There are two ways to look at campaigns. One is the horse race method, preferred by most of the media. It’s easy and it generates views. It also requires very little understanding of the dynamics underlying any race. It is shallow, and quite frankly it is one reason for the present crisis.
What the media refused to do in 2016, and again it not asking is why populists are gaining traction. Why is it that the middle is still failing to do anything? Or worst, how is this part of a global pattern? And why have the policies of the last generation set the ground for this state of affairs?
The first question that none dares ask is what is populism?
The definition matters.
populism: a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.
When we speak of present politics, this definition encapsulates it. We are living in a populist moment when the people feel institutions and political parties have failed them. It did not start now or in 2016. One of the early symptoms of this was the Tea Party, I must clarify, early on. They were coopted fairly fast by special interests and used to fight policies that could have helped them. Among those who took them over were the Koch brothers.
There were other moments when we saw signs. Occupy Wall Street was also a protest against policies and the elites. We saw extensive suspicion of institutions, such as the media, which range from the disorganized left to the manipulated right.
The George Bush years also saw some moments of resistance against aspects of the status quo. Mostly it was against war and empire. The first signs that some people were not happy with the status quo likely were seen during the Bill Clinton days with the early organization of the far right.
Here is a critical point about populist movements: People feel national elites do not care about them. They know they are silenced and abused. They also see themselves as informed. And if there is a parallel movement on the other political side, those are low information voters. They are ignorant. At some levels, they are the enemy. This pattern repeats with fans of both the far right and the left at the current time.
We saw this happen in other populist periods. The street battles in Germany and Italy in the interwar period were exactly this. So was the Spanish Civil War. There were some street battles and general strikes in the United States, both at the end of the Gilded Age and during the Great Depression.
Populism rears it’s ugly head when certain conditions emerge in any economy. Globally we are there. And like the Gilded Age, we have similar ideological conditions among the elites. Why? Neoliberalism is the Manchester School of economics in new clothing.
What are the drivers:
* Economic inequality
* Lack of access to medical care
* Good jobs vs bad jobs
* Poor access to Education
* Environmental justice
The above list summarizes most of the issues besetting a diminishing middle class. We have lost an awareness of what a working-class is. So all identity as middle class, whether they make $15,000 a year or $250,000.
Economic inequality continues to accelerate. So does the hollowing of the middle class. Yes, the economic expansion continues, however, when people need to work two or three jobs to barely make it, they are not feeling it.
While the US has better access to medical care due to the Affordable Care Act (under constant attack) people are still not getting a health care system that works for all. Medicare for All resonates highly with the people for this reason.
Education, especially higher education is also a kitchen table issue. What should, but it is not, is poor quality primary and secondary education in poor districts. This handicaps these children from the beginning.
Housing, an affordability crisis, especially in the coasts, and the growing homeless crisis, is also a critical driver. Most don’t want to think about it this way. It’s a symptom of second gilded age.
The 2016 election
In order to understand the present, one needs to understand what happened in 2016. First off, the Democratic Party decided that their standard-bearer was going to be Hillary Clinton. For those of us who followed the campaign, we know the party missed the populist signal by leaps and bounds. They also betrayed many of their voters by doing what they did. In the end, they set the election for the worst of possible contests during a populist moment.
It was an election where voters had to choose between the status quo vs a right-wing populist. While Secretary Clinton won the popular vote, a point often made by party loyalists, she lost in the electoral college. When the United States elects presidents directly that will matter. Those who truly understand the system know you vote for electors, not a president.
The Promises of MAGA.
Donald Trump kept speaking of a time when the country took care of its people. It was a glorious era when people worked in factories. This was also an era when the country ran on coal, and then coastal elites had no influence. If you live in the rust belt or the core of the mining country… that was a message your material conditions made you ready for.
These people felt abandoned by the same Democrats who were asking them for four more years of the same.
Then there was the divisive, race-based, language. This activated us versus them mentality. This lives in the underbelly of the country and played an outright role in this election. While the economy was part of it, the racial displacement anxiety was much greater. And over the last three years, we have seen an increase in open racism.
In the end, to the shock of many of the same elites that did all they could to ensure her nomination, Clinton lost.
The 2020 Election
The conditions that led to Trump have not changed. In fact, some of his policies have deepened them. In this respect, his base is smaller than it was in 2016. However, we still live in a moment pregnant with populist undertones. Why the true populist is doing well on the left. Bernie Sanders is once again running, and his platform is a return to the last successful populist president: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
So what are these problems?
* Income inequality deepens, which is clear in economic data.
* The trade war with China, in particular, has hurt American farmers. It has also hurt particular export industries, which is leading to a severe peel off from Trump in these groups. There are still people sticking with him, but the total number of his base is presumably smaller.
* Promises made and not kept, among them an economy that works for all, and a medical system that takes care of all. While he promises to keep pre-existing conditions, in reality, he intends to go to the pre-ACA days for example. He also is attacking the safety net.
* A smell of corruption. While he promised to drain the swamp and destroy the deep state, he has brought levels of corruption not seen in decades, if not a century.
* An attack on institutions: Trump continues to diminish and attack American institutions in the name of saving them. This is out of any authoritarian handbook. This is something Trump’s base likes, but turns off a large number of the country.
So now we turn to Senator Bernie Sanders, who is clearly leading at this point. This is scaring the same democratic establishment that stopped him in 2016. They know that if he wins the presidency, this will change the tone of American politics, just as Trump has.
The scars of 2016 are still ever-present with his base. They are correct to be vigilant, but some are downright paranoid. Of course, they have good reasons to be. However, this distrust in systems and institutions is widespread and marks the moment.
Sanders is running on Medicare for All, which would bring the nation in line with every advanced economy, and many developing economies. This is a point he makes often. He is also emphasizing climate change and the emergency this will mean for our children. He is also running on investing in America’s youth with affordable college and speaks less about the homeless crisis. Neither is trump.
What Sanders is promising is a return to another mythic past, and to finish the work FDR started. It was the past with different conditions. However, it is a past that would make the country better for the middle class. This also implies a change in the taxing structure of the nation, which every special interest will fight.
This also means that if Sanders is to achieve even a small part of his agenda, he needs to have extensive coattails. Meaning, he needs friendly members in both houses, and to have majorities in both. But first, he needs to win the primary and the presidency. In my mind, he has a good chance to do both, because the underlying conditions that led to Trump, and more broadly other populist leaders around the world, have not fundamentally changed.
As always, this is hardly an endorsement.