This has been insurgent summer in presidential politics. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have soared. They are raising issues that politicians in both parties can no longer duck.
Insurgent candidates gain traction when their campaigns resonate with voters. When I ran in 1984 and 1988, my campaigns surprised pundits because I was speaking to what many Americans felt. Reagan’s conservative reaction was on the march; Democrats were tacking to the right. But many Americans were left out of the equation. Workers suffered as jobs were shipped overseas. The working poor suffered as investments in housing, health care, education and more were slashed. Many were dismayed at Reagan’s reckless new Cold War, and his idiotic covert war on Nicaragua. Both parties had embraced top-end tax cuts, deregulation and corporate trade policies. Both supported apartheid South Africa and called Mandela a terrorist. Neither could see that Israeli security depended upon Palestinian statehood. Democrats decided that they had to compete to be hawkish on foreign policy, corporate on domestic policy and timid on social policy.
My campaigns exploded in the vacuum. And while we didn’t win, we changed the agenda. A boycott was imposed on South Africa over Reagan’s veto. Congress ended support for the contras of Nicaragua. Years later, U.S. policymakers belatedly embraced the two-state solution in the Middle East. And Bill Clinton ran on Putting People First, calling for tax hikes on the rich, investment in education, national health care and labor rights in trade accords.
In this election, Sanders and Trump have raised fundamental issues that challenge a bipartisan consensus that does not work for most Americans.
The first of these is the corrupting effects of big money in our politics. Sanders, funding his campaign with small donations, warns of the perils of big money directly. Trump, using his fortune to declare his independence, scorns his opponents as “puppets” of their donors. Politicians in both parties better wake up: Clean up our politics or lose the respect of your voters.
The second issue is our corporate trade policies that are racking up deficits of $500 billion a year while shipping good jobs abroad and undermining wages here at home. Sanders correctly indicts these policies as rigging the rules against American workers. Trump makes our “bad deals” a centerpiece of his appeal. The next president will have to change course, or this protest will grow.
A third issue is America’s endless wars. Both Sanders and Trump emphasize that they opposed Bush’s invasion of Iraq from the start. Both counsel caution about more interventions in Syria, Ukraine and Iraq. Both are appealing to the vast majority of Americans who do not believe the U.S. can afford to police the world.
A fourth issue is taxes. Sanders tells billionaires “enough is enough.” He calls for raising taxes on the wealthy and shutting corporate loopholes to invest in rebuilding the country, making college free for all, expanding Social Security and investing in children. Trump is more confused, but he earns applause for insisting that hedge fund billionaires should pay their fair share of taxes.
For years we’ve had paralysis in Washington on the key issue of immigration. Millions of undocumented workers live in the shadows, exploited by callous employers. Sanders seeks a solution that will bring the country together; Trump has slanderously chosen to drive us apart. He’s tried to make immigration a Mexican issue, but that ignores reality. Threatening the largest deportation — 11 million people — in world history isn’t about Mexico; it’s about who we are. Clearly we are paying a huge price for the cowardice of politicians unwilling to address this issue sensibly and that has to stop.
Single issues like these are markers for the bigger reality. This economy doesn’t work for most people. The rules are rigged to favor the few. Big money corrupts our politics to defend their privileges. Americans are looking for a new deal here at home.
Sanders and Trump, of course, are stark contrasts. Sanders is a thoughtful progressive; Trump an entertainer, offering postures, not policies. Sanders calls for a popular movement to transform America; Trump argues voters should trust him to do it.
But on right and left, among Republicans and Democrats, more and more are unwilling to accept politics as usual. Too many people are left out of that arrangement. The two major parties will have to change, or they are likely to be changed by voters who have had enough.