The Outsider Candidate and the War for the American Soul

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Back in 2007, the prospect of the rise of a relatively unknown African-American senator from Illinois to the pinnacle of American politics was viewed as improbable at best.  Not only had the country never even come close to electing a Black president in its 250 year history, but there was entrenched, establishment candidates on both sides of the aisle who had far more formidable political networks.

But the arrival of Barak Obama on the scene coming on the tail end of what was proving to be a difficult end of the Bush Presidency – culminating with a quagmire of sectarian violence in Iraq and a crashing domestic economy – instantly energized an electorate that had grown largely cynical of American politics.  No one really projected Obama to survive the Democratic Primary, and the ‘Clinton Machine’ (fielding the Democrat’s presumptive nominee at the time) fought tooth and nail until it too had to succumb to the inevitable reality.  Republican Party leaders were prepared for a dog fight from the beginning, and Republican nominee Senator John McCain sensed that he would have to do something radical to counter the cult-like rise of a likeable black candidate.

The magazine American Thinker expressed it best when in its September 2008 it described the McCain campaign’s announcement of its choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate on the eve of the Democratic Convention as a brilliant tactical maneuver that spoke to the skills of a veteran navy aviator. It cited, “the “OODA loop” — which is the envelope for the pilot’s thought process.  How quickly can the pilot observe the situation, orient within the situation, decide, and act?” American Thinker was not alone in proclaiming the choice of Sarah Palin – another unknown, and the first woman ever selected as the vice-presidential nominee – the perfect Republican foil for the fresh-faced Senator from Illinois.

But these tactical maneuvers by the reigning party establishment on both sides masked a deeper, more restless trend in American politics.  The two-party system, which had for so long been able to corral the disparate hopes and frustrations of a diverse nation into an essentially zero sum game of political engagement was giving way to a more fractured electorate.

It may not look like it from the outside, since ultimately Obama was elected and has since become the consummate insider, but the Democratic Party is just as much a victim of the outsider phenomenon as the Republican Party.  Once the cat was let out of the bag with the selections of Palin and Obama, the parties’ establishment wings have found it next to impossible to control the outsider sentiment within their ranks.  A lot of ink has been spilled over this issue of ‘voter anger’ as a driving force behind this phenomenon.  Staring into the eye great recession, in the wake of a decade-long war in the middle-east, and amidst a burgeoning national debt, sky high oil prices and crippling unemployment, such anger was palpable and visceral.

But that only tells half the story. Americans vented their frustration in a sense by electing President Obama, not once, but twice.  Europe went so far as to crown Obama as the prince of peace before he even had a chance to end any war.  The recession abated over time as they usually do – and whether Obama’s seamanship or the arrival of fairer winds is to blame for the turn in our nation’s fortunes – surely the country is now on a far better track than it was eight years ago.   And yet the anger persists.  It is evident in the crowds that appear at political rallies, and in the strident tone of the candidates. Not one of them pledges to maintain the current course.  All of them believe the country is still way off course, although for different reasons.  The voter anger of today is harder to place, more deeply entrenched in the national psyche.  None of the candidates have been able to coin a term for it, and yet it is recognized, like the gravitational pull of a black hole, by its’ effect on the matter surrounding it.  In the political universe the equivalent of matter is the party establishment.

In this election the issues are merely a canvas for a deeper seated malaise.  Of course people would like to have a more secure border, a less volatile global environment, more employment opportunities and more prosperity here at home.  But it goes deeper than that.  There is a sense of polarity among the electorate characterized by significant pluralities at the extremes. The middle is shrinking, both economically and politically. 

I observed these phenomena in Europe when I visited this past summer.  I was struck by the extreme opulence of the City of London, and just as equally shocked by the level of poverty that lay just outside the city center.  The class divisions in Europe, compounded by the recent immigrant crisis, are testing the fabric of the European Union. Let’s hope that the tensile strength of our own unratified internal war can endure the strain of a political system more defined by its extremes than its core ideals. 

In fact, if there is a role for the outsider in American politics, perhaps that is it: to endure those unreconciled strivings, and to embody the tensions of a country struggling to regain its’ core identity. If so, then these elections might be remembered by posterity as a referendum on the soul of America.

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