There is a sense just now, in the invisible territories of our
American political logosphere, that a great preventable
accident has happened in the presidential election of 2016.
This accident, as if it were the unanticipated collision of
two automobiles at an urban street intersection, it is
further implied, had only short-term causes, like failing to
make a turn signal, or to look at a side mirror, or running a
I have repeated now several times recently, as might virtually
any other U.S. political commentator, that I did not see Bernie
Sanders or Donald Trump coming, nor did I see in advance
the sheer energy of grass roots anger and frustration that
would be, and has so far been, unleashed in the political arena
of this cycle.
Conceding this lapse, however, does not automatically
disqualify me or any of my colleagues from attempting to
uncover the true mechanisms of what I have come to describe
as a “mutiny of the voting masses” in what we have now
been forced to recognize as an extraordinary, possibly
To come up with the descriptive phrase “mutiny of the
masses,” however, is hardly adequate in itself to the task of
understanding what has happened, is happening, and most
critical of all, what will happen.
Beneath the verbal and political turmoil of the early stages of
the campaign, the primary and caucus stages, and the
nominating conventions, there is a map and a glossary of the
attitudes, emotions, hopes and frustrations of millions of
Americans who rose up to overthrow the captains and officers
of the major political party vessels.
Without the final decision of the voters next November,
reconstructing that map and explicating that glossary remains
a speculative exercise. I presume to do no more than that over
the next three months, and I can offer no guarantee that I will
not err again, in whole or in part. But as I will try to do my part,
I need to ask my readers (a very diverse group going from left
to right, establishment-oriented to transformationally-inclined,
young and old, and with so many other different characteristics)
to try to suspend any conclusions they have already made until
a full range of this political puzzle has been examined.
Note, however, I am NOT asking any readers to change their
political beliefs, and or to change any decisions they might have
made about whom they will vote for (or not vote for). I have not
endorsed any candidate of any party, nor have I made any
prediction who will win or lose. If the reader must have now
an endorsement or a prediction, my speculations will only
be unsatisfactory until early November (when I might or might
not endorse someone or make an outright prediction).
Let’s get to the subject at hand.
No matter what you think of Bernie Sanders’ politics, his
almost-successful challenge to Hillary Clinton was no accident.
From the outset, Mrs. Clinton was the overwhelming frontrunner
for the Democratic Party’s nomination. As happened in her
husband’s first race in 1992, her most formidable potential
challengers did not enter the race. In 1992, the reason for so many
well-known Democrats passing up the race was that in 1991,
President George H.W. Bush was so enormously popular following
the Persian Gulf War, that any effort seemed doomed from the
outset. By the time an economic downturn made the race
competitive, it was apparently too late to compete for the
nomination. A few major liberal candidates did run that year, but
it turned out that Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was a large new
political talent. Nor did many foresee the independent candidacy
of Ross Perot coming. Most have forgotten that as late as early
1992, Mr. Perot led both Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton in the polls, and
in the end he received 17% of the vote, probably altering the
outcome in November. Mr. Perot was a billionaire, a centrist
populist, and like certain figures in 2016, he had nothing to lose
by getting into the race.
In a field of political nobodies challenging Mrs. Clinton in 2016,
Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was not even a
member of the Democratic Party (although he caucused with
Democrats in the senate), but knew he could be the voice for an
ignored and passionate group on the left of the U.S. political
spectrum, a group which liberals had always counted on to vote
with them, but which received very little more than some
rhetorical nods over the years in return. I don’t know if Mr.
Sanders knew in advance he could stir the Democratic pot as
much as he did, but once the campaign began, it became very
clear that some large segments of the liberal party were not
happy with their presumptive nominee. The Democratic
establishment had already concluded that their presumptive
advantage in the electoral college, and with black, Hispanic,
Jewish and union voters was enough to win, even with an
unpopular nominee. Using the tactic of seating a large number
of ex-officio “super-delegates” to their convention, the
Democratic National Committee (DNC) made it almost
impossible for any challenger to Mrs. Clinton to win.That
Bernie Sanders almost did win, is a testament to the “mutiny”
of voters on the left in 2016. In spite of his endorsement of Mrs.
Clinton in Philadelphia, many of his supporters remain
unconvinced. Some of them will vote for Green Party nominee
Jill Stein (whose policy positions mirror Mr. Sanders’). and
some of them will stay home. Many will vote for Mrs. Clinton,
but the lingering split could still affect the outcome.
The Sanders mutiny did not occur in a vacuum. While there was
always a neo-socialist faction and voice in the party, the election
of Barack Obama in 2008 gave a new and growing stature to the
party’s left wing, especially among younger voters. The Obama
administration has been intentionally, if somewhat erratically,
“redistributionist. Its rhetorical attacks on the “1%” did not go
unnoticed. By 2015, however, many voters on the left had not
received the economic benefits the Obama rhetoric had promised.
A incipient recovering economy was growing very slowly;
long-term problems such as pension reform and education reform
had not been resolved, and no one seemed to care beyond empty
Enter Bernie Sanders.
His mutiny failed to nominate him, but his movement has turned
the Democratic Party base to the left. The Philadelphia convention
tried to make it seem there was no party split, but so far, division
remains. How much that split will continue until election day is
In my next column, I will examine the “mutiny” of voters on the
right, and how the Republican Party contest turned out with a
contrasting result. The GOP, however, also is split, also has a
controversial nominee, and also heads toward election day with
considerable electoral ambiguity and doubt.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.