The tight grip of oligarchy upon the American political system slipped a little last night in New Hampshire.
On the Democratic side, voters cast their ballots for one of the most implausible candidates in modern presidential history—less because his rhetoric was so mesmerizing or his program so inspiring than as a protest against an expected winner perceived as a lavishly compensated servitor of organized wealth.
In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton boasted of her small donors. More than 70 percent had given less than $100, she claimed: “I know that doesn’t fit with the narrative.” As Ken Vogel of Politico immediately tweeted, the claim also distorts the facts. Clinton may have a lot of donors, but the bulk of the value of her donations—85 percent—has come from the biggest givers. And her family’s personal wealth, and its foundation’s assets, can also be seen as built on the largesse of banks, corporations, and foreign governments.
The Clintons’ method has always been to dismiss allegations as “old news” or “distractions” that do not matter to voters. They present themselves as “fighters for you” while they and their senior staff are simultaneously paid by somebody else. The important thing, after all, is to elect a woman at last! And there’s a special place in hell reserved for anyone, especially any fellow woman, who thinks that the character and integrity of the particular woman may matter more than her ambition or last name.
Women and men in New Hampshire rejected that argument, along with the coy secretiveness that produced an evasive promise to “look into” the release of speech transcripts contractually owned by Hillary Clinton herself, and that led her to store sensitive public email on a privately owned server. Sometimes the only way to bring sunshine into a locked bunker is by smashing the roof in—and that’s what the voters of New Hampshire did last night.
On the Republican side, the upset was, if possible, even more stunning. For 20 years and more, Republican presidential contests have operated as a policy cartel. Concerns that animate actual Republican voters—declining middle-class wages, immigration, retirement security—have been tacitly ruled out of bounds. Concerns that excite Republican donors—tax cuts, entitlement reforms—have been more-or-less unanimously accepted by all plausible candidates. Candidates competed on their life stories, on their networks of friends, and on their degree of religious commitment—but none who aspired to run a national campaign deviated much from the economic platform of the Wall Street Journal and the Club for Growth.
This year’s Republican contest, however, has proved a case study of Sigmund Freud’s “return of the repressed.” Republicans, it turns out, also worry about losing health care. They also want to preserve Social Security and Medicare in roughly their present form. They believe that immigration has costs, and that those costs are paid by people like them—even as its benefits flow to employers, investors, and foreigners. They know that their personal situation is deteriorating, and they interpret that to mean (as who wouldn’t?) that the country is declining, too. “Hope,” “growth,” “opportunity,” “choice”—those have long since dwindled to sinister euphemisms for “less,” “worse,” and “not for you.”
More than $110 million was invested in a single campaign to silence all those internal doubts. Between them, the so-called “establishment lane” candidates spent a combined $81.8 million of campaign and super PAC funds in New Hampshire alone. And what did it all buy? Everything that was supposed to be out is suddenly in. Everything that was supposed to be silenced is suddenly being said.
It may not last, not on either side. As Romney campaign manager Stuart Stevens likes to remind over-excited pundits, “the casino may not always win—but that’s the way to bet.” Very possibly the normal probabilities of politics—and the weight of money—will reassert themselves as the presidential campaigns broaden to national scale. But something that had been stuck was shaken ajar last night. Amid all the shocked headlines, the most important news of the night may be: For once, the system worked.