Going into the 2016 elections, I think the differences between the populist and establishment factions of the two largest U.S. political parties are as big as the differences between the two parties. Here’s how I see the divisions:
Right-Wing Populists. These consist largely of socially conservative white working people who think (with some justification) that government has turned their back on their moral values and abandoned them in favor of minority groups. They’re against government bailouts and subsidies of big corporations, but their animosity is against the government, not the corporations. They want to preserve Social Security, Medicare and other traditional New Deal programs, but they’re against governmental programs primarily aimed at helping minorities and the undeserving poor. They are against the Trans Pacific Partnership and other trade agreements that limit American sovereignty. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz purport to speak for this faction.
Right-Wing Establishmentarians. These consist of rich and powerful people, and their dupes, who embrace what Les Leopold calls the better business climate model of economic policy. They want lower taxes on upper bracket payers, fewer governmental programs for the poor and less government regulation. Ultimately they’d like to cut back on Social Security, Medicare and other New Deal programs. They favor the Trans Pacific Partnership and other pro-corporate trade agreements. Jeb Bush speaks for this faction.
Left-Wing Establishmentarians. These consist of rich and power people, and their dupes, who are a kinder, gentler version of the right-wing establishmentarians. They want to govern basically in their own interest, but less harshly. They are open to affirmative action, gay marriage, abortion rights and any other rights (except gun rights) that do not threaten the existing structure of economic and political power. Hillary Clinton speaks for this faction.
Left-Wing Populists. These consist of blue-collar workers, and their advocates. Like the right-wing populists, they feel their government has abandoned them, but their animosity is directed against large corporations and Wall Street banks, whom they think (with some reason) have captured the government. While they favor equal rights and opportunities for women, gays and racial minorities, they think the main issues are economic. Bernie Sanders speaks for this faction.
In principle, the left-wing populists, which is the faction I identify with, should be the largest group because they unite the broadest range of people. Why isn’t this the case?
One reason is that they have a hard time making their opinions known. The Washington press corps thinks of serious politics as a contest between the right-wing and left-wing establishments, and everything else as the lunatic fringe.
Right-wing talk radio, Fox News and the rest of the Rupert Murdoch news media try to appeal to the right-wing populists, although Fox and Murdoch do not have their best interests at heart. For many Americans, politics consists of the Fox News view vs. the Washington establishment view, and nothing else.
Many feminists, gays and minority groups cling to the left-wing establishment to protect them from the right-wing populists, while many college-educated progressives say that Trump supporters are motivated by religious and racial prejudice and loss of social status, and it is useless to talk about anything else.
I’m not so sure about that. Years ago I read Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? and Joe Bageant’s Deer-Hunting With Jesus about the alienation of white working people in Kansas and southwest Virginia from liberals and the Democratic Party. They both made the point that while people in those places believed a lot of wacky things that were contrary to their interests, college-educated liberals were unconcerned about them and made no effort to reach out to them.
It is not that right-wing populists have chosen social issues over peace and prosperity as that nobody has offered a route to peace and prosperity. Maybe this would be futile. I think it is an experiment worth making.
Neither populist faction has found an effective leader who sincerely represents them and their interests. Bernie Sanders may be an exception. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are not. If elected, I think Trump and Cruz would quickly sell out the interests of their followers.
Sadly, none of the four factions I’ve mentioned is a peace party, although Sanders and Trump have expressed reservations about invading foreign countries. I don’t think progressive reform is possible in a state of unending war.