Prof. Elizabeth Sanders, government, explained how the democratization of primary elections, increased influence of money in politics and economic conditions of the working class explain Donald Trump’s popularity in a lecture, Tuesday.
At the beginning of her talk, Sanders labeled Trump a demagogue and posed several questions to the audience to frame her discussion.
“My real question for you to try to answer is, ‘Why Trump now?’” she said. “Why has such an unusual candidate come to the fore, and who are his constituents? Why did they choose to follow him, as opposed to other candidates?”
Many aspects of the 2016 elections can be explained through changes in institutional party politics, according to Sanders.
From Andrew Jackson’s presidency in 1828 to the late 1960s, U.S. political parties chose their own candidates in a large meeting of elected officials and other party leaders, with limited input from the rank and file, Sanders said.
However, after political upheaval in the late 1960s — specifically, the violence and protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention — reformist democratic party leaders attempted to get rid of what reformers called ‘party bosses’ and democratize the process of presidential nominations, according to Sanders.
“We decided to have elections all over the country, and anybody [could] show up for a registered party and say, ‘I’m here to support whichever candidate I chose,’” Sanders said. “That was seen as the essence of democracy.”
Sanders said that she believes these more “democratic” primaries have fueled partisan polarization, as the most passionate voters are most likely to head to the polls.
“You get zealots in these elections — people feeling really passionate about a candidate or an issue,” she said. “They aren’t going to represent larger groups, but passionate minorities.”
This kind of primary participation translates into overall party polarization, Sanders said.
“When a quarter of the most committed voted in primaries, parties began slowly drifting apart, and Republicans in particular were captured by their most zealous faction,” she said. “That has created paralysis in Washington.”
The Role of Money
Expanding primaries to the general public has vastly altered the role of financing in party politics, according to Sanders.
“If you have to run in 50 states for your party’s nomination, you need a lot of money,” she said.
Sanders added that the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court Decision has played an important part in exacerbating the influence of money in politics.
“Big donors claimed that they could not be limited in making large, independent donations to political committees because spending their own money … was implicit in their right to ‘speak,’” Sanders said. “This spending can be secret; you often don’t even know where the money is coming from.”
Because elections are so expensive, in the absence of financial regulation the wealthy can heavily influence elections and subsequent policy outcomes, according to Sanders.
“Politicians will kiss the hands of wealthy donors, take their money and adopt their policy positions,” she said.
Sanders said Trump has used the anger of people who feel donors have too large of a role in politics to gain voter support.
“Donald Trump has sold himself to the public, [saying] ‘I have so much money that as president I won’t have to adopt anyone’s issues in return for their money,’” she said. “ A lot of people find that as close as you can to diminishing the power of money in elections.”
Who Are Trump’s Constituents?
Sanders said Trump is championing issues that are important to a segment of the American population she described as “downwardly mobile working class people” who “do not see anyone in the Republican Party speaking for them.”
Trump is often most popular in sections of the country “that have lost an industry in the last twenty years,” she said.
The Republican party’s lack of response to the economic stagnation of the South is why we Trump has gained such support, according to Sanders.
“What has the Republican Party done for the people it brought in over social issues?” she said. “Can anyone think of anything for downwardly mobile whites? I can’t either, so that’s how we got Donald Trump.”