The Year the Voters Took Back Politics

For nearly forty years, working and middle class families have been taking an economic beating at the hands of political and economic elites. Forty years! (I first wrote a major piece on these trends, titled "The Declining Middle," for The Atlantic in 1983.)

And for the same forty years, economic elites have kept tight control of the political system, preventing those grievances from breaking through.

Instead, regular people increasingly gave up on politics. Or they embraced heroes who promised change, but didn't or couldn't deliver much (Obama), or who turned out to be total phonies (John Edwards), or who represented flash-in-the-pan moments (Howard Dean), or who were all things to all people (Bill Clinton) -- deepening voter cynicism that the system was rigged.

And the economic screwing of ordinary Americans, and the Wall Street lock on policy, just kept worsening. And people kept giving up on politics.

On the Republican side, Presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush used nationalism, militarism, racial backlash and government-bashing to divert attention from the plain pocketbook frustrations of regular working Americans. Paralyzing government promoted the GOP twin project of empowering elites, and discrediting liberals as instruments of believable change.

And both the screwing and the cynicism deepened.

Both parties were loose, awkward coalitions dominated by Wall Street. On the Republican side, socially liberal financial moguls made common cause with anti-abortion, anti-gay, often anti-black and anti foreign, fundamentalist conservatives.

Many of these social conservatives didn't like Wall Street. And on Wall Street, meanwhile, many of the billionaires were embracing gay rights, abortion rights, black colleagues, and were snickering at the evangelicals in the dogpatch.

Yet the GOP alliance held because it served both groups. Until Donald Trump blew it to smithereens.

Meanwhile, the Democrat Party was the same sort of marriage of convenience. The Congressional party and the labor movement were mostly progressive. But Wall Street called the tune for the presidential party.

Bill Clinton declared that people who work for a living shouldn't be poor. But he also declared that the era of big government was over. He appointed a few good liberals, but the power positions in the economic portfolios went to Wall Streeters. Deregulation of finance, and more insecurity for regular people, followed.

Barack Obama followed much of the same script, embracing social liberalism but giving the power positions on the economy to the same protégés of Robert Rubin.

And then Bernie Sanders blew it up.

Remarkably, there is accidental convergence of an anti-Wall Street populist on the Republican side, and an anti-Wall Street populist on the Democratic side. This did not have to happen. It was a sheer accident of timing that Trump and Sanders, each improbable by himself, both decided to run the same year. Both are tapping the same, legitimate voter rage.

But here the symmetry ends. Trump is now the odds-on favorite to win the Republican nomination, while Sanders is still the underdog for the Democratic slot.

The Takeaway:

1. It Ain't Over. Pundits are now declaring the Democratic contest over based on a sliver of votes in Nevada. That's premature. Clinton is poised to win most of the Southern Super-Tuesday primaries March 1. But Sanders could still gain ground as the campaign heads back north. This election is anything but linear in its trend. There will be stumbles and reverses that we can't imagine.

2. A Whiter Shade of Trump. If Clinton wins the nomination, she will risk losing a lot white working class votes to Trump. Depending on how more populist she can become on the issues, she may or may not win the enthusiasm of the Sanders base. At the MSNBC-Telemundo Las Vegas Town Hall February 18, she tried to get to Sanders' left on bashing Wall Street, and it didn't sound convincing -- it just sounded opportunistic and desperate.

I was the candidate who went to Wall Street before the crash. I was the candidate who went to them and said you are wrecking our economy. What you are doing with mortgages is going to bring us down.

.... I go further than Senator Sanders does because I want to go after all the other bank bad actors. The bad actors like hedge funds, the bad actors like AIG, the insurance company. Like Countrywide mortgage. I take a backseat to nobody in being very clear about what I will do to make sure Wall Street never crashes Main Street again. And, that you can count on.

Well, maybe. Clinton still won't release the transcripts of her Wall Street paid speeches.

In fairness, some presidents who were far from leftwing in their prior careers became more progressive in office, because events demanded it. That describes Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson (but tragically not Barack Obama.) Could Hillary Clinton rise to the occasion and become another mobilizing force for drastic change? If she doesn't, all of the economic rage that has stoked the Trump and Sanders campaigns will be that much more potent in 2020.

If Sanders does lose to Clinton, there will still very likely be upwards of 1,000 Sanders delegates at the Philadelphia convention. And if Clinton doesn't sound a lot more like Sanders, they will be booing, not cheering, the party nominee.

3. Sanders Needs to Pick Up His Game. Last week, there was a dust-up over Sanders' economic numbers. An economist at the University of Massachusetts, Gerald Friedman, projected very high rates of economic growth for Sanders' economic program. Several moderate liberal economists, all with ties to Clinton and Obama, pounced, arguing that that Friedman's numbers did not add up.

By week's end, Beltway economists were feeling very satisfied that they had demolished Sanders' credibility.

What these worthies don't get is that the voters are paying less attention to the words than the music. Sanders' song is the music of aspirational change, and he is attracting people who are tired of getting an economic screwing. Beltway budget-crunchers will not take down Sanders by challenging his arithmetic.

That said, Sanders does need a far better organized campaign. He is still relying in a pick-up team for his economic advice. The Sanders campaign was doubly embarrassed when Friedman, though a lefty economist, turned out to be a Hillary Clinton supporter. The campaign looked like amateur hour. As he becomes a higher-profile candidate, his program will get an even more intense vetting.

4. Will Elizabeth Warren be the Veep? If Sanders is the nominee, having denied the nomination to the most prominent woman in American politics, he will be under intense pressure to name a woman as his running mate. Turning to a centrist to balance the ticket would make no sense--it would deny who he is and his entire reason for running. There are other plausible women, but naming Warren would redouble the campaign's grass-roots energy.

And if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, she will need someone to win the excitement of the Sanders base. Sanders himself? Probably not. But Warren is a more convincing version of Sanders than Sanders.

Two women? Are you crazy? Hey, for most of our history, presidential tickets have been two men. Just sayin'...

5. Populist Insurgencies Usually End Badly. Ever since the days of William Jennings Bryan and Huey Long, and more recently with Fred Harris and then Ralph Nader, populists raise a lot of energy and hope, but seldom get elected. (FDR and his cousin Teddy, were both accidental populists.) This is a year when economic reality cries out for populist remedy. The risk is that a rightwing populist demagogue will gain ground by blaming the wrong scapegoats, or that a candidate representing Democratic continuity will fail to take popular grievances seriously.

6. Almost Anything Could Happen. There has been talk of an independent candidacy by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. If the two parties respectively nominate Trump and Sanders, Bloomberg could well run. But the greater likelihood, if the Democrats nominate Clinton, is that Bloomberg stays out; and Republican elites, who loathe Trump, will find a traditional conservative to run as a Republican independent.

Wouldn't that be something to watch?


Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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