Why the Popularity of Trump and Sanders Shouldn’t Come as a Surprise

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tags: election 2016, Bernie Sanders, Trump

Dr. Joe Krulder, Ph.D., teaches history at Butte College. His dissertation was on the Seven Years’ War.

If we take a look at the political elite, Republican or Democrat, a commonality beguiles both sides. The Bush and Clinton dynasties must now deal with their Trumps and Sanders respectively. It’s not rocket science, though: whether on the left or the right, the everyday people are angry.

For Hillary Clinton, the writing was on the wall eight years ago: overtaken by leftist populism wrapped in a “Yes We Can” slogan with Barack Obama as its front man. That she and her campaign managers seem surprised by the “Feel the Bern” campaign means the political elite on the left have yet to understand the angst inherent within their own populist base. An angst, by the way, that truly feels that the current president bailed on leftist ideals as soon as he was sworn in back in January of 2009.

For Jeb Bush, the unpopularity of his brother not only remains salient within the Republican populist base, but proof of an apathetic GOP that treats the commoners like compliant chattel (insert Mitt Romney’s “47%” comment, here). The anger on the Republican side signals the complete and utter failure of “trickle down” economics that has devastated the white, suburban middle class.

In short, everyday people, whether on the left or the right, are fed up and there is plenty of blame to go around. Politics appears broken and unresponsive just as “Reaganomic” realities shifted America’s wealth away from the rank and file.

But I’m not here to belittle America’s political processes (plurality intended). Instead, I wish to point to the past, insert history’s ever poignant simulacrum that seems to hold relevance to our current situation.

And for that, I need to go to France in the eighteenth century. In 1772, military strategist Jacques Antoine Hippolyte, aka the Comte de Guibert, wrote an essay so potent and revolutionary that he had it printed, anonymously, in London so as not to be arrested by French officials. Guibert’s Essai Général de Tactique raised the specter of French losses incurred during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) in order to emphasize a new and radicalized vision for the French state going forward: if you want to win the next war, advised Guibert, use the people, and all of them. The answer to victories on the battlefield, according to Guibert, was to “revolutionize warfare.” How? Not on the battlefield, but in the study of the people, in the understanding of demography and economics. Guibert’s experiences during the Seven Years’ War taught him that a government “indifferent” to the people will reap a people “indifferent to the successes” of government. In order to achieve complete and total victory in war, the state must chart a revolutionary new course in the treatment of its own citizens.

Of course, the populace back then was not considered citizen material: not in France, not even in England, and especially not in colonial America. Citizenry fell to those who could affect the state: a political, cultural, and social truism held-over from the late Renaissance through the early modern era. Most people were poor, uneducated, and therefore considered unable to affect the state’s outcome in any meaningful way.

Guibert saw it differently and so too did many colonial Americans: both camps experienced the Seven Years’ War. In France’s defeat, Guibert witnessed his government’s indifference toward its people and in turn a people indifferent toward the state. In victory, many colonial Americans viewed London’s active interest (finally) in protecting North America as a positive. The allowance of the people to form militias and to supply one-half to two-thirds of the British fighting force against French and Indian incursions led colonialists, like Reverend Thomas Barnard to praise their cooperative success. He preached in 1763 that “the lowest Subject is safe as the highest, in every Enjoyment he can desire….” Guibert used these lessons from the Seven Years’ War to prophesize that future military victories go to the state which makes the best use of its own human resources, which recognizes the importance of demography and economics in the conduct of warfare, and which employs all of its citizens in the production, maintenance, and deliverance of war materials.

The Guibert essay on tactics became the mainstay of France’s revolutionary army twenty years after its printing. Then, from 1792 to about 1812, Europeans witnessed France utilizing demography and economics to supply an army that, at one point, numbered over one million. Drawing the poor and uneducated up to the level of citoyen allowed France to dominate the European continent for nearly two decades. Were it not for Napoleonic blunders – chasing after Russia in the winter, comes to mind – the twenty years of previous French victories may have stood for something.

Such an historical reflection underscores Guibert’s prophetic insights. France’s 1789 revolution uncorked the people’s anger: indifference by the state against its own people came to an end. The new revolutionary state elevated the status of its folk to “citizen” and, in kind, this new citizenry fought successfully for a quarter of a century dominating Europe in the process.

Are we, the United States, at that point of revolution? Certainly the rise of Trump and Sanders clearly indicates that the slippery slope of indifference may no longer be suffered. Most Americans, I would argue, feel that the game is rigged against them. Guibert predicted that state indifference toward its own people would lead to continued defeat in future wars. His solution was to elevate the commoner, to make the everyday person feel that the nation was not only within them, but was them! No wonder revolutionary France reprinted and championed Guibert’s essay.

But Lincoln said pretty much the same in November of 1863 after the devastating Battle of Gettysburg. The only way our “nation might live” was through the state’s recognition that the collective “we” holds meaning, that ours is a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”: then and only then can we be assured that we “shall not perish from the earth.”

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