“Protest Votes”: Trump, Sanders & Shifting Parties

by Logan Crawford

October 12, 2016

Cover Photo Credits

How? That has been the question of this election season. How did Donald Trump garner so much support? How did Bernie Sanders nearly steal the nomination from Hillary Clinton? And what can this tell us about not only the voters, but the political parties?  

The Democratic and Republican political parties have defined American politics and the election cycles, with each election centering overwhelmingly on the two major parties’ candidates. However, growing factionalism within the parties, the gridlock of policy and procedure changes in Washington, D.C., and the perceived disconnected superiority of political leaders have undermined the electorate’s confidence in the current political system and in the political parties. The 2016 Election is symptomatic of this dissatisfaction. Rather than looking at the general election to gauge public opinion, the party nomination primaries offer the most telling narrative of the nature of current American politics and the future of the political parties.

For the Republicans, the primaries were messy. Twelve candidates were listed on the ballot for the nomination, with none of them receiving a true majority vote from each state’s electorate at the beginning of the primaries. Donald Trump eventually won the nomination, but his bombastic and controversial comments, seemingly racist policy agendas, and refusal to “play by the rules” have led many to question how he gained so much support.

Bernie Sanders, likewise, rose from a minor candidate in the Democratic primary to a serious threat to Hillary Clinton’s nomination. A self-proclaimed “independent”, Sanders won nearly 70% of the youth vote, a traditionally politically inactive group, in the primaries. Understanding the phenomena of Trump and Sanders can offer insight not only into the electorate but also into the future of the Republican and Democratic parties.

First, the Electorate.

In a recent Gallup Poll, Researcher Jonathan Rothwell conducted a massive survey of over 87,000 people to gauge the average Trump voter’s motivations for supporting Trump. In previous surveys, Trump supporters were identified as overwhelmingly white, male, middle-class, blue-collar workers over the age of 50 (Baby-Boomers).  However, instead of continuing the narrative of the manufacturing worker, Rothwell instead discovered that there was little direct correlation between employment that had suffered from trade and support for Trump’s nationalist policies.

Instead, Trump’s supporters stem from neighborhoods with high racial isolation and high rates of poor health and death amongst the older generation. Notably, there exists a pervasive sense of economic insecurity despite reasonable incomes and a consistent fear about limited opportunity and success for the next generation. Significantly, Rothwell discovered that the “strong feeling that whites were losing out” on opportunity vastly outweighed economic insecurity as pervasive amongst Trump supporters. Understanding this sense of fear and resentment towards non-whites can help explain why Trump’s racially-biased comments and glorification of 1950’s America resonate so favorably with those who feel threatened by the steadily growing minority presence in the nation. Fears over losing the idea of the “American life” amongst the shifting status quo has led this demographic to support an outsider who they feel can protect their interests.

While the Baby Boomers who support Trump fear the shifting status quo, the Millennial generation (18-34), which surpassed the Baby Boomers as the “largest living generation,” fears that the status quo isn’t shifting fast enough. According to Pew Research, Millennials are more “racially and ethnically diverse” and “more educated” than older generations. However, they also came of age during the Great Recession, which necessarily colors their view of the economy and the job market. Many have struggled to find secure careers and carry the burden of massive student debt. Disenfranchised from the existing political process and what they consider lukewarm policy, the Millennials supporting Sanders touted his authenticity and honesty. From a generation that statistically has trust issues with the traditional established institutions but optimism about the future of America, Sanders provided the avenue for the drastic and revolutionary social and economic change Millennials crave.

The Parties

Journalist Ana Marie Cox has labeled both Sanders and Trump as the “protest candidates.” Both are anti-establishment “outsiders” who offer a solution to voters expressing dissatisfaction with current policies on both sides of the aisle.

But what are the voters protesting? That answer can be found in the candidates’ mottos.

Make America Great Again: We have established that Trump’s supporters are overwhelmingly white, male, blue collar Baby Boomers who fear that their opportunity and the opportunity for their children is threatened by the encroachment of burgeoning minority groups. Trumps’ slogan, “Make America Great Again,” perfectly captures the reactionary fear that this group feels and the resilience with which they will resist the changing status quo. Calling themselves “the silent majority,” this group represents a shift within the Republican Party: from unified conservatism to fractured neo-traditionalism, or “The America We Were.” The current Republican Party is rallying behind a man who promises them the America of the past, the economic and imperial hegemon that boasted the ease of the “American Dream”… if you were a white male.

A Future to Believe In: Sanders’ supporters—young, optimistic, but struggling to gain an economic footing—have rallied behind an ideology that seeks to move America not back to what she was but forward to a Future that she could be. Fearing the reactionary and neo-traditional sentiments of the Baby Boomers, many Millennials have rallied to seize the reigns of the political environment and keep pressing forward, even as the Baby Boomers dig their heels in to hold back the tide of change. Unsatisfied with the limited scope of “Change You Can Believe In,” the Millennial voters want to drive America towards a more idealistically equitable and “fair” future, and they are willing to try new and revolutionary ideologies to accomplish this. Millennials, then, represent a shift in the Democratic Party’s ideological basis: from liberalism to neo-progressivism, or “The America We Can Be.”

Neither the Baby Boomers nor the Millennials will be dissipating anytime soon. Trump and Sanders, moreover, are merely symptomatic of the massive shifts occurring within the political parties’ electorate bases. Until and unless the political parties readjust to the shifts sweeping amongst their members and the American citizens, America will see more elections as confusing and corrosive as 2016’s. Both parties must make efforts to realign with the new majority opinion, channel them into potential policy-making, and revamp the existing political system to appeal to new majorities in the nation.

Unless a new, less volatile equilibrium can be reached, the push and pull of where the Baby Boomers and Millennials want to take the nation will result in an American political system neither group will appreciate or recognize.

Logan Crawford is a 1st year MPP Student at the College of William & Mary and an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Policy Review.