America will either go populist left or populist right, but it won’t stay the same. The old neoliberal paradigm which has governed American politics for the last 4 decades holds very little appeal for the majority of voters in the U.S. who are growing increasingly alienated from the current system that governs in the interests of the wealthy and powerful. Sooner or later, the American people who the polls show to be thoroughly disgusted with the current system will vote out the corporate centrists in both parties who have spent their careers promoting it.
I am both more hopeful and more fearful about American politics than I have ever been in my entire life. America might become a progressive European-style social democracy that leads the world in tackling social inequality and climate change and reducing militarism around the globe, or it might devolve into a dangerous right-wing dystopia, filled with inequality, racism, sexism, zenophobia and religious bigotry which oppresses minorities and walls out the rest of the world. It appears to me that the US is standing at the fork in the road, and is teetering between two fundamentally different paths.
I hold out hope for America because millennials and gen Z are less racist, less sexist, less materialist, less individualistic, more environmental, more progressive and more ready for structural change than any previous generation. As these generations gain more influence politically and vote in greater numbers, the possibility grows that the US can be transforming into a social democracy that addresses its social ills. The crash of 2008-10 and stagnating real wages for the last 45 years has proven to the younger generations that the current system doesn’t work for the majority, and the old platitudes about “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” and “rugged individualism” are out-dated malarkey.
A sign of this shift in attitudes is the fact that the current election is the first time in my life that the Democratic Party has seriously debated the important issues facing the American working class, which the Democratic Party has been undermining ever since formation of the “New Democrats” and the Democratic Leadership Council in the mid-1980s. If the populist-left wing of the party wins, then the Democratic Party will return to its roots and once again become the party of the American working class.
I don’t think that the new Democratic coalition will be the same as the FDR coalition that turned the Democrats into the majority party between 1932 and 1994. I can’t see the Democrats ever again getting the majority of the rural or white vote, but a candidate like Bernie Sanders will make the rural-urban and white-minority gap much smaller, which is all that is needed to win with the new demographics of the nation. In order to recapture a portion of the rural and white vote that used to be the backbone of the FDR coalition, the Democrats have to return to being the party that focuses on the bread-and-butter economic issues that appeal to the working class. Becoming a party that again fights for the working class, however, means rejecting the big donor money and the centrist triangulation exemplified by the Clintons which alienated the working class from the party in the first place.
The current presidential primary is in essence a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party. For years the Democrats have managed to paper over the fact that it had become the party of Wall Street and the professional classes that has betrayed the working class. George H.W. Bush couldn’t have passed NAFTA in 1993, the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 or Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China in 2000, but Bill Clinton could push these measures through congress as the head of the Democratic Party. Barack Obama bailed out Wall Street while refusing to prosecute its executives and promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Bill Clinton ran on providing universal health care in 1992 and Barack Obama ran on “hope and change,” but both implemented the neoliberal policies that undermined the working class and forced millions of Americans out of middle-class security. This politics of deception has alienated many erstwhile Democratic voters, who either stay home on election day or vote for Republicans on cultural issues.
Many in the Democratic establishment fear the populist left rhetoric of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but they frankly don’t have a plan for how to stop alienating working-class and minority voters. If they keep doing the bidding of rich donors, they can’t govern in ways that help the working class, and the division between the rich and the poor will keep growing. If they try doing mild reforms like Barack Obama did with the Affordable Health Care for America Act and the Dodd-Frank Bill, then they won’t have enough public support to defend them, and the Republicans and the moneyed interests will keep chipping away at them until they become effectively meaningless. In the long term, the American working class will grow even more disenchanted and turn to right-wing populism, which doesn’t solve the fundamental problems, but is more emotionally satisfying for disaffected people. Many of the groups who currently vote for the Democrats such as blacks, Latin@s, Native Americans, queers, labor unions, immigrants, environmentalists, and the youth in general will increasingly stay home on election day if they see it as a vote for the status quo, even if they won’t vote for the Republicans. In contrast, the white working class have become increasingly Republican the more that Democrats have become the party of the professional classes, Wall Street and big business.
The populist left not only offers a vision that can bring back disaffected voters to the Democratic party, but their plans will provide economic security and long-term solutions for many of the problems that face not only the working classes, but their plans are also designed to address structural racism, sexism and inequities in rural and urban poor communities. In other words, the populist left is offering a plan to turn the Democratic Party into the kind of majority party that can win elections for decades in the future, whereas the corporate centrists offer no vision aside from a return to the status quo ante Trump, which isn’t very compelling because it is what gave rise to Trump in the first place. The neoliberal centrism and mild reformism promoted by by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer does nothing to address the very real and growing problems facing the majority of Americans.
According to the US Federal Reserve, 40% of Americans can’t cover a $400 emergency expense without selling something or borrowing money and 25% of Americans have no retirement savings. A recent survey found that 40% of Americans reported that their family struggled to pay medical bills, health insurance premiums or out-of-pocket medical expenses and 50% reported that someone in their family skipped or postponed some type of medical care or prescription drugs in the past year because of the cost. Policies such as Medicare for All, a 15 dollar minimum wage, the Green New Deal, free tuition at public universities, a Wall Street transaction tax, cancellation of student loans and medical debts, ending foreign wars, reducing the military budget and reforming the criminal justice system will address many of the structural problems and social inequities that have caused the white working class to turn to dangerous right-wing populism and minorities and the youth to stop going to the polls.
The other option is for America to turn to the populist right, which is based on a politics of fear and division. This path can lead to very dark places, because it doesn’t try an solve people’s fundamental problems, so the only option is sowing even more fear and division to keep winning. Where do right-wing populists like Donald Trump go next, after building a wall around America, after demonizing Muslims and immigrants, after banning transgenders from using the bathroom of their choice, after giving even more tax breaks to the rich, and after making people even more desperate by further slashing the social safety net?
Thankfully, the rhetoric of the populist right alienates groups that are growing in population (Latinos, Asians, queers, non-Christians, millennials and gen Z) and it appeals to groups that are shrinking in size (whites, Christian, rural voters and older voters). Demographics says that right-wing populism won’t have much of an electoral future in the long term, but it can still win in the short term. Even more scary, it can win in the long run if it throws millions of people off the voter rolls and suppresses the vote.
Trump is too narcissistic, short-sighted and frankly lazy to be able to use right-wing populist rhetoric nearly as effectively as Orban in Hungary, Kaczynski in Poland, Kurz in Austria, Erdogan in Turkey, and Putin in Russia. Trump strikes me as a leader like Duterte in the Philippines and Balsonaro in Brazil who is too erratic and unplanned in his public statements to be truly effective in getting his agenda enacted. Nonetheless, I fear that the next populist leader from the American right will be much smarter and more strategic than Trump. He might be able to capture the white working class vote more effectively than Trump and will work more assiduously to undermine democratic institutions and disenfranchise more voters in order to stay in power.
In spite of Trump’s obvious flaws and his lack of strategic planning, I fear that he still might be able to win the next election. The current impeachment proceedings against Trump are likely to benefit him politically. Trump will claim that he is being unfairly persecuted when the House takes a vote on impeachment. If Trump is impeached in the House, the Senate will almost surely vote against impeachment and Trump will claim it as a victory. He will use the impeachment as a means to whip up his base and claim the Senate vote as a political victory which will give him a boost going into the general election.
The current polls tracked by Real Clear Politics show Trump being beaten by Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigeig in head-to-head matchups by an average of 9.9%, 8.5%, 7.3% and 4.0%, respectively, but I fear how the Democratic nominees will fare against Trump’s attacks.
Biden is widely believed to be the strongest candidate against Trump. 37% of Democrats selected Biden as the candidate who is mostly likely to beat Trump in a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll. However, Biden can’t even handle being questioned about how his son Hunter Biden got placed on the boards of Amtrak and the Ukrainian gas company, Burisma Holdings. Trump will lambast him for his corruption, and will hammer home how Biden voted for NAFTA and PNTR with China and was in the pockets of the banks and the drug industries when he was the senator of Delaware. Trump will run as the anti-establishment candidate just like he did in 2016, and white working-class voters in the key swing states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan are just as likely to vote against the status quo and neoliberal free trade policies as they did in 2016.
Warren is less vulnerable than Biden to being attacked on policy, but she is very vulnerable on questions of identity, and Trump will lampoon her as “Pocahontas” and accuse her of lying about her Native American heritage. Trump will characterize her as being inauthentic and mendacious, and portray her as an elitist liberal telling people what to do.
Buttigieg won’t win the nomination, because he simply has no support from minorities, but if he does, Trump will have a field day with a guy who worked for McKinsey and smacks of elitist education. Trump will turn it into a race of about the culture war, where Buttigieg is the uppity liberal talking down to working-class voters.
Sanders has the best chance of winning the Democratic nomination in my opinion. Sanders is currently second behind Biden nationally in the polling, but Biden’s support is mostly based on the idea that he can win, and he is set up to lose badly in the first three primaries of Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, so his support is likely to slip badly in later primaries. Once Democratic voters start really scrutinizing Biden’s policy positions, as they are now doing in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, it is hard to see how he will maintain his front-runner status, since the polls show that most Democratic voters are to the left of Biden on the major issues.
Sanders is currently second in Iowa and New Hampshire behind Buttigieg, because Buttigieg has superPACs bombarding the air waves of these two states with ads. Nonetheless, Buttigieg has almost zero support in the black and Hispanic communities, which is necessary for any candidate to win the nomination. Buttigieg hasn’t yet been scrutinized for his racial scandals in South Bend, changing his position on Medicare for All, or fabricating the list of blacks in South Carolina who endorsed his racial justice plan. Once these problems start being publicized, Buttigieg won’t enjoy nearly as clean of an image.
In comparison, Sanders has the highest polling among the youth and independents, plus the second highest after Biden among Hispanics and lower class voters–all groups which historically have voted in low numbers in Democratic primary elections, but he will bring them out to the polls in record numbers. Because polling focuses on people who voted in the past, Bernie Sanders’ current poll numbers are probably undercounting his level of support. In 2016, Sanders generally outperformed the polling in the primary elections because he drew in new and disaffected voters who often aren’t counted in polls.
The other issue that the pundits often ignore is the level of grassroots support for the candidates. The Sanders campaign has over 1 million volunteers to knock on doors and get out the vote and has received over 4 million donations, which is more than any candidate in the history of American politics. The polling shows that Sanders’ supporters are the ones who are the most decided, so they are least likely to change their minds even when barraged by negative ads. A recent nationwide Reuters/Ipsos poll found that Democrats and independents who are likely to vote in the Democratic primaries selected Sanders as the best candidate on the issues of immigration, the economy and jobs, the environment, and health care, which is the most important issue according to the polling.
One of the big factors holding back Sanders from winning the nomination is the widespread belief that he can’t win. The polling shows that Democratic voters generally support Sanders’ policies over the those promoted by the other candidates, so support tends to increase after they have heard him give a speech, and this is more likely as the primaries draw closer. Many voters say that they like his positions, but they aren’t convinced that other Americans will support them. Once Sanders starts racking up victories in the primaries, the belief that Sanders can’t win will dissipate.
The real hurdle for Sanders campaign is all the big-money interests whose bottom lines will be harmed by Sanders’ policies such as the military-industrial complex, medical insurance companies, the drug industry, big agriculture, the private prison industry, the fossil fuel companies, the auto companies, telecoms, and the wealthy whose taxes will be raised. Most of these interests didn’t believe that Sanders could win, but they are now starting to recognize the serious flaws in Biden and Buttigieg as candidates and observing Warren slipping in the polls after she stumbled in her support for Medicare for All. The fact that they are starting to get scared by the Sanders’ candidacy is evidenced by the amount of ads the health insurance industry is putting on TV to convince Iowans that Sanders will take away their health care. If Sanders manages to get a few primary victories under his belt, every special interest which fears his policies will dump a fortune on filling the air waves with deceptive ads that fear monger about Sanders as a person and his policies. There isn’t much to dig up on his personal history, but they will air anything that they can find.
I honestly don’t know whether a dirty media campaign against Sanders will work. The huge media blitz that Sanders will face from all the special interests will certainly affect some people. Calling Bernie a Socialist and tying him to the USSR, Cuba and Venezuela will work with certain segments of the Democratic voters, but I expect that message will only be pushed with targeted advertising on social media toward older voters. Red-baiting Sanders will be counter-productive with the majority of Democratic voters, since they have a higher opinion of Socialism than Capitalism, so ads calling Sanders a Socialist will only make those voters are more likely to vote for him.
Rather than attacking his character or demonizing him as a Socialist, the political ads are more likely to employ the tried-and-true tactics of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) about Sanders’ policies, just as they are currently doing with Medicare for All in Iowa. The current polling out of Iowa shows that those ads are having an impact on people’s opinions. The Sanders campaign might be the best funded right now, but once the special interests realize that Sanders really might win, they will dump unprecedented amounts of money into the Democratic primaries. I don’t know what will happen to public opinion when the American people are constantly barraged with negative ads telling them to fear Sanders and his policies. Americans today are less influenced by what is playing on TV and on the radio than in the past, but targeted ads through social media will have a big impact.
If these negative ads can raise enough FUD about Sanders, the voters will probably turn to Biden since he will be perceived as a safer option. The polling shows that Biden is the most selected second choice for Sanders voters, and Sanders is the favorite second choice for Biden voters, so there is a lot of cross-over appeal, especially among working-class voters.
On the other hand, the more the media fear mongered about Trump in 2016, the stronger his support became. The mainstream media won’t give Sanders as much free air time as they gave Trump in the last election, but I suspect that every time the talking heads on TV say negative things about Sanders, it will make Americans who are disgusted with the system even more likely to vote for him.
Sanders is managing to get his message out over social media and through his well organized and financed field campaign. The more voters hear Sanders speak, the more that they like him, but the mainstream media will do its best to not cover his policies and interview him in ways that won’t let him talk about them. One of the reasons why Sanders has such strong support among the youth is because they don’t get their news from the TV, so they are less influenced by the opinions of the mainstream media and they are more likely to watch a Sanders’ speech on Youtube or Facebook.
The second major hurdle is the convention, which will likely come down to a major fight between progressives vs the establishment. If Sanders doesn’t have the majority of delegates going into the convention, then a huge amount pressure will be placed on the delegates of the other candidates to not give Sanders their support in the second round of voting. If we look at the polls, Sanders + Warren + Yang + Gabbard in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada together have more support than the rest of the candidates, so in theory a progressive candidate could receive the Democratic nomination. Sanders will probably hand his delegates to Warren if he knows that he can’t win the nomination, which will likely put Warren over the top. However, Warren will be a much weaker candidate against Trump than Sanders.
It is widely assumed by the so-called pundits, that Bernie Sanders will be destroyed in a general election against Donald Trump, but those pundits are simply wrong. Sanders will pull in independents, young voters and disaffected voters in unprecedented numbers. Sanders counters Trump in almost all his talking points. When Trump talks about helping the “common man who has been ignored,” Sanders will pound him for passing a tax cut that gave 81% of the benefits to the top 1%. When Trump talks about shipping jobs to China, Sanders will rightly say that he opposed every trade deal, and Sanders will have every labor union backing him to the hilt for standing with American workers against free trade policies. When Trump talks about the stupidity of wars in the MiddleEast, Sanders stand up and say, “I will get the troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, not just tweet about it.” Sanders will offer concrete plans for how to help the average working person. Americans, who rolled the dice on Trump last time because they thought he might shake up the system, can see that Sanders truly intends to change the system. Every attack ad that they see on the TV against Sanders will further convince them that he truly challenges the system, unlike Trump whose policies have generally benefited the rich and the powerful.
The only real talking point that Trump can effectively raise against Sanders is the fact that he calls himself a “Democratic Socialist.” There is no doubt that Trump will turn the election into one of Capitalism vs Socialism. Unlike in the Democratic primaries where fear-mongering about Socialism won’t work very well, it will throw red meat to the Republican base and ramp up their efforts to get out the vote.
American voters will be bombarded with endless propaganda about how Bernie Sanders will turn the US into the next Venezuela, but that kind of fear mongering is unlikely to work very effectively. In the general election, the candidates have huge amounts of free media coverage and Sanders will have many opportunities to make his case to the American public. Fear mongering about Socialism doesn’t work well when people trust the candidate, and Bernie Sanders has a very high favorability rating. Polls show that most people believe that Bernie is honest, which will go a long way to discrediting a lot of the fear mongering about Bernie’s Socialism. When Bernie talks concretely about Medicare for All, a 15 dollar minimum wage, free tuition at public universities and cancellation of student and medical debt, then people will think to themselves, “if that’s socialism, then it sounds pretty good to me.”
The very fact that Sanders calls himself a Socialist and doesn’t engage in double speak is one of the reasons why people trust him. The polls show that the majority of Americans believe in the policies advocated by Bernie Sanders, but the degree of support can vary widely based on how the question is framed. The fundamental thing that many pundits miss about Bernie’s appeal is that when average people see him fighting for policies like Medicare for All and a $15 dollar minimum wage, they think to themselves, “this guy will fight for me.” The negative ads against Sanders will only land if they can shake people’s belief that he is fundamentally honest and is fighting for the little guy.
If it comes down to an election of Sanders vs Trump, I have no doubt that Sanders will win in a landslide. However, that will only happen if Sanders can make it through the Democratic primaries. Once it becomes clear that Buttigieg can’t win minority votes and there is no other viable establishment candidate, all the big money interests will back Biden to the hilt against the progressive threat of Sanders and Warren. If Biden’s campaign collapses due to his frequent gaffes and his failing mental capacity, then the Democratic establishment will reluctantly back Warren, in the same way that the Republican establishment backed Ted Cruz in the end because they were so horrified by Donald Trump as their candidate.
Both Biden and Warren will be weaker candidates against Trump than Sanders, and I’m not certain that either of them will beat Trump. If they win, it will likely be without much coattails, so they will face a Republican senate which will stymie every effort at even mild reform. What this gridlock will do is tell American voters, who are already disgruntled with the system, that it doesn’t work. This opens up more space in the future for smarter right-wing populists in the future who can better exploit that disaffection than Trump.
On the other hand, a race between Sanders vs Trump is likely to be a Democratic landslide and flip the Senate. Sanders won’t be like Obama, who never tried to move congress on anything controversial. Sanders will campaign in the backyard of conservative Democratic senators to force them to face the wrath of their constituents if they don’t vote the right way on Medicare for All, a 15 dollar minimum wage, the Green New Deal, and a whole raft of other progressive legislation that has popular support. Sanders learned his politics in the civil rights movements of the 1960s and sees his job as being the “organizer in chief.” He won’t sit in Washington trying to negotiate with senators inside the Beltway. Instead, he will activate huge grassroots movements to hound senators who don’t vote with him, and he will use reconciliation to push through legislation that can get 51 votes in the senate.
However, even if Sanders can’t get 51 votes in the senate, he will turn every election into a referendum on the senators who voted against his policies. Voters who are disgusted with the system will have a positive way to channel their anger and frustration into the political system to vote out the senators who refuse to give them Medicare for All and a 15 dollar minimum wage. Bernie will organize disaffected Americans and give them a way to believe in the system. Even if he is stymied at every turn by a recalcitrant congress, Sanders will redouble his efforts to organize common people to throw the bums out who are preventing them from having having health care, decent wages, affordable housing, clean water, and renewable energy.
Giving millions of people who are currently alienated from the system a progressive cause to fight for is the best way to make people believe in the system again. However, if the establishment responds by denying all efforts at meaningful reform, it will only hasten the appeal of dangerous right-wing populism that flirts with fascism. America is teetering at the precipice and the path that the country takes in the next election could determine whether the US becomes a social democracy where people’s basic needs are met or a scary state based on division and hatred of the other that is prone to sliding toward fascism. What is clear, however, is that the status quo will not hold, and the neoliberal centrism of the past practiced by Clinton and Obama will not placate Americans who are fed up with the growing inequalities of the current system.
The wealthy and powerful interests that are organizing to oppose Sanders’ candidacy for the presidency are ironically only hastening their own destruction. If they can’t take the reasonable reforms of a social democracy, then they will likely end up creating fertile ground for very dangerous right-wing populism, and even more radical left-wing populism. If they won’t allow wealth inequality to be addressed through reasonable taxation on the wealthy, then they will face something far more scary in the long run. If they won’t allow climate change to be addressed through rational policies like the Green New Deal, then they will end up creating ecological breakdown that make desperate people turn to far more radical solutions.
The belief constantly propounded by the pundits on TV that America should choose moderate centrism in the next election is a path that will only further alienate more people from the system. If America doesn’t fundamentally change to address its growing problems, it is likely to hasten its own destruction. America stands at the precipice and it is unclear which way it will go.