Here at BMG, we’ve had our share of disagreements over Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. My contention is, we tend to start with our non-rational preferences and develop reasons for our choice as we go along. This is, psychologically speaking, natural. After all, few of us decide who to support with a completely open mind. How many of us start with a list of candidates, carefully weigh their assets and liabilities, and proceed to make a completely rational decision? Almost no one. We start with our biases, our preferences.
Although my preference is Hillary Clinton, I can’t deny the historical importance of Bernie Sanders and his candidacy. If he earns the nomination, I will happily support him, but I think it’s important to talk about what his candidacy means. Massachusetts may have the strongest Democratic organization in the country, but PPP just released a poll showing Hillary 7 points behind Bernie two weeks before the primary. My question is, why?
The answer lies in the content and medium of his message.
1. Opposition to Wall Street and the Government Collaboration & Corruption
“You know, I think many people have the mistaken impression that Congress regulates Wall Street. In truth that’s not the case. The real truth is that Wall Street regulates the Congress.”
This is Bernie’s core message. He comes to sincerely, but it’s also important to note that research has also shown these to be very powerful political themes. The Democratic Strategist, an online journal that is very much like it sounds, has covered these issues extensively. These two issues have been found to be powerful enough to persuade a sizable number of the white working class to vote for a Democrat.
Ask some of Bernie’s supporters why they don’t support Hillary, and many will say Bernie isn’t beholden to Wall Street. Many will also say Hillary is too close to Wall Street.
PPP’s Polling suggests the same thing: “Sanders does better on the issues of who voters trust most to crack down on Wall Street and who they have more faith in to pursue policies that raise the incomes of average Americans. Voters trust Sanders more to crack down on Wall Street in 5 of the 12 states we polled and in the states where Clinton is trusted more on that question it’s by a much more narrow margin than her overall lead.”
It’s also important to point out that some of Trump’s support is due to the belief that he’s not beholden to anyone either.
2. The Internet Circumvents the Parties and MSM
Prior to the internet, candidates were dependent on parties for communication. It was just too difficult to reach voters without the organization. In the television era, a lot of money was needed for advertising, and parties had the money. Small, marginalized candidates couldn’t afford to reach mass audiences without a party behind them, which gave parties a lot of control over which candidates could advance.
Trump and Sanders, however, have both largely ignored the established parties and been ignored by their respective parties. As an outlandish, famous celebrity, Trump knows how to promote himself. Sanders, however, has the internet.
“Reaching & persuading even a fraction of the electorate used to be so daunting that only two national orgs could do it,” Clay Shirky writes on Twitter. “Now dozens can. This set up the current catastrophe for the parties. They no longer control any essential resource, and can no longer censor wedge issues.”
Twenty years ago, almost all of our information about candidates and issues would come television and print media. A 75 year-old, democratic socialist would not made it far with institutional media. That stranglehold is now loosening. Sources of news are blowing up traditional sources. Sanders supporters talk directly to each other. People can learn about democratic socialism without having to content with the media according the Right the opportunity to make stuff up about it.
The internet hasn’t obviated the need for parties, but it has eroded their power over issues and, to some extent, campaign funds. The internet has made it easier for outsider candidates to raise money. After the New Hampshire Democratic debate, so many donations flowed into Sanders’ website, that it was temporarily shut down. And he has also set a record for the number of individual donors for a campaign.
3. The Left Rising
Twenty-five years ago, Bernie Sanders campaign would not have been a feasible candidate. Aside from the logistical problems with the communication and fundraising, the Left was truly marginalized. The Far Right, funded by the wingnut welfare system, had think tanks and newsletters. Back in the 1980s, my ultra-conservative uncle used to give me newsletters from Reed Irvine and Phyllis Schlafly. These newsletters were effective propaganda, but they also provided important mailing lists for Republicans. The Left had very limited ways to reach a large audience. The Internet, and blogs like BMG, changed that. In 1990, there was The Nation, now there are hundreds of sites where news and opinions are shared and interpreted. Bernie has benefitted from a revitalized Left.
4. Millenials On the Rise
The kids are wild about Bernie. I see this in my 21 year-old daughter. My niece and nephew. And even in my students. I’ve noticed a larger share of my suburban students are more tolerant–less racist, less resentful, more concerned with fairness. This was not true 20 years ago when I could always get a classroom argument going by bringing up welfare. The kids like Bernie. (They scoff at Trump).
I haven’t seen polling to suggest that younger Americans are more politically engaged than they were, but Sanders’ candidacy gives a clear idea of which direction they are headed in.
Of the millenials, pollster Stan Greenberg says, “there’s this deep sense that they have worked hard, they’ve learned the right values from their parents; they did everything possible to get an education and became burdened with debt. They have jobs that don’t pay very much, so they’re immediately weighed down by the debt. There is a real poignant sense that the values that they were taught and accepted have really been poisoned.”
5. Philosophies of Change
“Today,” Sanders said as he announced his campaign last May, “we begin a political revolution to transform our country economically, politically, socially and environmentally.” Revolution is a byword of Bernie’s campaign. It appeals, I think, to the Left and the politically inexperienced, the Left because it believes in revolution, the inexperienced because they don’t know any better. The desire for revolution waxes and wanes with the degree of injustice. Bernie is talking about revolution at the right time.
In my opinion, revolution is the last step of evolution. As much as I love the idea that someday a real rain will come and wash the scum out of our political system, but it’s the gradual change in climate that makes the difference. Bernie’s candidacy may feel like a revolution, but it is a natural outgrowth of the growth of the Internet, the Occupy Movement, which put inequality on the map, and our own Elizabeth Warren, who has taken on Wall Street.
One reason I support Hillary is that she doesn’t believe in revolution. She’s an incrementalist, a realist, if you will. I also have faith in Hillary because I don’t think she can get elected without participating the evolution. Some Clintonistas (Lawrence Summers) have already joined the evolution.