The Age Of Our Discontent

The Age Of Our Discontent

On the eve of the presidential primary, what does the populism of Trump and Sanders tell us?

In two weeks, the presidential primaries come to Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania primaries are often anti-climactic because they come relatively late in the process. But not this time! Like the three-dozen states before us, we will host active contests characterized by boisterous, populist rhetoric from Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

The battle in Pennsylvania seemed to take off last week when Bill Clinton argued with Blacks Lives Matters protesters and Bernie Sanders called Hillary Clinton unqualified, both at Philadelphia rallies. Clinton leads in Pennsylvania polls but Sanders will find friendly crowds and be very competitive.

On the Republican side, John Kasich was born and raised in Pennsylvania and governs neighboring Ohio, which has economic and demographic characteristics in common with Pennsylvania. He will run hard at suburban Philadelphia Republicans. Trump currently holds a lead in the Pennsylvania polls with Kasich and Cruz in a close race for second place. (Full disclosure: I made a contribution to Kasich, although I am a Democrat voting in the Democratic primary; it was my anti-Trump check.)

The populist message of both Trump and Sanders reflects a general discontent with both political parties. They are third party candidates running within party structures.

Cruz, in contrast, is an outsider because nobody within the party gets along with him, not because of his worldview. Clinton and Kasich are strong party loyalists with deep relationships among party regulars. They will each push pragmatism, experience, and electability.

Populism is foremost about economic discontent and Trump and Sanders are pushing grassroots economic grievances. In fact they are remarkably in sync around several issues: trade deals, the role of money in politics, offshoring of jobs, and the insecurity of the middle class.

Both Trump and Sanders are running on platforms that view corporate money and the system of lobby based influence as creating a rigged game. They view themselves as challenging the game itself, not just the policies of the respective parties. To their credit, they are bringing in new voters and confounding pundits.

Sanders gets some of his biggest cheers when he talks about the Super PAC special interest money that funds Clinton. And Trump supporters love it when he says he is the only candidate self-funded and not beholden to lobbyists.   

If one year ago you wanted to wager that a democratic socialist from Vermont and the former star of a Reality TV Show would temporarily upend American politics I would have taken that bet. Nobody saw this coming.

Does the popularity of Sanders and Trump tell us something about shifting allegiances or is it more idiosyncratic to this election? That is the question of 2016 and it will not be answered for some time.

Populism is foremost about economic discontent and the two candidates are pushing grassroots economic grievances. In fact they are remarkably in sync around several issues: trade deals, the role of money in politics, offshoring of jobs, and the insecurity of the middle class. Their solutions differ but their diagnosis has a few common elements.

The national anxiety that propelled the two candidates is not reducible to a slow growth economy, although the widespread perception that the American economy (and indeed America) is in decline is important to their campaigns. As a recent article in Vox shows, there is a strong negativity bias, even in the face of good news locally and globally.

The American economy is actually not doing badly from the perspective of job creation. President Obama makes the point that private sector job growth has been robust during the past five years, surpassing the rate of growth of our G-7 allies combined.  This is one of those facts that only Hillary Clinton has acknowledged, as she is running to some extent as a third Obama term. It is remarkable how little play an improving economy has gotten.

Had you told me seven years ago (in the depths of the biggest recession since the 1930’s) that we would cut the unemployment rate from 10 percent to its 5 percent level today, I would have viewed that as overly optimistic. You can argue that we have a lower labor market participation rate than pre-Recession levels and hence the jobs recovery is limited. That is correct, but much of that dip in the participation rate is due to the aging of the workforce.  

You can also argue that more of the jobs being created are in low wage sectors; again that is true, but higher wage jobs are also being created at a rapid level. Middle wage jobs have been slowest to return, thus emphasizing the widening divide.

There are lots of economic issues to worry about besides the job numbers. Income inequality is high. There is wage stagnation at the middle and lower ends of the income scale. The wealth losses from the Great Recession are still salient for a large part of the American electorate. Debt burdens for students are at an all time high and the lack of savings for retirement by million of families is a ticking time bomb.  

But the national anxiety on display in this election cycle runs much deeper than bread and butter economic issues. It also has to do with our sense of public effectiveness, cultural identity, military security, and the capacity of a national democracy in a global marketplace.

The issues driving the populist surge can be summed up in four questions:

  1. Do we have any confidence that the American government can solve big problems: investing in infrastructure, ensuring the continuity of social security, fixing the veterans hospitals, or managing the immigration system?
  2. How have demographic changes redefined cultural identity at a time when the percentage of foreign-born residents is as high as anytime in our history: are we headed toward greater disunity or is this a time of national transformation that leads to a renewed sense of what it means to be American?
  3. How do we get a handle on global security in a world adjusting to multi-polar power centers, warfare against global terror networks, and the continued unraveling of the Middle East?
  4. Is the global power of large corporations and capital markets so strong that national elections and other forms of public participation are no longer up to the task of self-determination?

Trump represents something rare in American presidential politics: The boastful strong man common to nations with traditions of military and civilian dictators. He has made the election about Trump, his ability to do things that others cannot. Like a Latin American caudillo, Trump says he is the only one that can protect us and bring us prosperity. There are no other important social actors or political processes; just his force of nature and those that believe in him.

Trump speaks about fixing things in ways that assume no Constitution or legislative authority. His fixes (a special tax on Ford products in Mexico, charging nations for military protection, making Mexico pay for a border wall) are framed as if you can run a nation of laws with 320 million citizens like a neighborhood protection racket.

The populism of both Trump and Sanders express a view of how to fix problems that is more in line with a post World War II context, when we had all of the marbles. In the logic of Sanders and Trump you can make Apple produce computers in the United States. How? And why would it be in the interest of Apple to do so, given that they sell worldwide? Would we also want Toyota to shut down its plants in the United States? Do we want to pay a lot more for computers?  

Still Trump’s skill in pulling the covers from the inter-class alliance that has sustained the post-Eisenhower national Republican Party has been masterful. That alliance linked corporate interests around deregulation, free trade, and lower tax rates with non-business issues related to cultural and social issues: abortion, gay rights, national security, immigration, and crime.

There are three kinds of conservatives within the Republican Party: National security conservatives, economic or free market conservatives, and social values conservatives. There are points of common interest and agreement among the three as well as differences. There are also distinct tendencies within each camp: the neo-cons versus isolationist conservatives, for example, as it relates to foreign intervention.

By highlighting what he considers bad trade deals, the decline of good American manufacturing jobs, competition from undocumented workers, and even tax rates for private equity firms, Trump tells Republicans, Independents, and what used to be called Reagan Democrats that the Republican establishment has sold them out. This is an appealing message particularly to white voters without a college education, who feel increasingly abandoned by elites in both parties on economic and cultural grounds.

Thus Trump has made it possible to get evangelical votes without any personal evangelical credibility, by speaking to supposed economic self-interest. He has pitted grassroots Tea Party activists against the Chamber of Commerce and Club for Growth crowd. He has used undocumented workers as a wedge issue to rally support from those who would never have been allies with a billionaire real estate developer from New York. And it is working!

Sanders has also mined discontent but from a different political angle. He has made Clinton the establishment candidate who takes special interest money, supports trade deals that hurt American workers, and is too friendly with Wall Street.

In some ways, the Sanders story is even more remarkable than the Trump phenomenon. Donald Trump was a national figure due to his marquee real estate holdings, TV celebrity status, and best selling pop business books. But Sanders was always viewed as a fringe candidate who could play among the Birkenstock crowd in Vermont, but would never get national traction, let alone raise serious money. Again we were all wrong.

Trump speaks about fixing things in ways that assume no Constitution or legislative authority. His fixes (a special tax on Ford products in Mexico, charging nations for military protection, making Mexico pay for a border wall) are framed as if you can run a nation of laws with 320 million citizens like it’s a neighborhood protection racket.

Sanders has filled a Huey Long role in the Democratic Party by pushing strong redistributionist messages. He has been unabashedly anti-corporate, a strong supporter of a national change in the minimum wage, outspoken about breaking up the largest banks, a promoter of free state school college education for all Americans, and he has allied himself with the social welfare state traditions of many European nations. He has not shied away from the socialist tag and has not had to spend much time explaining it.

Much as Trump claims the Republican establishment sold out its base on trade, budgets, and national defense, Sanders claims the moral high ground versus Clinton Democrats. He views the 1990’s Clinton administration and the power of the Clinton family (including their Foundation and corporate speaking ties) as the embodiment of collaboration with the enemies of working people and the middle class: corporations, banks, corporate lobbyists, and insiders of all kinds.

As is common with populism, there is a lot of nostalgia at work. Trump harkens back to when America was great which he notes was at the turn of the 20th century and the period after the Second World War: both times of dramatic economic expansion. Sanders harkens back to the pre-1970’s period when there was less income inequality and to the 1950’s, when income tax levels were much higher than today.  

I’m sure both candidates (particularly Sanders) would agree that these periods were not all that golden, especially for those people—like African Americans—who did not share equally in the prosperity. But they share the message that the little guy is worse off today than yesterday, a fact that is hard to prove from vantage points ranging from educational attainment to lifespan.

The two candidates are relatively short on detail although Sanders has put out a mountain of policy papers compared to Trump’s sound bite approach to complex issues. But like Trump, Sanders is selling grievance more than policy; a movement more than the capacity to govern.  His now famous New York Daily News editorial board interview, when he stumbled on exactly how (or whether he had legal authority) to break up the largest banks, was telling.

The smart money says that Hillary Clinton wins the nomination due to her super delegate lead and how close she is to clinching the nomination. On the Republican side it is not clear whether Trump can get to the delegate finish line before the convention, in which case anything is possible. As Trump and Sanders have learned, one problem of being an outsider is you spend little time currying party loyalty and understanding complex nomination rules. And while we live in a democracy these are private political parties that set their own rules, state by state.

The bigger question about the Sanders and Trump insurgencies is to what extent they are making 20th century arguments in a 21st century world. This isn’t to say that some of Bernie’s notions are not appealing and can’t be applied to a modern economy. But neither of these candidates seems capable of framing arguments within the context of global market change, let alone recognizing the limits of government or, in the case of Trump, strong-man control.

There have been dramatic changes in America during the last four decades: in technology, demography, and global business practices. And some of these changes are a result of our foreign policy victories. In 1980 China was still waking up from the cultural revolution of Mao, cut off from the global market. India was stuck in a system of state bureaucratic control. All of Eastern Europe and what was then the Soviet Union maintained their own form of economic production and exchange. Since then all of these nations and their workers have become global participants. In that context, it is natural that the value of low skilled workers in the U.S. or Europe would decline.

From one perspective you can argue that Chinese trade agreements have been a problem for American manufacturing. From another perspective you can argue that transformations in China have resulted in the most far-reaching decline in world poverty in human history. The truth is that both conclusions have merit.

The populism of Trump and Sanders, while pointing out rising inequality in the United States, express a view of how to fix problems that is more in line with the early post World War II context, when we held all of the cards. When European and Asian economies were in ruin and half the world cut itself out of the global market, the U.S. had a monopoly position. That monopoly began to erode in the 1970‘s and the power of technology only made production and exchange networks more global and more disaggregated.

In the logic of Sanders and Trump we seem to be able to force Apple to produce computers in the United States. How? And why would it be in the interest of Apple to do so given the fact that they sell worldwide? Would we also want Toyota to shut down its plants in the United States? And by the way, do we want to pay a lot more for computers?  Wouldn’t we prefer to compete for the higher end jobs at Apple?

There is much to be done to protect Americans with a stronger social safety net or even a better social wage by increasing the minimum wage and expanding social security and Medicare. But ultimately the big question is how to make American businesses, entrepreneurs, and workers more globally competitive. And this I am afraid is an issue that has been all but off of the table in the election of 2016.

Photo header: via Wikipedia, Flickr/Michael Vadon

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