What Sanders and Trump understood

The right question may not be why so many blue-collar whites and Millennials are flocking to such nontraditional candidates, but why it has taken them so long to find these alternatives.

On many measures, both groups are among the nation’s most economically strained. Hourly wages for white men with only a high school education, adjusted for inflation, were virtually no higher in 2011 than in 1989, and actually lower than in 2000, according to calculations by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think-tank. Meanwhile, since 2000, as the EPI noted recently, inflation-adjusted wages have remained stagnant for young college graduates, and declined slightly for young workers with only a high-school degree. Slow wage growth, combined with mounting educational costs, has left this generation struggling to cross the key mileposts of adult life: As the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis has reported, “college-educated young adults in 2013 had higher debt burdens, lower total asset holdings, and lower net worth than their counterparts had in 1989.”

Trump and Sanders are far more different than alike. Yet their responses to this widespread distress share some similar impulses. Both are skeptical of free trade. Both portray the political system as hopelessly infected by special interests. Both explain their supporters’ distress by pointing to shadowy culprits: for Sanders, “the billionaire class” and for Trump, undocumented immigrants, foreign manufacturers, and Muslims.

Both are also offering solutions that have little prospect of success in today’s closely divided political environment.