LAND OF 10,000 BODIES OF ICE - The 2016 primaries in both parties continue to be driven by populist revolts in both parties, and the currents within those electorates have pushed non-traditional candidates to the verge of victory.
With a crowded field of Republican candidates still in play less than two weeks ahead of the Iowa caucuses, real-estate tycoon and Donald Trump dominates national polling and looks strong in both Iowa and New Hampshire three weeks ahead of their first-in-the-nation primary.
What was supposed to be a coronation for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic contest has turned into such a tough fight that the former Secretary of State may end up losing in both states to Bernie Sanders. Sanders refused to affiliate himself with the Democratic Party throughout his twenty-five years in Congress, preferring to call himself a Socialist.
If anything, both appear to be gaining momentum as the contests approach. Donald Trump picked up a big endorsement this week from Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin who joined Trump on the campaign trail in Iowa. Sanders has managed to leverage his hostility to super-PACs and deep-pocket donors into a small-ticket fundraising machine strong enough that Clinton’s campaign now openly frets that Team Sanders could outraise in hard money.
A year ago, the possibility of a general election in which two outsiders ended up with major-party nominations seemed like bad political fiction, a fantasy dreamed up by pundits. Now, a Trump-Sanders showdown in November isn’t just possible, it’s one of the more likely outcomes. That would guarantee a populist, anti-establishment outcome and could even become the greatest shock to the American political system since the advent of the two-party system in the mid-nineteenth century.
Alternately, it might end up backfiring on the populists. Here in Minnesota, we had our own flirtation with anti-establishment populism almost twenty years ago—a cautionary tale about fleeting success followed by dismal failure.
Minnesota is a curious state in politics, anyway. It blends rural communities, mining, world-class universities, and high-tech into a polyglot that usually produces unpredictable results – except in presidential elections. Republicans and Democrats (here known as the Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party or DFL) routinely trade control of the state legislative chambers and the statewide offices. In the latter, the DFL has had a ten-year streak of success, but before that, both parties competed for the constitutional offices.
In 1998, the gubernatorial race seemed up for grabs. Republican Arne Carlson had governed for two terms as a moderate, and the two candidates vying to succeed Carlson appeared ready to offer only mild variations to his approach. Both Republican Norm Coleman and DFLer Skip Humphrey had established themselves as party leaders, whose next obvious career move was to the governor’s mansion.
Into this contest stepped Jesse Ventura – a professional wrestler, occasional Hollywood actor, radio host, and at the time mayor of suburban Brooklyn Park. Running primarily on his celebrity, Ventura offered the a-pox-upon-both-houses rhetoric now heard from those cheering on both Trump and Sanders today. Like Trump, Ventura had the advantage of multiple opponents, only this time in the general election. Running on the remnants of Ross Perot’s Reform Party, Ventura shocked Minnesota and the world by garnering 37 percent of the vote – just enough to beat Coleman by three points, and Humphrey by nine.
Once in office, though, Ventura seemed lost. He picked fights with the local media, eventually issuing press credentials adorned with a drawing of a jackal, later withdrawn. He tinkered around the edges of policy (light rail and lowered registration fees being his most enduring legacies), but did little to change the direction of state government. Mostly, Ventura used the office to promote Ventura, including spending several months as a television football announcer for the ill-fated XFL, launched by professional-wrestling showman Vince McMahon.
When the final biennial budget had to be concluded, Ventura had alienated nearly everyone, including many of his former supporters. In the end, the GOP and DFL wound up working together to marginalize Ventura’s influence. Ventura opted not to run for a second term, citing the impact of his office on his family life, but it was clear that Minnesotans had tired of their experiment in anti-establishment outsiders as chief executives. No third-party candidate has come close to winning since.
All that took place under much different circumstances than we face now. During the late 1990s until the Great Recession hit in 2008, Minnesota had a booming economy and few of the other problems that plagued America in those years. Politics were mostly clean and played out in the open. Prosperity reigned. Other than the few months each year in which we return to our Ice Age roots, it was exceedingly easy to be Minnesota Nice – and yet Ventura wore out his welcome quickly.
That is a far cry from where the US stands now, economically and culturally. National debt has reached crisis levels. Our foreign policy in particular has gone in a disastrous direction, accelerating the collapse of Middle Eastern states and creating a vacuum in which radical Islamist terrorism has metastasized. Congress has fallen into a stalemate of bitterly opposed factions within parties, let alone the Republican/Democratic divide.
Thanks to a failure to deal with the structural issues that created the financial crisis in 2008, we still have a Too Big to Fail fiscal infrastructure, and another global recession appears to be on its way. Under these circumstances, paralysis won’t just punt a few minor problems down the road. It might leave the country rudderless at the confluence of multiple crises.
It’s possible that an anti-establishment outsider could shake up the existing order and provide the kind of leadership needed to forge new alliances and make sharp improvements. It seems more likely that both Trump and Sanders would become another Jesse Ventura – an executive with no alliances, whose inexperience and/or antipathy toward institutions produces little but a lost four years and strengthening of the party establishments they both seek to demolish.
As that ancient Minnesota proverb warns, be careful what you wish for, uff dah – you might just get it, you betcha.