“People on the left believe that systems are corrupt. People on the right tend to believe that the system (at least as they understand its design) is just fine, and it's individual people who are too corrupt or too weak to propel it towards its full greatness. Thus partisans of the right lean more toward a version of Thomas Carlyle's view that history is about great men (and now women, too), which elevates biography to the level of supreme importance, while partisans of the left care less about the outsider's life story than his criticism of power and how he will challenge it. These differing conceptions dictate how the candidates present themselves and even how they would govern, should one of them become president.” Michael Tomasky, Very Improbable Candidates, New York Review of Books, 11-05-15.
In his recent article, Michael Tomasky explores the questions challenging most of the mainstream political commentators: What explains the dramatic ascendancy of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in their respective primary campaigns? What accounts for poll numbers far exceeding rivals expected to cruise through the primary season?
For my part, I argue, as I have in the past, that both parties are so thoroughly owned by corporations and the wealthy that the chances of a real oppositional movement emerging from within the Democratic Party and through the two-party electoral process are slim-to-none. The chances of a renegade Republican emerging are somewhat greater, but still slight. A far more reliable indicator of primary prospects can be found in counting the campaign contributions and gauging the sentiments of the corporate-friendly party leaders. To steal a movie catch-phrase, the key is to follow the money. After all, the fuel for winning national political office is cash, and more and more decisively with every election cycle. Thus, victory is decided by those who have it. I stand by my projections: thoroughly corporate-friendly candidates will emerge in the end, as they have in the past.
In the case of Bernie Sanders, Tomasky would agree that Sanders’ chances are slim: “Then, on March 1, comes Super Tuesday, which consists mostly of southern states... Barring unusual circumstances, it's difficult to see how Sanders could amass the delegates needed to win the nomination.”
But what does stand behind the Sanders/Trump phenomena? What accounts for the unexpected success of Sanders’ economic populism and Trump's re-visioning of Know-Nothing philosophy?
Clearly longer term trends are at play. Opinion polls show that the public's sentiment that "things are going in the right direction" has been steadily and persistently trending downward since 1998. Similarly, approval rates for Congress have shown a dramatic decline since 2005. Not surprisingly, confidence in key economic institutions like banks has also collapsed.
More recently, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll shows sharp shifts in political ideology within and a stark polarization between the political parties. At the high water of Reaganism (1990), only 39 per cent of Democrats described themselves as somewhat liberal or very liberal, with a strong majority falling into the former category. Some will remember that the word “liberal” became an epithet during that era of high-Reaganism.
Today (2015), 55% of Democrats see themselves as somewhat liberal or very liberal, with the split nearly 50/50 between the two categories. Clearly, liberalism-- whatever the word now means to respondents-- has regained currency within the Democratic Party.
Similarly, the percentage of self-described Republicans embracing the conservative label has risen from 48% to 61% in 25 years. As with the Democrats, the more staunch (in this case, very conservative) sentiment has grown more dramatically, increasing from 12% to 28% of Republicans since 1990.
These numbers go a long way toward showing an increasing divide between the two parties. But even more significantly, they show an increasing desire on the part of the rank-and-file to reshape the respective parties in a more ideological direction. Dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and its institutions has generated both a rightward (in the Republican Party) and leftward (in the Democratic Party) drift, a drift spawned by a distrust of the ideas and candidates offered by the parties' mainstreams.
Given that third parties have not yet stepped up to absorb this dissatisfaction (opinion polls strongly suggest that the electorate would welcome third parties), voters are expressing their unhappiness by supporting candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump (and other outliers).
For the Republican corporate puppet-masters, Trump presents a real problem. The unhinged insurgency represented by Trump threatens to derail, or at least move to a siding, the deeply embedded, core Republican agenda of unfettered markets, a shriveled public sector, no taxes, and corporate welfare. In its place, Trump offers rabid racism, nativism, and cultural war based on the foggy notion of a lost “America.” Republican leaders know this is a formula for defeat. They are struggling to snatch the nomination away and hand it to a reliable corporate Republican. Jeb Bush was their choice, though he has gained no traction despite an enormous war chest. I trust they'll figure it out.
The leftward pressure felt by the Democratic Party's bigwigs has been historically less of a problem. They have managed voter dissatisfaction by feigning left and driving right. They have endured primary insurgencies (Jackson, Dean, in recent years) knowing full well that the game was rigged by money and superdelegates (approaching 20% of those voting at the convention). They also mastered the tactic of embracing vague leftist postures in electoral campaigns, which are quickly discarded after victory (Obama). These tactics will likely serve them well with the Sanders insurgency.
Nonetheless, the Sanders campaign offers valuable and important lessons for the US left. Running almost exclusively on the issue of economic inequality, Sanders challenges the concept of “liberalism” fostered by the liberal media and Democratic Party elites. Over many years, “liberalism” has come to be associated with “social liberalism”: life-style issues, identity, and tolerance-- all worthy values, but more urgent to those enjoying economic security. “New Deal liberalism,” based on collective prosperity, economic equality, and community benefits, has largely been driven from the political landscape. Contemporary liberalism has been shaped into NPR (National Public Radio) liberalism, a liberalism that assiduously avoids any but the most innocuous critique of the capitalist system, but sincerely wants everyone to find happiness.
But Sanders has touched a popular nerve. He recognizes this as a Piketty-moment, with millions of people left on the outside looking in after the 2008-2009 economic collapse (and the continuing crisis). Millions are disgusted with the poverty and desperation of so many serving as a backdrop to the vulgarities of extreme wealth.
A Pew Social Trends poll shows this change dramatically: between 2009 and 2011-- a span of a mere 2 years-- 19% more respondents in the samples reported “strong” or “very strong” conflicts between the rich and poor. Fully two-thirds of respondents in 2011 reported “strong” or “very strong” conflict. As Pew's Rich Morin reports, “... the issue of class conflict has captured a growing share of the national consciousness.”
Surprisingly, a majority of Republicans share this view with nearly three-fourths of Democrats. Independents trail only slightly, with 68% reporting strong or greater perceived class conflict.
Not surprisingly, Blacks and Hispanics recognized the class conflict in great numbers before and after the twenty-first century Great Crash. Whites, however, showed the greatest jump in recognition of the class divide-- from 43% to 65%. Nearly one-in-four whites in the US were jarred by the effects of a capitalist crisis and its impact on them, their families, and their friends into seeing class antagonism where they never saw it before.
Of several potential “social conflicts in society,” the Pew study shows that the rich/poor divide is perceived as the most acute, well more than conflict between whites and Blacks.
This is the fertile soil for Sanders’ economic-equality campaign. This is the growing class divide fueling Sanders' candidacy.
Another Pew poll shows the willingness of US citizens to find solutions to the growing inequality by redistributing wealth. In a study of attitudes towards the US tax system, respondents placed their feeling that corporations and the wealthy fail to pay their fair share well ahead of their other tax concerns. When asked what bothers them “some” or “a lot” about the current tax system, fully 82% felt bothered that corporations were not paying their fair share and 79% felt the same way about the wealthy paying their fair share. Our friends and neighbors are unquestionably friendly towards taxing corporations and the rich, another chord that Sanders has struck.
It should be obvious from polling results and the Sanders campaign that US political and economic attitudes have shifted substantially in a direction that is potentially favorable to the left. But it should be just as obvious that this opportunity has been willfully squandered by the Democratic Party. In fact, apart from Sanders, the Democratic leadership has shown no interest-- apart from moral suasion and empty rhetoric-- in making the US a more egalitarian society, in taking sides in the class conflict.
On the other hand the independent left-- independent of the two parties-- has a great opportunity to embrace and develop the economic issues that Sanders has touched upon. Tomasky writes in the quote above of a left that “...believe[s] that systems are corrupt...”, that will criticize “power” and “challenge it.” Too much of our left has yet to recognize that the two-party system is among the corrupt systems. Too few of our comrades have drawn the conclusion that the two-party system is an oppressive “power” deserving of criticism and challenge... and not a democratic institution.
Regardless of the success or lasting impact of the Sanders candidacy, the US left must seize the opportunity offered by the rapidly shifting attitudes of the US people. Organizing and educating to focus mass dissatisfaction against oppressive systems and institutions-- especially capitalism-- is the next step.