Photo credit: Michael Vadon
Photo credit: Michael Vadon

Sanders, Trump: It's All About That Base

by / Jan. 20, 2016 12am EST

In the unlikely event that Senator Bernard Sanders wins the Democratic nomination for president, a consensus of political opinion researchers suggests that Sanders would defeat Donald Trump, Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Marco Rubio, or any other potential Republican nominee. But should Sanders actually pose a threat to the economic interests he excoriates in every speech, that threat would come in the form of a Congressional Democratic majority that commits to Sanders’s program of large-scale tax reform, healthcare reform, and a foreign-policy reset that sharply reduces defense spending. Sanders with Congressional majorities, a far more unlikely event than his nomination, might engender a reaction far more serious than the conventional Republican politics of legislative obstructionism. 

One friend has even suggested that any serious threat to the status quo would result in Sanders becoming the American Salvador Allende, the socialist president of Chile who was elected in 1970, who actually delivered wage increases, child nutrition, healthcare reform, minority uplift, nationalization of banks and mines, land redistribution, and more, and killed himself in 1973 in the final hours of a military coup that destroyed democracy for the ensuing 40 years.

That would be pretty damned unlikely here.

Yet it’s settled that Sanders and Donald Trump are riding waves of disgust with conventional politics, loathing for corruption, fear that “the rules” do not apply to the rich and powerful. They are, separately, also surfing emotions based in the day-to-day life experience of a gap between aspiration and income. The experience of over two-thirds of the households in Erie County, New York, and over three-quarters of all the households in every single one of the other eight New York State counties that make up the Buffalo-Niagara Falls media market, is this: being inundated by messaging about consumption from every screen, speaker, headphone, billboard, and print publication perceptible, but not having the money to join in. 

That’s not unique to this Rust Belt region. But this is not Appalachia, or the Rio Grande valley, or a rural region that has never known development. This is an old, settled area which has had waves of prosperity for more than 200 years. Expectations matter.

But so do facts, and the fact is, most people in this media market report less than $50,000 a year in income.These are mainly white people, because most of this part of America is Caucasian, especially outside the center-city neighborhoods in Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Lockport, and Jamestown. So-called “visible minorities” comprise less than 12% of the population in Western New York. More than half of the 424,500 tax-return filers in Erie County reported taxable incomes in 2013 of less than $30,000 a year, which is what your gross pay would be were you to make $15 an hour. 

There is another world, also largely Caucasian—the world of a very different 12 percent of this region. That’s the world of a little under 50,000 tax-return filers in Erie County, out of the 425,000—the taxpayers who make over $100,000 either from their executive or managerial jobs, from practicing medicine, law, accounting, engineering, or university teaching, who run successful small businesses, or who bring unearned income in from investments.

There has always been a class divide, always, and income divides, too. (The tiny sliver of the region’s population that reports over $200,000 in annual income has a hugely outsized share of total wealth, but that’s another discussion.) Clearly, though, we must parse expectations. The economic experience of this Rust Belt region was, within the lifetimes of most of the most active Caucasian voters here, an experience of uplift, first for the unskilled but unionized industrial workers of the 1950s through the 1970s, and then uplift for the college-educated from the 1980s until the 2008 crash. Now? The new jobs, even for the college-educated, generally pay less than $15 an hour (most actually pay between $9 and $11 an hour), and come without benefits, job security, or much expectation of longevity.

It hurts. It more than hurts, actually. As recently reported by Angus Deaton and Ann Case of the Princeton economics department, there is now a strikingly higher rate of death for middle-aged, working-class white men than ever before in American history. It’s not all white men. It’s 45- to 55-year-old white guys without college degrees.

Dislocation and politics 

In the past year or two, there have been two unsettling lines of inquiry that poll-takers have been exploring. One is a joint operation by the Democratic Strategist and the Washington Monthly, with a group of policy wonks, sociologists, and journalists all asking the big question: What’s going on with white, working-class men? 

The other investigation is by a London-based market research firm that presents itself as a rapidly growing, cutting-edge international aggregator of the views of the global online community. The firm is called YouGov. It recently polled the question of who among United States voters would accept a military coup, or, if not a coup, then government being run by the military. 

The most alienated voters—the ones feeling most acutely disempowered, the ones who are shrinking as an electoral target, even as progressives ardently focus-group and message-craft and endeavor to connect economic experience with political messaging—are working-class white males. They are sought-after because, since Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980, they have become, even outside the South and the West, a reliable part of the Republican base.

Yet the two opinion-research efforts show that working-class, low- and moderate-income whites without college are also the most convinced of the need for government reform, the need for making the economic establishment play by the rules, and the urgent need for a politics of straight talk.

That’s why voters from this population group form the core of the bloc—only about a third of all voters today—that sees the military as clean enough, patriotic enough, and trustworthy enough to run the national government.

So if Sanders were ever to be a presidential candidate in the general election, his candidacy might get a big boost were he to choose a running mate with Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines in his or her portfolio.

Preferably, for this group, still wearing a uniform.

Scenarios, fears, and fantasies 

A larger plurality of Americans polled by YouGov found the idea of a military hand in running the government not only undesirable but hard to imagine. More than four out of 10 Republicans were fine with the idea. Progressives dislike the idea because they imagine a military dictatorship.

The United States, blessed by being so enormous and polycentric, is no Chile. Any would-be dictator would have a tough time being a Coriolanus Snow for very long. The Hunger Games fantasy of evil fascism makes sense two hours at a time at the multiplex.

And the disgust that working-class whites (especially women) have for government corruption, and for Congress, doesn’t square with this country’s 50 states full of legislatures, city councils, school boards, and water authorities, every last one of them populated by elected officials who are universally convinced that they are at the very least the equal and probably the better of Congress, the Founding Fathers, and Frank Underhill, too.

But the question for 2016 remains: Will the target demographic group be moved by the economic populism of Sanders, or by the non-economic appeals of Trump?

That’s much more germane than wondering whether the Big 6 banks will try to stage a coup. 

What is very clear, however, is that the conventional politics of competence in policy, expertise in foreign affairs, specificity in economic plans, the stock-in-trade of every other candidate running not only for president but for every other office, will probably not move many working-class white men from where they are now, which is solidly Republican, resentful, alienated, stressed, feeling broke, and perhaps getting ever closer to being susceptible to the appeals of a Cliven Bundy or, locally, a Carl Paladino. 

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor at SUNY Buffalo State and the director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.