The United States is moving into a new age of issue-oriented politics where ideology no longer matters.
For the past 25 or 30 years ideology; particularly conservative beliefs, dominated American politics. Now suddenly ideology no long matters, instead demands for action on specific issues are dominating the political debate.
The harbingers of this paradigm shift are Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, and former Democratic presidential candidate US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Trump succeeded in capturing the Republican nomination by ignoring conservative ideology and campaigning only on specific issues: including free-trade, immigration and security.
Donald Trump’s Quality of Life Campaign
Trump’s success seems to verify a theory put forward by leftwing political strategist Jill Hanauer. Hanauer believes today’s voters are motivated by quality of life issues rather than ideology.
Such issues are front and center in Trump’s campaign; the Donald’s demand for an end to free trade is a quality of life, issue because it promises higher wages and good jobs for the working class. Talk of immigration restriction is also a quality of life issue; the idea is to help American workers by eliminating low-wage competition. Even the anti-Muslim bias can be seen as a quality of issue, because terrorism or fear of it affects people’s lives.
More tellingly Trump is a strong supporter of Social Security; guaranteed income for senior citizens, yet another quality of life issue. In recent months, Trump has added some other quality of life issues including healthcare reform and paid maternity leave to his agenda. His commercials often extoll the benefits of the agenda rather than harp on party dogma – unlike most American political advertisements.
Trump has ignored conservative dogma including a belief in unfettered free enterprise He has even talked of punishing large companies and blocking ATT’s attempt to buy the ailing entertainment conglomerate Time Warner. Trump’s official agenda also includes language to break up big banks. If a Republican had proposed such actions a decade ago, he would have been drummed out of the party.
Bernie’s Success Proves Ideology is dead
An even more post-ideological figure is Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist who has achieved rock-star status among people under 30.
Around 2,000 people; mostly college students, turned out to see Bernie at the University of Colorado at Boulder on October 17, Bloomberg View columnist Leonid Bershidsky reported. The crowd turned out to listen to Bernie talk about a specific issue; single-payer health care and its benefits.
Sanders was in town to stump for Hillary Clinton and Amendment 69; a ballot initiative that would create a German-style single-payer health insurance system in Colorado. His whole speech was little more than a lecture on the benefits of single-payer and the crowd ate it up.
Sanders is the ultimate post-ideological politician because all he talks about are issues and their benefits real or imagined. The Senator has famously refused to engage in personal attacks on opponents and has rarely mentioned his motivations. Almost every Sanders speech is a dry lecture on the benefits of some policy.
Instead of ideology Bernie talks only about specific policies such as single payer health insurance, government-funded college and free trade. Even more so than Trump, Sanders is an issue oriented candidate. Like Trump, he ignores traditional politics and concentrates on quality of life issues; such as Social Security, tuition-free college and healthcare.
What is truly interesting is that young people; most of whom are staunch capitalists, are enthusiastic about Bernie. They clearly see his agenda as benefiting them and protecting their interests; just as many older voters see Trump’s agenda as benefiting them.
Hanauer thinks that even more dramatic changes are ahead as the Millennials; people under 35, become more politically engaged. Their advent will be the end of politics as we know it.
The End of Politics as We Know It
“This is the last election of the two-party paradigm,” Hanauer predicted. “Millennials don’t wake up thinking about ideological and party labels. It’s all about the issues that are important to them.”
Colorado; where 28% of the population is composed of millennials, is at the cutting edge of this change, Bershidsky observed. Another initiative on the November 8 election ballot in Colorado, Amendment 108 would allow voters to participate in primary elections without joining a political party.
Under the system in most American states; candidates are chosen by voters in a special primary election that is only open to party members. Amendment 108 aims to change that by allowing any voter to participate in the primary and parties to opt out of the primary.
The idea is to open up the system and give non-ideological candidates; like Trump and Sanders, a better chance of success. Trump was able to triumph over more traditional candidates in the Republican primaries, because of that party’s more open system.
One result of that will be more issue-oriented candidates. Another will be more influence for issue motivated groups similar to Britain’s United Kingdom Independence Party or UKIP. which only has one issue; opposition to the European Union.
The goal of UKIP was to force the UK out of the EU which it succeeded in achieving without taking power. Candidates like Sanders operate in a similar manner by trying to force the party to adopt their agenda.
Since Sanders’ success Hillary Clinton, has moved closer to his positions on a number of issues opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, promoting expansion of Medicare (America’s single-payer health insurance plan for senior citizens) to younger people and distancing herself from Wall Street. Much as Prime Minister Theresa May moved from opposing Brexit to trying to implement it.
It is too early to tell if the new issue-oriented politics are a permanent change. Ideologies of both the right and left have many true believers. They might be able to counter or block the paradigm shift; particularly if they control party or media infrastructure.
Although the conservative failure to block Trump indicates they have little or no popular support. The big question we need to ask is whether issue-oriented candidates; like Trump and Sanders, will be able to build permanent political organizations. Issues, unlike ideology may not be strong enough to hold political movements together for the long haul.