It’s reputed to be an ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” The origin may not be entirely true, but whoever thought it up might easily have had in mind the fetid political swamps of 2016.
Mainly, of course, that is about Donald Trump, the developer and reality-show host who has parlayed his name and abrasive personality into a lock on the Republican presidential nomination. But, to a lesser extent, it is also about the unexpected strength and durability of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist who has showed unexpected strength against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In both parties, but especially among Republicans, the normal pattern has been broken. Under old standards, Clinton would have more quickly dispatched all challengers, especially one as far to the left as Sanders. And Jeb Bush would be the presumptive Republican nominee.
Why didn’t that happen? After all, among Republicans, Bob Dole won the GOP’s 1996 nomination, as expected. George W. Bush won the 2000 nomination, as expected. John McCain and Mitt Romney won in 2008 and 2012, as expected. Something has changed, and not for the better.
It’s not just that Republican voters are frustrated with the status quo; that’s a given, especially after two consecutive losses. But they have also rejected the fundamental norms of American democracy.
Imagine Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan or either Bush winning his party’s support after calling women pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals; labeling Mexicans as rapists; insulting prisoners of war; making sexual references about his own daughter; and encouraging violence against demonstrators.
That’s not just frustration with the status quo. Something has changed so fundamentally that voters are willing to accept – or at least to overlook – conduct never before seen or even contemplated in a presidential campaign. The phenomenon extends into policy issues. Trump has been roundly criticized for inconsistent positions on critical issues such as taxes, debt and the minimum wage. To his supporters, those complaints fall on deaf ears.
That pattern will be more difficult to maintain as Democrats gleefully highlight his glaring inconsistencies, but the remarkable thing is that Trump has secured the nomination of a major American political party despite conduct that, in any previous year, would have identified him as an unserious candidate.
As to Sanders, he is at least consistent, respectful of his opponents and a believer in the American system of politics. But he is running notably further to the left of any Democratic hopeful since at least George McGovern in 1972, the year that Democrats stepped on the presidential banana peel.
They had lost to Richard Nixon in 1968, then tacked further left in 1972. They won with Jimmy Carter in 1976, but it’s fair to view that as an anomaly flowing out of the Watergate scandal.
After that, it’s downhill as Carter, then Walter Mondale, then Michael Dukakis lost consecutive elections, twice to Ronald Reagan, then to George H.W. Bush. By 1992, weary of losing, Democrats moved back toward the political center and have held the White House for 16 of the past 24 years.
Now, there is a push back to the left. Is it frustration with the status quo, or simply Sanders’ appeal to the idealism of young voters, who have trouble seeing that – as the wizard tempts them with free college and other goodies – there is a man behind the curtain?
Whatever accounts for it, Democrats are also authors of a confounding year in American politics. Their attraction to the left may be less radical than Republicans’ move toward Trump – left, right or wherever he may be at any given moment – but it makes this a year when the usual rules do not apply. That may change as the general election approaches and more voters start paying closer attention to the candidates, but the patterns thus far suggest it is unwise to count on it.