As we grind on through the election year – and especially through the Democratic primary – opponents of Pres. Trump are looking for answers as to how he pulled off his unexpected win and what can be done to avoid a repeat. Many of the analyses over the last three years have focused on two main areas: the impact of bigotry in the forms of sexism and racism and the economic and life conditions of the American electorate.* While I’m sympathetic to the first explanation, I think the second explanation has more power. In a clip from an interview with the New York Times, Sen. Bernie Sanders summed it up rather nicely. See the video below or read the transcript below it. (Full interview here.)
Here’s a transcript of the conversation:
NYT’s Brent Staples: I think it’s — how about the fact that Trump has touched a chord in 40 to 44 percent of the people? I mean, what about that issue is that Trump is a symptom of a widespread problem. I mean, how do you address that? The problem exists whether Trump is president or not is what I’m saying.
Sen. Sanders: I wish I could give you a great answer, brilliant answer to that. But this is what I will tell you, because that’s, you’re right. What is the issue? How did Trump become president? O.K. And I think it speaks to something that I talk about a lot and that is the fact that the — not everybody, but tens and tens of millions of Americans feel that the political establishment, Republican and Democrat, have failed them. Maybe The New York Times has failed them, too.
Staples: That explains the appeal of racism?
Sanders: Yeah. O.K. What you have is that people are, in many cases in this country, working longer hours for low wages. You are aware of the fact that in an unprecedented way life expectancy has actually gone down in America because of diseases of despair. People have lost hope and they are drinking. They’re doing drugs. They’re committing suicide. O.K. They are worried about their kids. I have been to southern West Virginia where the level of hopelessness is very, very high. And when that condition arises, whether it was the 1930s in Germany, then people are susceptible to the blame game…
Sanders: To say that it is the undocumented people in this country who are the cause of all of our problems, and if we just throw 10 million people out of the country, you’re going to have a good job, and you’re going to have good health care, and you have good education, that’s all we got to do. So all over the world, Trump didn’t invent demagoguery. It’s an age-old weapon used by demagogues. And you take a minority and you demonize that minority and you blame that minority, whether it’s blacks, whether it’s Jews, whether it’s Latinos, whether it’s Muslims, you name the group — gays? Gays are going to destroy education in America, we all know, yeah. On and on it goes. And you take the despair and the anger and the frustration that people are feeling and you say, “That’s the cause of your problem.”
I think this analysis is fundamentally correct.
We are a desperate people. That’s especially true when you compare us to our fellow developed nations. The US spends far more on health care while getting worse results. In fact, US life expectancy has declined for three straight years. Real wage growth has stagnated for the past forty years. Most of the income gains of recent years have gone and continue to go to the wealthy. Meanwhile, billionaires pay a lower tax rate than the working class. Forty percent of US households can’t afford the basics of being middle class. Forty percent of Americans also can’t cover a $400 emergency expense. Twenty-five percent have no retirement savings. Income inequality is among the highest in the OECD. Students are having to take on ever more debt to get an education to get ahead. The US has outrageous levels of gun violence.
Recently we’ve been enjoying a record-long economic expansion, but this won’t change most Americans situation dramatically – certainly not overnight and especially not if a recession hits. All of this is long-term trend that has persisted through different combinations of partisan control of government. The program that both parties have followed over the last two generations has not worked for most Americans. And they are tired of it. That has resulted in a continuous series of “change” elections. At the presidential level, it’s part of the explanation for how we got Barack Obama twice, but then flipped to Trump.
Ironically, as a son of the (post-)industrial Midwest Rust Belt, the Republican Trump sounded very much to me like a throwback to old-time labor union Democrats – quite the change, indeed – with promises to get tough on trade, save manufacturing plants, and preserve jobs. (He hasn’t delivered, particularly, but that’s another matter.) Democrats long ago blessed this hollowing out of American manufacturing. I watched numerous jobs disappear to lower-wage places with fewer worker protections – including the American south, Mexico, and eventually on to China – while Democrats told people they simply needed to get with it, move their cheese, and get more education (even subtly implying at times that workers in the Midwest were too dim-witted or lazy for the modern economy).
Living abroad as I do, I meet many Europeans who just shake their heads and can’t possibly understand how Americans gave them Trump. We’re not stupid. We’re desperate. And a drowning person will grab for any rope thrown to them.
So, is simply addressing people’s economic well-being the entire issue – the magic key?
No, of course not.
With regards to sexism, this is a real issue in many parts of life. (Pay disparities being a particularly corrosive example, since it undermines women’s power and independence and America’s commitment to equality.) But there’s not clear cut evidence, when it comes to electoral politics, that it’s decisive. And after all, let’s recall that Clinton actually won the popular vote. The country as a whole was certainly ready to elect a woman to the presidency, even if the quirks of the outdated Electoral College blocked that this time around.
Regarding racism, it is absolutely a real, repugnant and pernicious force in American society. I’ll admit – I think I grew up in a bit of a bubble. I was raised without overt racial bias. My parents consistently taught that all people were equal. However, later in life, I moved to downstate Illinois and encountered overt racism for the first time. A plumber doing some work at my house in an eastern suburb of Peoria, Ill., once told me I chose a good place to live because there weren’t many blacks and that he didn’t like black people. Another person I came to know told me one time that he didn’t like to go to the west side of the Illinois River because there were too many black people. (In both cases, I’m ashamed to admit, I did not confront this bigotry forcefully enough.) Another Peoria suburb, the town Pekin, Ill., has a troubling history with KKK activity, which sadly surfaced again recently.
This sort of overt bigotry helps bolster a pervasive low-level racism that shows up most egregiously in the criminal justice system, which then feeds the persistent economic disparities we see in society – not to mention how psychologically difficult it is for people to live with this sort of irrational bias against them. This is the white privilege that gets talked about. It can be hard to appreciate how nice it is to not have your character questioned all the time simply because of the color of your skin.
By the way, this is not unique to the US. As I’ve already mentioned, I live abroad in the city-state of Singapore. This is a well-run, orderly, clean, wealthy, and interesting place to live. We’ve been very fortunate to be here. I’ve also learned that racism has a history here and is, in fact, a universal human condition. There was what is called “communal” violence and tension – groups separated by race, ethnicity, and religion. In the case of Singapore, this mostly means Han Chinese, Malays, and Tamils from the southern India. Sometimes these attitudes pop up from time to time in Singapore and in other parts of Southeast Asia. To its credit, Singapore takes affirmative steps to tackle these tensions. Officially it doesn’t tolerate racism, and it works actively to balance and celebrate the representation of its respective communities. I’ll admit; it often does so in ways that many people in the “free” world would not accept – for example, enforcing a representative ethnic balance in public housing estates – but it’s not at all clear to me whether this is a bad thing if it leads to the de-emphasis of ethnicity and a decrease in racial tensions. (Incidentally, people of European descent are often referred to as “ang mohs” – meaning “red haired”. While used pejoratively by some – there are other, worse terms – many European extraction people often use it jokingly as a way to “take it back”.)
Getting back to the Sanders interview and statement, I spent what likely seemed like a long digression on racial attitudes in Southeast Asia. That was not to slam Singapore or any other country, but to illustrate that racist attitudes are universal. While the overt bigots of the world are willing to double down on this sort of thinking – and there are always ruthless politicians willing to exploit it – I sincerely believe most people in the world would rather try to find a way past racist thinking and move toward universal respect and acceptance of people regardless of their unchosen physical traits at birth.
How to do that? Well, in the American context, of course, condemn the true bigots as, dare I say, deplorable. Then seek ways to make racist appeals less salient – less powerful – by giving people hope and well-being and economic security. And that’s what Sanders – and progressives in general – look to do through their structuring of the social contract.
Is this a perfect recipe? No, not at all. Back to Europe for a moment. The people living there are fortunate to have the kind of social well-being systems in place that Americans and many others in the world can only dream of. But that doesn’t make them completely immune to racist appeals. The advocates of Brexit famously used racist appeals to push their case. The widespread immigration from the Middle East is challenging many European countries and empowering right-wing forces. This is true even in the places with the most robust welfare states.
There is no perfect solution. This is a constant fight. Millennia of human society built on condemning others in order to promote group solidarity (which was likely essential to our very survival) won’t be cleared out in an instant. This whole Enlightenment and welfare state projects are blips in human history – a couple hundred years in thousands of years of human civilization.
Also, it’s important to note that economic interests don’t explain everything in human society and elections, anyway. For example, progressives often wonder how lower-income conservatives could possibly vote for the Republican Party, which tends to advocate for policies that benefit the wealthy. The standard, and accurate, reason given is that Republicans play on other “cultural” issues, like abortion, religion and guns. These are often regarded as irrationally trumping (excuse me; had to use it) economic issues. But I don’t think there’s anything irrational about it at all. We are much more than the sum of our economic interests. Values matter. Essential commitments matter. For example, if someone were to offer me the opportunity to live comfortably and securely for my entire life and for the lives of my descendants in the ever-tightening authoritarian security state being created in the People’s Republic of China, I would refuse because human rights and freedom of expression matter to me. It’s not so easy just to dismiss it as a “cultural” issue.
So, how to put a program like the one Sanders and other progressives might propose in effect? Yes, there are a host of practical considerations to take into account – from paying for it to designing it to fit into other features of human nature, like laziness, greed, the willingness of people to exploit systems, and the power of financial incentives and the value of free enterprise. (These last two are not small things.) But those are all questions of design and enforcement, issues that never go away no matter what the system.
What’s needed first is a universal commitment to guaranteed widespread human well-being, based simply on someone being a human being and not of any particular socioeconomic or ethnic group. If we can begin to turn the minds and hearts of Americans in that direction through politics and elections, well, that’s a pretty good place to start.
* A third set of explanations could be called “dirty tricks”. This would include the Russian interference campaign, former FBI Director James Comey’s actions regarding the agency’s investigations into Clinton’s use of a private email server while Secretary of State, and Wisconsin Republicans’ changes to state election laws. It’s hard to say whether any of these were decisive. Elections are won and lost due to many reasons. However, taken altogether, these hijinks, with any luck, are unlikely to have the impact they did in 2016. Clinton is not on the ballot, of course, and people are prepared, otherwise. (At least we hope, despite efforts by Republicans seemingly to leave us vulnerable to further foreign interference.)