I've been watching the unfolding of this year's presidential campaign with great interest, not because I find any of the candidates particularly convincing, but because so many oxen are being gored, boats rocked and apple-carts upset. I wrote about one aspect of that - the nature of the political "establishment" and opposition to it - a few days ago.
I'm seeing a number of parallels between events this year and those of 1828, when Andrew Jackson was elected President of the United States. That year saw his 'insurgent candidacy' arrayed against intense opposition from the political establishment. Former President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter in 1825 to William B. Giles, in which he discussed that establishment and its control of the federal government. The letter was subsequently used to influence the 1828 elections. Here are a few excerpts.
I see as you do, and with the deepest affliction, the rapid strides with which the federal branch of our government is advancing towards the usurpation of all the rights reserved to the states, and the consolidation in itself of all powers foreign and domestic, and that too by constructions which, if legitimate, leave no limits to their power. Take together the decisions of the federal court, the doctrines of the President, and the misconstructions of the constitutional compact acted on by the legislature of the federal bench, and it is but too evident, that the three ruling branches of that department are in combination to strip their colleagues, the State authorities, of the powers reserved by them, and to exercise themselves all functions foreign and domestic. Under the power to regulate commerce they assume indefinitely that also over agriculture and manufactures, and to take the earnings of one of these branches of industry, and that too the most depressed and put them into the pockets of the other, the most flourishing of all.
. . .
... they claim ... aided by a little sophistry on the words 'general welfare' a right to do, not only the acts to effect that which are specifically enumerated and permitted, but whatsoever they shall think, or pretend will be for the general welfare, and what is our resource for the preservation of the constitution, reason and argument? You might as well reason and argue with the marble columns encircling them. The Representatives chosen by ourselves are joined in the combination, some from incorrect views of government, some from corrupt ones, sufficient, voting together, to out-number the sound parts; and, with majorities of only 1, 2 or 3, bold enough to go forward, in defiance.
. . .
... this opens with a vast accession of strength from their younger recruits, who, having nothing in them of the feelings or principles of '76, now look to a single and splendid government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions, and moneyed incorporations under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures, commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry. This will be to them a next best blessing to the Monarchy of their first aim, and perhaps the surest stepping stone to it.
There's more at the link.
When you read Jefferson's words from 190 years ago, isn't there an awful lot of similarity to what many of us care about today? I think the parallels are obvious.
- The popular feeling that the federal government is usurping the rights of the people - isn't that what drove many of those involved in or supporting the Bundy standoff and its sequel in Oregon last month? That's just one, more extreme example. Another would be the blatantly unconstitutional and intruding-on-basic-privacy monitoring of Americans' electronic communications by security and law enforcement agencies of the US government. There are many more.
- Representatives enacting legislation that appears unconstitutional and corrupt? Just look at Obamacare . The Democratic Party manipulated the rules of Congress in order to pass it, ignoring standards and safeguards. Furthermore, it's alleged (and I believe) that the process of drafting and passing the law was a fetid swamp of corruption and disregard for the will of the people. Want another? How about the lack of transparency over the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
- Government founded on 'banking institutions and moneyed incorporations'? Just look at the lobbying industry, widely regarded (including by myself) as nothing more or less than institutionalized corruption. It shuts out the will of the people in exchange for 're-election fund contributions' and other incentives to lawmakers. It's the epitome of regulatory capture. Want another? How about the Federal Reserve's infamous 'revolving door'? There are many more possible examples.
Those issues are driving many voters today - and in response, those voters are supporting anti-establishment candidates. That's why Donald Trump is doing so well, and (taken in conjunction with other populist and 'insurgent' candidates like Ted Cruz or Ben Carson) is shutting out those of a more mainstream, 'establishment' bent. That's also why many Democrat voters appear to be abandoning their own party, with its more rigidly controlling establishment, and are crossing party lines to support Trump - to such an extent that Democrats are seriously concerned that he might win some of their traditionally 'solid' states.
There are those who claim that Trump would be an authoritarian president. Take, for example, the Telegraph's view:
Matthew MacWilliams ... has been testing the factors that turn voters into Trump supporters.
His surveys found the key wasn't race, age, income, church attendance, ideology or education: it was attitudes to authoritarianism.
Donald Trump's supporters are looking for a strongman.
Using that criterion, Mr MacWilliams polled Republican voters in South Carolina last month and predicted that Mr Trump would win with 33 per cent of the vote. Ten days ago he won with 32.5 per cent. Not a bad indicator then.
Understand this, and the Trump message – strong versus weak, winners and losers, nativism, fear of the other – makes sense.
It is an attractive message in 2016 America. Nothing characterises this election better than a creeping sense of insecurity: from jihadists launching lone wolf attacks in San Bernardino and Chattanooga to China's expansionist position on the other side of the globe.
America is no longer the world's lone economic and military superpower. Beyond the liberal salons of New York and Washington lies a country wondering what happened to the American dream. The old deal - work hard and you will succeed – was shattered by the global economic collapse of 2009.
So when Mr Trump talks of his admiration for Vladimir Putin, plenty of voters see not a gaffe but a reminder that a strong leader restored pride to a broken country.
Again, more at the link.
Such views might be persuasive, were it not for the fact that similar allegations were made against Ronald Reagan in the run-up to the 1980 Presidential election. It's a tactic long on rhetoric but short on facts.
Simply put, I think the federal government is widely perceived to have grown too big for its boots. It's become Orwell's 'Big Brother' - and voters are sick of it. I don't know whether Mr. Trump can halt or reverse that trend, but he's widely perceived as being the only candidate willing to do so. Whether or not he'll actually prove to be that in practice is as yet unknown. Nevertheless, in many ways Donald Trump presents himself as, or is perceived to be, a modern version of Andrew Jackson. That's why he's winning . . . at least, so far.