Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has repeatedly sought to target working-class backers of populist Republican Donald Trump. The fact that Sanders is targeting the same slice of voters should trigger alarm bells for those who seek freedom, opportunity, and a return to Ronald Reagan’s “City on a Hill.”
Ever the entertainer, Trump has captured the imagination of millions of blue-collar Americans, especially men. Yet the policies he advocates would continue the stale and tired policies of big-government thinking. Bluster aside, Trump’s platform would leave working class families behind.
Quinnipiac University polling found that Sanders holds a 51-38 percent lead over Trump, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 47-40 percent lead over the real estate magnate (though in fairness, Real Clear Politics’ polling average puts the race much tighter, with just a 2 percent advantage to Sanders over Trump).
Like Sanders, Trump is tapping into a deep reservoir of anger directed at the status quo and a vague and amorphous dissatisfaction with American socioeconomic structures. In a report detailing the findings of its 2015 American Values Survey, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found Americans are evenly divided over whether the country’s best days are ahead of us (49 percent) or behind us (49 percent). In 2012, PRRI reported a majority (54 percent) of those surveyed said that America’s best days were ahead, while fewer than four in 10 (38 percent) said that those days are over. No group expresses greater pessimism about America’s future than members of the Tea Party. Only one-third (33 percent) of Tea Party members say that the country’s best days lie ahead, while about two-thirds (65 percent) say they are in the past.
When Trump says he will “make America great again,” he harks back to a time when families were more stable and U.S. culture generally valued cohesion over rebellion. Yet these cultural values of faith, family and community are intangible. They are not things — despite what Sanders and Trump claim — that a government check, a border wall or socialized healthcare can fulfill. They also require greater self-sacrifice, diligence and discipline to maintain than the simplistic solution of trade protectionism (which hurts working families by jacking up the price of goods) and xenophobic pronouncements against China, the largest foreign creditor to the United States.
Trump and Sanders are both symptoms of the dark side of democratic capitalism described by conservative heavyweight Irving Kristol in his book, Two Cheers For Capitalism. Kristol offers two cheers for capitalism’s ability to provide material comfort and fulfillment of self-interest through free, mutual exchange of goods and services. But he withholds that third cheer because capitalism is inherently amoral. It is simply an economic machine or engine that operates based on the programmatic inputs of societal values. American culture dictates those inputs and history has shown that too often the populist demagogue or the carnival barker peddling quick fixes and coarseness is what sells. What is popular is not always right — and vice versa.
Thus American culture has unraveled in many ways since the 1960s era of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and both Trump and Sanders offer Big Government responses to problems that are better solved through reviving of older notions self-discipline, family, thrift and hard work. Those are private solutions, not government solutions, and they offer a sustainable future.
Carrie Sheffield is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield and on Facebook.