What is a Ceausescu moment? Politically aware people above a certain age know immediately what I mean. They can remember the shock on the face of the Romanian dictator when a horde of workers broke from decades of placid obeisance and interrupted his year-end 1989 speech with jeers…
The Ceausescu regime had lost all legitimacy in the eyes of the Romanian people, who soon showed they were ready to risk confrontation with heavily armed secret police forces to carry out a revolution. Something akin to this moment is playing out before the world's eyes in the US presidential election. Whatever the outcome may be, its consequences will stretch across the globe.
In no society should we expect anything close to fully rational political behavior, in the sense of all individuals understanding their fundamental interests and acting accordingly. All politicians cultivate the arts of suasion to a greater or lesser degree, and other institutions (the state, the media, the church, civil associations, etc.) play a weighty role in shaping public opinion on political questions. The public, for its part, is not necessarily aware of the extent to which its political opinions and sensibilities are being manipulated. Perceiving this manipulation – this «manufacturing of consent» as it is often described – requires a certain level of political consciousness. However, when the manipulation is clumsy and transparent, and when the manufactured consent is exposed to be grossly out of line with society's fundamental interests, then the stage is set for a sharp, even radical repudiation of the status quo. Further, if we add to this mix a political and media establishment that is complacent and incautious, then a Ceausescu moment is in the cards, when the establishment is caught off guard and cannot control the political upheaval from below.
The United States is experiencing a political upheaval of this kind right now. The escalating ascendance of three full-throated anti-establishment campaigns in the 2016 presidential race – behind Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Bernie Sanders – provides the clearest testimony yet to the collapse of popular allegiance to the current political system in the US. None of these campaigns has more than the barest fringe of endorsements from standing politicians. Each of them is fighting steeply uphill against belittlement, ridicule, and hostility from the media, even from the outlets that one would expect to provide sympathy – right-wing Fox News is uniformly disparaging of Trump, and the purportedly liberal MSNBC is unmistakably and embarrassingly tilted towards Hillary Clinton against Sanders.
Moreover, none of the guardians of the status quo seems to have been prepared for the insurgent candidacies. Yes, highly-placed officials, politicians, and media barons, and political commentators are mustering arguments to malign the three unwelcome campaigns, and are raining derision on them (the Washington Post recently published 16 attacks on Sanders in 16 hours, to cite the most glaring example). The goal, clearly, is to starve the populist campaigns of oxygen, so as to restore the traditional, narrow boundaries of political discourse. These boundaries exclude serious conversation about reforming the nation's corrupt campaign finance system (pay-to-play politics), or resisting epic corporate-friendly trade deals (the TPP and more), or protecting Social Security from dilution, or sharply clarifying immigration policy (whether that be normalization or deportation of undocumented residents), and so on.
If the traditional boundaries of political discourse could be restored, the media could easily enough resume its role of manufacturing consent around presidential candidates that will not rock the boat – Hillary Clinton for the Democrats, and John Kasich or a late arrival (such as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan) at a brokered nomination convention for the Republicans. But the counterattack on the insurgencies isn't working very well. Trump and Cruz are running roughshod over all other GOP comers, and Sanders has piled up meaningful pressure on Clinton, winning many state primary elections, lifting his favorability ratings, and generating increasing momentum. His campaign raised $42 million in small donations in February, then $5 million more in the 28 hours following his eye-opening victory in Michigan on March 8th. Moreover, his voter outreach apparatus is now the largest in history, for any nation (per an internal conference call on March 9th to update and orient volunteers).
So why is the establishment counterattack not more effective?
From Fraud to Desperation
«Elites may hold on for one last round, but these insurgencies threaten their long term survival. Since their survival threatens ours, that's great news». – Bill Curry
To begin with, the mainstream media itself is a different animal now than it was in the recent past. As John Nichols put it recently: «The past 20 years have seen radical changes in the American media: the pandemic downsizing of newsrooms, sweeping layoffs of journalists, and a desperation for clicks and ratings that guarantees that civic and democratic values will always be trumped by commercial and entertainment demands». By extension, as Bill Curry pointed out, the major news networks are almost incapable of delivering meaningful analysis of the stakes in American politics:
«For two years the media has swallowed and peddled the Clinton inevitability line. For two weeks it has said Trump's nomination is inevitable; this after eight months of saying it was impossible. It is so clueless on both counts because it is so much a part of the system that is under attack and because it relies so heavily on its useless tools and discredited methods… Even if they get it right, they add nothing of value».
«…no one's helped Hillary more than the media… One way it helps is just by sharing her ideology…. (The journalists) are mostly very bright people who see the world just as Hillary does… They identify with elites, even know a few power couples and view the current corrupt rules of the game as laws of nature. It's one reason why not one of them saw any of this coming. But it's not the only reason. Their employers put horse-race journalism ahead of all else, so nothing ever gets illuminated. When Hillary sweeps vital differences under the rug to be replaced with stale tactical arguments, the reporters are perfect patsies – because all they know are tactics».
Put simply, mass media, the establishment's traditional tool for stifling discontent with the status quo, is deeply compromised and less capable than it used to be.
More important, the terrain on which the establishment is struggling with the insurgencies is decidedly unfavorable. As we have detailed in many pieces in this forum, including our most recent, the whole US political system has sacrificed its legitimacy in many ways, including decades of stripping productivity away from the working and middle classes (had wages kept pace with labor productivity since the 1970s, the average worker would be earning an astonishing $45,000 more per year these days, by one calculation). Many other trends discredit the system, most notably the ongoing series of rapacious foreign wars (that enrich defense industry contractors, torment foreign nations, and fuel extremist antagonism against the US) and the deeply corrupting campaign finance system, wherein donors sponsor candidates and subsequently exercise control over them.
It is very difficult for any establishment candidate to bridge the gulf between Washington's policies and the nation's needs, and the challenge is especially daunting for Hillary Clinton, «the living avatar of pay-to-play politics» in Bill Curry's apt characterization. Clinton has resorted to all manner of fraud, unsurprisingly, ranging from obfuscation (such as the tortured position on fracking she gave at the Miami debate), to concealment (refusing to release transcripts of her paid speeches to Goldman Sachs), to posing (attempting to mimic the positions of Sanders on TPP, Keystone XL, etc.). The wholesale fraud ought to be enough to damn her campaign by itself, but the ruse is still worse, in several ways.
First, Clinton has willfully distorted many of her opponent's positions in desperate attempts to confuse the public and separate Sanders from some of his support. She has accused him of preparing to abolish Obamacare, opposing the 2009 auto industry bailout, supporting the Minutemen vigilantes on the Mexican border, delaying action against climate change, and more (we could add quite a few). The Clinton campaign has been a grotesque performance, made all the worse by the willing connivance of the Democratic National Committee – which tried to minimize Sanders's exposure, has packed the debate halls with Hillary supporters while moving to silence Bernie supporters, and has subtly warned officials of retribution should they express support for Sanders (as Tulsi Gabbard explained, when she resigned as Vice Chair of the DNC).
Second, the mass media has done much to assist Clinton in torpedoing Sanders. They do not castigate Clinton for her serial smear campaigns, and even pile on more misinformation. More important, perhaps, they maintain a studious silence on all sorts of key issues that would put Clinton and the status quo in a poor light. To give just a few glaring examples here, they do not inquire about Clinton's fomenting of US military aggression, or her role in fueling the Mexican drug war, or her public corruption via the Clinton Family Foundation – «the most audacious influence peddling operation in our nation's history», as reader «James Dusel» phrased it.
Nor will the media alert the public to the fact that the Sanders agenda is far more than a cry for moral justice, that it is actually very promising for the economy and the environment. Contemplate for a moment that even Bruce Bartlett, a moderate conservative economist from the Reagan cabinet, is very sympathetic to Sanders's economic platform. And notice that the media makes no mention of the cathartic benefits that would flow from an honest administration of the executive branch, an administration that would hold government officials accountable for torture, that would restore civil liberties restricted after 9/11, would rein in the depredations of the financial sector, would raise environmental standards, would crack down on corporate crime and so much more. Even Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the nation's most prominent politicians, got no traction with the media when she made these arguments.
Thanks only to the internet, Clinton is being exposed. Reliance on the internet for news has mushroomed, and support for Sanders correlates to this. It explains why support for Sanders recedes with age, and why his campaign did relatively poorly in the South (where only a bit over half of the population even has internet access at home). Word is getting out, however. Sanders continues to poll above 40 percent nationally among Democrats, and his refusal to suspend his campaign despite trailing Clinton halfway through the primary election marathon promises to unmask her dubious record to ever more voters and embarrass her with more defeats.
Clinton and her surrogates in the media and the upper reaches of the Democratic party perceive the threat, and so they have taken to ever more desperate slanders against Sanders. Hillary slandered him throughout the Miami debate, and threw her wildest punch yet on March 12 when she accused Sanders of shirking responsibility to fight for universal health care in the early 1990s. In the new information age, this isn't playing very well. We could multiply these responses endlessly:
«I wouldn't believe the Clintons if they were standing on a stack of Bibles». – reader «Biker1288».
«At some point, though, you just feel so repulsed by a politician that your emotions take over and you just can’t imagine yourself voting for them under any circumstances». – reader «Elmo».
And then to The Donald
«The Problem with Hillary, Chez, is I don't vote Republican»
– Russ Belville, outlining 25(!) broad issues on which Clinton is allied with mainstream Republicans
Political bookmakers currently give Hillary Clinton a two-thirds chance of becoming president, so America's Ceausescu moment is far from complete. But the shabbiness of the political system is becoming evident to more and more people every day. It is mendacious, morally bankrupt, and hypocritical, and performs dubiously to dreadfully on the economic and foreign policy fronts as well. The establishment's suppression of the Sanders movement looks like a Pyrrhic victory, at best. The younger segments of the population are rejecting Clinton and the DNC in resounding fashion – ages 18-45 chose Sanders by 70-29 in Illinois on Tuesday, for instance, and Sanders's margins among those under 30 have been even higher in most of the states contested thus far (cumulatively, he has 1.54 million votes from them, to 626,000 for Clinton). People's political sensibilities do not shift easily, so the future looks dark indeed for the Democratic elites.
And that darkness could come very soon, in the shape of a squandered presidential election. More than half of those who voted for Sanders on March 15th (five states voted) said they would be dissatisfied with Clinton as the Democratic nominee. A national poll earlier this month found that 7% of Sanders supporters are ready to vote for Trump, and fully 33% do not see themselves voting for Clinton. They have a superabundance of reasons, which means it will not be easy for anyone to change their minds. A Trump-Clinton matchup would serve up the two presidential candidates with the highest unfavorable ratings of any in history. And the closer one inspects it, the more plausible it becomes to forecast The Donald in the White House. A wholesale humiliation of the two party duopoly is in sight.