As I wrote in a piece earlier this month, there’s a belief among a number of Republicans that Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic nomination (which is likely at this point) would be an enormous gift to President Trump. Their rationale is that most Americans understand the dangers of socialism (at least in a general sense), and thus would never vote for a proud socialist (okay, “Democratic socialist”) to lead our country.
It’s not an irrational theory. Sanders’ harsh, lifelong criticisms of American capitalism don’t exactly line up with a solid majority of the country. A recent Gallup poll showed that 60 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of capitalism while only 39 percent favor socialism.
Now, I’m probably painting too rosy of a picture by using the word “only.” The notion that almost 40 percent of Americans view socialism favorably is actually pretty scary. That number seems awfully high, especially at a time when America has been experiencing a capitalistic growth boom (with record low unemployment) while the horrific effects of socialism have been on full display with the crisis in Venezuela.
My point, though, is that capitalism is far more popular with Americans than socialism. This fact isn’t lost on a number of Democrats who are worried that Trump would therefore make mincemeat of Sanders in the general election. After all, while the polls show that most Americans don’t approve of Trump, they also show that a majority does approve of his handling of the economy — an economy that Bernie Sanders is promising to fundamentally transform.
What’s interesting is that none of these concerns are reflected in Sanders’ personal poll numbers, both nationally and in swing-states. In head-to-head match-ups with Trump, Sanders fares just as well as, if not better, than the rest of the Democratic field. And in most cases, he’s polling better than Trump.
So what gives? If most Americans like the economy and reject socialism, why is the Democratic socialist (who wants to turn our economic system on its head) the front-runner in both his party and in general election match-ups?
Part of the explanation is obvious. Most Americans simply dislike President Trump. Trump has been underwater in approval since the day he took office, and it’s mostly because of the way he conducts himself: the way he treats people, his combative nature, his lack of discipline, the chronic dishonesty, etc. It wears on people, and any serious challenger to his presidency is going to enjoy that natural advantage.
But that doesn’t explain why a guy who proudly touts the merits of socialism, has unapologetically praised communist regimes, and promises to make the U.S. government pick up the tab for just about every major personal expense in people’s lives, has higher national approval than everyone else vying to be the president of this pro-capitalist country.
The prevailing wisdom is that this level of appeal can’t be sustainable, not for someone like Sanders. And if you don’t believe me, just listen to Sanders’ primary opponents. They’ve said in the debates that they’re concerned that they and their party will be labeled socialists, and they’ve all consciously positioned themselves to the right of Sanders; even Elizabeth Warren has sounded more moderate lately.
Part of the explanation for Sanders’ appeal might be that his vision for this country doesn’t strike a lot of people as being all that different than what we have now (or at least not radically different). I know that statement may sound weird to a lot of right-leaning people like me, but hear me out…
Sanders himself likes to say that America is already a socialist society, and he points to government bailouts of our financial institutions in 2008 as proof. It certainly doesn’t help that President Trump, who claims to be a defender of capitalism, is directing tens of billions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers to bail out the U.S. farms suffering from his anti-free-trade policies (also a characteristic of socialism). It also doesn’t help combat Sanders’ crazy-huge spending ideas when Trump, the leader of the supposed fiscally conservative party, is currently on track to add more to our national debt than even President Obama.
If Trump can spend astronomically beyond our means, why can’t Sanders? Right?
But I suspect it’s even simpler than that. While some of Sanders’ supporters are true believers in his ideas, and love the concept of getting “free stuff,” my guess is that a lot of those folks really aren’t paying all that close of attention to the specifics and likely consequences of those ideas. Instead I think they’re paying attention to him and his attitude, and are attracted to his defiance of the perceived status quo.
I’ve presented my case numerous times that Donald Trump didn’t win the 2016 GOP nomination (and later the presidency) on his policy ideas. While he had a few baseline themes that he stuck with throughout the campaign (like “build the wall”), he was pretty much all over the place when it came to policies. He often seemed to formulate positions in real-time when asked by a reporter or someone else about a particular issue, only to either reverse it or parlay it into an even weirder position a day or two later. He did the same thing at the debates, often using personal insults as his crutch. This wasn’t all that surprising considering that he lacked identifiable core principles and even a convincing interest in actual governance.
But it didn’t matter to voters — at least not enough voters to keep him from advancing. What mattered was his celebrity-level charisma (refined by years of reality television), his “fighter” attitude, his ability to stoke grievance, and the famous Trump brand which many equated with strength. This fomented a loyal, thumb-in-the-eye populist movement. Everything else, from the accuracy of Trump’s statements, to his political stances, to issues of personal decency, was — and still is — negligible.
Personas over principles and policies… That’s how we roll in modern American politics.
Bernie Sanders isn’t a carbon copy of Trump, of course. Sanders does have core principles, consistent rhetoric, and firm political stances (mostly terrible ones, in my view), but I don’t think they matter a whole lot to a good chunk of his supporters or others who are considering voting for him. I think what matters is that he’s passionate, he’s charismatic, he’s a fighter, and he can stoke grievance far more effectively than politicians. As for his wild, socialistic, untenable ideas for America? As with Trump, they’re negligible.
So, while socialism isn’t popular in America, the socialist can be. And when people go to vote, they’re voting for an individual… not necessarily his vision.
In other words, Republicans who underestimate Sanders are doing so at their own risk. Because in today’s political environment, he can match up to Trump in a way that Hillary couldn’t.