Anti-establishment is an attractive buzzword in politics. Donald Trump clinched the GOP nomination and the Oval Office by contrasting himself to a stuffy old guard. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) led an unexpectedly successful primary challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016, riding on a joint platform of progressive politics and being a second option. Backlash against perceived institutional meddling in 2016 drove the DNC to throw open its doors for the 2020 nomination contest. But coming from outside of the political establishment is not a credential. The slow grind of political rise is itself an extended vetting process. Those who hope to skip it must be subjected to a rapid scrutiny, not because they are outsiders but because we have much less time to figure out just who they are.
Tuesday night’s bloated debate demonstrated the problems caused by lowering the bar to qualify to be on stage. The stage included 12 contenders falling into four distinct categories. The first and simplest group is genuine contenders: Joe Biden, Sanders, Elizabeth Warren (D- Mass.), Pete Buttegieg, Cory Booker (D- N.J.), Amy Klobuchar (D- Minn.) and Julian Castro. Many of these candidates are arguably running for cabinet positions by now but all are qualified choices for president (Buttegieg could use more experience).
The niche candidate category used to contain Jay Inslee, whose climate-centered campaign was a woefully undervalued necessity in our political discourse, but is now limited to Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur whose ideas I laud as bold and forward-thinking. His campaign is anti-establishment, but its foundation is of ideas and policy, not outsider status alone. I hope to continue to see Yang and his message for along time. Most members of the “Why Are You Still Here? Get off the Stage!” category have gotten the message and suspended their campaigns, but the lone Beto O’Rourke (D- Texas) continues to cling to his candidacy, as though he would rather repeatedly embarrass himself on national television than spend time with his family. The final category, composed of Tom Steyer and Tulsi Gabbard (D- Hawaii), is perhaps the most troubling. These are the candidates running on a solely anti-establishment platform and actually seem to believe they should be our president.
Steyer, the California billionaire made famous for his devotion to impeach the President, spent his time on the fourth Democratic debate stage demonstrating the flaws in the party’s quirky nomination process. Steyer, whose campaign seems to be an attempt to straddle running on a single issue and genuinely pursuing the presidency, has tied his fortunes to the promise of freeing our government from corporate control. After buying his way onto the debate stage shortly after entering the race, he fancies himself the champion of the working class, selflessly spending his time and money dismantling the political influence of the wealthy. Got that? With no political experience, and even less of an idea of how to be president, he wields the weapons our contorted economic system has bestowed upon him to foist himself onto the television screens of Americans trying to make a decision of utmost importance and distract them with well-funded platitudes. His justification? He is not an “insider” politician. He claims space in a limited spotlight, wasting our time and his money while cheapening American politics.
Gabbard, the Hawaii congresswoman who rose to prominence with her political unorthodoxy, spent her few minutes of speaking time eloquently conveying everything wrong with herself. Gabbard earned her spot on the stage by meeting the exceptionally low bar. She then went on to dive into a grab-bag talking of points from both the Republican Party and Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad, whose countless crimes against humanity border on genocide. A regular Assad apologist, Gabbard continued her insistence that opposition to Assad’s government was an example of promoting “regime change wars,” a phrase she repeated too many times to count. Bound by her own dogma, she stands staunchly against the establishment politicians in both parties who oppose the illegitimate, murderous Syrian government. Furthermore, Gabbard’s relentless attacks on The New York Times and CNN fell safely into Trumpian territory, doing more to bolster his undemocratic attack on the press than to promote any valuable policy.
Carrying fresh ideas and minimal baggage shakes up the status quo and frequently fuels the greatest leaps forward, but outsiders are valuable for who they are and what they bring, not just the fact that they are outsiders. We are better for having Sanders and other outsiders who won seats in Congress in 2018, and ought to be thankful for both their practical and symbolic successes.
Steyer and Gabbard represent the notion that being anti-establishment is itself a worthy platform to be elected on. They are wrong. Lack of experience is intriguing for those pursuing lower office, but should be disqualifying for those running for president. Shoveling money into a vanity project is offensive and unhelpful, and bucking mainstream thinking is a poor choice when the mainstream has achieved consensus on a particular evil. Steyer should be spending his money on ensuring that a qualified Democrat wins the general election. Gabbard should spend her time learning to differentiate between anti-interventionism and support for the world’s cruelest. These are bad candidates who stand for a dangerous vision of politics. Whether we choose to support a firebrand progressive or time-tested moderate in this race to replace the mistake currently occupying the White House, we should hope that these two fail.
Elijah Fox is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. What Does the Fox Say? runs every other Thursday this semester.