Who is against whom?
by Tom Sullivan
Discontent is simmering out there. Donald Trump is one proof. Bernie Sanders is another. The New York Times' Patrick Healy looks at how discontent manifests itself among liberal-leaning voters:
Interviews with three dozen Democrats in key early states — a mix of undecided voters and Sanders and Clinton supporters — laid bare a sense of hopelessness that their leaders had answers to problems like income inequality and gun violence. It is frustration that Mr. Sanders, a senator from Vermont, and other progressive candidates are channeling and that Mrs. Clinton has addressed with increasing passion, as when she responded to Thursday’s massacre at an Oregon college by saying she was “just sick of this.”
Healy reports that similar insurgencies against party-blessed candidates have also popped up in Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Why? Because gun violence is not the only thing Democratic voters are sick of.
The disaffection among Democrats flows mainly from three sources, according to interviews with voters and strategists. Disappointment lingers with President Obama over the failure to break up big banks after the Great Recession and fight for single-payer health insurance, among other liberal causes. Fatigue with Mrs. Clinton’s controversies endures, as does distaste with her connections to the rich. And anger abounds at party leaders for not pursuing an ideologically pure, economically populist agenda.
Karen Bryant from New Boston, N.H. gets down to the kitchen-table aspect of the problem: “There’s just so much hopelessness about people having any real opportunity to just make a living, take care of their families, support themselves.”
David Atkins looks at the issue from a different angle for Political Animal. Voters once called "Middle American Radicals" are sick of the middle class "being disadvantaged by a focus on both the rich and the poor." Atkins writes:
I particularly remember a series of focus groups I conducted among undecided, infrequent minority voters who were almost universally angry with food stamp and welfare programs because they worked full-time jobs and made just a little too much to qualify for them. They were angry that friends and neighbors of theirs were able to get assistance from the government, and they themselves were being “punished” for working. These were still liberal-leaning voters who were not going to vote for Republicans anytime soon because of their racism and because they wanted those welfare programs to continue to exist in case they themselves lost their job—but it didn’t change their angry perception that American government, in their eyes, seemed to advantage both the rich and the poor at the expense of the middle class.
And, predictably, the effect tends to be even greater among more comfortable white voters, who often have an unrealistically romantic idea of what being unemployed and on welfare is really like.
If white voters need any primer on that, Rolling Stone provided an invaluable look at that in 2012. But they also have an unrealistically romantic idea of how politics works.
It’s an artifact of America’s peculiar winner-take-all political system that we only have two functional parties. Economically, this means that the conservative party works to align the middle class with the wealthy against the poor, while the liberal party works to align the poor and the middle class against the rich. But the middle class ideally wants to promote its own interests above all, and all too often it seems to them like no one is doing that.
Dissatisfaction with the political parties and the economic system form common ground. Sanders' disaffected masses and Trump's share many of the same complaints, just different subsets of scapegoats. The problem is, both groups of voters are still shopping for a new boss that won't be the same as the old boss. Obama was supposed to fill that role for Democrats when he took office in 2009. But when Obama effectively told supporters, "I got this," they let him. They left the political battlefield and went back to trying to get by. The lesson still hasn't sunk in. Unless it does, they'll do the same again with whomever the Democrats elect.
Sanders says we need a political revolution. He's right. It's not just an electoral revolution. It has to be a revolution in thinking about politics.