The George Washington Bridge is a beautiful sight in the evening, illuminated by its own lights and those of the constant stream of cars crossing back and forth. In 1776 the illustrious general, on the run from the British, crossed the Hudson River around this point - from Fort Washington to Fort Lee in New Jersey.

It was at Fort Lee in September 2013 that lanes leading via the toll plaza to the bridge were closed in a deliberate attempt to create traffic chaos. The motivation, as alleged by Federal prosecutors, was to punish Fort Lee's Democrat mayor for not endorsing Chris Christie in the 2013 gubernatorial election.

Christie, a center-right candidate for the nomination, has gone now - he endorsed Trump shortly after 'suspending' his campaign. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton's email arrangements while Secretary of State are currently under investigation by the FBI. She is also widely mistrusted among the electorate for her close ties to Wall Street as evidenced by the enormous fees she takes for giving private talks to finance houses.

Christie and Clinton, both 'establishment candidates', provide two examples among many of why voters mistrust the current system and its insiders in a way that has had a dramatic impact on these primaries.

Advertisement

The rise of Donald Trump as an outsider candidate who speaks to the Republican base independent of its elites is one example that gets massive airtime. The huge numbers flocking to hear Bernie Sanders is another, one that receives very little airtime.

The debate on the Democratic side, while not so luridly entertaining as the Republican, is no less significant. A socialist candidate has not run for the Oval Office since Eugene Debs ran from prison in 1920.

What is going on?

People don't like Hillary. People love Bernie. Hillary is cold, bureaucratic, calculating, says what she thinks people want to hear. Bernie is avuncular, exciting, guileless, and remarkably consistent in his policy positions over decades. These are the tropes of this nomination process.

READ MORE: Jennifer Rubin: Brussels and the danger of Trump

Hillary Clinton's record of legislative accomplishments and incremental progressivism makes her a strong candidate if gradual change is considered equal to the demands of the times. But many Americans have lost faith in that approach. It has not served them well. They no longer identify it as theirs, and want something they can relate to.

Economic disparity is Bernie's central platform and he lays its corrosive effects at the feet of what he calls a 'rigged economy'. This description is a direct challenge to the financial sector, to the very small number of extraordinarily rich individuals and families who hold so much of the nation's wealth - and to the political establishment that allows it to continue.

He speaks of students burdened by debt before they've even started in employment, and people working three jobs and still not being able to support their families. Both Clinton and Sanders acknowledge that the devastating effects of 2008's global financial crisis continue for a great many Americans.

Their solutions differ markedly. For Sanders, the business model of Wall Street is fraud and significant structural change is needed, including much higher taxes on the very wealthy.

Supporters cheer as Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally at Boise State University. Photo / Joe Jaszewski/Idaho Statesman via AP
Supporters cheer as Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally at Boise State University. Photo / Joe Jaszewski/Idaho Statesman via AP

Clinton acknowledges a problem but would probably not call it a rigged economy. She has a complex set of incremental changes in mind. But owing to her perceived cozy relationship with Wall Street, her commitment to addressing root causes is not widely trusted.

Opinion is divided on who has the correct approach. Sanders is trailing Clinton to date, and is coming under pressure to pull out of the race, or at least shift his focus to supporting Clinton in her epic battle with Trump. But Bernie isn't having it, and rightly points out that half the populace has yet to vote on their preferred nominee. He wants them to have their say and intends to carry on to the end.

Do the 'times' (even absent the recent news of 'shocking' global temperature increases) really allow for incremental improvements to this particular status quo? If so, then Hillary Clinton is an obvious choice to deliver just that. But huge numbers of citizens disagree and want a radical change to current arrangements. They're voting for insurgent and confrontational candidates on both sides of America's political divide.

There will be plenty to stimulate debate. As I write there has just been another terrorist bombing in Europe. How would the foreign policy positions of Hillary and Bernie best address global jihad? Trump and Cruz have already made themselves clear.

Today voters in Arizona, ground zero for immigration anxieties, look likely to choose Trump as their Republican nominee. But what are the relative responses of Sanders and Clinton to extreme Republican positions. This is one time when talk can influence events, and these discussions need to continue.

Given the caliber of the two candidates, surely it is worth using the four months between now and the Democratic National Convention in July as an opportunity to take that discussion as far and as deep as possible.

Can you imagine Washington and his colleagues sitting down at a critical moment to decide the shape of their newly independent nation - and settling, without debate, for known candidates and incremental improvements? I don't think so.

Richard McLachlan is a New Zealander living in New York.

Debate on this article is now closed.