In a time of brushfire populism, the problem is not the populace; it is the populists who seek to lead it. The two candidates who call themselves revolutionaries — Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump — are, in fact, backward looking, intellectually timid and unresponsive to the real needs of the working and middle classes.
This judgment emerges from some basic economics (bear with me). The past several decades have seen both dramatic increases in productivity and the fading of the traditional, American, middle-class dream. The globalization of labor markets (creating competition with skilled workers abroad) and new technology and automation (hollowing out whole categories of labor at home) have placed downward pressure on wages and put a relentless emphasis on acquiring new skills.
If the global economy were your boss, he or she would be demanding harder work for less money while making you go to school at night. Unfortunately, this creep is actually most people’s boss, ultimately.
The populists are right that important institutions have been woefully unresponsive to these changes. A recent Casey Foundation report found that 82 percent of African American and 79 percent of Latino fourth-graders are reading below proficient levels. How are they being prepared for the new economy? Nearly 10.2 million young people in America are not in school or in the workplace. How did they fall between the sidewalk cracks of American life? Colleges and universities in the United States graduate only about half the students who enter, leaving many in debt and without a diploma to show for it.
What is Sanders’s liberal populist answer to these challenges? He wants to increase Social Security benefits for everyone, including the wealthy; he wants free college education for everyone, without a serious emphasis on quality; he wants to break up the big banks; and he wants a single-payer health-care system.
“What kind of guts does it show to promise people free things?” asks Jonathan Cowan, president of Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank. The centerpiece ideas of the Sanders campaign could have been proposed by Hubert Humphrey in the 1960s. Sanders would massively expand the commitments of 20th-century liberalism, defiantly un-updated for 21st-century challenges. His campaign is progressive nostalgia in concentrated form.
Trump, the other self-described revolutionary in the race, is running a campaign entirely based on nostalgia. He proposes to return America to greatness by personally reversing globalization. “I’ll bring back our jobs from China, from Mexico, from Japan, from so many places,” he says. But how? There is no real policy beneath the pledge. It is entirely magical thinking. The parts of Trump’s economic plan that can be weighed and measured — the productivity loss from expelling millions of workers and the global recession that might result from blowing up the global trading order with tariffs — are frightening. Where Trump is not vacuous, he is dangerous.
Working-class people and their challenges should transform the Republican Party. But Trump’s welcome to these voters includes deception, exploitation and crackpot policies that make their eventual disappointment and alienation assured.
“The populists,” says Cowan, “are not the revolutionaries” — assuming (for the sake of this argument) that revolution involves an ambitious, modern vision of economic adaptation. And who might the real revolutionaries be? Proposals by Third Way to improve the quality of higher education and encourage savings and capital accumulation for lower-income people are practical and promising. Reform conservative plans to increase the rewards for work and encourage social mobility fall into this same category.
Centrist Democrats and reform conservatives disagree on many things. But their arguments draw the outlines of an actual 21st-century politics, which puts the best instincts of the left and right to work on real contemporary problems, rather than promising empty revolutions that look mainly to the past.
And what politicians in our system might carry on an adult conversation about the goal of ensuring that all Americans are prepared for the new economy? The answer, surprising myself even as I write it, would probably be President Hillary Clinton working with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and an emerging Republican anti-poverty caucus in the Senate (think Tim Scott of South Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah).
There are many other reasons to oppose Clinton for president (or, if you are a Democrat, to want Ryan deposed and the Senate retaken). But if the goal is addressing working-class struggles, the real revolution might come from a divided government.