The 2016 campaign is not about the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders phenomena. No, it’s about their supporters—people angry enough with their own party to torch it.
It’s also about the millions of Americans who don’t vote—people so disconnected from the U.S. political system that they can’t even be bothered to fix it.
This campaign is about any American living in an era of options, buffeted by the crosscurrents of change—a new economy, new technologies, and new demography—and yet are forced to choose between two parties that don’t represent their interests.
People like Freddie Paull, a 26-year-old filmmaker from Glendale, California, who told the New York Times at a Sanders rally Tuesday night that he might vote for Trump. “I would love to see a woman in office,” he said. “But I do not want to see Hillary Clinton in office, because she has no honor.”
People like Linda Baker, who tweeted me during Trump’s rally, “Every time I hear him speak I get more depressed. I will never vote for [Hillary Clinton] but can’t vote for this sham.”
Roughly three-quarters of all Americans are dissatisfied with the way the political system is working. Trust in government is at a record low. Both parties are hemorrhaging supporters to the independent column, as even straight-ticket voters are registering protests against their red or blue leadership.
The grim trend lines are worse among millennials, a purpose-driven generation that is looking outside government and other traditional institutions for solutions to society’s problems.
So forgive me if I’m bored with short-sighted questions about what the primary season means for the fortunes of Clinton, Trump, and their respective parties. Can she win over Sanders’s movement of young and idealistic progressives? Can he unite a fractured GOP?
I’m looking beyond November at the next several election cycles, which has me struggling with tougher questions:
- If Trump is elected, would he accomplish even a fraction of his promises to “make American great again?”
- If Clinton is elected, would she be a transformational leader who begins the work that Obama promised to do in 2008? Would she change not just the nature of Washington, but also the stale institutions of government and politics?
- If, as I suspect, the answer to those two questions is no—then what?
- Will the groups of people who lifted Trump and Sanders to unexpected heights surrender to the status quo? Or will they grow in size and defiance, leveraging the power that technology gives to grassroots movements to wreak greater havoc in the elections of 2018, 2020, and beyond?
- Is Trump an aberration? Or is he the first in a series of 21st-century demagogues, media-savvy poli-celebrities who exploit fears and prejudices? Does each iteration get smarter and stronger until America has its own Mussolini?
- Is Sanders an aberration? Or is he the first in a series of aspirational revolutionaries who seeks positive change from within? Does each iteration get smarter and stronger until old institutions are crushed and replaced by new systems of politics and government that breathe fresh life into democracy—like what happened at the start of the 20th century?
- What can we read into the intolerant, sometimes violent, response to opposition from the Sanders and Trump camps? In the next several cycles, do the voices of disruption channel their anger peacefully? If not, the nation will slip into an era of political violence—another echo of the early 1900s.