There is a theory in political science that the far reaches of the political spectrum — the far right and the far left — have more in common with each other than either does with the center of the spectrum.
That idea is called the horseshoe theory and is based on the belief that far right and far left, although ideologically the furthest apart from each other, are two ends of a horseshoe in which they are closer to each other than to the center.
It has been used to point out the similarities of the fascist (far right) and communist (far left) regimes of Europe of the early to mid 20th century. Theorists argue Hitler’s Nazism and Stalin’s Soviet-style communism had more in common than the more moderate centrist democratic republics of that era.
Closer to home and at not quite such an extreme level, there’s a little bit of that going on in our presidential election.
Although both have dismissed the comparisons, Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) seem to be feeding off the same anti-political establishment populist sentiment. They both agree on what a lot of the problems plaguing the country are — Wall Street cronyism, bad trade deals, U.S. interventionist foreign policy, a tax code that benefits the wealthy and so on, and so forth.
Where they differ is in how to attack these issues.
There is one hole in this analogy, in that one component, Trump, is not representative of a far-right Republican. He’s probably more of a moderate as far as Republicans go on social issues.
As for Sanders, in Democratic politics he is definitely on the far-left end of the Democratic Party.
The thing that brings them together is this new populist vibe that has caught on in American politics.
American politics has always been populist (a popularity contest) by nature. But for whatever reason, be it eight years of a struggling economy and being fed lines about how things are getting better even though in reality they don’t seem to be, or the coming of age of the me-first generation, it’s really taken hold more than at any other time in the past four decades.
When you have those sorts of variables, that’s when you see seismic changes in politics.
We all know the recent history — hope and change in 2008, tea party in 2010, doubling down on hope and change in 2012 and then “we have to stop hope and change” in 2014.
But in reality, nothing has really changed since 2010. All the change happened between 2009 and 2011. Ever since then, it’s been a stalemate.
Here we are in 2016. There are a lot of disappointed voters all around and that’s what leads to the rise of the outsider candidates like Trump and Sanders, who have taken a radically different approach. Sanders and Trump have both described their ascendancies as a “movement,” with Sanders going as far as to call his a “revolution.”
If longtime Republicans and Democrats are wondering how this could happen within their parties, they have no one to blame but themselves.
Way before Trump and Sanders were commandeering this populist wave for their presidential ambitions, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions was preaching the populist sermon. And he was doing so with great success — so much success that he’s the most popular politician Alabama has had in 50 years.
Certainly Alabama is a unique state, but if it has worked here, how come no one else has thought of trying it?
Case in point: take the following two statements on the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal:
A: “Do I believe in trade? Of course, I believe in trade. But the current trade agreements over the last 30 years were written by corporate America, for corporate America, resulted in the loss of millions of decent-paying jobs, 60,000 factories in America lost since 2001, millions of decent-paying jobs; and also a downward spiral, a race to the bottom where employers say, ‘Hey, you don’t want to take a cut in pay? We’re going to China.’ Workers today are working longer hours for lower wages. Trade is one of the reasons for that.”
B: “A trade deal is a contract, and it must be one that puts American workers’ interests first, not the interests of global elites. While I’ve always supported trade, trade is not a religion. In many ways, trade has not been serving Americans well lately, and it’s time to be honest about that. It is little surprise the [Obama] administration is not showcasing today’s signing given its unpopularity with the American people. Every elected official, every candidate must be crystal clear about where they stand on the TPP. The American people deserve no less.”
Although they’re uniquely similar, the first one is from self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders at last week’s Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire. The second is from an op-ed penned by Jeff Sessions, often described as a conservative firebrand from the politically bright-red state of state of Alabama, published last week.
Strange how that works.