This campaign is crazy…and scary. As February ends, Republican candidates are calling each other a “con man,” a “choker” and a “liar,” and “the con man” is taking over the GOP. In one weekend, the Republican front-runner hesitated to condemn the Ku Klux Klan, retweeted a fake quote from Mussolini and was endorsed by the most anti-immigrant member of the Senate. A son and brother of presidents who had the most money and endorsements drops out after the first primary.
An independent senator wins his first election as a Democrat in the New Hampshire primary. A former first lady wins in South Carolina with higher African-American support than President Obama received when he defeated her eight years ago. The greatest threat to her nomination may be an F.B.I. investigation regarding her emails as secretary of state. You cannot make this stuff up.
This improbable campaign is fueled by frustrations and fears about economic unfairness, global competition, racial injustice, demographic change and acts of terror. There are reasons for anger. The rich are getting richer, the middle class is being squeezed and working class and poor families are being left behind. Endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought enormous human and economic costs but not victories. When people say “take back our country,” however, it is not clear that all Americans are part of that “country” or whether Latinos and African-Americans, immigrants and those they disagree with are part of making America “great again.”
The surprises do not stop there. Two other key developments are being overlooked:
Money is not buying this election. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump agree that our campaign finance system is corrupt and they do not rely on large contributions from powerful interests. This may explain their common opposition to trade deals and support for negotiations with drug companies to bring down the cost of prescriptions. Big donors are not buying this election. Jeb Bush had the most resources but few voters. Mr. Trump is running his own circus with non-stop media coverage. Mr. Sanders has the most small donors in history.
According to PBS commentator Mark Shields, large contributions rarely buy particular votes, but they often buy elected officials’ silence and time. Both parties get a majority of resources from large donors. Is this why most Republicans deny climate change, knowing that the Koch brothers and energy industry will cut off their support and perhaps fund an opponent? Is this why Democrats who oppose requiring taxpayers to pay for abortions rarely speak out, knowing that the abortion lobby and party would cut off support and look for a challenger?
The enormous costs of campaigns require candidates to spend endless time seeking contributions from wealthy donors and powerful lobbies. Does dependence on these interests help explain why leaders in both parties supported financial deregulation in the 90s and why it took a Democratic Socialist to push issues of inequality and Wall Street abuses into the 2016 campaign? The costs of a corrupt campaign finance system are less direct but more dangerous than most voters believe.
Movements matter. Organized voters and movements can be counterweights to the power of political money. Two surprises of 2016 are how the Tea Party’s anti-government and anti-immigrant agenda is driving the Republican debate and how Black Lives Matter has focused Democratic discussion on racial and criminal justice.
In the Republican race, political experience is a burden and contempt for government is an asset. The GOP campaign is responding by demonizing immigrants and talking about more walls and deportations, even though many large donors, the Chamber of Commerce and establishment Republican voters continue to support legal status for undocumented workers in the United States.
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been pushed to focus on mass incarceration, police misconduct, criminal justice reform and the impacts of systemic and institutionalized racism. These issues did not come from consultants or focus groups, but from Ferguson, Flint and the voices of Black Lives Matter.
These movements both reflect anger, alienation and frustration, but one calls for greater exclusion and the other for more inclusion in our divided nation. The unusual influence of political money and movements are posing stark choices in this election year. As Pope Francis tried to explain to Donald Trump and all of us, bridges are better than walls.