“This campaign is about a political revolution,” Bernie Sanders says on the campaign trail, “to not only elect the president, but to transform this country.” Hillary Clinton replies that that’s a pipe dream and points to how hard it is to make even incremental progress against an intransigent Republican Congress.
But while Clinton has good reasons for this rejoinder, she may be misreading the political landscape, and would do better politically by stealing Bernie Sanders’ ideas. Both numbers and recent history show that if the next president paints a big enough vision on the campaign trail, he or she could become as influential as Ronald Reagan. Here’s how.
The politics of selfishness
In 1978, Stanford Research Institute was charting the effect that the baby boomers were having on American society. Businesses were struggling to market to a generation that cared less about status and more about personal expression. This was the Me Decade, obsessed with human potential and self-actualization, and in California, Ronald Reagan was watching this change firsthand. Arnold Mitchell and his colleagues at SRI hit on a new market research method to get a handle on what was going on, which they called VALS, for Values and LifeStyle. Instead of using traditional demographics, they targeted people psychographically, based in significant part on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which put self-actualization at the pinnacle of human experience. The research found something stunning: There was a large and growing group that hadn’t been understood before, which they called the Inner Directeds. These people cut across traditional demographic lines, and what they had in common was their desire to live life on their own terms.
Reagan took advantage of this group in the 1980 election. Boomers hated government and had railed against it since the Vietnam War. “Government is not the solution to our problem,” Reagan told them, “government is the problem.” You shouldn’t have to conform to government mandates, you should be free. Instead, Reagan put business at the center of American culture. It was business, he argued, that could best fulfill the needs of the individual, efficiently, cheaply, and with great abundance and variety, helping them to express themselves and their uniqueness. The consumer was king. Boomers responded by voting for Reagan in huge numbers, in both the 18-26 and 27-38 age brackets. The sudden loss of young voters rocked the Democratic party to its core.
In 1992, Bill Clinton was the first candidate to use massive focus group testing to assess boomer attitudes, and to make a values sell based on individual fulfillment, instead of the old-style democratic politics of appealing to voters’ common interests. Government was a service to the individual, like business. Voters were passive consumers of politics, instead of active participants in it. Clinton crafted his message to fit exactly what the focus groups said suburban swing voters wanted, and promised tax cuts. “Government is in the way,” he told the Democratic National Convention. “It’s taking more of your money and giving you less in return.”
But once in office, Clinton found the deficit was much larger than expected and he’d have to make deep cuts to social programs, so he dropped the tax cut proposal. This angered the inner-directed, anti-government suburban boomers Clinton had used to build a coalition in the campaign. When he proposed what became Hillarycare in 1993—which was about shared interests—they revolted. Disunited Democrats threw up several competing proposals, effectively killing it, and in 1994 voters turned Congress red, throwing Clinton’s presidency into jeopardy.
To win reelection against this intense Republican surge, Clinton turned to values and lifestyle targeting data similar to that developed by SRI. “The era of big government is over,” he told voters in his 1996 State of the Union address. He hired Dick Morris and Mark Penn, who overlaid lifestyle data on swing voters to figure out how to identify and message to them on a granular level that reinforced his affinity with them. It was like rock climbing: one piton stake at a time. Under Morris and Penn’s direction, Clinton crafted his message, his public appearances and his policies to what the data suggested, to build a new psychological coalition that cut across ideological and demographic boundaries, and it worked. He won reelection, but he needed a sacrifice. He chose to end Roosevelt’s welfare program, exchanging it for a more Republican “welfare to work” plan, proving that “the era of big government” was indeed over.
The president, and the party he led, had learned how to win in an era of self-obsession. They had won the battle but lost the philosophical war. By targeting the self-interest of voters, the Democratic Party became captive to a consumer approach to marketing politics that was playing within the Republicans’ framing. Considering the selfish focus of boomer culture, it may be that this strategy was necessary, as was the constant polling on policy measures during the second Clinton term, and Clinton and Morris would no doubt argue this. But as long as the president and the Democratic Party operated within such reactive political framing, with no appeal to imagination or a larger vision than self-interest, it would also move the country further and further away from the common interest values that the political left stood for.
It was also based on an unexamined assumption: that self-interest is indeed the paramount political frame, instead of simply being one of many possible frames. The resulting focus on self-fulfillment at the expense of shared interests radically transformed government and American political and economic thought in the decades since.
It’s a different economy, stupid
We now know from science that self-fulfillment is not the only frame; in fact it is something of a mirage. Once basic needs are met, at a financial level of around $76,000, more money doesn’t make people happier. Like a carrot on a stick, one can chase self-fulfillment forever and still find it’s not quite within reach. Building a politics on this mirage drives the country ever rightward.
When combined with international trade agreements designed to give individuals cheaper goods (which polls well on a granular level) and the attendant rise of globalization ushered in by Clinton, the pursuit of this mirage led to unprecedented corporate power, destruction of the middle class, and environmental disasters that are providing the fuel for Bernie Sanders’ campaign and his call for a political revolution. This is a philosophical struggle for the hearts and minds of the Democratic Party.
Considering Bill Clinton’s campaign’s strategic approach and what seems to have become an underlying philosophy, one can begin to understand the challenges Hillary Clinton is facing now that the landscape is changing. After a career in the political cross hairs, focus-testing messages against self-obsessed individuals with short-term horizons in order to eke out small gains from an intransigent opposition, Sanders’ talk of a political revolution must seem laughably naive.
But one can also see why this approach, and the underlying assumptions of the market-driven self-gratifying, short-term consumer culture that inform it, is posing major challenges to the old Clinton paradigm, and why Hillary needs a new approach if she is to truly seize the potential that is there in the electorate. Because it’s a different economy, stupid, something Sanders seems to recognize more intuitively than Clinton.
As during the rise of Reagan, there is a huge, generational demographic shift underway, and it is also a psychographic one. The oldest boomers were 34 in 1980. The oldest millennials are 39 in 2016. While boomers have been self-absorbed and anti-government since the '60s, their children are growing up in a world where it is corporate power that is run amok, it is corporate power that has become corrupt, it is corporate power that is limiting their possibilities, and it is corporate power and the attendant income, infrastructure and environmental inequality, and its government enablers, that are the new political battlegrounds.
A new, powerful coalition
Mounting evidence shows that because of millennials’ ties through social media, younger voters do not think of themselves in the same radically self-obsessed, anti-government and entitled consumer ways their boomer parents did. Instead, they tend to see themselves as empowered but also a part of a collective, a social fabric, individual but cooperative, and because of this they value tolerance and equality. Most boomers were anxious to establish their independence; the data show millennials are not. Already the 20-44 population demographic is 8 percent larger than the 45-69 demo, it is significantly less self-focused, it sees the problems differently, indeed the problems are different, and reactive, self-focused politics are no longer necessarily the best way forward. And that means there is, lying there, waiting to be fully awakened, a new, powerful coalition that can reshape American politics by focusing on the common good, while respecting the rights of the individual. Not an either/or, a both/and. A new holistic politics where our shared interests unite us together.
This is Clinton’s biggest danger and biggest opportunity: that she stands on the cusp and may not fully embrace its changing values, and so let the opportunity slip by. Looking back at the video footage of 25 years ago, one can see see a beautiful, brilliant, driven Hillary Clinton, fighting to eke out even gains in a culture of economic, political, psychological and social selfishness with a strong Republican current flowing against her. And yet she had the idealism to make that fight then.
But Clinton may forever be a woman out of step with her time: once too idealistic and now too strategic. Consider the messaging of Texas congressman Chris Bell, who told the Dallas Morning News that:
“I completely understand youthful idealism; I had plenty of it. And I certainly understand the anger that has turned many Sanders’ way. But idealism and anger are not going to change our state; that is only going to happen when Democrats once again become competitive statewide. Along with a lot of others, I am so tired of toiling in the trenches for the Democratic Party and then watching as we form a circular firing squad. We need to seize this opportunity we’ve been handed. We need to be relevant once again.”
Bell’s thinking is similar to the Clinton strategy of the 1990s: It contains the implicit assumption that the electorate is to the right. But it also shows the thinking of all the Democrats who proposed alternate plans to Hillarycare, dooming it to failure. What it misses is that one doesn’t have to message within the self-focused paradigm. Given imagination and leadership coupled with the current demographics and psychographics, the fabric of political space-time itself can be altered. The numbers suggest that the same voters that deliver the presidency could also deliver the Senate. That is an argument for what Sanders is trying to do, and an explanation of why he is gaining grass-roots momentum against the favorite of party leaders with ties back to Bill Clinton’s presidency: He is presenting a philosophical alternative that refuses to play in the Republican message box.
Sanders, on the other hand, may have an upper ceiling unless he can make an argument that is both philosophical and strategic, showing Democratic leaders like Bell how they can win. If he can, we could see the Clinton coalition begin to crumble because its foundation is more strategic than philosophical. Either candidate can thus benefit from making the other’s argument, because what the time calls for is a strategic approach to a philosophical change, as Sanders correctly identifies: not just winning the White House, winning the hearts of the electorate. Whoever does it first and most wholeheartedly could run away with the prize.
Americans are undergoing a seismic shift in the political landscape, one that would seem to favor Democrats, but they may hand it away by refusing to unify and boldly grasp it. The numbers show that the time for the sort of bold, visionary appeal to the shared interests of society is finally arriving. If Democrats can capture it, they could elect an epochal president, one that has the power to redefine the argument as Reagan did, for the next 35 years.