Opinion Columns & Blogs

Russell Arben Fox: Why did Sanders win so big in Kansas?

In last weekend’s Democratic caucus, Bernie Sanders won over Kansas Democrats by a greater percentage than he has in any other state with the exception of his home state of Vermont. What explains his huge margin of victory (a more than 2-1 majority) here?

It may be because Kansas is a mostly white state, and Sanders’ campaign has resonated far more with white Democratic audiences than nonwhite ones. Moreover, a greater relative percentage of those who vote Democratic in Kansas tend to be young, which is a demographic that Sanders has done very well with. And, of course, many hundreds of Sanders volunteers worked tirelessly for months on his behalf, and it paid off.

But all those explanations cannot, I think, entirely account for the unprecedented numbers that the Kansas Democratic caucuses saw Saturday. Turnout has been up for Republican contests across the country. But on the Democratic side, turnout has been down from 2008, the last time the Democratic presidential nomination contest was wide open.

Yet Kansas bucked that trend, setting a new record for caucus participation. So how is Sanders inspiring such a response in the Sunflower State?

Let me suggest one additional explanation: the populist sensibility of Kansas.

For many, “populism” describes the whole 2016 election cycle: Outsiders challenging the establishment, channeling the anger of ordinary voters, and proposing solutions that various elites consider irresponsible, radical or even dangerous.

It’s true that Donald Trump and others have pursued that pose. But Sanders’ approach is a little bit different, suggesting a populism that’s more about the common good than simply attacking those who ignore the interests of the majority.

When Sanders rails against the “billionaire class,” he’s often accused of engaging in divisive “class warfare.” But the original populist argument, from more than a century ago, recognized that the real dividers were those who amassed great wealth and yet did not play by the same rules or contribute fully to the same common projects as the whole community.

And a divided community – where there are huge gaps and little association between the rich and the poor – will be characterized by resentment and fear, which is, among other things, bad for business. (More equal societies arguably have higher levels of social mobility, economic freedom and entrepreneurship than the United States; apparently, the knowledge that the community collectively values you and will protect your kids’ education or your medical care makes workers and investors more willing to innovate and take risks.)

But perhaps you need to have an element of old-school conservatism to be able to feel the force of these arguments, and the traditionalist side of the contemporary left is weak around much of the country. Harvard researcher Jonathan Schlefer recently argued that Sanders’ problem isn’t that he’s too far to the left, but that America is too classically “liberal” – too concerned with individual rights, property and welfare – to appreciate his class-based approach.

No one explanation accounts for everything, but perhaps Sanders’ appeal to the Democrats of Kansas and other parts of rural “flyover” America is because our lives here remind us of how community and equality go hand in hand – or at least ought to.

Russell Arben Fox is a professor of political science at Friends University.