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10 Reasons Why Democratic Insiders Shouldn’t Be Surprised

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at Sheraton Dallas Hotel on July 19, 2015 in Dallas. (Photo: Nathan Hunsinger/The Dallas Morning News/TNS

Political insiders claim to have been “blindsided” by the reaction of voters to the presidential primary candidates. Here are ten reasons the establishment missed the boat.

One. Elites worked hard to secure fame and wealth and may have trouble believing that someone could be successful (or even worth noticing) without those trappings. Yet, the countryside is filled with smart, creative, funny, curious, and compassionate people whose egos are not inflated and who harbor no desire to be featured on the news. Money and power are not always motivators. Perhaps elites discounted the abilities and passions of “regular” people.

Two. If rich people only spend time with others in the same high income bracket, they may be oblivious to the economic pain of the poor and the middle class. Their kids aren’t saddled with huge college debts; they aren’t deciding whether or not to have a medical procedure because of a $5,000 deductible; they weren’t forced to take a job at a much lower salary than the one they held before being laid off; and they probably aren’t worrying how they’ll survive in retirement on meager savings and Social Security. But, real household income (adjusted for inflation) has declined in the years between 2000 and 2015. In 2011, it even dipped as much as $5,000 below 2000 levels (though it has rebounded from that lowest point). Most people lack any sense of job security, let alone hope for improved income. 

If rich people only spend time with others in the same high income bracket, they may be oblivious to the economic pain of the poor and the middle class.

Three. They are ignorant of research showing that Americans almost unanimously prefer a system of economic fairness. In June of 2015, a New York Times/CBS poll found that income inequality “troubles Americans across party lines.” In an enlightening 2011 study, “Building a Better America—One Wealth Quintile at a Time,” the authors found that 92 percent of people of all political persuasions preferred Sweden’s model of wealth distribution over that of the United States’s. Did you see that—92 percent? That’s darn close to unanimous. And, in what must have been a rude awakening for the study’s participants, inequality in the U.S. is actually much worse than they estimated.

Four. That brings us to the Occupy Wall Street movement. If the elites thought the protestors were a bunch of disorganized kooks without a coherent message, perhaps they’ve forgotten how widespread the protests were. Without flashy public relations or billionaires’ bankrolls, within a few weeks during the fall of 2011, the protests had spread to more than 600 U.S. communities, as well as locations in 88 other countries. The establishment may not have noticed how deeply embedded in the American psyche the Occupy language and perspective became. “We are the 99 percent” is a standard phrase expressing the alienation of the vast majority of Americans.

Five. If those in the one percent live a comfortable, safe life, they don’t feel the frustration experienced by the less lucky when dealing with the daily hassles of hamstrung government. Underfunded schools? Lousy transportation alternatives? Environmental hazards? Crumbling infrastructure? Ineffective (or worse) policing? Government at all levels seems unable to provide services that communities require to thrive. And because the problems have grown so big and feel so unsurmountable, incremental change—as a process within the current system—appears impossibly slow and easily diverted. To use a favorite phrase of the elite, what’s needed is “disruption” of that failed system. Well, out in the land, there’s a definite appetite for disruption, born out of despair.


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Six. Endless war. Does the establishment notice it, except in their investment portfolios? Have they or their children served in the military? Is anyone they know suffering from war injuries? Do they care that we kill innocent people? More than half of the discretionary spending in the 2015 federal budget went to defense and homeland security. Contrast that to the five percent of the budget that went to the State Department and foreign aid, or the two percent that went to science and NASA. But elites who work within—and profit from—the military-industrial complex don’t understand how our skewed priorities are screwing us all. The Soviet Union was bankrupted by being forced to overfund their military; today we are heading down that path ourselves.

Seven. How do you feel about revolving doors, the ones used by government officials who leave public service and then make huge money lobbying their former colleagues? Or how about the people appointed to oversee government agencies that oversee the industry that the appointee just left? Members of the Washington establishment think revolving doors are just “the way things work.” It’s just “business as usual.” The rest of us take it as proof that the game is rigged. In 2015, $3.2 billion dollars were spent lobbying Congress. That money comes out of taxpayers’ pockets, one way or another. Maybe it comes in the form of higher prices on products; maybe it’s lost tax revenue. But there’s no doubt that corporations and groups don’t spend those billions on lobbying without thinking about their return on investment. More than  nine in ten Americans agree that money corrupts politics.

Members of the Washington establishment think revolving doors are just “the way things work.” It’s just “business as usual.” The rest of us take it as proof that the game is rigged.

Eight. If people aspire to be rich and powerful, they want to hang out with those who’ve “made it.” And that’s what media elites and political insiders do. It’s a Faustian bargain. To gain these friends, they lose their soul, picking up the thoughts and the callous behavior of people who don’t have to worry. But that attitude is telegraphed through words and deeds, and the rest of us eventually figure it out. The Democrats can’t be the party of the people, yet spend their time hanging out with lobbyists and corporate bigwigs.

Nine. Perhaps members of the elite don’t spend much time around disaffected millennials. But take a look at these kids—80 million of them—born between 1980 and 2004. They make up about a third of the U.S. population and they are diverse. The oldest of them came of working age right about the time of the bursting dot-com bubble. Many of them remember the attack on 9/11. All of them were affected by the Great Recession. Unlike their parents, there have been few carefree prosperous years in their lives so far. Good jobs are hard to find, and they acknowledge that their standard of living may never match that of their parents. Maybe this has encouraged them to value friends and family over acquisitions. Almost half of Millennials say they prefer to live close to family and friends, compared with the 29 percent of Baby Boomers who claim that. Through it all, Millennials have been connected. They hear the latest news at the speed of the internet. They populate social media. They are savvy media consumers. And they look for authenticity; they don’t fall for hype. Most of all, they are harsh critics of the way things are.

Ten. Many insiders patted themselves on the back about supporting the first black president of the United States, thinking that his election proved that race was no longer a problem (and they weren’t racist). But once he was in office, the existing strains of racism became starkly illuminated. Cossetted whites were shocked to hear of the discrimination that takes place daily against blacks, Muslims, and immigrants. With a rising generation almost half nonwhite, these are not academic problems. Our country’s shameful genocidal history must be confronted with honesty and soul-searching. Those who continue to profit through repression today must be stopped and punished. Until we have courageous leaders who dare to say the truth, we won’t be able to banish the shadows of prejudice and shame.

In 2008, President Obama ignited an electorate young and old with his talk of economic fairness, politics free of the influence of special interests, affordable and accessible healthcare, environmental responsibility, and bi-partisanship. In the eight years since, some of his initiatives have come to pass, but too many were derailed by a political system flooded with corporate money and stymied by political intransigence. Those voters who were so hopeful that his election portended real change have lost faith that meaningful progress can come from the system as it exists today. They are calling for a peaceful revolution, and a new generation has joined them.

Barbara Burt

Barbara Burt

Barbara Burt of Round Pond, Maine, cut her teeth on good government issues at Common Cause. She was the first executive director of Maine's Frances Perkins Center.

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