Sen. Bernie Sanders has a lot of enemies he’s ready to take to task, should he win the presidency – Wall Street, insurance companies, drug companies, the fossil fuel industries, the military industrial complex, private prisons, and any industry that might bear the imprimatur of capitalistic tendencies in some way.
But, as I sat in the balcony overlooking his latest town hall at the Opera House in Rochester, New Hampshire this past weekend, I felt myself sort of perplexed. Bernie’s message hadn’t changed significantly from 2016; nay, the laundry list of the enemies of people were still the same. But America was decidedly a different animal in 2019 than it was during the Obama era. In other words, has Bernie’s moment passed?
None of this would occur to you from joining one of his well-attended events. When I pulled up to his town hall at the Rochester Opera House forty-five minutes before the event, a long line of attendees wrapped around the entirety of the building. They had decided braving the 25-degree afternoon, complete with occasional gusts of icy wind, was well worth the payoff. Various enterprising individuals were selling a plethora of Bernie gear, some in psychedelic patterns in a nod to Sanders “hippie” beginnings in the early 1970’s.
Maximum capacity at the event was 750 people, and while there remained a few empty seats in the very back, Sanders informed the crowd that 150 people didn’t make it into the event. Throughout the town hall, the crowd’s excitement was palpable, with lots of hand waving, noises of agreement, and picture taking. But having seen a number of the senator’s speeches at this point, I felt as if I was watching a strange replay of 2016 – the same exasperated “We need a full transformation of the economy and government” refrain that nearly carried him to the nomination in 2016, but with a more comfortable culprit, a bombastic Republican in the White House.
The evils are the same as they were in 2016, and most stem from what Sanders coins “corporate greed and corruption.” Pharmaceutical companies are charging too much for prescription drugs. Health care is bankrupting families. Billionaires are evil. The minimum wage is too low. We need to codify Roe v. Wade into a federal statute. The climate is somehow eviscerating the world in a matter of a few decades – admittedly, this point was less fleshed out for me, but Michael Moore did appear on stage to scream that our children were going to “choke” to death.
All these points earned raucous applause from the audience, while others around me nodded in agreement. In Bernie’s eyes, we were royally screwed, living under the “most dangerous president ever.” He described our predicament in truly hopeless terms before assuring us that if he became president, “we” could fix it.
Entering Bernie’s world was akin to entering an alternate universe, not because the problems are necessarily fabricated, but because the levels of dissatisfaction upon which he rode to the polls handily in 2016 just don’t seem to exist at nearly the same levels today. I’d argue, what made him so very on point in 2016 makes him miss the mark on some level today.
According to recent polling performed by Gallup, nearly six in 10 Americans say that they are better off financially than they were just a year ago, a value matching the rate of economic satisfaction experienced during the dot-com boom. Similarly, economic confidence is on the rise, with nearly three in four U.S. adults reporting they predict they will be better off financially in the coming year, the highest value of economic optimism since 1977.
This past weekend, NBC’s Chuck Todd from “Meet the Press” quizzed Sen. Sanders on this point, asking, “Do you acknowledge that an economy that on its surface… looks pretty good to quite a few people — this is a fairly low unemployment rate — do you acknowledge it’s tougher to sell your economic ideas in this perceived good economy?”
“I don’t think so,” Sanders responded. “I think Trump is a fraud. I think under Trump the top one percent, have seen hundreds of billions of dollars increase in their wealth.”
“Somebody that likes their 401k right now but doesn’t like Trump, how do you convince them to vote for you?” Todd retorted.
“I convince them to vote for us because we are going to create a economy that works for the middle-class” Sanders began.
Todd interrupted. “But they think their economy works well for them.” Sanders dismissed Todd’s comment by declaring half of America was still living “paycheck to paycheck.”
Sen. Sanders and his campaign chairs are advocating for a level of wholesale transformation of American society that resembles an amputation for a bruised knee – the “Green” New Deal, tax rates in the stratosphere, a “canceling” of all student debt, and a federal minimum wage that is double its current level. Society is imperfect, but Sanders’ prescription is wildly disproportionate and will likely cripple the economy.
“We understand when Trump talks about a booming economy, his billionaire friends are doing really well,” Sanders thundered to the Rochester crowd. “He’s doing right for them, and they saw a 37% increase in their wealth under him. The average worker saw less than one percent. Hey, Mr. Trump, that isn’t a great economy for working families. We all know what has to be done and that starts with raising the minimum wage to $15, and hey, maybe women should be paid equally.”
While wealth for boogeyman billionaires did grow significantly, so did the wealth of the poorest half of American households, which has increased by 54 percent under President Trump. The average across all households? 17 percent.
When Sanders ran for President in 2016, the country was emerging from one of the slowest recoveries in economic history. The average unemployment rate was 4.9 percent, while according to Gallup polling, only 45 percent of Americans thought “now” was a good time to find a job. Meanwhile, in 2016, only a quarter of American felt economic conditions to be “Excellent” or “Good.”
We’re not in 2016 any longer. The average unemployment rate has reached historic lows, while the rate of Americans who think “now” is a good time to find a job has shot up to nearly 70 percent in 2019. In the first half of January, 62 percent of Americans reported current economic conditions to be “Excellent” or “Good.”
If Sen. Sanders is going to run on a failing economy, he will need to convince Americans that their lives are disappointing and that billionaires are to blame. It is unclear whether this message is a winning one. The anger towards billionaires is growing stale, and the economic frustration that buoyed him in 2016 seems to be running thin. Despite the energy of Sen. Sanders’ base, it’s entirely possible his national moment — and ability to rope in those beyond his base — has passed. It’s not 2016 anymore, and that’s a good thing.