A tipping point for U.S. politics?
Ahead of this week’s Super Tuesday primaries, Currents political analysts T.J. Rooney and Alan Novak talk about the short-term effect labels are having in the election and the long-term punch for American politics.
Rooney: Candidates hang labels on their opposition either to prove a point or drive a narrative. In most instances, they use them to define their opposition. In doing so, a lot of terms get thrown around that have little or very loose meaning.
Novak: I think labels are born out of a need to have a quick, simple explanation for something that is either a preconceived notion or is a more complex narrative beneath the surface — like the angry voter. They are quick, but they are not necessarily accurate.
People who can’t understand Donald Trump conveniently say it’s angry voters supporting him. I can tell you for a fact that it’s not just angry people. It’s people who want to make a change and want someone who is talking straighter than they are used to hearing from elected officials or pundits. Labels can be misleading.
Rooney: Let’s talk about the label “establishment.” The insurgent candidates in both primaries have used that term hundreds of times a day. Who is the establishment? Where exactly do they meet? I would like to have a chat with them! It’s clear to me that there is no such thing as “the establishment.”
If there were an establishment, the Republican race would look substantially different. So would the time, effort, and resources expended in the Democratic primary. These terms are specifically designed to either cement support or alienate voters from one’s challengers. It just so happens that, at this time, Trump and Bernie Sanders are the candidates using them most effectively.
Novak: I think the establishment is quickly becoming the people. Voters have more say in the election process now than ever based on the combination of primaries, financing rules, less influence from organized parties, and social media. Today, the parties are really the people. The people who come out and vote are the parties. You can’t label that.
Rooney: Voters are smart and they are capable of making great judgments, but my fear is that, at least on the surface, we have hit a tipping point in American politics.
We have experienced times of great angst and displeasure at our government before. The Watergate investigation in the 1970s shook our nation’s foundation to its core. There were two roads we could travel at that time. One was to label our institutions as corrupt and take action to pare them down and start over again. The other was to build upon this great democracy and strengthen it by being serious, digging in, and solving problems.
My fear at this moment in time is that we are not content to right the ship. That would be a horrible mistake. We haven’t gotten there yet, but, in my lifetime, this is as close as we have ever been.
Novak: Wow! Where do I go with that? People do take elections seriously, but they take them more seriously the closer they are to actually having to vote. Until then, I don’t know that they are spending as much time on issues as they are on the entertainment value.
On the Republican side, there have been so many candidates running that their campaigns and the campaign coverage have fed into this “elections are entertainment” narrative. It’s like Dancing With the Stars. You have a debate, you have a poll, you have a vote, and then some people are off and every week it narrows down. This does not fit the political scenario that T.J. and I, in relatively recent history, are used to seeing.
Networks are driving the politics just as they do sports and entertainment. If you want to be on TV, then you are going to have three-minute commercials in between every timeout. If you want to have your show on TV, then you are going to do it the network’s way. You want to have your debates on TV, well, the networks are deciding how to schedule them.
Rooney: It’s perfect for a candidate like Trump who is extraordinarily media savvy. No one in Hollywood could write a screenplay that would mimic what we are seeing play out in real time.
One thing is clear: The folks who decide what gets on TV are zeroed in on what Trump is saying, mostly because what he is saying and who he is saying stuff about is so outstandingly outside the box. It makes for great television, but I am not so sure about good government.
Novak: Politics as entertainment is tapping into a discontent underneath the surface on both the left and right. The networks have bought into this idea. They know people are going to turn on and watch because Trump may say something outrageous or something politically incorrect.
Trump knows this and is playing games — he’s almost making fun of the labels, and people are following his lead. Trump gets up and says: “Let’s talk about evangelicals. I love evangelicals and I want them. Hispanics? I love Hispanics. I want them too.” The incredible thing is, voters are responding to it.
Rooney: I challenge anybody to tell me the last time the leading candidate for high national office could on any given week alienate just about every minority group that exists. Geez, he picked a fight with the pope and won! We are in a very strange and interesting time.
I think that this week Trump is going to continue to rack up victories and it will become increasingly hard for people who come in second and third to say how wonderful the night was. That doesn’t last too long in horseshoes, hand grenades, or American politics.
Novak: It won’t be enough for John Kasich and Ben Carson to get out. As long as you have 40 percent of the vote divided between two candidates — we will never see where Trump’s ceiling is. March 1 will tell the tale of Ted Cruz more than anything else. Frankly, if people don’t want to see Trump the nominee, then Cruz has to go because he is starting to lose his base vote. Otherwise, Trump will be like Robert Redford’s Bill McCay in The Candidate, where he’s run his campaign, he shockingly wins, and only then looks to his adviser and says, “What do we do now?” Trump may already have his answer, but the question is, when do the media and everyone else realize he just might win?