This past semester I finished writing a thesis that examined the state of American democracy. When I first started writing it last year I wanted to focus on money in politics but I quickly found that the issue most fundamentally disrupting our democratic process is much deeper. I also wanted to contribute to the academic discourse around the topic while championing an argument that was easily understood at its surface and could stand up to the rigor of academic scrutiny if I was to continue to explore it as a graduate student or PhD candidate later in life. After my experience as a Bernie Sanders Democratic National Convention delegate and many talks with my thesis adviser, I found that I wasn’t interested in money in politics as I had previously suspected. Instead I was interested in understanding how the United States uses representative democracy as a legitimation (yes, it is spelled that way) mechanism to empower the government to exercise authority over the citizens of the state.
Within the academic discourse around the topic, the prominent argument is that democracies rely on a healthy truth-relation between what the government says and what the government does (i.e. if the government does what it says it will do, it is legitimate). While I wish this were the case, I believe that this argument merely works in theory and fails catastrophically in practice. As an alternative, I argue that it is how the citizens perceive the government that determines its legitimacy within a democracy. Furthermore, the citizens express their perceptions of the government through elections, giving political scientist and theorists a way to model the state of a democratic government’s level of legitimacy.
In my thesis, I modeled how a candidate’s relation to big money during the 2016 presidential race impacted how voters perceived them and, thus, voted for or against them. However, in this short piece, I will focus on the platforms and rhetoric of the two most impactful candidates of the 2016 race, Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders, and how the two candidates advocated for major shifts in our understanding of government’s role in the day-to-day lives of the people. Before examining the two candidates however, it is necessary to understand how the political theorist John Locke has impacted American thought on the role of government.
In his groundbreaking work, The Second Treatise on Civil Government, Locke explains how a social contract between the government and its citizens can be used to legitimize a government. Locke advocated that the crux of the social contract should be an understanding that in exchange for subordination to the government on the part of the citizens, the government was required to protect the property rights of the citizens, which include an individual’s, “life, liberty, and property” (Locke 1689). It is this understanding of the role of government and a perception of our government having violated this role that fundamentally drives Trump and his supporters.
Many of Trump’s main platform planks related to protecting the individual property rights of the American people from the perceived threat of foreigners. For example, Trump blames undocumented citizens as the root of our unemployment problem. The narrative he pushed was that undocumented citizens were stealing the jobs that rightfully belonged to documented American citizens. Understood in the frame that Locke laid out and that the founding fathers followed, Trump is claiming that under President Obama’s administration the government has not upheld its end of the social contract because it has allowed undocumented citizens to take the jobs of documented American citizens, violating their private property rights. Hence, his solution is to physically protect those rights by deporting undocumented citizens and building a wall. Not only did his platform planks suggest a sense of violation of the social contract by the government but his rhetoric did as well.
Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is clearly directing his supporters to think back to a time they perceive as having been better for them; a time before their property rights had been violated by the government not upholding its end of the social contract. He then suggests that what is needed to restore our nation back to this better time, is strong leadership that he can provide. Hence, he referred to himself as the “law and order” candidate. Trump is fundamentally advocating that the role of government ought to be to defend property rights of individual citizens above all else.
Bernie on the other hand advocated for a government that emphasized ensuring an acceptable and increasing standard of living for all. Looking at his platform, he advocated for free college education, single payer healthcare, and over turning the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling (an area of focus in my thesis), just to name a few planks that suggested a shift in the role of government that would come if he were elected president. Furthermore, his campaign slogan, “A Future to Believe In,” encouraged his supporters to look to what could be rather than to focus on the past or present. In advocating for this change in our understanding of government’s role, Bernie advocated for a change in the direction of government that is significantly different from anything that was offered by any major candidate this election cycle.
Both Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders tapped into feelings of dissatisfaction with the government but did so with completely different strategies and with completely different ideas of what government ought to do. Trump used fear and anger to advocate for a government that serves to defend the property rights of individuals above all else, particularly those at the top. Bernie used reason and love to advocate for a government that ensured an acceptable standard of living for all. Considering the unmatched enthusiasm of both Trump and Sanders supporters, the unprecedented rise of both candidates, and their promise of a new direction for government, it is safe to say that the American people as a whole are dissatisfied with business as usual. The American people collectively perceive the government as having not done its job and as not working, suggesting that our nation is currently in the midst of a legitimation crisis.
Note: In my next piece, I hope to explain the take-aways of the thesis as a whole and how understanding of the current political context in this way can make it easier to communicate with those on the other side of the aisle. If there is interest in reading the entirety of my thesis, feel free to message me on Facebook.
 In political theory, the term “legitimation” does not have any moral significance. The term refers to the method or process that a government uses to justify its authority over its citizens. For example, dictators are likely to use force as their legitimation mechanism and monarchs have historically used the idea of divine right to justify their authority.
 For more on this, read Legitimation Crisis by Jürgen Habermas.
 In the social sciences, a “model” is a tool we use to describe social behaviors at all levels and in all fields. They are intentionally over simplified representations of the world which are meant to focus on particular relations within social systems to create a greater understanding of what is going on. Dani Rodrick, professor of economics at Harvard, wrote an excellent book that gives further explanation on this point called, Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science.
 I choose to look at money in politics mostly because I had spent a little over a year researching how Super PACs influenced election outcomes and did not have the time to research areas that potentially relate more directly to this topic, such as education or the media. I hope to work on this in the upcoming semester.
 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton merely wished to continue President Barak Obama’s legacy. Continuing the same path, at the same pace, has very little potential to redirect the course of history that our nation started on in 2008. The other two candidates were advocating for platforms that could potentially redirect the course of American history by redefining the role of government.
 Disclaimer: I do not mean to imply that racism, bigotry, misogyny, and the other negative aspects of our nation that Trump has come to embody did not fuel his rise, they certainly did. However, they were used by Trump, knowingly or unknowingly, as political tools to garner an enthusiastic base of support rather than the justification for his proposed actions to come. (Hence, why he himself denies the presence of these negative aspects of his campaign, as do any of his supporters.)
 While I personally believe President Obama has defended the property rights of our citizens, Trump supporters don’t feel he has done enough.