The New York Times ran a very powerful feature story on Saturday, March 7, “A Sanders Voter, Weary of Debt at 29: ‘I Have Nothing to Lose’.” It profiled Brian Michelz, a 29-year old man from rural Michigan now living in Madison, Wisconsin.
Both Brian and his wife Sarah are burdened by substantial medical and educational debts. Sarah works as a nurse, Brian works in a tire shop. They struggle to make ends meet, they worry about the future — and, for now, they are putting off having children.
The profile’s central theme is political.
Mr. Michelz grew up in a family of Trump supporters. He himself had long been alienated from politics. But in 2016, the Sanders message resonated with him, and so he voted for Sanders in the primary. However, he refused to vote for Clinton in the general election, and says that he “does not regret it.”
This year he will vote for Sanders again, because “I have nothing to lose.”
Asked if he would vote for Biden if he wins the nomination, Michelz replied, “You know, I don’t think I would. Nothing against him as a person. But my life probably wouldn’t change if he became president. I don’t think other people’s would either. So, what’s the point?”
Mr. Michelz also said that if he believed that Sanders was “treated unfairly” by the Democratic establishment, “it’s possible I might just vote for Trump. . . That might be immature, that might be bad. But I guess I still don’t view Trump as Hitler either.”
What are we to make of Mr. Michelz and his political views?
I am not a prognosticator, and it remains to be seen how people like Michelz will behave this year at the voting booth. But the plight of people like Brian and Sarah Michelz certainly helps to explain, not just the rise of Trump-style authoritarian right-wing populism, but also the appeal of Sanders’s brand of left populism to some young working-class voters.
His appeal to such voters in fact represents one of the strongest arguments for Sanders’s candidacy.
But what does it mean that some of Sanders’s core supporters can also imagine voting for Trump, even after four years of Trump in power?
One wonders what Mr. Michelz thinks about African-American and Latinx people, and about the changing demographic landscape of the U.S. Similarly, one wonders what he thinks about the political authoritarianism of Trump, his assault on the rule of law, and on such agencies as the Justice Department, the Labor Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Do these things matter to him?
Mr. Michelz believes that electing an establishment Democrat like Joe Biden wouldn’t in any way change his life for the better.
One wonders what Sarah Michelz, the woman to whom he is married, thinks about this, and whether she imagines the Republican assault on reproductive freedom and on women’s health services has no bearing on her life, and whether the defense of these things by Democrats “makes no difference” to her life or the lives of her sisters and friends.
The strength of the Sanders “political revolution” has been that it claims to speak to and for people like Brian and Sarah Michelz. Some are drawn to Sanders, while others who are similarly situated are drawn to Trump, who promises them no real solutions to their precarity, but hostility toward everything they associate with “the establishment.”
“The truth is, they are speaking to a frustrated America,” Michelz says in the Times piece of political candidates. “That’s why someone who is as ridiculous as Trump got elected. People wanted to see someone who wasn’t proper, who wasn’t afraid of the establishment. He appealed to people who thought it was all becoming a sham. . . It’s the same thing with Bernie.”
At the same time, many other people — core Democratic voters, especially the many African-Americans in Southern states who voted decisively for Biden last week, and even some independents, perhaps especially among suburban women — are terrified of the way people like Mr. Michelz think about politics.
The rhetoric of resentment scares them, as does the possibility of a Trump victory. They are also leery of Sanders and his talk of “revolution.”
This is not because they are “reactionary.” It is because they do not believe that they have “nothing to lose.”
On the contrary, they prize many things about the liberal democracy we still have, and worry about losing the rule of law, and what is left of the American welfare state. Defeating Trump is their top priority.
Can Sanders appeal to such people? Does he even want to try? We will see.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.