Senator Bernie Sanders’ delivered his one hour stump speech to 12,000 supporters in Seattle on August 8, 2015. Sanders described what he thinks is wrong with America, with a particular focus on income inequality and a corrupt political system. He cites a litany of statistics, much of which is correct: the real 10.4% unemployment rate, stagnant income levels for the middle class, the concentration of wealth in the top 1%, increasing poverty rates, and so on.
Sanders assigned blame for all of the problems he lists to billionaires. In particular, he blames the Koch brothers (Charles G. Koch and David H. Koch) and the Koch Foundation for everything that is wrong in the country, and the Supreme Court for enabling them.
What Sanders fails to say as he lists off the many measures of declining U.S. economic performance - income and wealth inequality, decreased opportunity, banks too big to fail getting bigger, and failed trade policy over the past 50 years - is that it was a time of progressive policy advancement. Is Sanders identifying correctly many issues of economic and related social failure, but ignoring the role that progressive economic and social policy played in that failure?
He reviles trade policy. Yet, it was an overwhelmingly Democratic 103rd Congress that approved the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Democratic President Bill Clinton who signed it into law. President Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress passed the laws that allowed the banks too big to fail to get bigger. President Obama is ramming through the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
Sanders does not appear concerned about understanding fully the causes of the complex issues he bemoans. He does not have to provide a credible argument because he is speaking largely to believers. He can simply list ills, cast about blame, and call for a revolution. His answer to the problems he raises is to double down on bigger government with trillion dollar stimulus, free tuition for college, twelve weeks of vacation for moms and dads, forgiveness of student loans, and $15 minimum wage to name a few.
Not surprisingly, the event appeared similar to one that Donald Trump might hold - long on problems, blame, and sound bites, but short on substantive solutions.
The odds are against a Sanders or Trump presidency. However, both are drawing out significant numbers of supporters, not all from a traditional base. That both, on either side of the political spectrum, are doing well suggests some common thread.
In watching both Sanders and Trump it appears that both are tapping a deep dissatisfaction with government elected officials, and a perceived corruption of the system that thwarts resolution of economic problems and related social issues. The Real Clear Politics average of polls supports this assessed undercurrent of discontent with poll averages indicated 72.5% of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, 50% disapprove of the job President Obama is doing, and 62.6% disapprove of the direction the country is headed.
Though Sanders and Trump do not share common ground on many issues (e.g. immigration), both call out a lackluster economy that is not responsive to the needs or values they claim represent the vast majority of Americans. They both point to a corrupted political system that is serving a political class enabled by wealthy campaign contributors and political action committees. Trump contends he is best qualified to fix the system because he has participated in it by contributing to politicians of every ilk to gain access.
It seems the rise of these candidates, from both ends of the political spectrum, is being driven by dissatisfaction with the economy and the government, and anger at a political class that is out of touch and focused solely on its own self-interest. Many may be supporting candidates far outside the mainstream because they perceive a system so out of whack that things cannot get much worse and therefore radical candidates can do no harm.
If this assessment is correct it bodes poorly for candidates perceived as part of the embedded political class regardless of party. Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Vice President Joe Biden are likely to suffer the most in such an environment. Perceived outsiders are likely to fair the best. For now, that is Sanders and Trump. As the body politic takes a closer look they will lose their luster and those perceived as outside the political class (e.g. Carly Fiorina) or outside the generation of the reining political class (e.g. Marco Rubio) will benefit.
All candidates would be well served to take a very close look at both Sanders and Trump to better understand how they might tap the powerful emotional discontent that is drawing their supporters, and develop strategies to convert that support to their campaigns when the inevitable fall comes.