So genuine was elite surprise in the fall of 2015 that responses were at first preoccupied with the choice of words to describe the Democratic challenger and the ascendant Republican candidate. Sanders was an old fashioned socialist who’d sneaked into the Senate Democratic caucus, somewhat reminiscent of Huey Long or Eugene Debs. Trump was harder to label, but the favorites were (and still are) demagogue, racist, fascist. Party elites and intellectuals were determined to delegitimate both outsiders. Despite their best efforts, Trump is now the Republican candidate for president and though Sanders was crushed by the Democratic machine, his devoted and angry followers are essential to Hillary Clinton’s victory.
For academics, who may suddenly realize with a bit of discomfort that they themselves are part of the establishment the Sanders and Trump factions are rebelling against, comprehension of the meaning of this election remains elusive. Sanders is safely marginalized (it is assumed), and it remains only to defeat the monster Trump who personifies all that is vile in American politics, and allow the establishment’s Hillary Clinton to resume her rightful place on the center-left side of the governing class where identity politics can be championed without any risk of real reform or, heaven forbid, redistribution.
If we don’t progress beyond this perspective, if we refuse to learn what’s really going on in this remarkable political time, we will not be able to construct solutions, and our polity will be much the worse for that. Despite the vast differences in their personalities and prior careers, Sanders and Trump represent the economically vulnerable and the downwardly mobile Americans who have not benefitted from the techy globalization project of cosmopolitan elites. They have been offered no side-payments for the suffering imposed on them by their rulers. The trade adjustment assistance originally conceived to help the working class cope with the painful transformations of “free trade” treaties has shrunk to pitifully tiny amounts. Students to whom the Clintons preached “Go to college if you want to cross our bridge to the high-tech future,” find themselves burdened with debt and living at home to save rent money.
Academics talk a lot about inequality, but when the unequal rise up in politics, they are met with epithets that justify refusing to take their grievances seriously (like “racist,” or as DNC emails described Sanders, “dufus”).
My guess is that very few Trump supporters are racists, that they back Trump despite finding him appalling, because with Sanders out of the picture he is the only anti-establishment game in town. They may qualify as experiencing “racial resentment” or “gender resentment” because they are going in the opposite direction from African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and educated women; they are going down, not up. Counties dense with Trump supporters register lower income growth, higher drug use, higher suicide rates, and lower life expectancies than those dense with Clinton supporters. Many in the Clinton camp seem to believe that those dismal experiences merit no sympathy because white working class men used to enjoy the benefits of white male privilege; they are just getting their just deserts.
This attitude is not only uncharitable (to put it mildly), but dangerous. If we are really worried about fascism reemerging around the world, we might think twice about declaring those losing out to globalization “deplorables” unworthy of any positive government attention, and get to work after the election creating a new deal for the working and middle classes. Elites cannot be counted on to deliver this change without powerful movements working for it. And THAT huge task will require that the working and lower middle classes combine across racial lines to defeat deadly and biased policing, elitist trade agreements that aim to increase corporate incomes and defeat public regulation, and education costs increasingly out of reach for half the country. There was once a biracial movement in this country to restructure American politics and society. It championed civil rights, economic rights, and a more level playing field throughout. It was called Populism. Time to try it again?
M. Elizabeth Sanders is a professor in the government department in the College of Arts and Sciences.