In achieving their improbable surges in presidential polling, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have profited from the same wellspring of anxiety, a deep-seated fear about the future that is rising across the land. Their answers to that anxiety are very different — as their followers are very different — but they have both tapped into an undercurrent of unease that affects a broad swath of American voters.
And that unease is well-founded. In mid-September, the U.S. Census Bureau issued its annual report on wages, poverty, and health insurance. Its findings come as no surprise: Though the official unemployment rate is down to its lowest level in seven years, the percentage of people living in poverty — around 14 percent — hasn’t budged in four years.
Equally worrisome is the stagnation in wages, which haven’t risen significantly for more than a decade. “Anyone wondering why people in this country are feeling so ornery need look no further than this report. Wages have been broadly stagnant for a dozen years, and median household income peaked in 1999,” Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a research group, told The Associated Press.
And ornery people are. That’s the only thing that explains Trump, who for weeks has enjoyed the top spot in GOP presidential primary polls. Full of bombast, narcissism, and blame, the real estate titan has pinned Mexican immigrants as the purveyors of all that is destructive to the American way of life. It’s astonishing how much support he’s received for his proposal to deport the estimated 11 million who are here illegally.
There’s no doubt a good portion of racism and xenophobia among the Trump crowd; they are largely voters uncomfortable with the country’s increasing diversity. But they are also anxious about a future in which the American dream is out of reach for their children and grandchildren.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Sanders, Vermont’s self-described socialist in the U.S. Senate, is giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money, attracting large crowds, and leading in New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary vote. His answers, at least, are not xenophobic: Among other things, he would increase taxes on the wealthy and end some longstanding trade agreements.
Sanders has long warned about income inequality, which has been growing for decades but was exacerbated by the Great Recession. Suddenly, ordinary workers saw their jobs disappear, their savings evaporate, their homes taken by the bank. Many of them have not recovered the ground they lost, and their traumas have invited fear bordering on panic.
Meanwhile, the rich have only gotten richer. The top 1 percent own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, and they hold a larger share of income than at any time since the 1920s and the Great Depression.
These trends are evident throughout the industrialized world; they’re not the fault of any single politician or ideological philosophy. According to economists, they’ve grown from a convergence of factors, including the technological revolution and the globalization of labor.
Still, the wealth gap is quite worrisome. It’s a recipe for revolution, the sort of gulf between the haves and have-nots that is characteristic of developing countries, where the ties of the civic and social fabric do not bind. It’s hard to overstate the potential for upheaval in a country such as this, where a diverse population is not held together by a single language or race or religion, but rather by the belief that opportunity is available to all. What happens when a majority of the people no longer believes that?
You’d think, then, that income inequality would dominate the campaign trail. But the subject was hardly mentioned during Wednesday’s marathon GOP presidential primary debate, where such pressing priorities as possible Secret Service code names were discussed.
That’s not good. While it’s hard to see either Trump (his bubble may already be bursting) or Sanders as a presidential nominee, the voters they represent aren’t going away. Neither is their anxiety, which could prove a disruptive force in American political and civic life.
(Cynthia Tucker Haynes won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Photo: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) takes part in a rally to preserve union pensions on Capitol Hill in Washington on September 10, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts