The notion that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are two sides of the same outsider coin has become increasingly common, but it misses some key differences between the candidates. Mr. Sanders has a strong and consistent ideological view, while Mr. Trump’s opinions range across the political spectrum. Mr. Sanders almost never speaks about himself, while Mr. Trump’s focuses almost exclusively on his personality. Most significantly, Mr Sanders has focused his anger and blame on an economic class, while Mr. Trump has fired his rancor on various ethnic groups, including Mexicans and Muslims.
Although Mr. Sanders has struck a very different tone from Mr. Trump regarding race in America, never resorting to demagoguery, he has still struggled to compete with Hillary Clinton for non-white voters. In fact, if Ms. Clinton had not run up huge margins with African American voters in the Deep South, and big margins with those voters in the several northern states that have voted so far, she might be behind in the delegate count today.
This must be very frustrating for Mr. Sanders, who has a long commitment to civil rights and causes that are important to African Americans. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, was arrested as a student protesting segregation, and was one of the country’s only Jewish elected officials to support Jesse Jackson in 1988. Similarly, Mr. Sanders’s economic proposals would, if implemented, benefit lower income African American and Latinos. He has nonetheless been unable to break through with these voters. Instead a significant majority of African Americans remain loyal to a Clinton brand that has had a very mixed record on criminal justice and other issues that are important for those voters.
This is where the similarity with Mr. Trump rears its head again. Both campaigns, although from very different political perspectives, are a reaction to the identity politics that have defined American political discourse for the last several decades, particularly on the left. Mr. Trump, of course, is much more overt about this. When he rails against political correctness, a major subtext is simply, “Hey you non-white people, we’ve heard enough from you now sit down and shut up.” It has not been hard to mobilize Republican primary voters around that subtext in this or any other year, but few have done it as powerfully as Mr. Trump.
Mr. Sanders’s rebuke of identity politics may not be as deliberate as that of Mr. Trump, but is nonetheless real. Senator Sanders has based his campaign around an economic critique that, in his mind, explains everything, including racism, sexism and homophobia. This approach, however, allows no room for other voices that might think that their views or angles are different because they are African American, Latino, Lesbian etc. Not surprisingly, this kind of whitesplaining of the left does not appeal to nonwhite voters for whom access and voice are frequently as important as economic promises that may or may not be fulfilled.
It is significant that for years the leaders of those communities have had their voices heard at the highest levels of Democratic administrations. Therefore, when Mr. Sanders attacks the Democratic establishment, many of these voters may interpret that as an effort to silence their voices because the old white dude, even if he is well left of center, has the answers. It is a kinder and gentler way of telling minorities to sit down and shut up, but it is still whitesplaining. This tendency has been seen in recent debates during discussions of guns and immigration. In both cases, Ms. Clinton based her response on what the advocates in the field had to say on the issue, while Mr. Sanders dug in and tried to explain why he was right, with considerably more success on immigration.
Although the whitesplaining from Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump sounds very different, they are both a reaction to identity politics. In the case of Mr. Trump, the only thing that differentiates him from other Republican presidential candidates in this and recent elections, is the delight he seems to take in flaunting what he calls political correctness, but what others might call decency.
Mr. Sanders, however, reflects a different situation in the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party of which Hillary Clinton has been a major national leader for a generation is one where identity politics are deeply entrenched. The coalition of African Americans, Latinos, LGBT voters and more support from women than men, has helped the Democrats win four of the last six presidential elections, while coming very close the other two times. Keeping that coalition viable has required juggling issue positions, appointments and a degree of sensitivity that has, at times, almost paralyzed the party.
In many respects, the race between Mr. Sanders and Ms. Clinton comes down to the clash between Ms. Clinton’s long commitment to identity politics and Mr. Sanders belief in a broader economic vision that trumps identity politics. From the perspective of the left, it is not hard to sympathize with Mr. Sanders, particularly as he is running against a Clinton. Bill Clinton, during his time in the White House, deftly relied heavily on identity politics, giving African Americans, Latinos, women and other unprecedented access and high level appointments, while at the same time governing essentially as a Rockefeller Republican. Today, Ms. Clinton is still benefiting politically from that.
Mr. Sanders popularity, on the other hand, is greatest among young white voters, and is a backlash to that Faustian deal the left made during the 1990s. The young white progressives who support Mr. Sanders in huge numbers are less likely to have as much wealth and power, relative to other groups, than any generation of white Americans before them. Bernie Sanders, while never veering into anything close to the mean-spirited, divisive and provocative rhetoric that we have seen from Mr. Trump, gives his young white base a political option that allows them to express both their economic concerns and uncertainty, and their less overt, and perhaps less realized, concerns about their changing position in American society. It is a fascinating paradox that while many, but not all, of Mr. Sanders’s positions are truly radical, they are too frequently experienced as a left wing riff on the tired notion that the old white guy knows best.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.