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McFeely: Sanders is about a scared middle class, not 'free stuff'

FARGO -- Don't insult Bernie Sanders by whining that his campaign is all about "free stuff." Don't insult his supporters by suggesting the only reason they want the U.S. senator from Vermont elected is so they can get "handouts" from the government.

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Mike McFeely

FARGO -- Don't insult Bernie Sanders by whining that his campaign is all about "free stuff."

Don't insult his supporters by suggesting the only reason they want the U.S. senator from Vermont elected is so they can get "handouts" from the government.

Don't insult the young activists turning out for Sanders by saying they like him because they don't want to work and just want everything given to them.

If you do, you're missing the point. By about a million miles.

Sanders will bring his populist political show to town Friday and will surely get his partisans riled up with his patented fire-and-brimstone message about the evils of Wall Street and the political establishment. He's likely to bring up free college tuition, a single-payer health care system and a higher minimum wage.

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This is why his critics will scream about "free stuff."

This is where they are wrong.

Like Donald Trump on the right, Sanders is tapping into a broad swath of people fearful they are being left behind by the powers that be, that their idea of the American Dream is out of reach.

In Trump's case, his supporters are largely middle-aged white men who look around and wonder what the hell happened to "their" country. Trump is the guy who's promised to somehow bring those 1960s-style manufacturing jobs back to the Rust Belt. Keep out the Muslims, keep out the Mexicans, make America first and, presto, it'll be great again.

He's tapped into the fear and confusion of one segment of middle-class, working-class America.

Sanders' message resonates with a very different group of middle-class Americans. Younger and more diverse, they wonder how one slice of America can be so ridiculously wealthy and powerful while they look at their future and wonder how they can afford college (for themselves or their children), how they can afford a house, how they can afford a car payment, how they can afford health insurance, how they can afford to save for retirement, how they can afford ...

You get the idea. The phrase, I believe, is economic insecurity.

It's not about free stuff. It's about affording life while their wages have stagnated or shrunk, costs for everything have skyrocketed and the income gap between the highest wage-earners and the middle wage-earners has become as wide as the Grand Canyon.

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It is middle-class, working-class frustration. Just like Trump's supporters have, only from a different angle. Instead of talking about building a wall to keep out our neighbors (and have them pay for it), Sanders is promoting free college tuition.

Which idea is crazier?

It can't be the one Sanders is promoting. History and the words of current leaders say otherwise.

Higher education has long been an economic engine in the United States. The G.I. Bill guaranteed free college education to millions of soldiers returning from World War II and led to the greatest expansion of the middle class in the nation's history. Young men who'd never dreamed or desired to go to college received their degrees, bumped up their incomes and paid more taxes. Some estimates say the federal government got $6 back for every $1 it spent on the G.I. Bill.

States like California offered free college tuition for many years, widely broadening its pool of well-educated professionals and innovators. Again, the return on investment was considered outstanding.

Think this is loony liberal talk? Then business leaders in Minnesota and North Dakota (especially the Red River Valley) must be loony liberals. If you listen to them, you'll hear them say their No. 1 priority is finding a well-educated, well-trained workforce that can keep up with rapidly changing modern technology. You'll hear them say that's why we need to continue to invest in higher education.

This is why Sanders' message cannot be dismissed as pandering words aimed at young people wanting "free stuff." Higher education is critical and a quickly growing number of middle-class and working-class families are looking at the cost of a post high-school education and saying, "No way." And many who do take the plunge are starting out life tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

I am not personally Feeling the Bern. Sanders is not my guy. And basic math says he doesn't have a chance at upending Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

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But the base of Americans he's tapping into and the passion he's arousing cannot be dismissed simply as a bunch of slackers looking for a handout. Good people are worried about being left behind.

It sort of sounds like the concern of those supporting another anti-establishment presidential candidate, only from a rational perspective.

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