Rick Perlstein, The Washington Spectator - It’s July 20, and my airplane seatmate asks what brought me to Texas. He is a construction company sales executive from Houston. He’s watching Fox News on his cell phone. He tells me he considers himself a conservative. I tell him I’m a political reporter covering the Bernie Sanders campaign. He perks up: “I like what I’ve heard from him. Kind of middle of the road.”
Eleven days later, I’m at a Bernie Sanders house party in the depressed steel town of Griffith, Indiana, in a state that places in the bottom quartile on Silver’s chart. I approach a young man in his twenties wearing a thrift store T-shirt. I ask him what brings him here tonight.
“I’m just helping out my friends because they asked me to help out,” he tells me. He adds that he’s a conservative: “But I approve of some of the stuff that Bernie stands for. Like appealing to more than just the one percent and just trying to give everybody a leg up who’s needing it these days.”....
Sanders has been extraordinarily clear about the kind of shift he’d like to effect: Republicans “divide people on gay marriage. They divide people on abortion. They divide people on immigration. And what my job is, and it’s not just in blue states. . . [is] to bring working people together around an economic agenda that works. People are sick and tired of establishment politics; they are sick and tired of a politics in which candidates continue to represent the rich and the powerful.”
The theory that economic populism unites voters is hardly new. Lyndon Johnson, in New Orleans and about to lose the South to Barry Goldwater in 1964, expressed it in one of the most remarkable campaign speeches in history. A Southern Democratic politician was on his deathbed, Johnson said. “He was talking about the economy and what a great future we could have in the South, if we could just meet our economic problems. . . ‘I would like to go back down there and make them one more Democratic speech. I just feel like I have one in me. The poor old state, they haven’t heard a Democratic speech in 30 years. All they ever hear at election time is nigger! nigger! nigger!’”
The theory suggests that when upwards of 60 percent of voters consistently agree that rich people should have their taxes raised, a candidate who promises to do so might be identified as what he actually is: middle of the road. That if Democrats give Democratic speeches on economic issues, voters suckered into Republicanism by refrains like Jihad! Jihad! Jihad! just might try something else. And that new voters might be attracted into politics if they could just hear a candidate cut to the radical quick of the actual problems that are ruining their lives. My new Republican friends didn’t know they were not “supposed” to like a “liberal” like Bernie Sanders. Then they heard what he was saying, and liked what they heard. How many are there like them?