanan had in 1992 – running with exactly the same ideology against an incumbent president.
Trump’s message resonates? Well, yes, but it resonates with exactly the same minority of the smaller of our two political parties that it always has. Trump is not just saying exactly what Pat Buchannan and in another way Ross Perot was saying in 1992 – he is saying exactly what Sarah Palin was saying in 2008 and close to exactly what George Wallace was saying in 1968. He is saying it in the tones of an oafish real estate developer from Queens instead of those of a dim-witted part-time politician from Alaska or those of a mean-spirited southern sheriff or, in Buchannan’s case, an enraged Poujadiste-style Roman Catholic – but the message is almost entirely identical. Our country is under assault from without and within – from without by a force of insidious and omnipresent evil (Communism! Terrorism!) and from within by an educated elite that is either in league with the evil or blind to it.
There is, in truth, no particular evidence from polls or surveys that the American public is particularly angry or alienated. In fact, the voters in the largest political grouping in the country, the Democratic party, are extremely happy with their two-term leader, and, indeed, no one seriously doubts that if Barack Obama could run again, he would win again. He won last time, after, all with a much weaker economy against a much more plausible opponent.
Republicans are angry, but they are Republicans because they are angry. Anger is a constant, and being more or less comfortable doesn’t alter it as much as you think it might. An ideology is not the words wrapped around a falling income. Beliefs are not butter on a thinner slice of actual toast. They are, for good or ill, beliefs. People believe them stubbornly no matter what the circumstances are that they find.
This does not mean that the current “crisis” is not real. It means that in a sense the crisis is too real. It is permanent. It is a function of the uncertainty that overwhelms us all. At any moment, in 1968 or 1992, or for that matter in 1917 or 1933, the world will be altering in ways that create anxiety and strain for everyone – particularly for those who feel the most vulnerable. The ideas that are offered in response are almost always either populist nationalism, or else some form of benevolent welfare state providentialism. Bernie Sanders, after all, represents the “extremist” ideology that has governed all of Western Europe, mostly successfully, for the past 70 or so years. It takes less anger and alienation than a mild reshuffling of the ideological deck in a peculiarly shaped contest to produce results that look, on first glance, revolutionary.
Donald Trump may yet win the Republican party nomination – but if he does, it will owe far more to the peculiar constellation of events and the feebleness of his opposition that have allowed this consistent strain in right-wing ideology to, well, trump all others, than to some peasant’s revolt – much less a single common swell of feeling among all Americans.
My own best guess is that he will never be elected president – that the loony side will retreat and that the more usual organized forms of politics, less touched by panic and paranoia, will win out. But then, I am always wrong.
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This is an edited transcript of A Point of View, broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 GMT. Catch up on BBC iPlayer
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