Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have a lot more in common than one would think. If the current race for the presidency seems disruptive, that’s probably because Sanders and Trump have both tapped into the insecurity, discontent, and disaffection of a significant element of the electorate.
In state after state, citizens are demonstrating that they are not persuaded by the establishment Republican conservative and Democratic liberal candidates and the familiar agendas they offer.
Sanders and Trump both attract mainly middle and working class, non-college educated, and largely (but not exclusively) non-minority people. Many are also young and college educated, but uncertain about their future in a turbulent economy.
This is the result of U.S. political and economic policy. From the end of World War II until the new century, our political parties and economic policies were oriented to reflecting the needs and interests of the middle and working classes and at the same time ensuring that the business and financial services classes prospered.
But globalization, technology, disruptive tactics impacting established sectors of the economy, and activist hedge fund and private equity investors have upended working and middle class employment, income, stability, and economic security. And the established leadership within both major political parties has been, for the most part, unresponsive to their anxiety and fears.
As a result, populist candidates like Sanders and Trump have emerged. They challenge the continuation of policies that create workforce dropouts, unemployment, low-wage and dead-end jobs, a low pay “gig” economy (an economy that depends on part time jobs), and significant income disparities and inequality in our current winner-take-all political and economic environment.
Both political parties share responsibility for allowing this new economic reality to take hold. However, it is the Democratic Party, the once champion of the working and middle class, that is most responsible for the shifting economic reality. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the Democratic Party’s liberalism shifted to a post-material liberalism. The economic material needs and concerns of the middle and working class changed to an agenda of social and cultural concerns of a well-educated and affluent class of liberals.
Further, these new agenda liberals rejected the viability of the old industrial economy, replacing the old class structure with a new post-industrial, information technology economic model: an information knowledge segment, a financial services segment, a diminished professional segment, a large lower class of poorly paid (but government subsidized) service workers, and a government supported underclass. This variant of liberalism differs from the bread and butter focus of the traditional Democratic Party liberalism of previous generations of liberal advocates and planted the seeds of today’s political discontent.
The Republican Party’s Eisenhower and Nixon “cloth coat” Republicanism and Reagan’s pragmatic governing approach reflected the concerns and aided blue and white collar workers and the small business person. That has largely disappeared. It has been replaced by the agenda and interests of a wealthy (the infamous one percent) class of donors who fund the campaigns of candidates who will adopt and voice the agenda of this donor class.
This agenda calls for low taxation on the highest earners, substantially downsizing government, reductions in Social Security and Medicare, cutting entitlements, rescinding the Affordable Health Care Act, and accepting the harsh realities of employment in a globalized economy.
The candidates that result from this process mask the potentially negative impact of their agenda by offering common sense appeals regarding deficits, intrusive regulation, and disincentives for job creators. But, as President Lincoln noted, you cannot fool all the people all the time.
There is no certainty that Sanders or Trump (although he is better positioned) can win their respective party nominations. However, their popularity has revealed the insecurity and disaffection of numerous voters with establishment candidates and their message. Politicians ignore the populist uprising they ignited at their peril. Even if Bernie and Donald do not prevail, they have changed the political dialogue and upended the conventional political wisdom. They and their message are not going away.
Joshua Sandman is a professor of political science at the University of New Haven. He studies presidential politics and can be reached by email .
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