While it seems ridiculously early, the 2020 presidential race is taking shape. That shape on the Democratic side is that of an amoeba, with about 20 candidates officially announcing thus far and perhaps more to come. On the Republican side, President Donald Trump has consolidated support among most Republicans while former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld is perhaps an answer to a question that no one is asking. Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is still considering making it interesting with an independent run.
It’s far too early to handicap this race. A year from now, the candidates could all be different. It’s not too early to discuss some of the overall trends in our voting electorate that is rapidly changing as both major parties continue realignment.
Perhaps the biggest unlearned lesson from the 2016 election is that the American public has rejected the status quo of politics. This isn’t a Republican or Democratic base position, but one of the public against the establishment.
The nomination of Donald Trump to “drain the swamp” signified the Republican base’s rejection of the establishment and status quo. Lesser acknowledged was that independent/socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders got roughly half the vote in Democratic primaries, leaving Democratic super-delegates to give Hillary Clinton the nod.
In total, roughly half the country decided it wanted something radically different. Were they to unite with the single goal to dispose of “the establishment”, American politics as we know it would be toast.
Thus far, these anti-establishment groups remain radically divided in what they want to replace what we currently have. This brings us to the new “isms”, with capitalism seemingly under fire from the right and the left.
President Trump was able to bring disaffected Democratic voters to the Republican party with an appeal to populism. A focus on trade to “bring back jobs” and reinvigorate entire industries such as steel has allowed the GOP to reconnect with voters in key mid-western states.
Democrats are polishing socialism as “new and improved” democratic socialism in an all-out effort to appeal to those who like things “free.” From “Medicare for All” to “free” college tuition with elimination of current student loans, there seems to be nothing that Democrats aren’t willing to offer Americans on the promise that “the rich” will pay for it.
The perverse nature of the Democrats plan is that the underlying premise is that they would close the gap on income inequality. The problem with most “free” welfare programs however is that they are means tested. In order to receive benefits, recipients must stay under income limits. There is a direct incentive not to earn more in order to continue to receive the benefits.
While the populists have their own intrusions and limits placed on unfettered capitalism, the underlying premise of the American economy of reward for work and investment remains largely intact. The populist’s version of income redistribution is ensuring that multinational corporations reward labor in addition to shareholders and CEO’s.
At their root, the difference between the new populists and the new socialists is how the concept of “fairness” is defined. The socialists want equal outcomes. The populists generally lean toward equal opportunity.
This poses a great question for the next chapter for the country, and how optimistic Americans remain about our future. The optimists believe better days are still ahead, and thus want opportunity. The pessimists believe the system is impossibly rigged against them thus all basic needs must be provided and shall be taken from others as necessary.
Neither side can fully claim the high road of optimism, especially when campaign rhetoric is factored in. Scare tactics are modern politics, and that’s before bringing in the really scary discussion of a $22 trillion national debt that neither side seems to care much about paying back.
“Free” remains an easy sales pitch. Those that wish to defend capitalism – even if heavily dosed with populism – need to better articulate the value of opportunity and reward, as well as the true cost of what is offered as free. Certain freedoms likely depend on it.