Saturday, February 6, 2016

Bernie Sanders, OWS, and the Children of Allentown

Bernie Sanders. (Credit: AP/Rich Pedroncelli.)
Does anybody remember Occupy Wall Street? As nutty and quixotic as it was, it grew out of real social problems and concerns. And the improbable success of Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate is a reminder that the problems didn’t go away just because the protesters did.

“We Are the 99%”

To refresh your memory: OWS never had a single public list of demands, although several people posted lists on their website which the press then published as “official”. Nevertheless, Roger Lowenstein wrote in, “the overall message is reasonably coherent. They want more and better jobs, more equal distribution of income, less profit (or no profit) for banks, lower compensation for bankers, and more strictures on banks with regard to negotiating consumer services such as mortgages and debit cards. They also want to reduce the influence that corporations — financial firms in particular — wield in politics, and they want a more populist set of government priorities: bailouts for student debtors and mortgage holders, not just for banks.”

This “reasonably coherent message”, give or take an exaggeration or two, could just as easily be Sanders’ platform.

Even near the end, OWS had support from about one-third of American voters, finding some little support even among Republicans, according to Public Policy Polling, while just over half the Democrats responded favorably. The cry “We are the 99%”, as inapposite as it was, found resonance with a significant percentage of the people; Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center told Scott Horsley of NPR that it was “arguably the most successful slogan since ‘Hell no, we won’t go,’ going back to the Vietnam era. … [It] certainly triggered a lot of coverage about economic inequality.”

Reaching the Blue-Collar Worker

Ev’ry child had a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got
But something happened on the way to that place
They threw an American flag in our face
—Billy Joel, “Allentown” (1982)

“Forty years ago,” reflects a Sanders campaign meme, “a waitress could afford college. A school teacher could support a family of four comfortably on one income. A bank teller could own a home. None of that is possible today.” The new blue collar could be called the children of Allentown — the lower-middle and middle-class workers for whom the American dream has been frustrated, who feel betrayed and dispossessed by the establishment’s catering to the “too big to fail” banks and financial institutions.

For several months prior to declaring his candidacy, Sanders released meme after meme on Facebook and Twitter, reaching not only millennials but Gen-Xers and even Boomers with pertinent observations that stressed the economic injustices of the status quo. Their messages were deliberately crafted to develop and exploit the new blue collar voting bloc. For example:

“In Germany, college tuition is free not only for German students, but for all foreign students — including Americans. In the United States, tuition is increasingly unaffordable and many students leave school deeply in debt. Is there an important lesson to be learned here about national priorities?”
“Question: How does it happen that, despite a huge increase in productivity, the median male worker made $783 less than he did, in inflation accounted for dollars, 41 years ago? How does it happen that female workers made $1,337 less than in 2007? The answer: The system is rigged. The vast majority of all new income generated in this economy goes to the top 1 percent.”

European-Style Socialism

Analyses of Sanders’ campaign tend to start and stop with the notation that Bernie is a self-described “democratic socialist”. (“A socialist!? EEK!”) Conservatives’ knowledge of socialism is often vestigial and warped by the Cold War; to some, anything to the left of laissez-faire capitalism verges on Soviet-style Communism. Even those that don’t bring up the S-word tend to assume he’s a soak-the-rich type. For instance, David A. Graham’s “cheat sheet” in The Atlantic flips, “Who wants him to run? Far-left Democrats; Brooklyn-accent aficionados; progressives who worry that a second Clinton administration would be far too friendly to the wealthy.”

However, there are many different flavors of socialism. Sanders’ policy preferences are actually closer to European-style “social democracy”. More than simply a reversal of words, it’s a flavor that stresses reform and regulation of the market, combined with welfare programs, rather than replacement with a planned economy and state ownership of the means of production.

Social democrats aren’t levelers looking to eliminate wealth; recognizing that some income inequality is inevitable, they seek a balance that encourages ambition and productivity while still providing a safety net for the people at the bottom end of the social scale. In any event, Sanders is an experienced politician who knows how little he can accomplish without cooperation from others. In other words, whatever Sanders may propose as POTUS, the Koch brothers need not fear for their ownership of their enterprises.

“Different Wings, Same Bird”

More to point, to dismiss Sanders’ policies as giving “free s**t away to millennials” speaks to just how many analysts, both Democrat and Republican, are out of touch with the reality of blue-collar workers. Lowenstein’s article noted that, despite the “superficial resemblance” of OWS to the protests of the Vietnam era, the liberals of the previous era had little real affinity with blue-collar workers:

The former didn’t empathize with workers because the latter were judged to be pro-war, pro-Establishment, pro-U.S. government. And factory workers had little use for Janis Joplin or free love. The movement wasted little effort on corporate villains — and none on banks. The enemy was the government, the Defense Dept., and the select corporate contractors who did its bidding, such as Dow Chemical.

Democrat politics has for some time reflected this dissociation with labor, focusing on issues affecting women, the poor, and minorities while letting the labor unions be disemboweled and permitting trade agreements to ship jobs overseas. Today many people perceive “establishment Democrats” to have been co-opted by the financial sector, considering them and their GOP counterparts to be “different wings of the same bird”, too constrained by their affiliations and donor needs to reform Wall Street.

Republican “Obsession with Zeroes”

By contrast, conservatives and libertarians tend towards three responses: 1) It’s just slackers, losers, and takers wanting handouts; 2) It is a problem, but it’s not my problem; 3) It is a problem, but there’s nothing we can do about it, and anyway it’s not so bad as it’s been made out to be. There are exceptions: In accepting Rick Santorum’s endorsement, Sen. Marco Rubio spoke warmly of the former’s emphasis on recapturing blue-collar conservatives (Santorum’s favorite song is “Allentown”). Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has spoken of “reorienting the compass” of the Republican Party:

We are not the party of big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes, or big anything. We must not be the party that simply protects the well off so they can keep their toys. We have to be the party that shows all Americans how they can thrive. We are the party whose ideas will help the middle class, and help more folks join the middle class.

Nevertheless, establishment Republicans continue to advocate economic policies that fail to substantively address the declining real value of middle-class incomes or the increasing cost of living, especially of higher education and healthcare. For the Republicans, the answer still lies in the “obsessing with zeroes on the budget spreadsheet” that Jindal scathingly remarked “signal that the focus of our country is on the phony economy of Washington — instead of the real economy ... in Charlotte, and Shreveport, and Cheyenne.”

In essence, both Democrats and Republicans have left the new blue collar for Bernie Sanders to mine for votes. Only Sanders is speaking to their aspirations, frustrations, and resentment of a Washington stuck hopelessly in regulatory capture, seemingly owned by and operated for the benefit of the one percent. “They call it lazy and asking for handouts,” the campaign meme says, “when all we’re asking for is something worth working for, and a fair opportunity to succeed and live happy and fulfilling lives.”

The End of the Clinton Cult

Bernie Sanders has one other strength: He’s not Hillary Clinton.

Establishment Democrats, still reveling in nostalgia for the glory days of Bill Clinton’s administration, are largely blind to the odium Republicani under which HRC has long labored, still convinced that she would sweep the field once nominated. However, that love affair wasn’t powerful enough to keep Barack Obama from Astroturfing the 2008 nomination away from her; eight years later, voters who were small children when the Clintons left 1600 Pennsylvania, and for whom the Clinton name holds no special magic, are in play. A poll from Quinnipac University shows Sanders and HRC even matched, with Sanders beating key Republican opponents by greater margins, while in a Clinton-Rubio matchup, Clinton is shown as losing.

Not only is HRC no longer guaranteed the nomination, with the right Republican candidate she’s no longer guaranteed of winning in November. This has come as something of a shock to the Democrat establishment, who don’t understand why millennials aren’t obsessed with HRC the way they are. Rebecca Downs of Red Alert Politics reports on some of the diatribes fifth-column feminists such as Catherine Rampbell, Amanda Marcotte, and Isabel Evans have showered on millennials for “failing Hillary”. And the Hillary for America campaign admitted in a scolding fundraising email to supporters that the Sanders campaign had beaten the 800-pound gorilla at fundraising for the first time, warning them, “There’s no cavalry coming.”


At this point, it’s too early to say with reasonable confidence that Sanders will snatch the nomination away from HRC; there’s plenty of time for Sanders to alienate his supporters. For Catholics faithful to the magisterium, neither Clinton nor Sanders is satisfactory; it simply remains to be seen whether the GOP select a candidate that a Catholic could vote for in good conscience, even as the “lesser of two evils”. However, it’s good to have a story unfolding that will allow us to take our eye off the insane monstrosity that is the Trump candidacy.

For now, the takeaway is this: Occupy Wall Street was a signal that both parties had let the problems of the labor classes slide for too long, that there was more to winning the electorate than xenophobic fear-mongering and identity politics. But while the ruck of the Democrat leadership only saw in it a reminder of their youths, Sanders read the signals correctly, and began to craft a campaign that would take advantage of it, giving him a chance to do what most Wise Persons thought even a week ago was impossible: derail the nomination of Hillary Clinton a second, perhaps final, time.

Now the 2016 campaign is truly interesting.