A year ago, few Americans would have predicted that Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, would be leading a formidable insurrectionist challenge to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Presidential Primary, or that real estate magnate Donald Trump would be leading in the polls in the Republican Primary. Why is this happening? It is a reflection of the ideological absolutists in both parties who are disenthralled with their party's political establishment. The absolutists have held their nose in the name of party unity, but are now agitated and want a nominee who will not prevaricate, dissemble, or equivocate in their message. Restless Insurrectionist syndrome is infecting the body politic.
In 1992, liberals in the Democratic Party who had supported the candidacies of Jerry Brown, Tom Harkin, and Larry Agran in the primary reluctantly supported their party's nominee, the centrist Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton in the General Election. Progressives were moved when Harkin said in the primary: "I'm the only real Democrat in this race," when Agran called for a 50% reduction in U.S. military expenditures, and when Brown branded Washington D.C. a "Stop and Shop for the moneyed special interests." Yet the liberals became united in the interest of retaining the White House after a 12-year drought. They accepted Harkin's call to: "link arms, dig in our heals, set our sights to put Bill Clinton in the White House."
Many rationalized that Clintons' centrist rhetoric was merely campaign fodder and that as President he would govern as a progressive. Yet as President, Clinton proved to be a bone fide centrist. He championed deficit reduction over stimulus spending, signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, extended normal trading relations to China, supported U.N. Sanctions on Iraq, and signed a landmark Welfare Reform bill into law.
In 2008, Barack Obama defeated the preponderant frontrunner Hillary Clinton by running against the political legacy of Bill Clinton. Obama accused the Clinton's of "triangulation and poll-driven politics." He called Hillary a "corporate Democrat." Obama enraptured progressives by declaring he would lead "not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction."
Some on the left became disenchanted with Obama for delaying action on immigration reform, for deporting more illegal immigrants than his Republican predecessor, George, W. Bush, for agreeing to extend all Bush tax cuts in exchange for extending unemployment insurance, for increasing the use of predator drones, and for signing a health care law which provides 31 million new customers for the nation's insurance companies, rather than eliminating their influence by working to pass legislation establishing a single-payer Health Care system.
Among progressives, Hillary and Obama have become tethered as centrists who are too quick to work and compromise with the Republicans, and who are not wedded to a liberal philosophy. Then along comes Bernie Sanders at the opportune electoral time. During his time in Congress, Sanders developed one of the most liberal voting records in the U.S. Congress. In past elections, he would have been seen as a fringe liberal candidate with a narrow appeal and low ceiling. Yet grassroots progressives are looking for an ideologically unadulterated nominee and believe that in a political environment where the entire political establishment is scorned upon, voters in the General Election will see a candidate with no political filter as a refreshing respite. Sanders supporters believe he can win the General Election without altering his message, and then govern as the liberal of their dreams.
Conservative activists are in a similar predicament. There was a similar mutiny away from the establishment in 1992 when conservative Pat Buchanan won 37.5% of the vote in the New Hampshire Primary against President George H.W. Bush. Buchanan styled himself: "a real Republican." Bush had lost much trust on the right by reneging on his 1988 campaign pledge of: "Read my lips, no new taxes." New Hampshire was Buchanan's high watermark, as he failed to replicate that redoubtable showing in other contests.
In 2000, with the party locked out of the White House for eight years, Texas Governor George W. Bush was nominated and elected President. Conservatives held their noses as President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, expanded the Federal Government's role in education, and when he signed legislation adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, the biggest entitlement program since 1965. Bush spent much of his second term barnstorming the country calling for an earned pathway to citizenship for illegal aliens, which conservatives vociferously oppose.
The illegal immigration issue has become a litmus test for grassroots conservatives, the conservative intelligencia and conservative media. This was evinced in 2014 when Randolph-Mason College Economics Professor Dave Brat ousted U.S. House Minority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) in a Republican primary for Cantor's Congressional seat in part because of Cantor's support for comprehensive immigration reform. The race became a cause celeb, as conservatives from around the nation campaigned for and donated to the electoral neophyte, Brat.
Enter Donald Trump. The Donald is telling grass roots conservatives what they want to hear. He minces no words on illegal immigration, calling for a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border paid for by the Mexican Government. He also goes right after Hillary Clinton in an unequivocal manner, calling her: "The worst Secretary of State in the history of our country." In addition, Trump taps into an economic nationalism on the right similar to the one Buchanan tapped into in 1992, calling for tariffs on China and Mexico and opposing the Transpacific Partnership.
Judging by history, insurrectionist candidates like Sanders and Trump are usually squashed by the party establishment in the primaries. In 1984 and 1988, the Reverend Jesse Jackson could not defeat the establishment candidates Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, respectively. In 1992 and in 1996, conservative Pat Buchanan fired up the conservative base, but could not defeat the Republican establishment candidates. In 2004, Democrat Howard Dean struck a resonate chord with the left for his opposition to U.S. involvement in the War in Iraq. However, the establishment candidate, John Kerry, defeated him.
On the rare occasion that an insurrectionist does in fact win the nomination, they usually prove to be electoral disasters in the General Election campaign. In 1964, U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) defeated the Republican establishment candidate. In the General Election, rather than veering to the center, Goldwater and his supporters only hardened their ultra conservative message. At the Republican National convention that year, Goldwater's moderate opponent, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, was booed by conservative forces. In his acceptance speech, Goldwater told the nation: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." The Goldwater campaign tried to use Goldwater's unabashed conservatism to their advantage by adopting the campaign slogan: "In your heart you know he's right." The campaign of his Democratic opponent Lyndon B. Johnson retorted: "In your gut, you know he's nuts."
Goldwater doubled down on his conservative bone fides by selected U.S. Representative Walter Miller (R-NY), a staunch conservative, as his Vice Presidential runningmate. When a news reporter asked Miller if he thought Goldwater was extreme, he asked the reporter: "Are you married?" The reporter replied: "Yes." Miller responded" "Would your wife rather you be moderately faithful to her, or extremely faithful." The Goldwater/Miller ticket suffered a thumping, winning just six states.
Similarly, in 1972, the Democratic Party nominated insurgent U.S. Senator George McGovern (D-SD) over the establishment candidates. The liberal activist bloodline of the party was inflamed by their leadership's failure to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam. While his opponents for the nomination took a more nuanced position on bringing troops home from Vietnam, McGovern stated without reservation that as President he would "announce a definite early date for the withdrawal of every American soldier." McGovern campaigned from the hard left, proposing to give every American a $1,000 income supplement, and calling for a major truncation in the U.S. Defense Budget. With little support outside of the left in the General Election, McGovern won just one state, Massachusetts (and the District of Columbia). Republican President Richard M. Nixon garnered a whopping 94% of the Republican vote, 66% of the Independent vote, and 42% of the Democratic Vote.
While some political observers may point to Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory as an example of an election where an unapologetic insurrectionist conservative won the Presidency, there were a litany of contributing factors. First, Democratic President Jimmy Carter had a job approval rating just above 30%. Prior to the only debate the two party nominees had, which took place just one weak before the election, Reagan and Carter were in a virtual dead heat. Carter should have been down by double digits based on his low poll numbers. While Americans wanted to retire Carter, they had reservations that Reagan was too extreme. Reagan won that debate and the election, not by the incessant espousing of conservative positions, but by appearing moderate. When Carter accused Reagan of opposing Medicare and Social Security, Reagan humorously retorted: "There you go again."
Furthermore, Regan ran a Pollyannaish platitude-laden campaign. His campaign brochure read: "Ronald Reagan believes in the need to devise lasting solutions to problems, and in the need to combine a sense of caring with a sense of the cost involved." Contrary to popular belief, Reagan espoused mainstream Republican views, favoring a balanced budget, tax cuts, and an increase in Defense spending. Reagan said the U.S. and Mexico should "open the border both ways" and pledged to "improve quality health care for the aged and poor through Medicare and Medicaid."
Sanders and Trump exemplify the Restless insurrectionist syndrome. History is replete with examples showing that insurrectionist ideologically pure candidates usually lose to the establishment candidates. On rare occasions when they do in fact win their party's nomination, they are trounced in the General Election due to the fact that they have difficulty connecting with less ideologically pure voters. On the outside chance that both insurrectionist candidates win their respective party's nomination, we will be in uncharted territory.