It is among the most venerable election rituals of the smartphone era: down the home stretch, a recording surfaces containing embarrassing audio of a candidate elite-’splaining politics to a room of rich, self-satisfied donors.
In 2008, Barack Obama was caught talking in San Francisco about Rust Belt left-behinds who “cling” to guns and Bibles. Four years later, Mitt Romney never recovered from his “hopeless 47%” comments in Boca Raton. And last Friday splashed the arrival of Hillary Clinton’s very own “basement tape”, recorded at a fundraiser in a tony Virginia suburb. In it, Clinton is heard caricaturing young Sanders supporters as frustrated, fist-pounding baristas — “living in their parents’ basement” — clinging to their Bernie T-shirts and naive fantasies of system change.
Sanders dutifully rose to Clinton’s defense over the weekend, but he also conceded on CNN’s State of the Union that the tape bothered him. How could it not? Clinton’s comments were a bald revelation, condescending and dismissive, assuring wealthy Democrats that the millennials making noise on the left just don’t know any better.
As Emmett Rensin ably enumerated for Newsweek, young people did not support Sanders because they are, in Clinton’s recorded words, “new to politics”. They flocked to him because they have very different politics than she does. Clinton’s comments remind us just how different, and suggest her rhetorical commitments to parts of the Sanders platform won’t find reflection in her appointments.
And at bottom, they reveal a politician who still holds to the old Thatcher motto that defined the neoliberal era’s boost phase: there is no alternative. The impacts of deregulation and free trade are real, Clinton says in the tape, but organizing for radical change is just role-play fantasy politics. As she brushed it off in Virginia, it reflects “a deep desire to believe that we can have free college, free healthcare … you know, Scandinavia, whatever that means.”
Clinton’s comments also belie an incapacity to get her head around the full meaning of Sanders’ campaign. The political revolution Sanders invoked was not just a plan to get college graduates out of America’s basements and into sweet lofts. In reducing the campaign to crude economism, Clinton sounds like someone who doesn’t understand that many Sanders supporters don’t just want a bigger piece of the pie, they want a fundamentally different kind of society. Clinton’s message to her donor audience was essentially one of patience, of letting capitalism work its magic: as soon as these kids start making good money, they’ll fall in line behind center-right candidates. It’s perfectly natural that Clinton and her audience would think this, and that “everybody”, as Clinton described the political class in Virginia, would be “quite bewildered” in the meantime.
You can see a similar economism in media attempts to disentangle the motivations of Trump supporters. In August, much was made of a Gallup poll showing that Trump’s base was statistically no worse off than other voters. For many, this was the ultimate ballast for the argument that they couldn’t possibly be motivated by distress over inequality or the economic and social dislocations of free trade agreements.
This conclusion is as wrong, and for similar reasons, as Clinton’s supposition that Sanders supporters would Be With Her if only they’d gotten a cushy marketing gig after graduation.
I spent much of primary season reporting a book about Trump supporters. As with Sanders backers, their outrage and sense of injustice was bigger than their own position. Economically secure Trump supporters – business owners, retirees with good pensions – are still members of communities. They see nephews, daughters and neighbors suffering the same burdens as Clinton’s “children of the recession”; they generally view economic progress not in quarterly reports, but directionally, over decades.
As with Sanders supporters, some of the Trump supporters I met have begun to think critically about the bigger picture, about systems, and wonder why we can’t have some of the nice things they have in Scandanavia, such as universal healthcare. This view was especially common among Trump-supporting veterans, whose experience with war, homelessness and socialized healthcare led them to give Sanders a good listen before choosing the toxic fool’s gold of the other insurgency.
If Sanders’ baristas can find a way to bring these people over, they might make some decent music together. Even if they have to start out practicing in their parents’ basement.