I think I finally understand why Clinton lost in November. It’s not Comey or the relentless GOP propaganda campaign against her over the last twenty years, though those mattered immensely. It’s not exactly Bernie Bros, though they mattered too. It’s certainly not sexism, even if it may have played some role. It’s also not so facile as wanting to blame the far-left “Social Justice Warrior” activist crowd for antagonizing the heartland or the “right-wing nut job” crowd wanting to take America back to the Jacksonian era of Real ‘Merican Prosperity and Old-Time Religion, though those get us nearer. The forces at work are bigger, and these are all symptoms.
Here’s something I think is emminently plausible, though I cannot know for sure. It’s also something I actively rejected until recently. I think that Bernie Sanders would have beaten Donald Trump had he won the Democratic nomination. I don’t think this because I think he was a better candidate than Hillary Clinton. Quite the contrary. I think it is because he was a worse candidate, at least in a very relevant sense.
Additionally, I think had either he or Clinton won, we’d find ourselves in a far, far worse mess in 2020, and that mess would have been much more severe had Sanders become the 45th President of the United States.
American Political Regimes
To make sense of these strange and unlikely guesses, I have to talk about a concept I only recently learned: that of American political regimes. Normally, we think of regimes in terms we can assume Trump might love, the kind of thing that runs the show with what he’d call “strong leadership.” We talk about Putin’s regime in Russia, for instance, or Ergodan’s in Turkey. That’s how (political) regimes work in autocracies.
American political regimes have been different (and will hopefully stay that way) because they don’t take place under Dear Leader or Your Highness. They take place in an advanced democracy that puts much of the political power on the people and, importantly, in changing hands every few years. American presidents are largely architects and then stewards of a prevailing popular regime. American political regimes are therefore truly political regimes in that the political mood of the populace ultimately defines the regime. What’s going on right now is that our latest regime seems to be ending.
What are American political regimes? Historians differ on the point of the election of William McKinley in 1896, but there have been six political regimes in American history if you don’t include McKinley’s election as starting the fourth regime out of seven. These are the Federalist Regime, comprising Washington and Adams. The Democratic-Republican Regime, extending from Jefferson until Jackson. The Democratic Regime, beginning with Jackson and continuing until Lincoln. The Republican Regime, which began with Lincoln and ended either with McKinley or, as is more commonly accepted, FDR’s New Deal Regime. The New Deal Regime ended in 1980 when Ronald Reagan’s election marked the beginning of the current Neoconservative Regime.
This, by the way, is why today’s conservatives, inheritors of Reagan’s regime, hold him in such reverence. He was the defining executive for the beginning of the current political world order, which despite their current protests and changes in our social culture, is broadly conservative in nature. That makes Reagan the savior from the salient failures of the former liberal regime, and that’s precisely how they treat him.
The Death Spiral of Neoconservatism
So I’ll say it again: what’s going on right now is that our latest regime, the Neoconservative Regime, is ending. You can tell because people across the political spectrum rankle at neoconservatism now. The left rails against it. right-wing “libertarians,” on the vanguard of the right’s exodus from the previous regime, hate it enough to say things like that George W. Bush (Bush 43) was the worst president ever until Obama.
Bush 43 was the primary “articulating” president of the Neoconservative Era (Reagan was its “reconstructionist” president, who built it from the ashes of the previous regime). If people across the political spectrum start hating what both parties are selling, and people start favoring any outsider over “the status quo,” it’s a good bet a democratic political regime is ending.
In essence, to my understanding, this happens when the previous regime’s answers are no longer sufficient to meet the evolving needs of the citizenry. Bush 43 came into office aligned with the Neoconservative Regime (in that he represented the conservative party in the midst of a conservative regime), and then he screwed it all up specifically by taking the neocon thing past its shelf life. People became widely disaffected with the Neoconservative Regime, especially the global adventurism and crony capitalism at its heart, but the people benefiting from it most (Republican “Establishment” officials and their corporate friends) weren’t about to let it go.
Enter the Tea Party and constant Republican primary challenges from their political right. Conservatives disaffected with the regime wanted a purer conservatism, or at least one that was utterly distinguishable from neoconservatism. They seem to have settled upon some combination of Ayn Randian Objectivism posing as Libertarianism and Jacksonian isolationism, protectionism, and cronyism as their answering ideology.
On the other hand, liberals resoundingly elected President Obama over the very neoconservative John McCain. For good reasons that were ultimately foiled, they believed Obama would usher in a new Progressive Era. To be sure, even at staunch resistance from the Republican Party, President Obama did a great deal to lay the foundations of such a turn to a more progressive next regime. The trouble is, neoconservatism still held too many elected offices and lobbying positions too tightly, for whatever reasons (possibly the Tea Party revolt of 2010 and subsequent massive gerrymandering to ensure Republican control of Congress).
It’s worth noting that all incumbent presidents in a given political regime are bent by public demand and the constraints of the dominant regime at the time. Therefore, they must govern according to the regime, even if they represent the party that opposes it. Nixon instituted the EPA and OSHA, among other very liberal policies, despite being a Republican. Much similar can be said of Eisenhower. Both were operating within the New Deal Regime initiated by FDR, however, and so had to govern effectively like New-Deal liberals, even if representing the party opposed to them.
The same was true of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in reverse: both are liberal Democrats who were forced to govern under the constraints of the overarching conservative Neoconservative Regime. Hillary Clinton was so reviled, and ultimately lost, particularly because she too remained fully constrained by and almost archetypically identifiable with the Neoconservative Regime, which the American polity had had enough of before she got her turn. That Hillary Clinton was the most qualified candidate for the office, maybe in American history, hurt her chances more than it helped them because her qualifications associated her so deeply with the faltering Neoconservative Regime. That’s why she was so reviled for being of the “Establishment,” and it’s what did her in. The “Establishment” means the establishment of the current regime, and that regime’s death spiral took Hillary’s presidential ambitions with it. (Notice that similar trends are happening around the Western world, possibly agitated by Vladimir Putin, as neoconservatism dies simultaneously within other globalized advanced democracies.)
How Democratic Regimes Are Born and How They Die
Why didn’t Bush 43, with his astonishingly bad approval ratings at the end of his tenure in office, effectively end the Neoconservative Regime? It’s a good question, and I think I have an answer. The death of a regime is the result of an enormous social shift, which takes some time to come about. The clock only begins once the awakening to a new political need is realized. Further, the movements that define the potential new regimes need to develop themselves. Before one democratic regime ends (while maintaining democracy), that is, there has to be a new regime, which means a huge, mature social movement that represents it, ready to take over.
The end of a regime seems to come when the brand offered by its dominant party (the conservative party, if the regime is largely conservative; the liberal party, if the regime is largely liberal) is utterly and finally spoiled. The death throes seem to be signaled by the rise to office of some apparent outsider who claims to simultaneously be at odds with the current regime and yet bills itself as its only hope of resurrection. Trump may be an example, with his calls to “Make America Great Again.” (Interestingly, McCain, in trying to play the “Maverick” card, might have found himself in this role had he succeeded Bush 43 by beating Obama in 2008.) Jimmy Carter, however, makes a clear example, and the New Deal Regime ended in a spectacular turn toward the growing neoconservative movement during his tenure in office, which put him at odds with his own party as well as the Republicans.
The Neoconservative regime didn’t come out of the ground in 1980, however. It had initiated decades earlier in the 60s, separately by “Mr. Conservative” Barry Goldwater and the Christofascist religious right (which still form the background of the current Conservative Movement, and who voted overwhelmingly for Trump and Pence). It then matured dramatically the Norquist-Gingrich Revolution (starting with opening up corporate lobbying through the 1970s). The turn toward the Neoconservative Regime was staggering, and a landslide election aided heavily by “Reagan Democrats” make a famous example to this day.
Moving forward to answer our question, America didn’t realize in 2008 that it was politically done with Neoconservatism, and Obama was too constrained by it (either in his own politics or by the Republican Party he had to cooperate with) to offer a viable alternative to something as big as a new regime. Neither the growing Progressive Movement nor its arch-rival Conservative Movement had broken cleanly enough away from the Neoconservative Regime to take over. More importantly besides, people didn’t start widely hating neoconservatism until the spectacularly nasty end of Bush 43’s time in office.
That is, Bush 43 merely initiated the death spiral of the Neoconservative Regime, and public rejection of his neoconservative administration gave rise to two vying movements that might define the next American political regime. These started to build momentum through Obama’s tenure in office. On the one hand, a new Obama-style, very social justice-oriented progressive, liberal movement started to arise. It wants deeply environmental, very socially just, sustainable democratic socialism for its new regime, which it views as “the future of American politics.” On the other, a new more primitive conservative movement grew out of the neocons’ right. They want a return to some earlier era, and it appears to be the Jacksonian protectionist era that they are hankering for. The two could hardly be more at-odds with one another.
What About Bernie?
Because Obama was so constrained by neoconservatism and so deeply hated by this new conservative movement (for whatever reasons), the progressive side of the aisle widely rejected his natural successor, Hillary Clinton. These are your Bernie Bros. They couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton because she represented more neoconservatism (“the Establishment”), which they had by then rejected wholesale. Worse, they had been directly tempted by Sanders’ tantalizing progressive, democratic socialist alternative. The last thing Sanders supporters wanted—apparently literally last—was more neoconservatism. Bernie Sanders represented the full beginning of their new regime, and the opportunity to have it now, and nothing less could be good enough. The problem was, and still is, that neoconservatism hasn’t been satisfied by a sacrifice on the political altar. Progressives and liberals might be smart to temper their fury and let Trump (or Pence) fulfill this role for them.
Sanders didn’t get the nomination, however, and Trump won the election. Because almost everyone who had voted for Hillary Clinton probably would have voted for Bernie Sanders, and because Bernie does not carry the taint of the failing Neoconservative Regime, he probably would have succeeded in defeating Trump last November. Far from vindicating the Bernie Bros, this would have come at an enormous cost, however.
The Republicans retained Congress, powerfully, and they have most of the states. The opposition to Sanders would have been overwhelming, and meanwhile, the Conservative Movement would have honed itself, strengthened, and put together someone far stronger than Donald Trump for 2020 (especially after watching Trump’s campaign and seeing what the new conservative base wants). The election in 2020, had Sanders won in 2016, would have almost certainly ushered in a new Jacksonian Era of ultra-conservatism powered by a Christian fascist movement, one that would have defined our new political regime, maybe for decades.
Why? Two reasons. One is that had either Sanders or Clinton won, a full repudiation of the conservative bid for defining the new regime would not be possible. Such a repudiation is probably only possible when the dominant party is allowed to try its hand and fails utterly because it only comes when the party in power fails its own base. Neither Sanders nor Clinton could have given the Republican Party the chance to break itself to pieces because, under either of them, the Republicans would have continued playing the role of opposition party instead of having the reins of governance. Governance in such circumstances marks the opportunity to win or to lose, and if to lose, to lose finally.
The other is that had Sanders won, the new Democratic Socialist Regime would have had a false start against a very powerful opposition party, and it therefore probably would have stalled, faltered, and fell. Had that occurred, the conservatives would have swept in victoriously in 2020 and started a new Jacksonian regime extending nearly to mid-century.
This false-start outcome would have been possible but less likely had Clinton won. For it to have happened in full, she would have had to have completely dropped her neoconservative approach and adopted a democratic-socialist agenda. Perhaps she would have, propelled by the identity politics of the far left, but we have to consider it unlikely. Her decades of experience would have restrained her, and it’s hard not to notice that those decades were all within the Neoconservative Regime. That is, she learned to ride her bike like a neocon, even as a progressive Democrat within that political universe. Had she won, bets are that she would have held office for four profoundly obstructed years and then lost to a super-Trump who would have to contend with an even uglier dying Neoconservative Regime.
So, my explanation for what happened is pretty straightforward. Clinton was too identifiable with the fading American political regime to have been electable, but would have stalled the coming change another four years while conditions got more riotous. Trump and Sanders each represented candidates who might usher in a new regime now: a democratic socialist liberal one with Sanders and a Jacksonian protectionist one from Trump. Therefore, Sanders, as he represented a possibility for a new regime—even more than Obama did before him and before a public that craves it even more strongly than it did in 2008 or 2012—probably would have defeated Trump last November. This follows not least because in addition to being something new and progressive, he also is not Trump. Had he won, he would have been likely to inadvertently kill the chance of a new progressive regime before it could take off.
Perhaps luckily, that’s not what happened.
Trump, a New Beginning or a Long-Awaited End?
Trump is president now, and he is the inheritor of an incredibly unwieldy public. The popular vote went strongly against him, even though he won. (His obsession with conspiracy theories of millions of illegal voters may reflect this recognition, even without invoking his narcissism.) He’s the least popular incoming president in decades and faces massive public resistance. (His obsession with his inauguration numbers and the size of the Women’s March may reflect this, again, even without invoking his narcissism.) That is, Trump is the one who gets to try a deeply dissatisfied public on a new regime they rejected in the majority, and he has to do so with a very, very uphill battle ahead of him against tremendous resistance. He’s also terrifyingly impulsive and bends autocratic, which rarely goes well with Americans.
The numbers from the election and from polls strongly suggest that more Americans want a new Democratic-Socialist Progressive Regime than want a Jacksonian Protectionist Ultraconservative Regime, and Trump’s about to prove it to everyone. (Or Pence will, probably more safely but less dramatically, if Trump ends up impeached.) He’ll make his proof with a GOP that can’t decide whether it’s more excited to play neoconservative, Christian fascist, or Jacksonian regressive. In all cases, still, the GOP finally has the chance to ruin its brand, and Trump is going to help them, big league. Those uncertain in the middle already hate neoconservatism and are about to find out everything that can go wrong with Jacksonian Protectionism, first-hand and immediately after Obama gave them a taste of something unequivocally better. The Christian fascist movement at the heart of today’s rampant Conservative Movement has chosen to stand and die on the twin hills of gay rights and women’s reproductive rights.
What Do We Do Now?
What’s to be done with this knowledge, assuming it is correct? The Democrats and anti-Trump right should start to unify around a sensible approach to a new reconstructionist era, set to begin in 2020 if they can get their acts together. The left and their centrist and right-wing allies must recognize Trump as a form of political chemotherapy and tailor their criticisms to the recognition that political chemo is rough medicine for the whole body politic. Resist abuses (and not the person), but do so sensibly and let them fail. Do not feel tempted to violence because you feel as though your hopes and future have been stolen from you. Threading this needle correctly will usher in the future you want and that we all need, but it isn’t guaranteed.
If Trump succeeds, a (probably short) hyper-narrowly Christianized, neo-Jacksonian era will define America’s next political regime. (That this may represent a legitimate existential risk adds an unavoidable urgency to the problem, but I digress.) Otherwise, should Trump fail, the will of the incoming regime will be Democratic-Socialist. Therein lies a danger too, as any incoming progressive era must be measured enough to appeal to mainline conservative thinking as well as to the noisemakers on the left. If the Democrats or anti-Trump right can find a figure fitting this description and nurture that person into an effective reconstructionist, we can expect a new, broadly accepted, hopeful Progressive Era to begin in 2020, at least presuming no unforeseen but plausible catastrophes like a new world war or nuclear Armageddon occur.
Such a figure cannot be of the ilk of today’s “Social Justice Warrior” activists, however. That movement is ultimately authoritarian, just as Trump’s is, and the emerging regime, being that it will be a democratic regime that represents a diverse society must ultimately be democratic in nature. It will be up to the Democratic Party and the anti-Trump right to sort out who can fit this kind of secular progressive mold without delving into the excesses of alienating and divisive left-wing social politics. Whoever it is must be a popular unifier. That person will also be characterized by realistic forward-thinking ideas for our emerging automated economy, sustainability environmental demands, and social progressivism.
Thus, while I’ve used the terms “Progressive Era” and “Democratic Socialist” to describe the next American political regime, let me stress the importance of sound conservative thought informing it. Sound, principled conservatism will be necessary to keep the potentially forthcoming era on the rails, as the saying goes, preventing it from running too far too fast or diving into the same sorts of ideological insanity currently dividing the Democratic Party.
The era will be progressive but must be progressive for all, not merely for the leftmost end of the political spectrum. Also, the era may well be “democratic socialist,” but like the Nordic models it will surely emulate if it comes to be, it must still retain at its center a strong capitalist core. Further, it must embrace the focus on civil liberties central to the American experiment, and for that our classically liberal and truly libertarian friends are requisite voices to hear and to heed. To satisfy all of these difficult demands, the dreams of the left will need to be balanced by the measure of the right, otherwise the nascent era will leap forward only to stumble and falter. Only in this way will the next American political regime emerge ascendant and prosperous.
As a post-script, it’s truly lamentable to recognize that Barack Obama may well have been the perfect figure to begin the next American political regime, and maybe history would have bounced completely differently had Bush 43 retained a little more popularity so that Clinton had defeated Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries, reversing the timing of their bids for office.
Had Clinton carried the 2008 Democratic nomination, either she or McCain would have been president. Had it been McCain, the Neoconservative Regime may have died out from under him. Had it been her, she probably would have done much of what Obama did to steady the economy, but she probably would have lost to Mitt Romney in 2012. Romney, like with McCain, may then have led his party to ruin by attempting to articulate a dying political regime (as I think it would have happened on the first Republican president after Bush 43 and because the so-called “right-wing nut jobs” were already in full swing by then).
Had any of this happened, Obama would have been ripe in 2016 to have overwhelmingly swept the election and began the thing he tried to do but couldn’t haunted by the ghastly specter of a regime working against him. The question now, though, is who? Tim Kaine? Cory Booker? Evan McMullin? Probably none of these, but someone still who represents the best of all of them.