If The Trump was the first curve ball thrown at the 2016 Republican Party Presidential Nomination Shindig, the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders was the second. Here's why.
For the past forty years, income and wealth in the United States have been moving up the ladder to the very rich. 1976: top 1% gets 8% of all income 23% of all wealth
2013: top 1% gets 23% of all income 42% of all wealth
Income from 1980-2013: for bottom 90%, slightly down; for top 10%, almost double; for 1%, almost triple.
It took hundreds government actions over several decades to accomplish this massive distribution of income away from the middle class toward the very rich, including massive tax cuts to the richest, campaign financing laws favoring large donors, the weakening of labor unions, concentration of news media ownership, creation of corporate tax loopholes, government non-enforcement of monopoly laws, etc. Both parties in Congress and the executive and judicial branches were complicit, although clearly Republicans have led the charge. But this massive shift was never part of the public agenda, never discussed, never debated, and often denied. It happened relentlessly, clause by clause, buried in obscure paragraphs of legislation often addressing other issues.
Changes in news media regulation help explain why this massive shift in took place without debate. Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s radio and TV legislation prevented concentration of radio or TV stations by one owner, by the early 2000s the vast majority of local radio and TV stations were owned by a small number of huge media conglomerates. The fairness doctrine, which required broadcast outlets to present differing sides of an issue, was dropped in 1987. Requirements for public service ads were dropped. Thousands of reporters who covered local news were dismissed, leaving smaller media markets with few effective means of informing citizens about the affairs that concerned them. Similar changes occurred in the newspaper business. Not surprisingly, many of the media conglomerates favored by these policies joined the increasing chorus of giant corporate voices calling for even less government regulation, lower taxes for the rich, and a dismantling of the safety nets created over the previous seventy five years. Analysts referring to growing income inequality on Sunday talk shows were accused of fomenting "class warfare" or "populism," and not invited back. Many of the most powerful media owners were now taking sides on the most massive shift in income in US history.
But this year, enter Bernie Sanders, a highly improbable presidential candidate. A conscientious objector, a socialist, with a strong New England accent and a straightforward attack on the rigging of our economic system in favor of the rich, Sanders defied all expectations, getting far more support than anticipated, drawing much larger crowds in the early months than Hillary. Sanders, it seems, proved income inequality was a themes millions of voters wanted to debate on the national agenda. But how does this affect the Republican presidential election year of 2016?
For the past four decades beginning with Nixon, Republicans have been able to cobble together several national presidential victories using what has become known as the "Southern Strategy," appealing to disgruntled mainly white and male voters, especially in the South and the industrial Midwest, who once tended to vote Democrat. These voters have been attracted to Republican appeals largely on cultural issues: strict policies on drugs and crime, gay marriage, abortion, a tough-sounding foreign policy, and the like.
But as it turns out, Southern and industrial Midwest White Male voters are among the bigger losers in the economic shift toward the rich: NAFTA and economic policy favoring China and other growing industrial nations caused thousands of jobs in the South and the industrial Midwest to move abroad: those good jobs have never been replaced. Sanders, in effect, is asking voters to vote their economic self-interest rather than their cultural preferences. And it seems to be working, according to polls, If even a fraction of voters who normally vote Republican respond to this call it could move several normally tossup states to vote Democrat, tipping the scales in the electoral college: North Carolina, Iowa, Florida, and Ohio.
Thus, Republicans must consider the threat Sanders' message poses to their Southern Strategy. Anticipating that Hillary will win the Democratic nomination, Republican candidates have begun attacking Clinton's character, not her relatively conservative message,, continuing to follow the broad outlines of the Southern Strategy. But Sanders' success in attracting voters has already moved Clinton to address income inequality, and should Clinton get into a tough presidential race next year, she too, might challenge the Southern Strategy by appealing to voters' pocketbooks rather than their cultural preferences and current angers.
Next: How does The Trump Fit in Here?