Now that Sen. Bernie Sanders is surging and a populist-left Sanders versus populist-right Trump race looks more and more likely, it might finally be time for America's leadership class to start looking inward and asking what's going on. People don't throw out all their normal political leaders for a TV-host billionaire and a socialist who honeymooned in the Soviet Union when they are satisfied with the state of affairs in their country. Something's going wrong for the American people. They are desperately searching for new political leaders who will shake things up.
You would think the first question our leaders would ask would be, "Why is this happening?" What is going so wrong for people that they throw out all the establishment political leaders? There is perhaps no greater sign of how out of touch our political establishment is than its failure to seriously discuss this question, three-plus years into the Trump presidency.
Our country was led for decades by a centrist group of corporate-minded Republicans and Democrats. These people had different views on issues of social policy and national security. When it came to economics, though, the differences over the past few decades have been more a matter of degree. Both parties have had generally pro-corporate mindsets with differences over things like a few points in the top tax rate. We make a huge deal over it, but in reality, the ideological divide in our country has been pretty narrow. The difference between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump is not narrow. It's massive. Sanders wants to fundamentally transform our country. Trump is pretty transformational himself, but in a much less politically radical way when it comes to economics.
Advertisement - story continues below
At Washington's think tanks and trade associations, a lot of time is spent lamenting the "wackos" who are taking over the political system. It's true that a lot of those in office right now don't understand the inner workings of our system the way most politicians traditionally have. The point to understand is that's precisely what voters increasingly want. Voters are not in the mood for status quo. They want radical change from outsiders or, in Sanders' case, from an insider who's always been outside the political mainstream.
One obvious answer to what's driving the fervor in our country is economic stagnation in the middle. When you add soaring health care, education and housing costs to lower wage gains, many Americans have felt economically flat, or even down, these past couple of decades. Couple this with the high visibility of those thriving at the top and you have a recipe for political disruption. When people who have felt economically stagnant for years see the massive number of private planes parked at the airport – planes that weren't there a few years ago in nearly as many numbers – they start wondering if the system is rigged. When people see a financial crisis that makes Wall Streeters richer, they start questioning the fundamental fairness of our economic system. These worries have been exacerbated by the horrible behavior displayed by America's leaders in recent years.
In the corporate world, people see that failure comes with no cost. Actually, for those at the very top, failure is usually now accompanied by a huge payout. Adam Neumann, co-founder of WeWork, ran his company into the ground through gross mismanagement and walked away with more than $1 billion for his trouble. Marissa Mayer took over a struggling Yahoo and drove it much further into disrepair. She got a quarter-billion dollars for her time. John Stumpf, the CEO who ran Wells Fargo as the bank was ripping off its account holders, was given over $100 million at his exit. These are just a few prime examples. It happens all the time. The lesson people take is that the rules are different for America's elites. It's a no-lose proposition. Not surprisingly, people don't like it.
People also don't like our kids being burdened by record student loan debt. Curious about Sanders' popularity? That's a great place to start. Our top colleges are run by overpaid administrators who are getting rich while our kids face massive student loan debts. Top college tuitions are astronomical. The schools, meanwhile, are building multibillion-dollar financial endowments that are subsidized by taxpayers, and they are using very little of this money to help students. None of this sits well with hardworking Americans.
Advertisement - story continues below
The question for those of us who still believe in free markets and economic growth as better drivers of progress than government programs is this: How do we win people back to our point of view? We have lost younger Americans, for sure. Changing this dynamic goes beyond a simple marketing exercise. It's not a matter of selling the free market message better. Some changes may be needed to make our system actually work better for a broader group of Americans. The question is how we implement those changes without fundamentally harming our economy with new regulations or taxes.
For too long, those in power have avoided this discussion. There is no more important topic. Why do people feel the system is not working? Do we need changes? This debate should have started three years ago, but it's a lot easier to make fun of the whack jobs arriving in Washington than to ask why the American people are sending them. If the risk of a Bernie Sanders presidency doesn't drive the start of this debate, then we are all probably in for a world of trouble.