This is not an endorsement of a particular candidate or party in the U.S. presidential election. It is my attempt, as succinctly as possible, to identify what I think is at stake in 2016, why this election year is unusual, and what voters should carefully consider—if you have the privilege yet to vote. (Everyone on earth will be affected by the results of this election, but only U.S. citizens will decide it.)
Nothing that has so far happened in two atypical states—the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries—means that Donald Trump or Ted Cruz will get the Republican nomination, or that Bernie Sanders will be nominated by the Democrats. Their early success, though, has gotten a lot of people wondering what’s going on with the American voter. The people who are wondering the most are the people who, last year, were confident that a Bush on the Republican side, and a Clinton on the Democratic side, would sail to their nominations for a 1990s rematch.
A lot of people thought this. Some of us found it depressing to think that U.S. politics were so dynastic, even if we thought Jeb Bush, or Hillary Rodham Clinton, was a good candidate. The people who found it less depressing were the people who do best out of the current economic system and climate. Depending on your point of view, those people are sometimes called the establishment, the top 1%, or the millionaire/billionaire “class.”
It is not in dispute that the economic gulf between that group of people, and everyone else, has widened vastly in the U.S. (and in other rich/Western countries, which are experiencing the same kinds of polarization I’m talking about here). Even The Wall Street Journal has acknowledged that capitalism has let everyone down, including Republicans. Those of us who remember Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 know that “The economy, stupid” was and is the decisive truth about American elections. Here, in the shortest history possible, is why that matters so much this year:
In the 1990s the economy was going up and up and up. Pointing to figures throughout the twentieth century, our elders (I was young then) told us that we would be successful if we put our money in the U.S. stock market, which could reasonably be expected to deliver 8% or more annual returns and, someday, a comfortable retirement. We didn’t need public pensions or defined-benefit plans anymore, because the market would take care of everything so much better (some politicians even wanted Social Security invested there). Times seemed good. The Soviet Union was gone, and what was now Russia didn’t seem like much of a threat. The most salient thing about President Clinton’s scandals and impeachment, now that I look back on it, is that America had nothing else to worry about. (Of course, life was not as good for people of color or LGBT people, but then it never had been. Our expectations were lower to begin with.)
About the time I left the United States, in 2000, the high-tech bubble burst and the market stopped delivering. New products that no one really understood, such as mortgage-backed securities, started being sold as the latest wave of things we should invest in. The housing market crashed in 2008, and big banks started being bailed out. This was less of a problem in some rich/Western countries, like Canada which has strong banking regulations, than others, but the effects were global. Then the Citizens United decision at the U.S. Supreme Court in effect enabled corporations to buy elections by claiming to be people (again, see The Wall Street Journal).
Eight years later, it isn’t the imagination of most Americans that they have been let down by a system that hugely benefits that very small group of privileged people. It isn’t only people on the left who think so. It is obviously true. Ask anyone in the American communities whose houses lost value or who even lost their homes in the crisis. Ask today’s graduates if they ever remember a time when the neoliberal/neoconservative economic consensus—Reaganomics—served them well.
Throughout the rich/Western world, people my age, let alone younger, know that without some stroke of individual luck, we are not going to achieve retirement at all, at least not as a previous generation envisioned it. If we’re lucky enough to have defined-contribution pension plans/401(k)s available to us, we can still take advantage of investing in the stock market, for the sole reason that returns on any other investment would only be more dismal, if not negative. (Japan has recently set interest rates on bank deposits into negative territory—you pay for the bank to have your money. Neat, eh?)
The top people who paid for elections to belong to them are mystified by figures like Trump and Sanders not just going away, but if you’re in the 99%, it makes sense. People are angry. They feel let down by a system that has worked against them since the late 1970s.* They sense that, while the Clinton and Obama administrations made important advances in some social areas that Republicans opposed, they didn’t readjust the economic balance in favor of greater equality. These people, and they aren’t just young people, want something different and they want their vote to count.
Of course, Trump and Sanders are advancing very different ideas about the kind of America they would like to see. One is, from where I sit in Europe, terrifyingly nationalist, and the other is social democratic (though Senator Sanders is socialist in the context of the United States). But both ideas are very different from the America we’ve had my whole life. Sanders has built his campaign on the idea that the economic consensus is fundamentally flawed and only (by American standards) radical programs like single-payer health care, maternity leave, and state-paid-for college can begin to address the imbalance. He has crossed the previously taboo line in American politics by stating that in some areas, other countries do better and the U.S. should learn from them. Lots of Americans still aren’t ready to hear this and recoil from socialism.
Trump, by contrast, is too rich to need anyone’s contributions and so appears “not bought” in a different way from Sanders. Trump blames foreign countries for ripping America off (China) or wants to destroy them with bombing (Syria). He has terrible things to say about Mexicans, Muslims, and of course women. I’ve already analyzed his appeal but the fact is, it’s still a populist appeal. President Obama once told some bankers that it was either him, or the pitchforks. Trump (and Senator Cruz) are followed by the people with pitchforks, and this time there is no Obama to stop them.
The conclusion I draw is that it’s no surprise Bush vs. Clinton isn’t panning out, because this isn’t 1992. Back then, Democrats only dreamed of getting a little tiny bit of health care, and Bill and Hillary weren’t even able to deliver that. Now, we’ve got “Obamacare,” same-sex marriage, and a whole whack of other social change that was undreamed of a generation ago. We’ve also got tremendous economic inequality, a surge of white supremacism that always accompanies it, and long-term stagnation in Washington on issues ranging from immigration to gun violence. The candidate who wins is going to have to show voters that a different America is possible, because too many people believe this one isn’t working anymore.
Right nationalists, like Cruz and like Trump is playing, hold out a vision of that different America being “great again.” “Great” means like it was in the past—white-dominated, Christian-dominated, militarily dominant, misogynist, and queer-unfriendly. But it also means like it was in the past in terms of economics—where working-class people (if America knew how to talk about class) could get a decent job and their fair share. White working people. That is a valid economic aspiration, and in U.S. politics, economic aspirations always trump [sic] other issues.
Senator Sanders offers a vision of left egalitarianism instead. His policies, which sound unrealistically radical to people who have believed in Reaganomics for so long, would actually not have been out of place in the L. B. Johnson era, or even Eisenhower’s. So Sanders is also harking back to something the past got right, while preserving and even extending the ways in which women, LGBT Americans, and Americans of color have gained in the decades since. His potential for magic is in his appeal to white working people who have not voted Democratic since Ronald Reagan captured them in the last big shakeup of economic ideology this country had.
That’s a powerful appeal. Candidates won’t do well by ignoring the crushing problems voters have and warning that any radical change would be even worse. If I were Secretary Clinton, I would remind voters that I said it’s time to end “the era of mass incarceration.” I would remind voters that Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has done as much as anyone to push Democratic politics in a progressive direction, praised my Wall Street reform plan. I would tell voters that I went to Flint, Michigan, where a poor, largely black community’s drinking water was poisoned by cheap politicians. I would talk less about preserving the gains of the Obama era—which sounds like a defensive game, the best we can hope for—and more about extending them. Not just for one year or four or eight, but for the decades to come.
Perhaps E. J. Dionne summed it up best. “Now here's why so many Democrats like both of them: Most share Clinton's view that gradual reform is the most practical way forward. But most also agree with Sanders that even moderately progressive steps will be stymied if money's influence is left unchecked, if progressives do not find new ways of organizing and mobilizing, and if so many white working-class voters continue to support Republicans.”
*If you have time to read this through, it's a thoughtful historical analysis--the best I've read. It puts this election in a context going back to the 1920s and forward decades, not just a year or four. I don't share all this author's opinions, but if you haven't heard Coolidge's name in a while, pull up a chair!