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Sanders and Trump in Very Late Capitalism

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It has been snowing since Monday morning, and I’ve learned from experience my car can’t handle it. Next time in New Hampshire, rent a Jeep. But I did go to a Bernie Sanders rally at a small college in Nashua yesterday morning. From the perspective of a campaign effectively using its resources, the event wasn’t particularly well conceived.

There were a few hundred people there, mostly young. And more guys than girls; that part of the “Berniebros” thing is true. The gender imbalance at Clinton events is more pronounced. Two dozen young people, staffers or volunteers with Bernie placards, sit behind the stage. For the size of the rally (maybe 500) and the staff effort involved, with journalists and TV crews from all over the world, I thought the Sanders camp would have done better to have had his workers out canvassing, making sure that they contact every marginal or irregular voter in the state, and get them all to the polls.

I’ve heard before that Sanders is a one-issue guy—he talks about inequality, and he’s done little else for 40 years in politics. Everything comes back to that. But the stopped clock is sometimes right.

Like most college educated people my age, somewhat touched by the 1960s, I’m familiar with arguments about socialism. In the mid 70s I took a poli-sci class with Columbia’s most active Marxist, Mark Kesselman, a good scholar and teacher and a nice guy. And like Sanders, he would draw on statistics about American income inequality, wage stagnation, and the lack of class mobility in “late capitalism.” And he presented these arguments well.

But we had in our class a Polish emigre, a fiery young woman named Irena who had been active in Warsaw student dissident politics. Irene, finally in a position to challenge Marxist arguments without fear of legal sanction—went for it. She called bullshit on Professor Kesselman. It was all pretty civil; this was grad school after all. But Irena emboldened the rest of us. For the inequality Kesselman described in 1976 America just wasn’t that severe. Yes, professionals made more than workers, and business execs far more. And yes, the children of doctors and lawyers were more likely to succeed than working class kids. But there was, as I think Kesselman was forced to concede, quite a bit of upward mobility from one class to another. And if a vice president of U.S. Steel made a lot of money (working in the “productive sector” as Irena called it, deploying the Marxian term with a kind of self-mocking irony, because she had no desire for a career there), was that really a crime?

I wonder how that class would go today. For Sanders, like Kesselman, talks a great deal about how much wealth is controlled by the one percent, or the one tenth of one percent, compared to the rest. He talks about how much students go into debt to attend college, in an era when a college education is as necessary as a high school diploma was fifty years ago.

And now, there really are very few U.S. Steels. The wealth of the one tenth of one percent is now concentrated in the financial industry. The money of the middle class has been redistributed upwards to Wall Street. No one calls it the “productive sector,” even ironically. Wall Street pays for the political campaigns, and pays for the politicians. It pays for Hillary Clinton. Sanders’s message is as simple as that. And there is a great deal of truth in it. If Kesselman taught his class today, what could grad student Irena possibly say to deflate him?

Snowed into my hotel room, I’m watching a Trump event on a video feed. It’s a town hall, not a rally. The first or second subject he chooses to address is the cost of prescription drugs. He says it’s a problem he would solve by negotiating better deals with the drug companies, and the other politicians don’t do it because they are in the pay of the drug companies. “Woody Johnson, I know him, nice guy.” But I’m not taking any of his money.

It’s not of course a Marxist message—Trump basically says he is independent of the donors because he’s rich, while Sanders says he is independent of them because he raised tens of millions of dollars in small donations. But both campaigns are criticizing the same thing, in divergent but essentially parallel ways. I don’t think this has a precedent in American history, the leading candidates of both parties running essentially class-based campaigns against a financial elite. Something to contemplate.

Predictions: Trump 28, Kasich 18, Cruz 14, Rubio 13, Bush 13, Christie 10, Fiorina 3, Carson 1.

Sanders 53, Clinton 47.

Scott McConnell, a founding editor of The American Conservative, reports on the 2016 campaign from New Hampshire.

about the author

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottMcConnell9.

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