I was in the room in Los Angeles in 1988, about 200 feet from Michael Dukakis, when Bernard Shaw asked him what he’d do if his wife were raped. Now that really was a sucker punch of a question. I was on the other side of the arena, in Cleveland, when Donald Trump bared his teeth (metaphorically speaking) at Megyn Kelly. And I was down the hall in the press pen last month, when Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders shook hands in dismissing those “damn e-mails.” One of the things nobody tells you is that they don’t actually let the press get in the room anymore. We get access to the candidates afterwards, in Spin Alley—if they choose to come—and a nice line in complimentary snacks along with the big flat screens and free Wi-Fi. But we still end up watching a TV show, not a live event. You can’t smell the fear—or the zeitgeist—on a screen.
So even though I sat through last night’s festivities in the comfort of my own home, that can’t be the reason I kept having to ask myself which party’s debate I was watching. Whether it was Carly Fiorina earnestly informing viewers that “this big, powerful, corrupt bureaucracy works now only for the big, the powerful, the wealthy, and the well-connected. Meantime, wages have stagnated for 40 years.” Or Ted Cruz telling them, “Wall Street’s doing great. You know, today, the top 1 percent earn a higher share of our income than any year since 1928.” Or Rand Paul banging on about “income inequality.” Even Jeb Bush uttered the words “radically changed.”
We’ve heard a lot about how the unheralded rise of Bernie Sanders has forced Hillary Clinton to compete on his turf, moving towards more populist—and popular—positions on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Keystone Pipeline and talking tough on Wall Street. But it was Chris Christie—not Clinton, Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren—who said that the GM executives responsible for covering up the company’s faulty ignition switch should be in jail. And as John Nichols points out, it was Mike Huckabee who recognized that honoring the promise of Social Security was “a matter not of math [but] of morality.”
Sure the horse race is fun, and since this is just the GOP, let’s by all means indulge ourselves and notice that Jeb Bush is no longer even the most plausible candidate from Florida in this field. Or, more seriously, acknowledge that Rubio, the young pretender, demonstrated a truly impressive ability to turn potentially damaging questions about his personal financial incompetence into a chance to parade his bona fides as an up-from-nothing American dreamer. Likewise Ted Cruz, who after two lackluster outings seemed to finally wake up—and nearly stole Rubio’s bash-the-mainstream-media line right out from under his nose.
Of course, the Republican contenders offered all the usual wrong answers. But the fact that so many of them are asking the right questions—indeed, the very same questions that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have been fighting to get onto the political agenda—should tell us something about our current moment. The history of populism in the United States is of a movement that either disintegrates into nativist bigotry or gets co-opted by some form of corporate liberalism. And if those are our only current choices, the Republican candidates furnished repeated reminders of the perils—and potential political payoff—of demagoguery.
But when the former CEO of Hewlett Packard starts channelling Louis Brandeis, we may be in one of those hinge moments when more is possible. After all, these are the same people who spent decades demonizing marijuana use and pre-marital sex. If socialism does half as well, the cooperative commonwealth is just around the corner.