Hillary’s Trump Challenge: Bernie’s Win in Michigan Exposes Democrats 2016 Problem

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Wednesday’s headlines were filled with headlines like this one from Slate Magazine: “Bernie Sanders Pulls Off Stunning Upset Win in Michigan Primary.” The Los Angeles Times led with “Bernie Sanders Surprises Hillary Clinton in Michigan. Is Ohio Next?” And, the folks at the data-driven FiveThirtyEight blog, who predicted a big and Hillary win in Michigan, reflected on the fact that “Bernie Sanders made folks like me eat a stack of humble pie on Tuesday night…Both the FiveThirtyEight polls-plus and polls-only forecast gave Clinton a greater than 99 percent chance of winning.”

Don’t worry all of you Hillary supporters, I am not about to launch into an anti-Hillary diatribe or overly enthusiastic prognostications about Bernie Sanders’s increasingly likelihood of winning the Democratic nomination for president. If I want to delve into the dizzying spin room of the political campaigns, I’ll confine myself to my Facebook and Twitter feeds.

However, Sanders’s upset in Michigan exposes some glaring problems for the Democratic Party who will likely face Donald Trump in this year’s presidential election.

Sanders’s win in Michigan has everything to do with the consensus politics of the Republican Party and the corporate wing of the Democratic Party that has dominated economic policy-making in our nation’s Capitol. We give it many names: neoliberalism, “third-way” politics, privatization…you know the drill. In short, the dominant economic model of the past 30 years has been the belief by consensus politicians that the “era of Big Government is over” (thanks to Bill Clinton for that one)  and that the free market will solve all our problems.

The legacy of this consensus economic policy is clearly seen in the global trade agreements enacted since Bill Clinton signed NAFTA in 1993. These “free trade” agreements – e.g. NAFTA, CAFTA, the Columbia Free Trade Agreement, and Obama’s personal baby, the TPP – have helped dismantle the American economy and cede democratic rights to corporations. Together, these free trade agreements have led to a destruction of the U.S. manufacturing sector as good-paying jobs – often union jobs – have been outsourced and exported in a process infamously known as “the race to the bottom.” Michigan, of course, could be a poster-child for what has happened to the U.S. economy as a result of these agreements.

According to the exit polls in Michigan, Bernie Sanders seems to have won in large part because of the support he received from those middle class and working class families most impacted by the manufacturing exodus brought about by free trade agreements. For example:

  • Sanders won voters with a family income under $50,000 (51% – 48%) and family income between $50,000 and $99,999 (50% – 47%). That group represented 53% of voters.
  • Sanders won with voters who indicated health care was a top issue (49% – 48%) and those who said income inequality was a top issue (60% – 38%). Interestingly, though, he lost to Clinton on the issue of economy and jobs (52% – 46%).
  • Sanders also won big with groups of voters who were asked if the candidate “cares about people like me” (56% – 40%).
  • And most significantly, Sanders won big among voters who said trade with other countries “takes away U.S. jobs (56% – 41%). That represented 57% of those who turned out to vote in yesterday’s Democratic primary.

By itself those poll results might not say very much about the presidential race. However, the results from the Republican Primary exit polls in Michigan – where Donald Trump won big – shows that trade issues also had a significant influence on Republican voters’ decision to back Trump.

When Republican primary voters indicated that they thought that trade with other countries “takes away U.S. jobs,” they backed Trump overwhelmingly with 45% of the vote (Cruz 22%, Kasich 20%, Rubio 9%). Overall, 55% of those who voted indicated that they felt trade destroyed U.S. jobs.

Both Sanders and Trump also won big among voters who consider themselves Independent or “something else” (33% of Republican voters and 27% of Democratic voters). On the Republican side, Trump received 36% of the independent vote (Kasich 27%, Cruz 22%, and Rubio 9%).  On the Democratic side, Sanders received the support of 71% of independent voters.

Exit poll results seem to indicate that the issue of trade – the kind of “free trade” fundamentalism embedded in 30 years of trade agreements – is going to be a significant issue at the polls come November in rust-belt states. And, “independent” voters may also play a significant role. And, Donald Trump seems to be already making a play for these voters.

In Trump’s victory press conference Tuesday night, he showed us a bit of the hand he plans on playing in the general election. After running through a list of all the ways he is more conservative than anyone else in the Republican field by reiterating pretty standard Republican positions on Obamacare, energy independence, and immigration, for example, he had this to say on trade (yes, I am actually going to attempt to transcribe Trump):

The one thing I guess people could say…I’m a free trader, believe it or not. But I’m also a smart trader…Nobody is more conservative, actually, on trade. The problem I have is that you have people that are in National Review – and they’re eggheads, they’re just eggheads, they have no commonsense whatsoever, no commonsense whatsoever. It’s not free trade when China charges tax to get our product in and they don’t let our product in anyway. And yet they just take their product and they just send it to us like nothing. We have a trade deficit with China of $500 billion a year. We have a trade deficit with Japan over a $100 billion a year. We have a trade deficit with Mexico, that’s why Mexico is going to pay for the wall. $58 billion a year…

…The only thing that I can say that some people would say that I’m not conservative, is trade. But that’s because I want fair trade. I want free trade, but free trade you have to have smart people on both sides and we don’t have smart people on our side. So, I want fair trade. It’s gotta be fair trade. Or as you might say, “fair and balanced” trade, as they would say at Fox.

Amidst Trump’s usual insults and ramblings bordering on beat poetry, Trump made his move to smack down three decades of neoliberal economic orthodoxy (stupid eggheads) and jump to the left of the Democratic Party establishment. There are many things that we can call Donald Trump, but “stupid” is not one of them. His tact to the left on trade (even as he claims it for conservatism), exploits a glaring gap between the Democratic Party and one of its key constituencies: working class Americans, especially those in areas that used to house the heart of the industrialized union movement. Trump is making his play for these voters because he knows Hillary Clinton (and the Democratic Party) abandoned these voters quite sometime ago, even as the party still pays lip service to its previous working class composition.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that this is a problem that is specific to Clinton. This is a problem rooted in the Democratic Party’s three decade march away from the working class.

In a must-read Jacobin article,”Atari Democrats,” Lily Geismer charts what amounts to a fundamental remaking of the Democratic Party that began with McGovern’s failed 1972 presidential run and became codified in the 1992 center-right Democratic Leadership Council’s “blueprint for a new American,” Mandate for Change.

Geismer makes the case that Mandate for Change, which drew from what the DLC claimed were the “progressive ideas and themes that energized Bill Clinton’s winning campaign,” made explicit for the first time the themes that now are commonplace among the Democratic Party establishment:

Animating that agenda were several core principles: “economic growth generated in free markets as the prerequisite for opportunity for all,” “equality in terms of opportunity, not results,” and a rejection of both the “liberal emphasis on redistribution in favor of pro-growth policies that generate broad prosperity” and the “Right’s notion that wealthy investors drive the economy.”

One of Geismer’s key insights is the very same Democratic Party vulnerability that Trump seems to want to exploit: the Democratic Party leadership has left large sectors of the American working class behind. Here’s Geismer explaining what’s happened:

Since the 1960s, suburban knowledge professionals and high-tech corporations have supplanted urban ethnics and labor unions as the party’s core constituency. This shifting base intensified structural inequality and constrained the party’s ability to deliver progressive reforms.

While suburban knowledge workers make up a small portion of the electorate and an even smaller percentage of the national population, they have come to hold a disproportionate amount of political power — especially within the Democratic Party. This cohort tends to vote in high numbers, contribute to campaigns, engage in issue-based advocacy, and receive outsized media attention.

Engineers, tech executives, scientists, lawyers, and academics in postindustrial, high-tech enclaves across the country — from the Route 128 to the Research Triangle and Silicon Valley — broadly share a political agenda that combines economic and cultural issues. They generally favor environmental protection, low taxes, freedom of choice, promotion of high-tech industry, education as a means to advancement, and expertise as a solvent for social problems. Richard Florida, who initially coined the term “creative class” to describe this constituency, characterizes their politics as “generally liberal-minded.”

Above all, he argues, knowledge workers are “staunchly meritocratic” and opposed to “inequality of opportunity.” While that commitment has at times driven them to favor collective remedies to social problems, at other points, it has provoked sharp antipathy toward labor unions.

If you have spent any time among professionals who are liberal, you can often feel this anti-labor sentiment in conversations even as they profess very liberal ideas when it comes to many other Democratic Party mainstays on issues of gender, race, immigration, etc. In my years as a unionized faculty member at a state university, I swim in a sea of people who are mostly “liberal-minded,” but who are quite often “staunchly meritocratic,” quietly dismissive of the organized politics of organized labor (even as they benefit from our union contract). To be sure, I am over-generalizing. But, academics are very much part of that “creative class” of which Richard Florida was speaking.

Geismer’s argument matters in 2016 because while the Democratic Party leadership has traded their blue collars for white ones, many unionized workers are called upon to be the foot soldiers when it comes to election time. As many writers have noted, the Koch Brother led attacks on labor unions may be dressed in ideological terms, but their goal is to politically decimate the only organized source of power that supports Democrats. At the same time, those very union members have been hurt the most by the pro-market policies of the Democratic Party leadership. When you take a key constituency for granted, expecting them to do all your campaign grunt work while you sign away their livelihoods with each successive trade deal, you’re setting the table for your own demise.

And that is essentially the problem that is awaiting Hillary Clinton should she win the Democratic Party nomination and face Trump in the general election. If the recent history of the Democratic Party holds, Clinton’s tendency will be to “pivot to the political center.” But that “center” is way to the right of where it was a generation ago, especially when it comes to economic policy. If she makes that pivot, I’d bet my bottom dollar that Trump will hit hard on the trade front – especially the “free trade” deals that Clinton has fully supported until very recently following unexpected pressure from Bernie Sanders’s strong campaign rooted in New Deal, working class politics. Thanks to Sanders’s pressure, Clinton may have moved significantly to the left when it comes to economic policies, but she is not a New Deal Democrat. She is a DLC Democrat; and, with that comes a potentially serious vulnerability in an election cycle foregrounding economic policy.

The fact that economic policy is front-and-center in this year’s election owes much to the explosive campaign by Bernie Sanders, for sure. But the impact of decades of neoliberal economic policy was not confined to working-class Democrats. Trump has struck a nerve among working class conservatives and independents in more ways than fanning the flames of racism, sexism, nationalism, and xenophobia. His “fair trade” pitch may just be his plan to peel away working class voters from Clinton in the general election.

Of course, there’s a long road ahead and Bernie Sanders’s Michigan win may bode well for him in other states that have been similarly decimated by the free trade political consensus in D.C. Two of those states, Ohio and Illinois, will go to the polls on March 15 to vote in party primaries. Regardless of the outcomes in those primaries, the Democratic Primary has its own Trump problem, one that’s been a generation in the making.


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