One of the most satisfying storylines of the 2016 election is the befuddlement of establishment intelligentsia at the powerlessness of the traditional tools used to win elections. Under the normal laws of politics, candidates must do obeisance before the gatekeepers of the press–be they from Fox News or the New York Times–or be mercilessly pilloried and hounded out of contention. The normal assumption of politics is also that money wins out: candidates must secure the support of wealthy donors and organizations in order to be competitive, and must be able to spend large sums to win votes. It’s also a truism that disciplined candidates with a very consistent message and skill at only answering the questions they wish they were asked instead of the ones they are actually asked will succeed and be praised for their campaign acumen, while those who shoot from the hip and speak their mind will be gaffe-prone failures.
These unspoken assumptions about politics–that honesty is punished while kowtowing to big money and media gatekeepers is rewarded–are a large reason for the apathy of American voters. Many Americans across the spectrum are turned off from politics completely because they believe the system is so badly rigged that corporate interests and their supposed tools in the media always get their way, and anyone who speaks truth to power is automatically sidelined before they can effect real change.
Until this election cycle it was easy to bathe oneself in cynicism and declare a pox on the whole enterprise.
But not anymore. Each in his own way, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are proving that authenticity can win the day, and that big money and big media aren’t as powerful as many have thought.
Consider Donald Trump, who is engaged in a multi-front war with Fox News, the Koch Brothers, the mouthpieces of the National Review and the entire Republican establishment–and winning. (To a somewhat lesser extent, the nearly universally reviled Ted Cruz can make the same claim.) Wealthy Republican mega-donors who expect to control GOP politics have found themselves sidelined, shocked and flummoxed by the Trump/Cruz phenomenon and its imperviousness to the unprecedented amounts of money being funneled into conservative Super PACs. Jeb Bush’s Super PAC Right to Rise has been more risible than rising, wasting around $100 million only to see its candidate flounder in the polls. Trump, meanwhile, has spent comparative little. His campaign has focused on winning earned media and organic support from the GOP base, and as a result Trump remains in a dominant position to become the Republican nominee.
But it’s not just Trump who is bucking the power of big money. It’s also Bernie Sanders, who started so far behind his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton that he was considered little more than a message candidate due to his comparative lack of funding and support. Clinton and her team made the bet that whatever messaging damage she might do to herself by accepting money from Super PACs and wealthy interest groups would be more than offset by the power of that financial backing to win votes and support. But Sanders’s small dollar donor strategy has turned out to be far more effective not only because it creates a sustainable and expanding fundraising juggernaut, but also because it allows the Sanders campaign to maintain a compelling and authentic brand image. Both Trump and Sanders can rightly claim, each in their own way, not to have been bought by the special interests. And both are succeeding because of it.
Nor has the press been any more effective in pushing more status quo candidates forward to victory. In Trump’s case, the entire media world has been fervently hostile. Yes, the press has boosted Trump’s campaign by continuing to give him coverage (he’s great for ratings, after all), but the coverage on all sides has been relentlessly negative. It’s an old adage that there’s no such thing as bad press, but that has only been regarded as true up to a point. Nearly everyone in journalism spent months laughing Trump off as a flavor-of-the-week candidate with no staying power, based on both a genuine collective delusion and a wishful thinking attempt at prophecy fulfillment. As the campaign wore on, both mainstream and liberal press organs have lambasted Trump for every outrageous gaffe and statement with no effect. The conservative National Review dedicated an entire issue to attacking Trump. The mighty Fox News, meanwhile, has been cowed and sent into disarray by Trump’s apparent triumph in their ongoing feud. Ted Cruz, for his part, has been savaged almost as much as Trump from every ideological corner, and nonetheless has moved into a strong 2nd place.
And Bernie Sanders? It can easily be argued that Sanders would have gained far more traction much faster had the entire traditional media establishment not made the conscious decision to ignore his campaign for months. Press outlets that are belatedly taking Sanders seriously now often report in near bewilderment about his surprisingly strong showing in Iowa and crushing victory in New Hampshire. A large number of Democratic voters are only just now learning about Sanders and his platform, and yet his campaign is still poised to perform well as the race moves to Nevada and a more diverse electorate.
Threaded through this narrative is the question of authenticity and message discipline. Marco Rubio is easily the most disciplined candidate on either side of the aisle, repeating his stump speech talking points with mindless precision in response to any question–a tendency for which he was often praised by pundits and viewed as a rising star by establishment donors. But instead of catapulting him to the front of the pack, his robotic delivery was exposed by Chris Christie during the last debate and caused his poll numbers to rapidly deflate. Donald Trump, by contrast, has famously little message discipline yet continues to soar largely on account of his perceived authenticity. On the Democratic side, of course, Hillary Clinton is perceived as one of the most reliable and careful candidates on the stump. Bernie Sanders does hammer away at his messages about inequality and Wall Street, but can become irritable and sidetracked by unexpected events and hostile questions. And yet, as with Trump, all the momentum is with Sanders not in spite of that fact but because of it.
Much as cynics and jaded pundits might declare otherwise, money and media don’t have as much control as is often believed. Authenticity is a blessing even at the price of the occasional gaffe, while relentless message discipline grates as inauthentic.
Voters really do matter; issues matter; passion matters.
Many may cringe at what they see as uncouth discourse and populist strategies taking control of our politics. But it’s inspiring to know that there is still hope in America on both sides of the aisle for a politics based on appealing to the actual core passions and desires of the voters, rather than the narrowly constrained support of moneyed interests and collusive media gatekeepers.