One of the defining features of this election season is the decline of the culture wars. If this were eight years ago, the Democrats were still solidly a party based on identity politics. The only question was which identity group would prevail -- a black man on the down-low, or a white woman on the down-low? This time around, though, the Sanders supporters are trying to bring the party back to focusing on class, economics, and the nature of government.
I've mentioned before that it's a mistake to think of the Sanders movement as one of the working class, since it is primarily young people who have gone to college, racked up student loan debts that they won't be able to pay off, and want some kind of government relief. It is a movement of failed middle-class strivers, who couldn't care less about bringing well-paying blue-collar jobs back to America from all the places where we've off-shored our once mighty manufacturing sector.
It is the Trump movement that is the clear working-class party -- he does the best with low-income voters, and declines in popularity up the class pyramid, and ditto for his support by level of education.
Still, Sanders is the clear populist candidate on the Democrat side. He's no different in this way from the original populist firebrand, William Jennings Bryan, who oddly enough ran against (and lost to) William McKinley, who is Trump's clearest earlier incarnation, including being the champion of the working class and domestic manufacturers alike, against the laissez-faire anarchy of the Gilded Age. The 2016 election is a major realignment, most closely repeating the 1896 realignment election, as the nation left behind the Gilded Age and moved into the Progressive Era (to be dominated by Republicans; it was the later New Deal era that was dominated by Democrats).
Bryan's main bloc of supporters was not the working class either. Rather, they were the frontier strivers who took out huge loans from banks to start up a farming enterprise or mining operation out West, but who made nothing back because the niche had become overcrowded. Wave after wave of new transplant strivers had visions of getting rich quick by colonizing open farmland or hitting the mother lode, hopefully with no competitors around. They wanted to get bailed out of their debts by having the government accept silver as a form of legal currency (bimetallism), and in particular at twice its going market value. Cut your business debts in half overnight -- not a bad way to become solvent.
Sanders' main bloc of failed strivers are not so easily blamed for the explosion of their get-rich-quick scheme -- "going to college". They're only kids -- technically in their 20s, but they're Millennials, so cognitively and emotionally around 10 or 11. They were lied to by their parents about the value of "going to college," as well as by their teachers, college brochures, the media, the government, and any other supposedly responsible and knowledgeable adult. They only found out too late that it was a con job designed to inflate the higher ed bubble, and that they wouldn't be getting anything valuable out the other side of graduation, while being saddled with unpayable debts.
If they were adult speculators in farming, mining, or real estate, then sure, tell them tough luck that their gamble didn't pay off. But these were naive, immature kids whose brains haven't fully developed. And going to college isn't one of those natural parts of life anyway, so it's not as though given enough time they'd learn that going to college was just a con job.
Part of being raised from childhood into adulthood is being taught about the ways of the world, how you get by and earn a living. In a hunter-gatherer society, the father teaches his son that they get food by tracking prey, killing it, and cooking it over a fire. Then he begins teaching him how to read animal tracks, how to prepare his bow and arrow, how to aim, how to follow a wounded animal, and so on and so forth. After adolescence is over, the son is ready to be a real hunter himself, earning his own living rather than only being provided for by his father or other adults.
Today, children still come into the world not knowing how adults earn a living, and what training and preparation they'll have to go through to earn a living of their own. However, today we live in a great big bubble -- the higher ed bubble, which began inflating with the Me Generation of the 1970s -- a phenomenon that does not exist in a primitive society. What the hunter father does, so will the son.
In a bubble, only the early entrants will be able to earn a living -- whatever they acquire from the bubble activity will be in short supply (they're the first to get it), and it will probably be of good quality (the highest-quality stuff gets picked first). Parents and grown-ups in general who teach the young generation that "the way you get ahead in life" is by participating in the bubble, are unwittingly dooming them to failure. They're foolishly assuming that the late-comers to the bandwagon will do just as well as the first arrivers.
So, when a high schooler is planning out life after 12th grade, they take the adults' advice to heart -- why would everyone be lying or at least mistaken, especially your own parents? Off to college they go. Yet, after 40 years of the inflating higher ed bubble, what they get out of it is no longer in short supply, since nearly everyone their age will have a college degree of some kind, and it will no longer be of high quality because all these new-comers are not "college material" and will be accommodated only by low-quality "universities" who ask nothing of the students other than tuition dollars and give nothing other than the piece of paper itself.
Now, some of these Sanders supporters are contemptible, thinking that just because they majored in business or communications at some school no employer has ever heard of, they ought to be able to leap-frog everyone already in some industry and get a good job straight out of college. But most of them were just doing what they were told by literally every responsible-seeming adult during their entire high school career. How were they supposed to know any better? It's as though the primitive father had taught his son the value of hunting prey, and then when it's his turn to earn a living, it turns out there's no prey left to hunt, and he has to learn how to plant and harvest crops instead -- while trying to pay off an impossible loan.
How will we get out of this great big mess?
Back in 1896, the Democrat populist lost (and again in 1900, also to McKinley). The United States did not adopt silver as legal currency (McKinley put us on the gold standard), let alone make it worth twice its actual market value. The get-rich-quick schemes out West quickly evaporated, but with tariffs and other protections in place, there were good honest jobs to go around.
I think we'll see a similar path forward for us too. Trump would win over Sanders, and he's not going to just let people pay down their student loan debts at 50% of what they owe. By curbing immigration and threatening tariffs if jobs go overseas, there will be plenty of good honest jobs here, so that kids won't need to go to college to earn a decent living, and the ones with massive debts will be able to pay it off. But the higher ed bubble will finally blow up, and won't be inflated again.
The only major difference this time around is that the bubble is more the result of con artists perpetrating a fraud on mostly naive and innocent children, and clueless other adults reaffirming what the con men are selling. Given how appalling the greed and bad faith has been by the higher ed sector, I wouldn't be surprised if we do see some kind of yuge forgiveness. Maybe not an outright jubilee, but Trump re-negotiating the terms of those federal loans so that only those made in clear good faith will be kept as they were -- a small size loan going to a kid admitted to the Ivy League, not a gigantic loan going to a kid who scored under 1000 on the SAT and attending a degree mill.