Donald Trump has his finger on the zeitgeist. Speaking to his gathered supporters after his New Hampshire victory, he observed that if the unemployment rate was really 5 percent, as suggested by official data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he never would have garnered the support that he has. The real unemployment rate might not be the 28 percent that Trump suggested, but low labor force participation rates and high underemployment rates, as well as stagnant real incomes -- factors that people experience in their day-to-day lives, buttress Trump's essential point, and the BLS itself publishes an alternative unemployment rate calculation of that suggests a rate that is twice the official figure. However one views the official data, exit polls from the New Hampshire primary suggest that for Democrats and Republican voters alike, the economy is far and away the greatest problem facing the nation.
This should not come as a surprise to party leaders. After all, according to U.S. Census data, median household income today is where it was twenty years ago, in real terms (adjusted for inflation), and effectively the same as it was at the end of the Reagan administration. It is an old story. The rich are getting richer, the highly educated are doing fine, but the less educated are getting poorer and the average American family has been treading water for decades now. Notwithstanding this dichotomy, the U.S. economy has been a global success story. Since the 1990s, U.S. gross domestic product has risen consistently and shown greater resilience in the face of economic downturns than any other advanced nation, and U.S. policies supporting free trade and open markets have engendered an era of economic growth and declining rates of poverty across the globe. But if that success has had winners, it has had losers too.
Party leaders and candidates can learn a lot about the reality facing voters from primary elections. The New Hampshire primary is particularly interesting because it is an open primary, meaning that people can vote for whomever they want, as in a general election. As such, it might be a less useful gauge of the state of the competition in either party -- for example, we do not know what percentage of those who voted for Donald Trump were Democrats or independents, or for that matter how many Republicans voted for Hillary or Bernie -- but it provides an interesting snapshot of the tenor of the electorate as a whole.
In New Hampshire this week, 47 percent of the electorate voted for either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, the two candidates who were running the most direct appeals to voters who are unhappy with the economic status quo. It might seem counter-intuitive to some to look at the vote from that perspective, but the campaigns of Sanders and Trump are more similar than a cursory profile might suggest. At a time when the electorate is being described as increasingly divided and partisan, there is a remarkable degree of alignment among two campaigns that are viewed by many as representing the left and right extremes of the political spectrum.
Both the Sanders and Trump campaigns speak directly to the anxieties and anger that many working Americans feel toward a political system that has ignored their welfare. They have each focused on the corrupting influence of campaign contributions on our politics, and blame the plight of American workers and their families in part on the unholy alliance of those who give and those who receive political contributions. Sanders's most effective attack on Hillary Clinton has been that she was corrupted by the money she took from Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms. Trump attacked Jeb Bush and others as puppets, whose strings would be pulled by the donors who fund their campaigns and their Super PACs.
As Trump pointed out in his victory speech in New Hampshire, he and Bernie Sanders both oppose free trade and its role in eviscerating middle class incomes. They both oppose the special tax treatment accorded to hedge fund managers and others in the finance industry. They both criticize Obamacare as being an expensive healthcare solution that was designed to protect the interests of insurance companies, big pharma, and other industries who have been massive contributors to politicians on both sides of the aisle. While Trump has disavowed his former advocacy of a single-payer healthcare system, last week he reiterated his core, distinctly non-Republican belief that no American should be without health insurance, paid for by the government if need be. Sanders and Trump both opposed the Iraq war, with Trump suggesting in a Republican debate that he would rather have seen the $4 trillion spent on military intervention in the Middle East used instead to fund roads and schools and hospitals and infrastructure, and both continue to express skepticism of deepening U.S. involvement in the turmoil in the Middle East.
In the 1996 Republican primaries, Pat Buchanan ran a nativist campaign of "peasants with pitchforks" against economic elites, immigration, free trade and military interventionism. Today, after three decades of GDP growth that has provided little benefit to the average American family and wars that have cost much but accomplished little, Trump is running on the Buchanan playbook, but in much more fertile terrain. However, unlike Buchanan -- or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz for that matter -- Trump is not a culture warrior. He gives a nod to guns and abortion, but it is a perfunctory nod at best. His campaign, like that of Bernie Sanders, is about money and politics and the economic insecurities of the American family.
Even though their messages are clear, establishment Democrats and Republicans alike are at a loss as to how to deal with the winners in New Hampshire. Republicans, who have been waiting for months for Trump to crash and burn, crossed their fingers and hoped that the Trump insurgency had died in Iowa and that their prayers had been answered with the ascendancy of Marco Rubio. But after Rubio's debate debacle a week later, Trump outperformed even his lofty poll numbers in New Hampshire and establishment Republicans are once again letting the possibility of a Trump nomination sink in.
If anything, the Democrat establishment is worse off, facing the prospect of the farthest left member of the U.S. Senate -- not even a Democrat actually -- toppling Hillary Clinton and becoming the standard bearer for the party in the fall. For all the enthusiasm Bernie Sanders engenders, and a platform that is not as extreme as his rhetoric over the years might suggest, a Sanders candidacy leaves visions of George McGovern dancing in their heads. And that is not even fair to McGovern, who was a traditional, pro-market Democrat who was castigated for oppositing the Vietnam War and proposing a negative income tax plan (that turned out to be a precursor to the now-wildly popular earned income tax credit). Establishment Democrats are acutely aware that a loss in November will leave the party without the White House, the Senate, or the House -- to say nothing of the Supreme Court -- and are loath to cast their lot with Sanders.
Republican candidates who decried Trump's bigotry and xenophobia early on have come to realize that he has his finger on the pulse of the electorate and now mimic his views on a number of issues. On the Democrat side, the oddest aspect of the campaign has been Hillary Clinton's determination to prove that she is as progressive as Bernie Sanders. Like Republicans trying to be as nativist or bigoted as Trump, it is a futile effort. After all, Bernie Sanders is a socialist running as a Democrat -- a democratic socialist to use the new, softer language -- and therefore she is simply not going to be able to flank him on his left. But more puzzling is why she would want to. The more Hillary tries to be who Bernie is and not who she is -- a center-left politician who is comfortable traversing the halls of power -- the more she exacerbates her deeper problems of trust and authenticity. Hillary has been among the most visible members of the Democratic Party establishment for decades now. It does not matter if this is an anti-establishment year, Hillary has to run as herself.
It may well be that by the end of the summer the Trump and Sanders challenges to the establishment will recede. After all, Hillary remains the overwhelming favorite on the Democrat side and Trump is, well, Trump. He really can't be the nominee of a major political party. But the issues they are pointing to are real. For years now, the system has been rigged in favor of people with money. Working class voters of both parties have seen their livelihoods undermined by free trade deals that shipped jobs overseas, bankruptcy reforms that have made it nearly impossible for them to dig themselves out of difficult circumstances, and intellectual property laws that have increased the costs of prescription drugs, just to name a few. One piece of legislation after another -- each bought and paid for by major industries -- has tilted the playing field against them.
That is the dirty secret of the corruption of our democracy. While all the hoopla has been generated around Citizens United and the hundreds of millions of dollars funneled into presidential campaigns and Super PACs, the real action has always been on the legislative side, where lobbying expenditures and political contributions -- now approaching $5 billion a year -- have delivered real results, year after year, all tracked and available for anyone who cares to look at OpenSecrets.org.
Nearly half of the voters in the New Hampshire primary cast their ballots for two very different candidates with surprisingly similar messages. If establishment Democrats and Republicans don't understand why, they haven't been paying attention. For decades now, each of the political parties have been paying more attention to those who fund their political campaigns than to the plight of those who cast the ballots, and now they are reaping the whirlwind. This year, voters flocking to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are declaring, in the famous words of Howard Beale -- the news anchor who rails against the establishment in Network -- that they are mad as hell and aren't going to take it any more.
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump might go away, and if they do, the political establishment will breath a sigh of relief. But it is also possible that they aren't going to go away. Instead of their near-50 percent of the vote waning away, it might just continue to rise, and one of them might actually be elected president this year.