Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

'Something's happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear'

The latest Quinnipiac national poll contains a lot of thought-provoking factoids, including the fact that The Donald is now the favored choice of 28 percent of Republicans, up from 20 percent in July.  Ben Carson is second at 12 percent.

And Jeb Bush? Seven percent.

And then there's this, when voters are asked to describe top candidates in a single word:

"Liar" is the first word that comes to mind more than others in an open-ended question when voters think of Clinton. "Arrogant" is the word for Trump, and voters say "Bush" when they think of Bush."

Somehow, the most politically crippling of those findings may be the last one.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton still leads at 45 percent, with Bernie Sanders closing the gap a bit at 22 percent. But here's what I found most interesting: In a head-to-head contest between Sanders and Trump, Sanders would lead at 44-41 percent, which may not be all that surprising. But in a head-to-head against Jeb, Sanders fares even better, leading 43-39.

That's rumpled, 73-year-old, socialist Bernie Sanders, leading Establishment Jeb, the scion of a political dynasty, in the national polls. Combine that with the large, almost Trump-like crowds that Sanders has been able to draw, toss in the clear anti-establishment sentiment feeding Trump's candidacy on the right, and you're forced to conclude that something very interesting may be percolating out here, far from the Beltway Bubble and Wall Street.

Apparently, Sanders' socialist affiliation isn't the disqualification that it used to be, which isn't surprising if you consult a calendar. The Cold War ended more than a quarter-century ago, meaning that many voting-age Americans have no adult memory of that era's bitter ideological divide in which socialism was considered a slightly diluted, more insidious form of communism. That shift was certainly reflected in a Gallup poll taken back in June, in which a surprising 47 percent of Americans said they would consider voting for a socialist, while just 50 percent said they would not. Among Americans 18-29, 69 percent said they would consider voting for a socialist.

I think there's something more basic going on as well. In 1989, the people of East and West Berlin began tearing down the wall that had long divided them, and by doing so they put a definitive if symbolic end to the struggle between communism and capitalism. It was communism that by popular demand was consigned to the ash heap of history; it was capitalism that emerged the clear victor. Capitalism had proved itself beyond a doubt as the more economically productive system and as the system more conducive to human liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Depending on how you measure it, though, the two ideologies had been competing for hearts and minds for some 70 to 140 years.  Over that time they left a mark on each other; as in any such contest, they had disciplined each other, creating checks and balances that extended far beyond the military sphere. In the capitalist world in particular, the threat of communism gave business and political leaders a powerful incentive to protect the middle class, to treat workers with respect and dignity, to keep class distinctions and wealth disparities within reasonable bounds lest those problems become ammunition to be used by their enemies.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, that discipline began to erode. With no competing ideology or countervailing force to worry about, attitudes changed. Tolerance for labor unions declined.  Pensions were replaced by less generous 401-ks. Loyalty to workers, and even to your own country's economic well-being, began to seem passe and unprofitable to corporate leadership. Business leaders could begin to treat employees more like replaceable units of production. Great disparities of wealth could be more openly flaunted and expanded. New technologies, an emerging global economy and the rise of multi-national corporations tilted the field even more in favor of those who control capital and away from those who work for a living.

In more recent years, that has been compounded by the impact of court rulings that have turned politics into an open auction house, with billionaires summoning would-be presidents to audition before them as if they were job applicants. As the Wall Street Journal of all places reported recently, “Billionaires are bankrolling the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign to an unprecedented degree, " exerting a degree of influence and control that previous generations of Americans would have found intolerable.

And maybe this generation is finding it intolerable as well.  Maybe what we're seeing is the inevitable backlash -- you can consider it a market correction, if you wish -- to an overreach in both the political and economic sectors. As Sanders puts it, a lot of people are under the mistaken impression that Congress regulates Wall Street, while "the real truth is that Wall Street regulates the Congress." A lot of Americans are concluding that he's right.

Stylistically, Sanders and Trump are very different candidates preaching to very different audiences in terms of demographics, but they intersect in several areas, including their open contempt for the cesspool that serves as the campaign finance system. Both have tapped into a growing sense among Americans that their voices and interests are being drowned out by an elite that turns a deaf ear and blind eye to their needs.

So Sanders asks, to great applause, "Do the elected officials in Washington stand with ordinary Americans -- working families, children, the elderly, the poor -- or will the extraordinary power of billionaire campaign contributors and Big Money prevail?"

And Trump points out from the right: "All of that money that's going to Hillary, and Jeb, and Scott, and Marco and all of them — the people that are putting up that money, it's like puppets." And how does he know? Because he has played puppetmaster:

"I will tell you that our system is broken" he said in the Fox debate. "I give to many people. I give to everybody, when they call I give, and you know what? When I need something from them, two years, three years later, I call, they are there for me."

Ask yourself: Are they there for you?

So if American business and political leaders are worried by what they see in Sanders on the left and Trump on the right, well, they ought to be.  And if they think of Trump and Sanders as the creators of a phenomenon that will recede once they are pushed from the stage, that's a dangerous assumption. Trump and Sanders are mere symptoms, just as the Republican refusal to extend the Export-Import Bank much-beloved by corporate America was a symptom. Something important seems to be changing.

Think about it: If the recent slide in the stock market had turned into something significantly more dangerous -- say, something along the lines of what happened in 2008 -- there is no chance whatsoever in the current climate that Congress or the American people would support a TARP-like bailout of Wall Street, even if it meant an economic meltdown several times worse than what we experienced a few years ago. Public distrust of institutions has grown so profound that the American people would be willing to watch the whole capitalist edifice crumble, even at enormous costs to themselves, rather than try to come to its rescue.

That's a warning sign. Sanders' support is a warning sign, and the Trump candidacy even more so. And while the political system still has the ability to manage and co-opt the unrest -- that's its proper function, after all -- actual change rather than the illusion of change is probably going to be required.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.