Monday, June 1, 2015

The Odd Appeal of Bernie Sanders

(Cross-posted at Ricochet)

I subscribe to NBC’s daily First Read email update on the “know-thine-enemy” principle. Last week, its discussion of Bernie Sanders’s presidential launch contained this paragraph (emphasis mine): 
In his presidential kickoff speech yesterday, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called for “a political revolution to transform our country economically, politically, socially, and environmentally…The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time.”…Sanders’ weakness if he somehow catches fire: His appeal is with upscale, affluent Democratic whites, but not the Latinos and African Americans who also make up the Democratic coalition. Sanders is filling your classic Gary Hart/ Bill Bradley/ Howard Dean position.
NBC doesn’t seem to think it’s curious that a candidate who campaigns against income inequality would primarily appeal to “upscale, affluent” voters, but I do. If Sanders’s platform is focused on income inequality and sticking it to Wall Street, why isn’t he counting on the support of poor and working-class voters? Here’s what I came up with, from most cynical to least:
-It’s left-wing posturing: Progressivism began largely as a movement of upper-middle-class people telling poor people what was best for them. From Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity crusade to the “social justice warriors” getting offended on others’ behalf, this tendency is still going strong, and might help explain some of Sanders’s appeal. 
-It’s all about race: Perhaps the crucial variable isn’t income, but race. Hillary Clinton looks set to continue her strong support among Hispanic voters (who propelled her to winning the California and Texas primaries in 2008) and might be able to recapture the support she and her husband had in the 1990s among black voters (recall that Bill Clinton was nicknamed the “first black president” until the genuine article appeared). With working-class white voters flocking to the GOP, upscale white voters may be the only option Sanders has left. However, considering black and Hispanic Americans have lower incomes on average than white Americans, you’d think they’d be more receptive to Sanders, or that his message might bring back white working-class voters. 
-The Old College Try: To the extent that Occupy Wall Street, the forerunner of the Sanders campaign, had a coherent policy agenda, it revolved around doing something about student debt, either forgiving it, making college free in the future, or both. Whatever the merits of this issue*, by definition, it’s one that only appeals to college-educated voters- and it’s one Bernie Sanders is championing. More broadly, it’s never difficult to get people to resent those a little bit wealthier than they are. 
All of these help explain Sanders’s appeal to the affluent, but I don’t think any, or all, of them, explain all of it. Is there something I’ve missed? What else might cause affluent voters to back a self-proclaimed socialist?
*In the interest of full disclosure, I have quite a bit of student debt myself. I agree that it’s a problem, but the eagerness of the left to blame politicians, rich people in general, or anyone on earth other than the colleges that are jacking up tuition in the first place, mystifies me.

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