Conventional wisdom about election 2016 holds that Hillary Clinton, an "establishment" candidate, is opposed by two "populist insurgents," Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, said to speak for working class voters. But a clear-eyed look tells a very different story: Hillary offers effective ways to reduce the growing economic gaps that matter most to lower and middle income families - and she has also attracted the broadest support from working Americans of modest means.
Certainly The Donald has galvanized a true rank and file revolt. By drawing into GOP primaries many older white voters who normally sit out until the general election, Trump held his own in a fractured field long enough to grab the 2016 nomination. Although his voters are often said to be economically struggling white workers, in fact (as Nate Silver has shown) Trump primary voters typically earn about $72,000 year, well above the U.S. median of $56,000. Although Trump voters express economic anxiety, they are solidly middle-income whites angry about immigration and racial and generational changes. Above all, they hate Barack Obama and appreciate that Trump led the "birther" campaign questioning his legitimacy. They are, in short, pretty much the same sorts of grassroots Republicans Vanessa Williamson and I studied for our early 2012 book on the Tea Party.
Of course Trump was not the choice of GOP and plutocratic elites, who prefer to stoke popular anger indirectly rather than through in-your-face Trump-style immigrant-bashing and racial fear-mongering. Trump puts off women voters, even the married white women who usually vote for the GOP; and he hints at economic policies that worry free-market proponents of unfettered trade and entitlement cuts. Even so, GOP elites and Trump are coming to terms as they gear up for the general election. Trump's tax plan outlines even greater reductions in top tax rates than other GOP plans; and his proposed Supreme Court appointees would redouble Scalia-like assaults on New Deal economic programs, minority voting rights, and individual liberties. GOP leaders hope popular anger will carry Trump to office, where he can be managed by orthodox advisors and sign Paul Ryan's sweeping tax and spending cuts into law.
Many who agree that Trump is a fake populist would still accept Bernie's claim to be the strongest egalitarian. Railing against the top one percent, Bernie calls for whopping increases in taxes on the wealthiest and aims to bust Wall Street banks and ban big money from U.S. elections. Nevertheless, the Sanders agenda does little to address the country's other growing economic gap - between the top 20% and everyone else. Fortunes are sharply diverging between the top fifth of Americans, mostly dual-income families led by two highly educated professionals or managers, versus everyone else, the bottom four-fifths of middle and lower income single and dual parent families trying to raise children with stagnant incomes, dwindling social benefits, and often living in disorderly communities where jobs and good schools, even safe drinking water, are not to be found.
Bernie touts universal health care and free college tuition, but such proposals could actually exacerbate the 20/80 divide. Independent studies show that Bernie's health plan would raise taxes and reduce health insurance benefits for many who now get Medicaid, Medicare, or employer health benefits; and more new benefits would go to the top fifth of households than to the bottom fifth. Free tuition would also waste resources on upper-middle-income families that can afford to pay or borrow to cover at least some college costs. Sanders also pushes a carbon tax to tackle global warming - yet has not outlined any plan to rebate or redistribute the tax revenues to protect low and middle-income Americans against hits from higher energy costs.
Hillary Clinton has detailed many policies for the eighty percent. Her "debt free" college plan would deliver more help to defray all college costs to families that need it most and allow community colleges serve many more students. Similarly, Hillary wants to shift social spending toward the majority of working families - with paid family leave and affordable child care and through reductions in health costs and extension of coverage in the already-reformed health insurance system to the nine percent not already covered. She has firmly promised not to raise taxes on most Americans. The fact that Bernie wants to raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour rather than $12 may seem an important difference, but both Democrats have made clear they would sign into law any level of hike Congress would approve.
Policy proposals and voter support need not line up. Even so, Hillary Clinton has won millions more primary votes. Both Hillary and Bernie supporters make about $61,000 a year, less than primary voters for Trump or other Republicans. But this parallel masks telling racial and age divides. Low-income and working-class Americans are now disproportionately people of color, and Clinton has received overwhelming support from African Americans and Latinos. She won primaries in large states with populations more ethnically and racially diverse than the nation as a whole, while Bernie's victories have mostly come in very white and relatively liberal states less diverse than the country as a whole. In fact, Hillary has attracted more support than Bernie from older working-aged whites. Enormous rallies and strong primary margins for Bernie often happen in college and university communities, where students have very low incomes right now but obviously enjoy brighter future economic prospects than the majority of non-college Americans.
In short, rhetoric about "establishment" versus populist candidates does not stand up to scrutiny. Hillary Clinton's program promotes economic equality for the many - and working class support for her is strong. Middle-aged and older women are also highly supportive - and should she follow Barack Obama to the White House, Hillary would finally break through the hardest barrier that has kept the female majority of U.S. citizens from seeing one of their own in the highest elected office. In every dimension - by race, class, and gender - a victory for Hillary Clinton would propel equality in America, building on the gains Barack Obama has achieved against fierce headwinds since 2008.