The United States is having a very exciting presidential campaign season this year. From a field of over twenty candidates, a field of extremely diverse candidates who battled mightily in making their positions known and in trying to convince the American public of the righteousness of their claims to the Democratic presidential candidacy, we are now down to just two candidates: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Many of those who dropped out were more moderate politically like Joe Biden and threw their support to him. Candidates like Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, Corey Booker and Mike Bloomberg were deadly afraid of Bernie Sanders getting the Democratic nomination for president. They’re afraid for several reasons. First, they’re afraid that too many people won’t vote for a Democratic socialist for president and Trump will win the election. Second, because he has a good chance of losing to Trump, he could easily bring down all the Democratic candidates for the Senate and for Congress, candidates who would have great difficulty defending Sanders’ socialist aspirations to many people. Third, the moderates are also afraid of what would happen if by some chance, Sanders actually won the election. They are afraid that Sanders would try to implement his costly plans without having any means to pay for them. And the moderates are also afraid that Sanders’ campaign is that of a cult leader surrounded by his devoted followers who want to carry out a populist revolution.
Sound familiar. It’s very similar to another cult leader in the U.S. with a devoted following and a populist political movement. Without formally labeling it as such, Donald Trump wanted his own political revolution after winning his election. And although he considers himself a conservative, the fact that he flip-flops on so many different issues means that people have to believe in him unconditionally if they are going to support him at all. This is very different from Bernie Sanders, who pretty much remains consistent in the political positions he promotes. However, what Sanders does have in common with Trump is a belief in a radical transformation of the political, social and economic landscape in the U.S. And people like the rush, the high that comes from the experience of such a radical transformation. It helps to pull people out of the numbness that they feel living in modern technological society and experiencing the excessive frictionlessness which ultimately leads to numbness. In both cases, it is not just the events of the transformation that interest the followers, but the experience of these events.
At least in my lifetime, it used to be that politicians of the two major political parties in the United States would hover around the center: left of center and right of center. There were fairly conventional positions that defined the Democrats and Republicans and yet, because they weren’t that far apart from each other, they could work together to get legislation passed in the Senate and Congress. But over the years, particularly since Reagan, the Republican Party in government has moved more and more to the right. Now, increasingly, a part of the Democratic Party is moving more and more to the left. The ideas of the far left and the far right are so different, that it is very difficult for them to work together on almost anything. Gridlock results. But for the supporters of these two diverging philosophies, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the rush from participating in the cause. In the case of Bernie Sander’s followers, the cause is Democratic socialism. In the case of Trump’s followers, the cause is partly some traditional conservative Republican positions but mostly Trump himself with his disruptive unpredictable personality.
But the point is what would happen to the people if they actually achieve all of these important policy goals. With nothing to fight for, they would sink back into numbness. Of course, with Trump’s personality, he can never accomplish all of his goals, because he is always creating new ones with his flip-flops. He is very aggressive in his attempts to pull himself out of his own numbness, and this is why so many people like him and follow him.
Now let’s assume for the moment that Biden wins the Democratic nomination and ultimately the election. So both Sanders and Trump, the two transformative revolutionaries, are defeated. Does this mean that things are going to go back to what they were in the old days? Does this mean that people will have learned their lesson from the presidency of Donald Trump? The answer is that maybe some people will have switched over from Trump to a more moderate stance. But not most of them. And, of course, many student Bernie supporters will hold their ground and stick with their leader. In short, we are in for some rocky political situations in the U.S. for a long time. And not just here, but similar political situations are going to occur in many countries around the world. And Americans can and will find alternatives to Trump and Sanders. Not necessarily exact replacements, but still extreme political activists of different stripes. The important thing for many people today is to be shocked out of the fundamental apathy that underlies their surface urgent ideology. I’m not saying that these people don’t have beliefs or political positions. But these beliefs and political positions just aren’t as important as the rush that comes from joining a cult’s leader’s crusade. Of course with Trump, the rush may be even more intense because of his constant flip-flopping.
What can be said is just as we have created the conditions for extreme climactic events as a result of our lack of respect for the environment, so we are in for a lot of extreme political events as a result of our support for a lot of eccentric cult leaders and our growing impatience with democracy. As different as they are, both Trump and Sanders are demagogues who want to lead their followers to the promised land of revolutionary change. And granted that Sanders change is based on a coherent vision, while Trump’s change is not, in both cases the followers get to be swept up by a political wind of hurricane proportions that help them to feel alive again. And for many people, a revolutionary leader is the kicks drug of change. And an extreme political event – a rally or an election or a revolution – is like an extreme drug experience. Which means that politics is moving further and further away from the arena of sanity and feasible political compromise. Our politics is in for a lot of very strong weather. Let’s hope that our political house has a strong enough foundation to withstand it.
(c) 2020 Laurence Mesirow