The establishment political set and the mainstream media seem to be wholly fixated on writing off Bernie Sanders as an “extreme Left” politician from a “small mostly white State” who is a “self-proclaimed socialist.” And because of these attributes (so the meme goes) he has no chance of winning in the general election – this presumably because America is a “Centrist-Right” or even a “Conservative” country.
They are overlooking some very basic facts of history and socio-economics, as well as politics. It is true that over the past 35 years, “liberal” has been become an epithet, while “conservative” has become an emblem that more and more Americans feel comfortable with. But why is that?
It Started with Reagan
Ronald Reagan embodied a strident, “Conservative” persona, rejecting Carter’s namby-pamby “Liberal” identity. The so-called “Reagan Democrats” were drawn to Reagan because he was willing to tell then that they did NOT have to lower their thermostats, drive smaller cars, or switch to the metric system. America was a “shining city on a hill,” whose best days lay ahead. America was perceived as weak in the world, and he, Ronald Reagan, would beef up the military and make America strong again. He played on racial tensions, revving up the “Southern Strategy” that had worked for other Republican candidates since Nixon. And of course Reagan was the first one to propose a Constitutional Amendment to ban abortion.
“God, Guns and Gays”
Since 1980, the idea of what makes a “Conservative” has been framed in mostly non-economic terms. Creationism, Christianity, Abortion, Gay Rights, Gun Control, Affirmative Action – these were the key issues that defined an American as a Conservative. It was never so much about tax cuts and small government, as far as the average voter was concerned. Sure, every Conservative would automatically stand for cutting taxes, but that was an auxiliary, second tier issue that did not engender the type of fervour among the electorate.
And so, for 30 years, Republicans won elections by putting Gay Marriage, Abortion Rights and other cultural “wedge” issues on the ballot. And they are still using that playbook. The recent GOP debate ranged from terrorism (military) to illegal immigration (racism) and Planned Parenthood (abortion), but never once touched on economic issues.
Cultural “Liberals” Backed by Billionaires -?
The Democrats, for their part, have also happily played into this game. The Democratic Leadership Council, headed by Bill Clinton, co-opted conservative economic principles and left the Democratic Party only a slim playing field on which to oppose Republicans on cultural issues. “Liberal” billionaire donors like George Soros, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer give to Democrats to support cultural, social or environmental issues – not economic ones. And why not? These are smart men, after all, they know enough not to go against their own economic interests.
“Enough is Enough”
But for just how long can the American voter be asked to vote against his or her own economic interests in order to promote their positions on cultural issues?
We may have the answer to that question this year, in the form of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Sanders is relentless with his concentration on Economic issues, and his rallying cry of “enough is enough” and “the billionaires can’t have it all”. In his speech announcing his candidacy, he spent fully 45% of his time speaking about Economic issues – more than twice as much as any of the other candidates, and almost three times as much time as Hillary Clinton did. Some Republican candidates did not even mention economics in their announcement speeches at all.
American resentment at the growing wealth inequality, the disappearance of the middle class, the harsh reality that most people are moving backwards economically compared to their parents – these are all issues that have been percolating, seething below the surface of the superficial political debate in America. But they are important issues, and when people say that Bernie is “touching a nerve” they vastly underestimate the power of his message: “you have been screwed economically for years by both parties.”
The Old Dogs Won’t Hunt
Now that Gay Marriage is the law of the land, the issue of “Gays” can no longer be used to galvanise the electorate. Now that the Confederate Flag is being struck all throughout the South the old “Southern Strategy” is a dog that will no longer hunt. And with Pope Francis basically issuing statement after statement supporting what are essentially the same arguments Bernie is making, “God” is no longer a wedge issue either. That leaves “Guns” – and Bernie is regarded as a relative moderate on that subject – certainly his common sense arguments, and his coming from a rural state where guns are an integral part of life, will keep that issue off the table.
As an Independent who refuses to take PAC money or billionaires’ donations, Bernie now occupies a unique position in American political history. And I believe history will show that his was the winning ticket.