At first glance it seems Bernie Sanders, who suspended his presidential campaign on Wednesday, and President Donald Trump stand at opposite extremes of the American political landscape. Pundits often assume the polarization between these two candidates is so great that their voting bases must be ideologically incompatible or somehow anathema to each other.
In reality, however, a significant historical overlap exists between Sanders’ democratic socialism and Trumpism — which explains why Trump is already trying to court Sanders’ supporters. Americans today should imagine both Sanders and Trump as very different approaches to the same populist movement that has been lurking on the periphery of American politics for more than a century.
At its base, populism speaks to economically disaffected voters. The Populist party was launched in 1892 to address the “moral, political, and material ruin” that had befallen the American farmer. After decades of farming and deriving the gender specific pride of “providing” for a family, farmers saw themselves as a commodity in a continuously depressed labor market — underpaid, and no longer capable of providing for their families.
With farmers riddled with debt and facing predatory railroad freight fares, this political movement, which had grown out of the local Granger movement of the South, stood for making substantive changes to America’s laissez-faire economic mentality. Populists wanted government to intervene with federal legislation that would protect farmers from corporate monopolies and political corruption.
In 1896, the Populist Party, made its most significant presidential run, nominating William Jennings Bryan, who was also the Democratic nominee. Despite a valiant showing, in which he captured most of the South, the Plains and the West, Bryan lost to William McKinley’s well-funded campaign. Bryan represented the interest of farmers, while McKinley looked after major industries and special interests. The Populist Party advocated for taxing the rich, direct elections of senators, nationalization of the railroad industry and for workers’ right to unionize.
After the 1896 defeat, the Populist party radically splintered, both politically and ideologically. Some veered toward local independent political groups, others merged with their state Democratic Parties in recognition of the Democrats’ embrace of Bryan and his populist tinged platform. It was at this point that American populism shapeshifted into many different ideologies — from the white supremacist strain of Thomas E. Watson to the socialist policies of Eugene Debs.
Before 1896, the Populist party had an inclusive attitude toward race and gender. The movement underpinning it sought a biracial approach to sharecropping. It also looked to position women in politics. However, this all changed after the party’s 1896 defeat.
Some Populists blamed Jews for mortgage defaults and farm repossessions — buying into larger, global anti-Semitic tropes. They turned to white supremacy, discriminated against Catholics and lashed out at urban immigrants for “selling” their votes for cheap labor. Their embrace of racism, gender essentialism, ethnicism and religious prejudice — many of which were stoked by those trying to destroy the populist movement to protect moneyed interests, especially in the South — fragmented the People’s party. Watson — who had supported black enfranchisement in Georgia — embodied this transition, moving away from his earlier ideas of racial inclusion and embracing white-supremacy and anti-Semitism.
Debs, on the other hand, disappointed with the results of the election and by the grip corporations had on the political system, founded the first Socialist Party in America. In a manifesto published just months after the 1896 election, he declared the only viable solution to make substantial change in the country was to seek a radical ideological conversion to socialism. Debs’s agenda stood for the working class, and he advocated for the support of unions and labor laws.
Yet, even as the two wings of populism diverged, figures as diverse as Debs and Watson shared a key position: both opposed the new economic order that left some Americans behind. Despite their myriad differences, Watson supported Debs when the socialist was in jail for opposing American involvement in World War I. He openly demanded “Debs in the White House and Wilson in prison.” Reciprocally, Debs saw himself as sharing political origins with Watson. He often described himself as “an out and out People’s party man.” These two had significant overlap in ideas.
This economic dissatisfaction expanded from rural farmers to unskilled workers over the course of the 20th century, during which manufacturing plants initially became the heart of national growth and a symbol for the American Dream. Like farmers in the 19th century, the 20th century factory worker was lionized as epitomizing American freedom. Large manufacturing plants were the inspiration for popular songs like Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory” and Alabama’s “Forty Hour Week,” and Hollywood movies like “Gung Ho.”
However, in the 1970s, American policymakers began to strip energy and infrastructure regulation, gutted antitrust and oversight laws and revoked federal support for unions. This combined with the 1973 oil crisis and an increase in international trade, generated by the erosion of the Bretton Woods financial regime, to create a perfect storm that heightened incentives to shift millions of American manufacturing jobs to smaller and cheaper countries.
These policies continued during the Reagan administration. Deregulation in all sectors became the principal economic policy for both parties. The price stability once created by regulation turned into a race to produce the cheapest product. This philosophy underpinned an economy obsessed with efficiency, automation and low wages. Manufacturing was exported and with it, the American mythology of hard work and freedom.
Just like in 1896, this left an entire class of Americans behind. Deregulation and automation continued to gut manufacturing in America. By December 2009, the number of manufacturing jobs in the country had hit its lowest point since 1941. As it had in the late 19th century, when it first embraced industry over agrarian life, it was clear that capitalism had again found greener pastures.
Trump and Sanders have offered two different solutions to this problem.
When Trump rode down the escalator to announce his presidential campaign, he called for a “leader that can bring back our jobs, can bring back our manufacturing …” Trump’s prescription for protecting the disaffected blue-collar worker (especially white ones) was to exclude undocumented immigrants from the workforce and pull the country out of international trade agreements that facilitate the exporting of jobs abroad.
Sanders, calling for full employment, Medicare-for-all, a higher minimum wage and student loan forgiveness, has a very different platform — one that speaks to blue collar Americans of all races and eschews the racism inherent in Trump’s populism. His policies promise to reduce inequality between the American working class and the rich.
Trump is today’s Thomas E. Watson; Sanders is a 21st century Eugene Debs. They could not be more different in policy, while being more similar in appealing to abandoned workers who have gone from epitomizing the American Dream to being completely discontented and struggling to make ends meet.
With Sanders suspending his presidential run, it is crucial that Joe Biden’s campaign recognizes the reality that disaffected workers face today. Only with this understanding will Biden court Sanders’ voters and embrace his ideas sufficiently to prevent Trump from luring some Sanders’ supporters in by falsely painting himself as the true champion of the underdog in the race.