The reportage of the presidential primaries has been heavy on personalities and the latest numbers, and light on information useful to voters. Comparisons to a horse race are apt. Were the news to take a documentary approach instead, the campaigns would be revealed as they are: something existing contrary to the public’s interests.
One need only consult the public opinion record to see the primaries (and their coverage) in the correct light. In other words, by looking at the polling data on the various issues—putting aside party ideology, the artificial liberal-conservative polarity, and the cult of personality—it becomes immediately clear how Americans would vote outside the highly charged blue-red contest.
American public opinion, on almost all major policy issues, exists as a solid majority, belying the persistent myth that the country is politically divided. The reality is that most Americans—generally by about two-thirds—stand united; they just don’t agree with Capitol Hill.
Yet, within the partisan atmosphere, grievances and frustrations get channeled into the narrow confines of party and candidate rhetoric. The GOP, in particular, has managed to advance a so-called conservative agenda, by speciously appealing to religious devotion and white, blue-collar anger. The party can’t rely on the limited votes of millionaires (its actual constituency) so votes must be secured elsewhere.
According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, 69 percent of Americans claim to be very or somewhat angry with regard to “the way things are going” in the country. Similarly, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll indicated about the same percentage agreeing with this statement: “I feel angry because our political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power, like those on Wall Street or in Washington, rather than it working to help everyday people get ahead.”
The GOP has championed (with Democratic cooperation) the very economic agenda that produced this anger in the first place, while managing to redirect their voters’ aggravations toward distractions such as immigration. Lowering taxes for the wealthy, deregulating the financial sector, and aiding in the deindustrialization of the country are the causes of the downward economic trend of the last thirty years, and the reason for the above statistics.
The anger is real and justified and rational. So what do Americans want? A sampling of public opinion:
Support for raising the minimum wage: 70 percent.
Support for free public college: 55 percent.
Support for addressing “now” the rich-poor gap: 65 percent.
Support for raising taxes on people earning more than $1 million per year: 68 percent.
Support for Medicare-for-all universal healthcare: 58 percent.
Support for the US-Iran diplomatic agreement: 55 percent. Support for the right to a legal abortion (including “certain circumstances”): 75 percent.
Disagreement with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing corporate money to flood the political process: 78 percent.
Despite a plurality of Americans describing themselves as “conservative,” the majority of Americans are, in reality, situated at the liberal center—what is described in the political discourse as progressive or far-left or “socialist.” As summarized in a 2011 academic paper by political scientists Christopher Ellis and James A. Stimson,
“When asked about specific government programs and specific social goals, the American public generally wants the government to do more, spend more, and redistribute more. But at the same time, citizens are considerably more likely to identify themselves as conservatives than as liberals. The American public, in other words, generally wants more government-based solutions to social problems, but overwhelmingly identifies with the ideological label that rejects those solutions….”
If we calibrate the center of the political spectrum according to where most Americans stand on most issues, what we find is that Bernie Sanders resides squarely at the political center. And it merely follows that Hillary Clinton and certainly all the Republican candidates are positioned to the right of the population. Therefore, the bipartisan debate does not pertain to what Americans actually want from a candidate.
There’s little question as to how America would vote in a rational setting.
What if on election day, Americans went to the polls and voted not for a preferred candidate, but for policy specifics? That is, what if we voted in blind elections? For instance, you enter the booth on November 8 and, instead of choosing a candidate, you fill out a questionnaire with regard to spending on X, spending on Y, how you feel about the minimum wage, income inequality, healthcare, the environment, and so on. Then, after voting, your ballot is compared to the different candidates and where they stand. The candidate awarded your vote is simply the one who best approximates your views. Under these circumstances, given the 2016 list of Democratic and Republican hopefuls, Bernie Sanders would win by a landslide.
This of course leaves to the side the likelihood of his success in getting laws passed through Congress. Likewise, it should be noted that Hillary Clinton’s positions are commonly not so far from Sanders’s, due in part to Sanders’s successful campaign. (And given Clinton’s track record of being the consummate politician, one can speculate as to how much she would walk her talk once in the White House.) The issue here isn’t the mechanics of being president; the issue here is who the American people actually want as president. The body of data allows little room for debate.
The Republican party of Eisenhower and Nixon is no more, and has degenerated into disunity, ultra-nationalism, and destructive economics. Its future is unknown and unassured. The party’s voting base is shrinking, the country is quickly becoming a majority of minorities (who are better at voting their interests), and the millennial voters coming up show similar inclinations. An unpleasant odor accompanies the death of many organisms, and the Republican field standing on the debate stage represents the smell of decomposition.
This leaves the Democratic party, where there seems to be a similar breach occurring. As is well known, within the GOP tensions exist between “establishment” Republicans and the far-right Tea Party-style politicians. Though perhaps to a lesser degree, a similar rift is forming among Democrats, one embodied by Clinton and Sanders. The Clinton-Sanders competition essentially amounts to a Republican and a Democrat vying for nomination. Eisenhower and Nixon, back from the dead, would likely guess Hillary Clinton to be a fellow Republican (along with Barack Obama). And Sanders, despite the rhetoric, is simply an FDR Democrat.
Put another way, within the Democratic party is where most Americans would prefer American politics to be situated.