Alice Rodriguez says she “used to be that person,” the one who did not care about politics. But she says she cannot afford to ignore it anymore.
“I’ve gone through situations where I’ve had to decide whether to choose to go to the doctor or have food. I have to have food,” said the 32-year-old Columbia substitute teacher and artist.
“I’m ready for the revolution. The wealth is distributed the wrong way, and people need to start sharing.”
The populist revolution Rodriguez wants is the one U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders has promised if he wins the Democratic presidential nomination and the White House — expanding everyone’s access to education, health care and higher wages, mainly by taxing corporations and the wealthy.
Across the political aisle, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has been vowing his own populist revolution. He will build a wall to keep immigrants out and Mexico will pay for it. (How? He has not explained.) Free trade deals? Forget them.
This year, Trump and Sanders have enjoyed stunning political success, driven by a rising tide of populist sentiments that reach back more than 150 years ago into American history.
Trump rails against immigrants, echoing the nativist, mid-1800s Know Nothing Party that grew out of fears that an influx of Catholic immigrants was threatening the American way of life.
Sanders’ outcry against banks and corporations has its roots in the populist movement of the late 1800s, formed by a coalition of laborers and farmers, suffering, they said, under high loan and railroad rates that lined the elite’s pockets.
Trump is certain of his supporters’ unwavering backing, no matter what he says — or does. “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he boasted at a campaign rally.
While even Democratic-controlled Congresses have failed to pass universal health care, Sanders’ signature issue, the self-described democratic socialist insists his “political revolution” will pan out.
Despite critics, supporters of Trump and Sanders do not see themselves as followers of a demagogue playing to fears and prejudices, in the case of the Republican front-runner, or a purveyor of pipe-dream economics, in the case of the upstart Sanders.
“We’re tired of career politicians, so we’re out here supporting him (Trump),” said North Carolina resident Robert Rowe, 30, who attended a Trump campaign event in Rock Hill recently.
“That he is no B.S. — that’s what I like about him. And he’s super smart. He’s great with money. He’s created a lot of jobs, and he’s his own man. I like that. He can’t be bought.”
“On the left, we’re sick of not being represented in government,” said Guy Lugenbeel, 40, a Columbia DJ. “Not to hate on Barack (Obama), not to hate on Hillary Clinton, but ... when we had both houses (of Congress) and the presidency, yeah, it was hard to get stuff voted in. But I think we could have fought harder.”
Lugenbeel says Sanders’ calls to get more people involved in politics could reshape Congress, making it easier to pass liberal policies.
“Is that going to happen? I don’t know,” he said. “But all of these things that he is doing seemed implausible six months ago.”
The rise of populism
The secret to the success of Trump and Sanders, thus far, lies in their ability to rouse emotions, and the hopes and fears of their supporters, said Jack Bass, a Charleston historian and author.
“Trump, he makes outlandish statements sometimes,” Bass said. “But you don’t hear him backing down from what he says.
“Populism, traditionally, did not have the youth element to it. But that is a part of it now,” because of Sanders’ appeal, Bass added.
Both Trump and Sanders are selling populist messages.
Sanders is “trying to make it seem like (Clinton is) owned by the corporate interests.” Trump is “appealing to the prejudices of a lot of people: poorer whites against immigrants,” Bass said.
Though their popularity and campaign success has taken the political establishment by surprise, Trump and Sanders are drawing on passions that have been flaring since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Years of war, federal budget surpluses that turned to deficits under Republican President George W. Bush, the housing market crash, an economic recession, a slow economic recovery and still-stagnant wages have given rise to movements driven by anger at the disparities between those in power and everyone else — including the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street and, urging criminal-justice reform, Black Lives Matter.
In 2008 and 2012, presidential candidates — including President Barack Obama — played to similar concerns as well, promising wholesale changes to Washington politics, said Karen Kedrowski, a Winthrop University political scientist.
But Obama and other politicians failed to produce the surge of populism that is driving the Trump and Sanders campaigns — something “that’s a little bit ironic because, in some ways, neither one of them is a populist,” Kedrowski said.
“Trump is a billionaire and was raised wealthy,” said the Winthrop political scientist.
Sanders, the son of working-class Polish immigrants, “rose through positions of power in Washington — the very establishment that he rails against.”
The style and delivery of the candidates also has won over a lot of voters, political experts say.
“They both speak to ordinary people’s concerns,” whether their anti-Wall Street or anti-immigrant message, Kedrowski said. “They are plain-spoken, and they speak in ways that capture people’s imaginations.”
That style also explains why a lot of voters are turned off by the two populists.
Trump drew ire — from Republicans and Democrats alike — when he called for a ban on all Muslim immigrants entering the United States and falsely accused thousands of U.S. Muslims of celebrating the 9/11 attacks.
For his part, “Sanders just comes across as a grumpy old man,” Kedrowski said.
In contrast, Obama, whose grassroots hope-and-change campaign paved the way for Sanders to reject super-PAC support and trumpet a campaign built on small donations, “ did not shout,” said Kedrowski. “He created poetry.”
“But,” she added, “he really spoke on the same things” as Sanders.
Weak economy created openings
Angst over the economy — as in populist movements of the past — has led to similar lines of attack from Trump and Sanders.
“This is not a rising-tide-that-lifts-all-boats recovery,” said Danielle Vinson, a Furman University political scientist. “A lot of people don’t feel economically secure. They have not seen wages go up.”
Both Trump and Sanders, for instance, denounce trade deals, saying they make it easier for U.S. companies to ship jobs overseas, hurting U.S. workers.
Both have taken more isolationist stances in foreign policy, though Trump has flip-flopped.
Both also have cast Washington politicians as shills for corporate interests, saying if they are elected president, they will not be beholden to special interests.
But they differ in other ways.
Sanders promises economic policy changes that will boost the working class — universal health care, free college and a higher minimum wage.
When Sanders talks about wage inequality, he draws “differences between those who own the company and those who work for the company,” pitting workers against job creators, Furman’s Vinson said.
Economic insecurity also “opens opportunities for Trump” to play on voters’ fears about newcomers, she said.
Blasting show tunes and patriotic music against the backdrop of giant U.S. flags, Trump mixes patriotism with anti-immigration positions.
“He makes immigrants the bad guy: ‘They’re taking our jobs,’ even when they are not,” Vinson said.
So far, the candidates are surviving efforts by critics to cast them as snake-oil salesmen, peddling fantasy.
When former Mexican president Felipe Calderon said recently his country never will pay for Trump’s “stupid” wall, the Republican doubled down on his tough talk, saying, “(T)he wall’s just gonna get bigger when he has that attitude.”
Trump’s promise to build a wall on the Mexico-U.S. border continues to be one of his best applause lines.
Economists also have raised questions about Sanders’ economic policies, issuing competing studies of his single-payer, socialized medicine plan. Some say it would raise taxes dramatically and eliminate private health-insurance jobs. Others say it would cut health-care costs by making the system more efficient.
But history also shows that tax increases and expansion of government likely will go nowhere in Congress, especially a GOP-controlled one.
“The ideas that Bernie Sanders is coming up with have been around for as long as I can remember,” Winthrop’s Kedrowski said. Referring to universal health care, she added, “If there were votes to do that, it would have been passed.”
‘Can’t do any worse’
Whether Trump or Sanders secures their party’s nominations remains to be seen.
Both candidates have had success in early tests, winning decisively in New Hampshire’s presidential primaries and finishing second in the Iowa caucuses.
Trump could win in South Carolina’s Feb. 20 GOP primary, where he is the front-runner. Sanders, however, trails Clinton by 30 percentage points in the state’s Feb. 27 Democratic primary, according to the most recent polls.
Trump and Sanders supporters say they are going with the candidates who best reflect their own feelings.
“He’s familiar with the Chinese people and he’s dealt with them,” said Trump supporter Andy DeWitt of Rock Hill, adding, “He can’t do any worse than what has gone in the past.”
A voter who has felt left out of politics since Jimmy Carter ran for president in 1976, DeWitt said Trump’s anti-immigration stance appeals to him.
“I like the way that Trump said that he’s going to curb immigration and put up a wall,” said DeWitt, a wholesale locksmith salesman who grew up in Rock Hill.
DeWitt also trusts Trump.
“His heart’s in it. And I don’t think he’s in it for the money. He could be doing something else.”
Sanders’ supporters say there is a way around the gridlock in Congress — a way to push, successfully, a more progressive agenda, and spur turnover in U.S. House and Senate seats.
“I actually believe in this concept of a political revolution,” said Lugenbeel of Columbia. “If we’re going to have a democracy, we’re going to have to change how we keep getting money from corporate interests.”
Rodriguez of Columbia said she sees in Sanders “somebody who’s daring to dream big for everybody. He’s representing that struggle. He represents the power of the people.
“He says, ‘I need you.’ That this is not an every four-years kind of thing,” she added. “You have to become an activist to see the changes you want to see.”
U.S. and S.C. populism
The appeals that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are making to voters can be traced back at least 150 years to the American populist and socialist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though those movements never won political power, their agendas often were co-opted by mainstream parties and politicians. Some key figures:
William Jennings Bryan: As the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 1896, former Nebraska congressman Bryan railed against the gold standard that Eastern banks favored, advocating a looser silver-based monetary system, which the Populist Party’s farmers wanted. The Populists nominated Bryan as their nominee, too. But Bryan was defeated by Republican William McKinley, backed by bankers and manufacturers. Bryan was painted as a demagogue, radical and a socialist.
Four decades after Bryan’s defeat, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt dropped the gold standard and broke up the banks, passing the Glass-Steagall Act as part of his New Deal agenda that also included Social Security.
(Columbia’s VA hospital is named for late U.S. Rep. Williams Jennings Bryan Dorn, named for the agrarian-populist firebrand.)
Theodore Roosevelt: Known as the “trust-buster,” Republican Roosevelt pushed the Sherman Act, allowing for monopolies to be broken up through the courts. His first target was a railroad monopoly, one of Bryan’s enemies.
Eugene Debs: A railroad worker and union organizer, Debs campaigned for Bryan and the Democratic-Populist agenda in 1896. After Bryan’s defeat, Debs announced his conversion to socialism. He ran for president unsuccessfully as the Socialist Party’s nominee five times.
Portions of his agenda were enacted by FDR and, later, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. Strains of the Bryan-Debs agenda can be found in the Democratic presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Franklin Roosevelt: Pushed New Deal reforms that regulated banks and the financial industry, created jobs and social welfare programs aimed at sparking economic recovery.
George Wallace: The Democratic Alabama governor advocated “segregation forever,” a populist stance that later morphed into his third-party runs for president and the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy.”
In South Carolina
Ben Tillman: Governor of South Carolina from 1890 to 1894, Tillman never endorsed the populist platform formally but shared many of its goals: fighting for reforms to benefit farmers, a graduated income tax, freer silver-based monetary policy, and regulation of banks and railroads. A farmer himself before he entered politics, Tillman — better known today as a racist demagogue who advocated lynching African Americans — was a founder of Clemson University.
Olin Johnston: A two-term S.C. governor, Johnston was a strong supporter of New Deal policies, pushing for protections for farmers and a state Social Security act.
Strom Thurmond: Nominee of the segregationist 1948 Dixiecrats, Democrat Thurmond failed in his bid to be elected president. But he laid the groundwork to convert the “solid South” to the Republican Party when he bolted from the Democratic Party. Thurmond brought the first wave of Southerners into the GOP. A decade later, Ronald Reagan brought “Reagan Democrats” into the GOP. Today, disillusioned with the GOP — for failing to preserve conservative, social values, critics say — many Reagan Democrats are supporting upstart GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.