What the voting in the US presidential primaries has revealed so far are some important realignments in the social consensus underlying the two-party system. A surprise win for Bernie Sanders in the key rustbelt state of Michigan upset political commentators and the Democratic establishment and has led to renewed attention on class issues submerged under decades of neoliberalism. Meanwhile, Trump’s win in the state’s Republican primary underlines the fact that he is the only Republican candidate to address working class fortunes directly.
Sanders’ consistent opposition to free trade deals contrasted sharply with Bill Clinton’s implementation of NAFTA in the 1990s: the state lost more than 46,000 jobs in the last 25 years because of that single deal. Exit polls reported that “nearly six in 10 voters thought trade took away American jobs – and nearly six in 10 of people who said that, backed Sanders. … This echoes the Republican side of the primary. More than half of voters thought that trade cost jobs; four in 10 of them backed Donald Trump.”
Hillary Clinton had relied heavily on identity politics to give her the vote, as it had in Nevada and South Carolina, and pollsters assumed that the black population of Detroit would go for Clinton in the same way. Instead, according to Politico, Sanders’ “appeal to youth voters busted through the color line – Clinton won blacks 60-40 (not 80-20, as she did in her Tuesday win in Mississippi) – and Sanders fought her to a draw among under-40 African Americans. … And she barely held on to win Genesee County, home to Flint, the emotional focal point of her Michigan effort – and, in many ways, her entire campaign.”
Sanders campaigned through the whole state, appealing to white and black workers alike, while Clinton focused on African American communities like Flint and Detroit in east Michigan. The New York Times reported: “Mr. Sanders crisscrossed the state, speaking to more than 41,000 people, and his campaign opened 13 offices and hired 44 staffers to carry his message. He also visited places that were largely overlooked by the Clinton campaign, including Traverse City and Kalamazoo.”
The rejection of candidates favored by the Republican establishment in that party’s primaries is evidence that their voters are motivated by more than resentment of immigration, since all the candidates have voiced opposition to legalizing undocumented people; they are antagonistic to what they perceive as a corrupt political system that has betrayed them, and consider the wealthy Trump to be independent of corporate manipulation.
Trump’s rallies attract disparate groups, ranging from white supremacists to people angry about jobs being outsourced abroad. This creates a potent mix of people susceptible to group hysteria as Trump makes his outrageous attacks on Muslims and immigrants; but while the media focus on these remarks, the bulk of his populist message denounces trade agreements and America’s economic decline.
According to Guardian reporter Thomas Frank, a study carried out by a union-affiliated group found that the main attraction of Trump for white working-class voters in Cleveland and Pittsburgh was his blunt approach to these questions. “As far as issues are concerned, ‘immigration’ placed third among the matters such voters care about, far behind their number one concern: ‘good jobs / the economy’,” notes Frank. “‘People are much more frightened than they are bigoted,’ is how the findings were described to me by Karen Nussbaum, the executive director of Working America. The survey ‘confirmed what we heard all the time: people are fed up, people are hurting, they are very distressed about the fact that their kids don’t have a future’ and that ‘there still hasn’t been a recovery from the recession, that every family still suffers from it in one way or another’.”
The likelihood of Trump becoming their presidential candidate has thrown the Republican party establishment into panic mode. But the party is now too fragmented to be able to mount a strong alternative. The Republican-controlled legislature has reinforced Trump’s claim to better political management skills by its own undermining of government legitimacy, from the threat of government shutdown in 2011 to its refusal to even consider any candidate nominated by Obama for the Supreme Court. Moreover, in the debates “Trump, Cruz, and Rubio ascribe to Barack Obama any and all problems besetting the nation … the Republican critique reinforces reigning theories of presidential omnipotence. Just as an incompetent or ill-motivated chief executive can screw everything up, so, too, can a bold and skillful one set things right.”
The much more diverse Democratic voters are not in disagreement over policy so much as their judgment of the candidate most likely to defeat the Republicans. In fact, Trump has succeeded in energizing new sections of the Democratic base to prevent him coming to power. He has done more than the Democratic leadership to rouse voters’ enthusiasm since they are as guilty as the Republicans of undermining working class jobs and have moved well away from a New Deal perspective. Sanders seeks to restore this orientation, but while he appeals to millennial youth who are bearing the brunt of the continuing recession, many older Democrats see Clinton as the safer candidate to beat Trump.
Candidates’ support is also connected with their attitudes to the Obama administration: while Sanders is favored by white liberals critical of Obama’s presidency, most African Americans are supportive of Hillary Clinton, since they see Obama as having achieved small victories domestically. Black youth who face unemployment, police harassment, and huge college loan debt are far more sympathetic to Sanders.
Latinos who are critical of Obama for failing to carry out promises on immigration reform gave Sanders a victory in Colorado on Super Tuesday, where they make up nearly 15 percent of eligible voters in the state. Juan Gonzalez pointed out there has been a 40 percent increase nationwide since 2008 in the number of eligible Latinos that could vote in the coming election. He added: “You’ve seen Univision say that they’re going to use all of their television stations and their networks to promote a 3 million-voter registration drive among Latinos. I think what’s actually needed is more of a Freedom Summer campaign by the Latino youth of America, similar to what happened in the civil rights movement … where thousands of Latino youth go into their communities and say, ‘You’re not going to deport our parents. We’re American citizens, and we’re going to make a stand in terms of Basta Trump’.”
These shifts in electoral allegiances make it by no means certain that Clinton will win the Democratic nomination, but if she does, she will have to adopt much of Sanders’ platform in order to defeat Trump’s populist appeal. Either way, new sections of the American working class have been energized by the redrawing of class lines in political discourse.