January 19, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Sanders keeps saying ‘economic anxiety’ pushes people to Trump

Why can't he let go of that story?

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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I was telling you about two recent polls that ask people to rate their personal financial situations. Instead of being asked what they think of the US economy, and the president’s handling of it, people are asked about themselves and their communities. Different questions yield different results. When Joe Biden is involved, the economy is bad. When he’s not, it’s good. Indeed, both of the polls that I was telling you about show overwhelming optimism for 2024.

What accounts for this difference? Precisely, who is accountable? Well, Republicans, that is, poll respondents who identify as such. When they are asked about the US economy, and the president’s handling of it, they lie – and drag the president’s average job approval downward. The news then is that Biden is in trouble! But when they are asked about their personal situations, and that of their communities, they tell the truth. That, however, doesn’t make it to the top of the news. 

This facet of polling on the economic mood of the country does not get enough scrutiny by people who can otherwise be trusted to scrutinize it. By this, I don’t mean members of the Washington press and pundit corps, though they are indeed complicit in misinforming the electorate.

American leftists presume that if democratic-capitalist institutions in the US fail the working class, then it will turn to the false promises of a demagogue, this time Donald Trump. It’s a good story, but that’s it.

I’m talking instead about self-identified leftists, particularly US Senator Bernie Sanders and his legion of progressive followers. They are attuned to material suffering. You’d think that they’d scrutinize the discrepancy in poll results in order to advance, or at least build on, economic policies that are clearly working for most Americans. Yet they don’t. Sanders even seems to ignore that there’s a difference at all. 

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, the independent senator from Vermont warned that if the president does not more forcefully address the anxieties of working-class Americans that the country risks facing a second Trump administration. “Sanders urged the Democratic president to inject more urgency into his bid for re-election. He said that unless the president was more direct in recognising [sic] the many crises faced by working-class families, his Republican rival would win.” 

Housing is one such crisis, Sanders said. “We’ve got to see the White House move more aggressively on healthcare, on housing, on tax reform, on the high cost of prescription drugs,” he said. “If we can get the president to move in that direction, he will win; if not, he’s going to lose. … We hope to make clear to the president and his team that they are not going to win this election unless they come up with a progressive agenda that speaks to the needs of the working class.”

The thing about housing. According to a recent Harris poll (that’s one of the polls I was telling you about), seventy-seven percent “are happy with where they’re living — including renters, who have seen their housing costs surge over the last few years and are far more likely than homeowners to describe their financial situation as poor,” wrote Felix Salmon. Nearly two-thirds of renters (63 percent) don’t want a house. 

This isn’t to say that housing isn’t a crisis. It is a crisis. (The cost is too damn high, because there’s not enough of it to go around.) But this is to say that, first, that even working-class renters say that they are OK for now, and second, that the high cost of something isn’t necessarily going to push anyone in Donald Trump’s arms. Why are we presuming that?

I can’t say I know for sure, but I can say that this presumption is old. American leftists have presumed since forever that if democratic-capitalist institutions in the US fail the working class, then it will turn to the false promises of a demagogue, this time Donald Trump. And if that happens, Sanders is warning us, that will be the end of democracy. 

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It’s a good story, especially the part about the working class turning to a demagogue out of grievances rooted in economic anxiety. But I don’t see why it’s more than a good story. When people are asked about their personal circumstances, they report that they are pretty good, even people who are paying extortionist rents. And when you break it down further, the people who are really unhappy aren’t really unhappy because of some kind of material suffering. It’s because of politics.

These same people – a vast majority of GOP voters – are not attracted to Donald Trump because he promises an economic agenda that speaks to their personal financial situations. Their personal financial situations are already good and getting better. Ask them! (Just don’t mention Biden.) They are attracted, because Trump promises to liquidate his enemies, which they take to be theirs. You don’t need to be in the thick of a housing crisis to like it when Trump says that immigrants are poisoning the blood of the country. But you do need to be a racist.

I don’t think Bernie Sanders is a racist, per se, but I do think he’s insufficiently aware of racism’s role in bending downward all polling on the country’s economic mood. And he’s insufficiently aware of its impact on Biden’s approval, because it doesn’t fit into the story that he likes to tell about working-class Americans who are oppressed by their capitalist overlords. That might not be so bad if being blind to racism’s role in shaping the public’s view of the president did not also hide from public view his very real economic accomplishments. Sanders should be celebrating an economy that’s clearly working for most people, even most Trump supporters. But that would mean telling a different story.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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