Donald Trump has taken the low road and turned “populist” anger upside down. He’s the super-rich guy ridiculing “stupid” people who run the government, while he tattles on fellow billionaires and how they buy politicians to get free stuff from Washington.
The news media fell in love with the Donald’s wicked tongue. He is spicing up dull old democracy for them. His nasty and reactionary wisecracks are often funny, if aimed at stuffed shirts in high places. Not funny but ugly-mean when he targets immigrants, women, racial minorities.
Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, is on the high road, plowing similar furrows of dissent in a far more serious and substantive way, but with a lot less media play. Bernie doesn’t do cat fights and personalized insults. Instead, he’s describing an agenda for governing—left-liberal reforms to block “corporate greed” and restore economic security for low-wage workers and middle-class families.
Neither seems likely to become president. Even so, Trump and Sanders are, in very different ways, threatening to the old order. Both are shining bright lights, in contrast to shallow, stalemated two-party politics. Donald and Bernie, separately or together, possess serious potential to alter the landscape of two-party politics by redefining constituencies and convictions, transforming the content and character of one or both parties.
The ingredients are present for some kind of crackup. Which voters are the real Republicans? What does the Democratic Party actually believe? And does it even matter? People know that one party or the other had something to do with wrecking America. Lots of voters are ready to try something else.
The essence of what Trump is peddling is rancid nostalgia—a random medley of regrets and resentments about how things used to be in “the good old days,” when America was great. When the nation didn’t hesitate to run over bad guys if they got in the way. When smart-tough people knew how to make things work. Trump says he still does. He talks like a can-do chief executive who sprinkles his rants with gutter-talk prejudices. The shock of his blatant incorrectness draws nervous laughter.
Sanders is selling universal hope and inclusiveness. Earnestly explaining what government must do to restore economic equity and security, Sanders talks concretely about who’s to blame: the One Percent at the top, who got all the money. Some of his proposals are broad intentions, others are precisely focused on how oligarchs looted Washington. In every event, Bernie is pumping up his crowds with optimism and energy. No time for cynics or despair.
Hope versus nostalgia. Bitter “frankness” from the Donald, or Bernie’s “happy warrior” vision of what Americans want the country to become? The contrast poses a challenging test for voters of all hues and persuasions. Trump and Sanders are not running against each other, of course. But they are effectively competing for overlapping pools of discontented voters from both parties.
Right now the two are running neck and neck—Sanders at 44 percent, Trump at 41 percent—according to a Quinnipiac poll that matched them in late August. Given the grossly unbalanced media coverage, that result is a tribute to Bernie’s high-road campaign style.
For good reason, Bernie and Donald are giving serious heartburn to Republican and Democratic leaders. The GOP cannot swallow Trump’s pitch without flying apart and losing its billionaire donors. Likewise with the Democratic Party; Sanders is forcing a showdown between working-class Old Dems and Wall Street–friendly New Dems. In both parties, establishment forces will pile on with money and negative attacks to squelch the insurgents. Their counterattacks have already begun and may succeed. But the bipartisan anger and rebellious spirit will not be so easily suppressed.
With considerable deftness, Trump is declaring in public what ordinary working folks have been saying to each other for many years. His resentments are their resentments. His nasty gut shots echo their emotional upsets. His sweeping promises to clean house and settle scores with foreign competitors are a lot like their own wishful notions about how America could be great again. White working people, who felt silenced and ignored, are cheering loudly for Trump even if they are not altogether sure he’s for real.
This astute explanation of the Trump phenomenon is drawn from the scholarly observations of Professor Justin Gest of George Mason University. Gest is writing a book on that battered sector of society titled The New Minority: White Working-Class Politics in an Era of Immigration and Inequality. It is a vivid and provocative portrait of big losers in the generational transformation of the American economy.
During the past 30 years, this sector of neglected citizens experienced a catastrophic fall from economic prosperity and social status. Their fears are now shared more widely by the fraying middle class.
“White working-class people understand loss,” Gest has written. Their middle-class incomes were decimated by the millions of US manufacturing jobs moved offshore to low-wage economies. Working-class people were pushed down the ladder to crummier jobs with lower wages. “It doesn’t necessarily mean Hard Hat Joe who worked at the plant or welds steel,” he explained. They blame the corporate giants who sold them out, but also the Washington politicians from both parties who assisted the transaction.
Working-class men and women, Gest says, “also sense their own loss of social status in the country they once defined. They feel outnumbered and discomforted by the ascendance of minorities and disfavored by the elite echelons of American society.”
“They feel discarded,” he says. Gest emphasizes that there is real risk for scholars or journalists who express sympathy for the white working class, because it might be misinterpreted as an endorsement of anti-immigrant attitudes or race-tinged slurs. For that reason and others, both political parties have kept their distance.
“Democrats would like to have their vote but are scared to say anything that appeals to them for fear of alienating their minority support,” Gest says. “Republicans, on the other hand, are reluctant to invest in social programs and raise the minimum wage, which might upset the business lobby. One party is frustrated with them socially and the other economically.”
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“Both parties are afraid to poke the bear,” Gest concludes. And they’re afraid to tell the whole truth about what caused the great collapse in working-class fortunes. Both parties, from Reagan to Clinton to Obama, participated jointly in the legislative measures and trade deals, tax cuts and financial deregulation, that essentially gutted working-class prosperity and social status. Yet upscale commentators continue to describe working people as delusional and irrational.
“The number-one fallacy about white working-class politics is that they are irrational voters,” Gest told me. “They are absolutely rational. Trump is speaking to a bunch of people who rationally and understandably think they have been marginalized. And they have been.” They get things wrong sometimes, for better or worse. But they remember when they get things right.
The great question for 2016 is whether either party can begin to bridge the gaps and unite these working-class islands of discontent. Trump talks as though he wants to do this. But his happy talks are always about smart business guys like himself snapping their fingers and getting it done. The egotistical message is, “I am Super Trump, leave it to me and my rich pals.” Personally, I will stick to my prediction that at some point Prince Trump will turn back into a frog.
But Bernie Sanders can be the point man for great change—driving a fundamental realignment of the Democratic Party that reconnects with its proud past and best self. Bernie doesn’t need to win to accomplish this, but he has to keep the flame alive, regardless of who wins in 2016. Deep change usually takes more than one election to accomplish.
The Democratic rank and file clearly want this transformation to happen, and Sanders is only one of the strong voices describing the restoration. Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are essentially speaking to the same audience of citizens and proposing measures to heal the same injuries. A team of smart new faces is growing in Congress and big-city governments.
The formidable political challenge facing Sanders and other progressive Dems is how to convince the party’s conflicting constituencies to get over their emotional hostilities and work together. After all, they need each other. Working-class Democrats come in all types and colors and mostly share the same goals for economic reform and social amelioration. If they decide to collaborate, the reward could be a party with a stable, governing majority and the self-confidence to cut out the double-talk and sly evasions.
Justin Gest’s study raises some interesting points about the similarities that could ease the conflicts among Democratic voters. The white workers who were the big job losers in manufacturing’s deindustrialization are immigrant descendants themselves—Polish, Italian, Irish, Greek, Czech, Slovak—and proud of it. Gest found that they admire the new immigrants for their hard-working habits and recognize that they are chasing the same American Dream. What makes them angry is the undocumented flow that lets employers undercut wage levels. Immigration reform could fix that.
Gest also notes that the white working class is not opposed to big government in some aspects because “a disproportionate number of white working-class Americans consume Social Security, food stamps, disability and unemployment benefits vis-à-vis racial minorities.” Yet the same people disingenuously oppose “welfare” that provides cash benefits to the indigent. The Democratic drive to expand Social Security is one political fight that can reunite the working class across the divisions of race and culture.
Gest suggests that uniting the working class with their old allies may be a problem of healing emotional wounds more than economic measures. “What I think people are looking for is something more humble, and that is respect,” he says. “I think they’re just looking for someone who acknowledges their views and feels the pain of what they’re going though. That’s what Trump is doing better than any other candidate. Which is just insane, because the man says he has no idea what ‘lost status’ is about.”
“Challenge nostalgia with hope,” Gest recommends. That’s the agenda of Bernie Sanders. His vigor is wonderfully inclusive, as opposed to Trump’s divisive, inflammatory rhetoric. But the old socialist from Vermont does not invoke the smoldering emotions that divide people; he generally does not use the “working class” label, though he is obviously speaking to and for those folks.
A tougher question facing candidate Sanders is whether to bring up the hard facts of how the Democratic Party collaborated in sowing financial breakdown and unraveling the middle class. So far as I know, Bernie hasn’t yet framed his campaign rhetoric in those blunt terms. At some point, he should. Acknowledging the mistakes and wrong-headed doctrine might anger party strategists and hacks. But the people who were injured already know what happened. It is what angers them.
If Bernie told the obvious truth, it would upset the Clinton wing, which still controls the party, and maybe damage Hillary Clinton’s prospects. But honest talk might persuade cynical or despondent voters that Democrats really do intend to change things in fundamental ways.
The reason I expect more meaningful unrest ahead—regardless of which party wins in 2016—is that I do not expect the damaged economy to get well any time soon. Both parties are acting as though they assume the so-called recovery is disappointing but on track. Most Americans have heard this talk before. Read the polls—people don’t believe it.
If the sodden economic growth—declining wages, deepening inequality—continues, perhaps for some years, then political unrest is sure to get more meaningful. It will become aggressive and exotic, goofy and perhaps destabilizing.
We can only speculate on what might happen next. One party or the other might split apart. Independent formations could appear on the left or right and try to overturn one established party or the other. The center, given its advantages, might hang on to control of government, but it isn’t holding on to the people.
We may wish for reason in high places—that powerful financial and corporate interests recognize the dangers and accede to real reform and economic revival for the broad populace. Don’t count on it. We cannot assume the powerful will yield their advantages without a fight. Nor should we expect that the future will necessarily be progressive. History suggests that crusty old political parties in powerful nations have a hard time acknowledging that they have to change or die. Politicians should read a little history—American history—and get over their illusions.
This is what the politicians should ponder for 2016, even if they don’t yet have the nerve to talk about it.