Political parties exist, first and foremost, to serve the interest of the insiders, while doling out just enough in the way of favors and ideological satisfaction to keep the party outsiders on the reservation. But when the members of the "Outer Party" feel sufficiently ignored, a champion appears who will take their interests to heart, or at least sound as if he does.
That's what's happening in both parties with the rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., (actually, he identifies as a Socialist, but caucuses with, and apparently now is campaigning as, a Democrat) and Republican Donald Trump (actually he identifies mostly with himself, and campaigns mostly on TV talk shows). Each, in his own way, speaks to the concerns of constituencies within his party (and, interestingly, to some degree the other party) that are being ignored or dismissed by the insiders.
Sanders recently went after the Obama administration on inequality and unemployment, noting that although the official government unemployment is at 5.4%, the real unemployment figure, including those who have given up looking for work or who are involuntarily working part-time, is 10.5%, almost double.
What's more, he notes, youth unemployment is even worse. For young high school graduates, unemployment is 33% for whites, 36% for Hispanics and 51% for blacks. Never mind that Sanders' proposed minimum-wage increase would make that worse. The point is that he's speaking to a concern that is evident to ordinary Democrats around the country, but that is concealed by the Obama administration's gauzy proclamations of economic recovery.
Likewise, his attacks on billionaire power over the government ring true in an age where Hillary Clinton gets $300,000 speaking fees, and where President Obama's campaign contributions from Wall Street have earned him the nickname President Goldman Sachs. Obama, of course, attacked Wall Street on the campaign trail, but by now Democratic Party faithful have figured out that it's Wall Street that's calling the shots.
As The Economist says, "Forget the 1% it is the .01% who are really getting ahead in America."
And as The New York Times recently noted, the benefits of this "recovery" have gone almost entirely to the rich. "In the first three years of the current expansion, incomes actually fell for the bottom 90% of earners, even as they rose nicely for the top 10%. The result: The top 10% captured an impossible-seeming 116% of income gains during that span. ... One percent of the population, in the first three years of the current expansion, took home 95% of the income gains."
Sanders' solutions might be ill-conceived, but at least he's talking about a problem that the incumbent, and the front-runner, are largely happy to ignore. And though, as an aged, openly Socialist, white male, he might not have been the dream candidate, Sanders draws enthusiastic crowds who are grateful that someone is speaking to their concerns.
Likewise, Trump. His signature issue is immigration. The GOP establishment likes open borders because its big corporate donors want cheap labor. (The Democratic establishment likes open borders because immigrants usually vote Democratic.) But many ordinary Americans mostly, but not at all exclusively, Republicans wonder what's in it for them. More immigrants means more competition for jobs, pushing wages down, whether it's at entry-level unskilled jobs, or at the higher-level tech jobs where employers abuse H1B visas to bring in cheap foreign labor.
Most GOP pols won't touch this issue, which pairs the risk of scaring off immigration-dependent donors with the added danger of being called racist by Democrats. Trump doesn't care, so he is willing to raise the issue anyway. And he has done so effectively: Two weeks ago, the immigration template involved stories about "DREAMers" who want to go to college; now it involves multiple-arrested undocumented immigrants who kill women. Trump might not be the ideal candidate of the Republican Party's discontented members either, but, again, they're grateful that someone is talking about their concerns instead of trying to bury them.
Both Sanders and Trump pose threats to their respective establishments. Sanders might be another Eugene McCarthy, who garnered tremendous enthusiasm in 1968 while sapping the energy of Democratic establishment candidate Hubert Humphrey, who went on to lose. Trump might turn out to be another Ross Perot, whose plain talk about deficits excited a lot of GOP voters who then saw George H.W. Bush as an unappetizing substitute.
In a democratic polity, you can't ignore the concerns of large numbers of voters forever. Both Democrats and Republicans are learning that lesson yet again.
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