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The most profound gap between Clinton and Sanders supporters wasn’t about policy

The argument about whether the political system is rigged.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had very different records over the years on economic policy, and their best-informed surrogates reflect that division. But a massive new pile of research from the Voter Study Group on what really happened in the 2016 election shows that among rank-and-file Democrats, there isn’t much of a systematic disagreement about economic policy. The real divide is about American politics itself.

Clinton supporters were fundamentally happy with the United States of America, the American political system, and the trajectory for people like themselves within it. Sanders supporters, by contrast, were not, and Clinton’s various leftward feints on policy could not address that gap.

That difference makes it much harder to bridge a divide, since it’s hard to split the difference around the question of whether or not establishment politics is fundamentally corrupt. A left-wing economic message can be co-opted by more moderate politicians and can have its rough edges sanded off in pragmatic pursuit of electoral victory. But it doesn’t address the fundamental divide, which is less about concrete policies than about abstract ideas like corruption of politics.

Clinton fans and Sanders fans were similar on policy

Here is a key chart from the Voter Study Group looking at how stated opinions on various matters correlated with a tendency to have a favorable view of Clinton or Sanders (or Barack Obama, for added context).

Voter Study Group

A key takeaway here is that on major economic policy issues, there is no clear difference between the two candidates’ supporters. Both Clinton voters and Sanders voters are very worried about economic inequality and moderately supportive of government intervention in the economy and of liberal positions on moral issues.

On other issues, mild differences are visible. Despite the Clinton campaign’s emphasis on identity politics themes, Sanders backers are slightly further to the left in their attitude toward African Americans, immigrants, and gender roles. And despite the Sanders campaign’s emphasis on the welfare state, Clinton backers are further to the left on the importance of Social Security and Medicare. But critically, there is a lot of overlap between both candidates’ camps on all of these topics.

There’s a big difference on trade, but then a yawning void on attitudes toward America itself.

Clinton fans and Sanders fans see America differently

Compared with Sanders supporters, voters with a favorable view of Clinton are much less likely to view politics as a rigged game, much more likely to express pride in America, and much less likely to express the view that “people like me” are in decline.

That tension was highly visible at the 2016 Democratic convention. The Clinton and Sanders camps had some difficult discussions on the party’s platform committee, but ultimately crafted an agenda that both sides could enthusiastically support. The speeches from the convention floor, however, revealed a stark contrast between optimistic, upbeat speeches from Clinton and the Obama families and things like Elizabeth Warren darkly warning that “people get it: the system is rigged.”

At the end of the day, even if the basic prescriptions were broadly similar — a higher minimum wage, more stringent regulation of banks, higher taxes on the rich, more subsidization of higher education and health care — the diagnoses were in some ways diametrically opposed, with Clinton seeing a beneficent American establishment threatened with disruption by the unruly forces unleashed by Donald Trump and Sanders seeing a fundamentally fallen nation in dire need of redemption.

Those thematic and atmospheric disagreements plague the party to this day in part because the diagnosis that the political system as a whole is rigged — as opposed to the GOP just being bad — plays as an indictment of many leading Democrats, a diagnosis they naturally reject. On the other hand, with Democrats now almost entirely locked out of political power, it may be much easier going forward to unify around a dark message than it was in 2016 with Obama in the White House.

Opposition usually makes unity easier

Out of office, parties often find that nothing makes it easier to come together than a shared enemy. And the specific thematic dissonance between the Clinton and Sanders camps may be in some ways particularly amenable to this kind of reconciliation.

At the moment, after all, politics in the United States is essentially whatever the Republican Party makes of it. And it’s easy for establishment Democrats to rally around the notion that things like Senate Republicans keeping their health care bill secret or the Trump administration issuing secret waivers to negate their own ethics rules reflect a rigged system. Likewise, Democrats of all stripes are going to find that “people like me” aren’t well-represented in Trump’s Washington.

The practical issue, to the extent that there is one, is more likely to arise if Democrats ever take power again. Candidate Obama ran on a message promising fundamental change to the way Washington worked. He then proceeded to govern as a fairly conventional inside player who focused on getting things done according to the established rules of the game. The gap that opened up between message and reality very much reflects the gap between the worldview of the Sanders and Clinton camps. And if Democrats get a chance to cover again, the basic choice will arise again — do Democrats want to talk about reforming the system, or do they want to actually do it.

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