There can now be no reasonable doubt that American
politics is being changed in front of our eyes in this year’s
campaign cycle. As in all transformations, the omens, signals,
and premonitions of change have been visible for some time,
but as also with all transformations, few persons took
appropriate and timely note of them.
The last to realize them, typically, are the political
establishments of both major political parties --- those who
have a special interest in the old order under which they
Those few who did diagnose the situation, and were in a
position to gain from their understanding, have flourished in
the campaign season so far. They include Democrat Bernie
Sanders and Republican Donald Trump (and also perhaps
Mr. Sanders’ party took steps to avoid a political mutiny by
creating a sizable number of unelected “superdelegates,”
and to design their caucuses to favor their establishment
candidate. It appears that these gambits have succeeded in
spite of an outpouring of popular support for the unlikely
candidacy of a 74 year-old socialist. Heavy-handed tactics by
state Democratic Party establishments in Iowa and Nevada
have evidently choked off challenger Sanders at key moments,
and Sanders supporters allege it was foul play. Establishment
Democrats now say confidently that Mr. Sanders’ supporters
will now fall in line and vote for Hillary Clinton, and bygones
will be bygones. If there has been a political transformation,
as I suggest, this smug presumption might not be altogether
The Republican Party establishment took their grass roots
voters for granted, too, but did not put in place any safeguards
against a conservative mutiny. The result has been a final
contest between Mr. Trump, Ted Cruz and the mainstream
survivor John Kasich (who trails his rivals in the primaries
and caucuses so far). It is not yet clear if Mr, Trump can or
will clinch the nomination before the convention, but he is
getting closer and closer to it with each primary day. Mr. Kasich
has one big card to play, and only if the contest is not decided
before the GOP convention in Cleveland in July. That card could
be played if, as is true today, the polls indicate that only Kasich
can defeat Hillary Clinton in November. But Mr, Kasich is so far
behind in committed delegates that even that card might not be
enough to win, especially if he does not publicly take into
account his own party’s political transformation.
In any event, the 2016 race remains unsettled, and will continue
to unsettled for some time. In a year of constant surprises, there
can be no doubt that more surprises are ahead.
Many of the old rules of presidential politics have been replaced
with new rules. Since we are in the midst of this change, we can’t
be sure what many of these new circumstances are, but I think
there is one change we can isolate and describe.
That change says to presidential candidates in 2020, 2024 and
probably beyond, that no serious political candidacy in the
foreseeable future can be conducted without a total reappraisal
of the impact of the media in the important first stage of a
race for president. That does not mean that every candidate must
be beautiful or handsome, eloquent, charismatic or a maverick.
But it does mean that merely a resume, previous public office,
conventional (read as “empty”) rhetoric, and a likeable manner
will not work. It also means that the media must be regarded
more seriously as an adversary that should not be merely
tolerated, but outwitted.
There is media bias on both liberal and conservative sides,
although the preponderance of mainstream media is liberal
and treats most conservative candidates unfairly. Moreover,
the notion that the major media primarily functions to inform
voters is false. Major media, especially broadcast media, is a
business, and is driven primarily by ratings and revenues.
There is very little that is “fair” about political media coverage
in the U.S. today.
The colossal irony of 2016 has been that the richest candidate
(by far) did not have to spend any money for his campaign.
Donald Trump received hundreds of millions of dollars of free
publicity because, unlike his rivals, he understood how to
use the media.
The question remains, and is unanswered at this point,
whether or not Donald Trump deserves his party’s nomination
and the presidency for being the first candidate to understand
and exploit this change in American politics.
But no matter the outcomes next July and November, it was
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders who first figured out that
party politics in America had changed, and that the logical and
best path for them was to try to speak to millions of voters
already in mutiny against the past.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.