Curiouser and curiouser. It’s like Alice herself is guiding us through the United States of Wonderland’s early primary season going into the 2016 presidential elections. Showmanship and passionate authenticity seem to be ruling the day, while establishment electoral politics sits bemused on a mushroom. Just how long can this go on?
With the angry Republican up by double digits and the fiery Democrat surging in the early primary states, it might be time to stop asking when the campaigns of Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders are going to collapse and start figuring out a way to put the magic in a bottle labeled “Drink Me” for the down-ticket House and Senate races in 2016.
But will it work? Beth Cope, a Democratic political consultant who has worked on several campaigns, doesn’t think so. Referring to a popular 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a dangerously honest presidential candidate, she said, “I don’t think the ‘Bulworth Principle’ applies down-ticket. Down ballot voters are hardcore voters who aren’t turned on by theatrics.”
Still, Republicans have been rather good at theatrics the last three or four election cycles, especially in the House. They have been providing the most entertainingly twisted, Mad Hatter’s tea party kind of candidates to take on politics in a couple of generations. Where Reagan may have been extreme in his time, they are unapologetically extremer. Where Goldwater gave no quarter, they give not even a penny.
The Washington Post published an article over Labor Day about Republican contrarian, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina), calling him the “Trump of the House.”
Like the presidential candidate, Meadows questions the leadership of the Republican Party. One may remember that he launched a campaign, before the summer recess, to unseat Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) as Speaker of the House, a move some at the time described as “unhelpful.” Boehner himself dismissed the move as coming from “a member here and a member there who are off the reservation.”
But that boldness that has been coming for some time, according to Cope, and one needs to look no farther than The Donald as an exemplar of why Republicans thinks it’s okay to go “off the reservation.”
“Donald Trump isn’t doing anything that Fox News wouldn’t ordinarily do,” she said. “When [Republican National Committee Chairman] Reince Priebus and Fox News and all of these folks say, ‘Oh, they’re damaging the Republican brand,’ every time they did not stand up against [the litany of misogynistic and degrading] things said on Fox News or elsewhere, every time the leadership said, ‘Oh, we don’t want to offend our base. We’re not going to weigh in,’ they gave up a little piece of their party.
“If Donald Trump is the type of person who is unacceptable to them, it’s their own fault.”
Yet WaPo points out that Trump’s bravado has bolstered the spirits of those who disagree with the establishment GOP brand:
“Trump’s anti-establishment message, gleefully mocking not only Democrats but also a hapless Republican establishment, has emboldened congressional conservatives ahead of their return to Washington Tuesday.”
What people like Meadows and his allies like Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Rep. Jody Hice (R-Georgia), Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Arizona) and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) brought to their respective campaigns was a way to draw out those who sought validation and acceptance for their poignantly out of the mainstream, wackadoodle, arch-conservative views.
As we have heard many times in the “Summer of Trump,” these views touch a nerve. It is, for them, a righteous anger they show toward immigrants and the milquetoast establishment. Republican base voters don’t see it as being a negative. They see it as it’s-about-time-someone-took-these-pussies-on kind of anger, and as psychologist Drew Westen points out in his book, The Political Brain, the Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation:
“…subjectively, anger can feel either pleasant or unpleasant, as anyone knows who has fantasized about revenge…And although anger can lead to avoidance or withdrawal, it can just as easily be an approach-oriented emotion, causing people to approach someone or something they intend to attack.” (p.79)
And what is Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” except a call for revenge against those who “destroyed” it in the first place? At the national level, the personalities at Fox News have been beating this drum loudly for decades. Assisting in fomenting the anger of the “silent majority” at the local level have been the folks in the “vengeance is mine” business, the Evangelical churches that helped forward their message of exclusion and exceptionalism.
What both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have been able to do with their campaigns, although with noticeably different messages, is be angry voices for change in their respective parties. To some extent, the same could be said for other party base drivers like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts).
“If you’re trying to convince people to change course,” Westen points out, “you generally have to elicit emotions such as anxiety or anger, along with enthusiasm for your cause, particularly when your point is that an incumbent has behaved in ways that are incompetent or unethical.” (p. 318)
Remember, these campaigns are not just trying to replace an incumbent; they’re aiming to change the way Washington, D.C., and the parties that run our government, work.
But what good is anger, one might ask, if there is no policy plan to back it up, and offer solutions? Trump just talks about actions that will be “terrific” and “huge,” without a specific plan. Well, the fact is people vote based on what they feel about the candidates personality first, and policy is the last thing they care about. That’s why attack ads work. They give voters a reason to dislike a candidate.
Westen breaks it down to four questions a voter asks when considering who he or she will choose, what he calls “a hierarchy of influence.”
“‘How do I feel about a candidate’s party and its principles?’ ‘How does this candidate make me feel?’ ‘How do I feel about a candidate’s personal characteristics, particularly his or her integrity, leadership, and compassion?’ and ‘How do I feel about this candidate’s stands on issues that matter to me?'” (p.418)
“Candidates who focus their campaigns toward the top of the hierarchy and work their way down generally win,” Westen concludes, adding, “Candidates who start at the bottom of the hierarchy and work their way up generally lose.”
Democrats seem to think that middle America is constantly voting against its own interests, that if people had a better understanding of how their policies are better that the Republicans, then they would be compelled to vote Democrat. But it doesn’t work that way. Every time a Democrat goes back to explain policy to voters, he loses them.
In some ways, it seems like Sen. Sanders is campaigning starting at the second or even the third level of Westen’s hierarchy. He is running as someone outside the mainstream, and he is in the Senate as an independent. People like Bernie because they admire his consistency. “This is a man who is authentic,” one Sanders supporter said at a July rally in Phoenix, “he’s held his convictions for decades.”
Still, his speeches are usually a litany of populist policy changes, something Westen warns against.
He advises “abandoning traditional Democratic laundry lists…and instead telling and retelling compelling narratives of what progressives stand for and what they won’t stand for.” It could be argued that Sanders is doing that, but will his passion, exciting as it is for the crowd, ignite a sustainable movement?
“Trump’s supporters are angrier than he is,” Politico’s Ben Schreckinger wrote in a brilliant piece comparing the two surprise contenders, last month. But, he points out, “Sanders is angrier than his supporters. When the Vermont senator, hoarse of voice, bellowed out for a ‘political revolution,’ the [Reno, Nevada,] crowd cheered. But minutes before they had milled about amiably on the lawn. A game of Frisbee seemed more likely to break out than a revolution.”
So it seems that for a while, at least, the often talked about enthusiasm gap has yet to make an appearance this cycle. As far as carrying the spectacle into down-ticket, House and Senate races, as a way to get people interested in checking the boxes below the presidential candidates, one can hope there’s enough in the Drink Me bottle to go around. It will make 2016 so much more fun.