Donald Trump is throwing the GOP primary into chaos by channeling the GOP’s id, spinning out wild fantasies of the Mexican government deliberately sending a flood of rapists and murderers across the border. But Bernie Sanders is disrupting Hillary Clinton’s coronation on the Democratic side by channeling the party’s soul, with a specifically issue-based focus.
In a way, both men are vividly illustrating a basic asymmetry that runs through American politics—between left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican—which was first comprehensively described by public opinion researchers Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril in their landmark 1967 book, “The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion,” and which political scientist Matt Grossman discussed in a recent Salon interview. Free and Cantril found that half the population was ideologically conservative, in the sense of preferring a smaller, more limited government, while about two-thirds was operationally liberal, in the sense of wanting to spend more on specifically identified government programs.
Subsequent research has intensified this division. Conservatives win by making broad, sweeping appeals, which can often have little relationship with the facts (Iraq’s WMDs, “voter fraud,” global warming denialism, etc.). Liberals win by focusing on how to fix specific problems. Thus “government spending” in general is seen as a negative, but spending on most specific programs is strongly supported. The pattern is clear: The more practical the question, the more liberal the answers. That’s just how U.S. politics works.
Trump takes the conservative side of this formula to an extreme, making broad, ludicrous false claims in his narcissistically self-confident manner. What’s grabbing headlines now are his false claims about illegal immigrant crime, but he remains completely detached from reality regarding Obama’s citizenship as well—an act of broad stigmatization that also typifies conservative thought. When NBC's Katy Tur brought up his birtherism, Trump treated her with disdain: “Well, I don't know. According to you it's not true.” When she responded straightforwardly, “He released his birth certificate,” Trump doubled down on the disdain, “You know, if you believe that, that's fine. I don't care. It's an old subject.”
Bernie Sanders is the exact opposite of Trump. As a proud self-described democratic socialist, he willingly makes himself a target for the kind of demonization that Trump hands out like candy, and he responds to attacks—actual and potential—by doubling down on policy specifics, where he correctly feels he’s on very firm ground. In a recent interview with John Nichols in the Nation, Sanders sketched out his response to such attacks, which are now routinely leveled indiscriminately:
Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, often criticizes President Obama, incorrectly, for trying to push “European-style socialism,” and McConnell says the American people don’t want it. First of all, of course, Obama is not trying to push European-style socialism. Second of all, I happen to believe that, if the American people understood the significant accomplishments that have taken place under social-democratic governments, democratic-socialist governments, labor governments throughout Europe, they would be shocked to know about those accomplishments. One of the goals of this campaign is to advance that understanding…. How many Americans know that in virtually every European country, when you have a baby, you get guaranteed time off and, depending on the country, significant financial benefits as well. Do the American people know that? I doubt it. Do the American people even know that we’re the only major Western industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee healthcare for all? Most people don’t know that. Do the American people know that in many countries throughout Europe, public colleges and universities are either tuition-free or very inexpensive?
I have always believed that the countries in Scandinavia have not gotten the kind of honest recognition they deserve for the extraordinary achievements they have made.
Sanders is right to think that Scandanavian socialism would be popular here in the U.S., if only people knew more about it. And he’s right to make spreading that awareness a goal of his campaign. In fact, on a wide range of issue specifics Sanders lines up with strong majorities of public opinion—and has for decades.
You can get a strong sense of this from the results of the “Big Ideas” poll commissioned by the Progressive Change Institute in January, which has thus far gotten far less attention than it deserves. (Full disclosure: I’m a former blogmate with Adam Green, co-founder of PCI’s affiliate, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.) PCI first solicited ideas online through an open submission process (more than 2,600 specific proposals were submitted) and then let people vote on them (more than a million votes were cast). This bottom-up process was then tested out in a national poll. The following all received 70% support or more:
Allow Government to Negotiate Drug Prices (79%)
Give Students the Same Low Interest Rates as Big Banks (78%)
Universal Pre-Kindergarten (77%)
Fair Trade that Protect Workers, the Environment, and Jobs (75%)
End Tax Loopholes for Corporations that Ship Jobs Overseas (74%)
End Gerrymandering (73%)
Let Homeowners Pay Down Mortgage With 401k (72%)
Debt-Free College at All Public Universities (Message A) (71%)
Infrastructure Jobs Program -- $400 Billion / Year (71%)
Require NSA to Get Warrants (71%)
Disclose Corporate Spending on Politics/Lobbying (71%)
Medicare Buy-In for All (71%)
Close Offshore Corporate Tax Loopholes (70%)
Green New Deal -- Millions Of Clean-Energy Jobs (70%)
Full Employment Act (70%)
Expand Social Security Benefits (70%)
All of the above are in line with Bernie Sanders’ politics and all are extremely popular, with support across the political spectrum. For example, the infrastructure jobs program (a key element of Sanders’ platform) had 91% support from Democrats, 61% from independents and even 55% support from Republicans—compared to only 28% who were opposed. Donald Trump can only dream of being that popular among Republicans.
One could easily write a whole story about Sanders’ strength on issues based on this one poll alone. It’s astonishing to see all these ideas brought together which have strong support among the American people, but which can barely get the time of day in the top-down world of U.S. politics today. And that, arguably, goes straight to the heart of what the Sanders campaign is all about—opening up the political process to popular ideas that just happen to be not so popular with the billionaire class, and the political system that caters so slavishly to them.
But that’s not to say there’s no other evidence of how popular Sanders’ views are. At the American Prospect, Peter Drier recently pulled together a broad sampling of the evidence that Sanders represents majority views on a core set of issues. For example, one of the European-style socialist practices that’s particularly popular is paid leave:
Eighty percent of Americans favor requiring employers to offer paid leave to parents of new children and employees caring for sick family members. Even more (85 percent) favor requiring employers to offer paid leave to employees who are ill.
Drier broke the issues down as follows: big business, progressive taxation, inequality and poverty, money in politics, minimum wage and workers' rights, health care and social security, higher education, same-sex marriage. His general method was to cite a number of different sources illustrating different aspects of the issue.
Regarding big business, to take one example, Drier notes that 74 percent of Americans believe corporations have too much influence on American life and politics today (New York Times/CBS News), 60 percent of Americans—including 75 percent of Democrats—believe that "the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy" (Pew), and 58% of Americans said they support breaking up “big banks like Citigroup” (the PCI poll, cited by the Wall Street Journal), which Drier points out is “a key plank of Sanders’ platform and the goal of a bill that Sanders sponsored in the Senate.” He also notes that 73% of Americans favor tougher rules for Wall Street financial companies (Lake Research), and finally, that 64% favor regulating greenhouse gas emissions and requiring utilities to generate more power from “clean” low-carbon sources (Duke University).
What this shows is that Sanders is not simply cherry-picking a few popular ideas here and there. He’s tapping into a broadly shared set of inter-related attitudes and ideas about closely related issues Although these views and ideas are usually sidelined in most political discourse, the convergence of attitudes into a coherent policy texture is remarkably consistent. And this gets to a primary problem with America’s political system: liberal policy views form a coherent whole, every bit as much as conservative ones do, but they are far less publicly recognized, articulated, discussed and explored—despite the fact that they are wildly popular!
As I’ve noted before here at Salon, Free and Cantril commented on this situation in the last section of their book “The Need for a Restatement of American Ideology” almost 50 years ago:
The paradox of a large majority of Americans qualifying as operational liberals while at the same time a majority hold to a conservative ideology has been repeatedly emphasized in this study. We have described this state of affairs as mildly schizoid, with people believing in one set of principles abstractly while acting according to another set of principles in their political behavior. But the principles according to which the majority of Americans actually behave politically have not yet been adequately formulated in modern terms …
There is little doubt that the time has come for a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve. Such a statement, with the right symbols incorporated, would focus people’s wants, hopes, and beliefs, and provide a guide and platform to enable the American people to implement their political desires in a more intelligent, direct, and consistent manner.
That restatement has never come about, but on-the-ground support for liberal policies remains as strong as ever, despite decades of mostly unanswered ideological assault in the media. Part of the problem is that conservative ideology expresses an idealized sense of individual possibility, so it’s relatively easy for people to access. Liberal ideology comes from a much more reflective place, one that encompasses thinking about society as a whole, and seeing oneself as part of a larger social fabric. Shortly after Free and Cantril wrote, the philosopher John Rawls proposed thinking in terms of a society conceived behind a “veil of ignorance”: if we had no idea where we were to fall in the scheme of things, what kind of social order would we consider fair and just? Such a framework makes perfect sense when we act as citizens, and openly invites us to act philosophically, in a way that promotes the flourishing of our whole society.
In 2011, Michael I. Norton of and Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University published a study (which Drier cites) that took a Rawlsian perspective. “Following the philosopher John Rawls (1971), we asked Americans to construct distributions of wealth they deem just,” they wrote. The results were a resounding confirmation of Bernie Sanders’ politics. As they explained in their abstract, they aimed to insert the desires of “regular” Americans into policy debates about the optimal level of wealth inequality by asking them first to estimate the current wealth distribution, and then construct their ideal. As they explained their results:
First, respondents dramatically underestimated the current level of wealth inequality. Second, respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution. Most important from a policy perspective, we observed a surprising level of consensus: All demographic groups—even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution, such as Republicans and the wealthy—desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo.
In their study, they gave people a choice between three alternatives, broken down into quintiles: the current wealth distribution in the U.S., a completely equal wealth distribution, and between the two, a wealth distribution equal to the income distribution of Sweden—one of those Scandinavian socialist countries that Bernie Sanders loves to share information about. Lo and behold, as the authors wrote in a section heading, “Americans Prefer Sweden.”
More precisely, Americans preferred Sweden over the U.S. by 92-8%. They also preferred complete equality, but less overwhelmingly: 77-23%. And they preferred Sweden over complete equality—but just barely, 51-49%. Not surprisingly, with such landslide numbers, it included everyone, the authors noted. “In addition, this overwhelming preference for the Sweden distribution over the United States distribution was robust across gender (females: 92.7%, males: 90.6%), preferred candidate in the 2004 election (Bush voters: 90.2%; Kerry voters: 93.5%) and income (less than $50,000: 92.1%; $50,001–$100,000: 91.7%; more than $100,000: 89.1%).” As the reference to Bush and Kerry gives away, although published in 2011, the original research was done well before the financial collapse—so this emphatically was not a response to the Great Recession.
If the overwhelming majority of Americans thinks that Sweden represents a better social order than America, then it’s hardly surprising that large numbers of them also agree with Sanders on a broad range of economic issues, as both PCI and Peter Drier lay out. And it’s not surprising that they agree on broader policies related to wealth and the exercise of political power, as well as policies making life better for the middle class, and helping more people to get into it. In fact, the only thing surprising about Bernie Sanders’ popularity is that people find it surprising. After all, the evidence has been all around us for a very long time now.
Does that mean Bernie Sanders ought to be taken a lot more seriously than he has been so far? Absolutely. Does it mean he’ll be president? Matt Grossman doesn’t think so. “Bernie Sanders has a long and uphill battle and, if history is any guide, little chance to win the Democratic nomination,” Grossman said. “It is true that he has focused on specific issue positions that are popular with the American public and an enduringly appealing Democratic message of taking on the rich and big business, but no candidate has won the Democratic nomination by avowedly running to the left of the other candidates since George McGovern. Democratic leaders are traditionally more concerned about maintaining a moderate image than Republicans (and more convinced that it matters for electability).”
But the question of why that asymmetric response has been so—much less if it is right—is well worth contemplating. Indeed a 2013 paper by Adam Bonica, Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal underscored the broader underlying question: “Why Hasn’t Democracy Slowed Rising Inequality?” They present a sophisticated analysis, which considers five possible explanations: first, an ideological shift toward free market capitalism; second, the combination of immigration and low turnout of the poor has produced an electorate more wealthy than the population as a whole; third, rising affluence has reduced the share of the public that’s attracted to government for social insurance; fourth, the rich have been able to increasingly influence politics “through campaign contributions, lobbying, and revolving door employment of politicians and bureaucrats;” and fifth, the political process is distorted by institutions that reduce accountability, such as gerrymandering and a multitude of institutional veto/pivot points.
Just reading through this brief summary of their explanation is enough to make the average voter tune out—which is precisely the point. The political system is anything but transparently responsive to the majority will. In the end, they conclude, “Overall, the kinds of government policies that could have ameliorated the sharp rise in inequality have been immobilized by a combination of greater polarization, lack of voter participation, feedback from high-income campaign contributors, and political institutions that must overcome a series of key pivots before making significant changes.”
What this means, in effect, is that the political system is in a state of drift, so far as the needs, interests and values of most ordinary Americans are concerned. All the supermajority issue positions that Sanders may hold are irrelevant, because the American people as a whole are irrelevant. Such is the sorry state of our democracy.
This was further confirmed by a 2014 paper, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page. In it, they used a dataset measuring key variables for 1,779 policy issues, and concluded that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
That is what’s meant by “politics as usual,” and that’s precisely what Bernie Sanders has spent his whole life working to change. As the campaign unfolds, and more and more people become aware of how well Sanders represents their views on fundamental issues, the focus on changing political structures of power will inevitably come to deepen—as Sanders, of course, already knows that it must.
In the Nation interview referred to above, Sanders began by responding to the question, “Are we at one of those pivot points—as we saw in the 1930s—where our politics could open up and take the country in a much more progressive direction?” And he responded as follows:
Obviously, we’re not in the midst of a massive depression, as we were in the 1930s. But I think the discontent of the American people is far, far greater than the pundits understand. Do you know what real African-American youth unemployment is? It’s over 50 percent. Families with a member 55 or older have literally nothing saved for retirement. Workers are worried about their jobs ending up in China. They’re worried about being fired when they’re age 50 and being replaced at half-wages by somebody who is 25. They’re disgusted with the degree that billionaires are able to buy elections. They are frightened by the fact that we have a Republican Party that refuses to even recognize the reality of climate change, let alone address this huge issue.
In 1936, when Roosevelt ran for reelection, he welcomed the hatred of what he called “the economic royalists”—today, they’re the billionaire class—and I’m prepared to do that as well. That’s the kind of language the American people are ready to hear.
Ultimately, the question is not “Will Bernie Sanders be elected president?” We’ve had many men elected president who have done little to impact the long arc of our nation’s course through history. The real question is, “Will the Sanders campaign change the course of American history?” And that question is one that every citizen can help answer, by how they engage in the months ahead.