There are no American politicians whose views on politics merit serious consideration for any reason other than the power they wield. With only minor exceptions (from long ago), it has been this way since the founders’ generation passed.
From genuine (though often mindless) conviction or to enhance their electoral prospects or to further their pecuniary interests, politicians sometimes do wax “ideological.” But they don’t work with ideas or fashion theories or practices on their basis. They wouldn’t know how.
This is one reason why “Reaganism” is a misnomer. It is a convenient and frequently used term, but it gives too much credit to a maleficent actor who could barely keep more than one idea in his head at a time.
“Neoliberalism” would be a better name, except that it suggests too narrow a focus on economic policy issues. Reaganism is not just about economics; it is a retrograde political phenomenon as well.
The term denotes a theory and practice that a few currently celebrated but vastly overrated economists and political theorists concocted by reviving long dormant strains of classical liberal thought. It is a lackluster confection, void of intellectual cogency and moral appeal.
But thanks mainly to the vicissitudes of late capitalism, it has won the day.
In the 1970s, as capitalism’s post-War reconstruction and growth phase ground to a halt under the weight of excessive productive capacity, it became obvious – especially to capitalists searching for investment opportunities – that the bad old ways had to change.
The result was a rise in the political influence of the financial sector, and a decline in the power of organized labor.
These developments paved the way for the so-called Reagan Revolution.a
No more would capitalist development, for all the harm it did, at least make most people better off materially; and no more would there be any semblance of fairness in the distribution of the benefits and burdens that come with economic growth.
Reaganism initiated a new “social contract” – according to which the handful at the top benefit egregiously, while everybody else works more and gets less.
Rising personal debt and the ready availability of shoddy goods made abroad, along with other palliative measures, masked the new reality for a while; and a series of economic bubbles kept the economy afloat.
But there is no denying the sad fact that the economic condition of most people has been stagnating or deteriorating, and that the public sphere, starved of funds, is declining even more rapidly. This is what Reaganism does.
And because the idea that government is the problem, not the solution, is a core Reaganite doctrine, Reaganism also militates against ameliorative public programs and welfare state remedies. In their stead, it offers the snares and delusions of free market theology.
As societies become wealthier, most people therefore become worse off – relative not just to the hyper-rich or to how they could be in a more rational economic order, but relative even to how they used to be.
It is not all Reagan’s fault; he had far less to do with Reaganism than is widely supposed. His presidency was more an effect than a cause.
He did little, if anything, to fashion Reaganite doctrine, and he was not even good at implementing it. At most, he believed in it, and he put his communication skills to work promoting it.
Reaganism took hold almost immediately upon the turn in capitalism’s trajectory. Thus Jimmy Carter was America’s first Reaganite president. But Carter only got on the track half-heartedly, and not before the final years of his presidency.
Reagan was not even the most important Reaganite leader in the early days. That dubious honor falls to Margaret Thatcher. It was within the government she led in Great Britain that Reaganite theory and practice fully took shape.
This is why, in the Anglophone world outside the United States, Reaganism is called “Thatcherism.”
Americans are too provincial to follow suit, but this isn’t the only reason for naming the phenomenon after the Gipper. Since the end of the Second World War, Britain has been America’s junior partner — unable, on its own, to lead a change in the course of world events. Even the Iron Lady could not have done all the harm she did had we Yankees not helped her out.
And so, Reaganism it is.
At first, the affliction was confined mainly to Great Britain and the United States. Too bad for the rest of the world that this soon changed. Capitalist politicians are all Reaganites now.
American politicians still lead the way. Our presidents occupy a special circle of Hell.
Because these presidents are cut from the same Reaganite cloth, attaching any other “ism” after any of their names makes little sense.
The Bush family squatted in the White House longer than the Reagans, but nobody talks of “Bushism.” Why would they?
Bush the Father was a “kinder, gentler” Reaganite; he told us so himself. And, except for Carter, he was the best (least bad) president we have had since Reaganism emerged. If nothing more, his presidency was the last in which foreign affairs were conducted with even a minimal degree of competence.
But he was dull, predictable, and uninspired. He had the most trouble with what he called “the vision thing.” He was president when Communism fell and when the Soviet Union imploded, yet his “new world order” was just the old world order with the Soviet Union missing. There was no there, there – nothing that would leave a lasting mark.
Bush the Son left plenty of lasting marks. But no right-minded person would want to lay claim to his legacy.
The neocons he let run the show unleashed catastrophes that are still unfolding. And the man himself was so beyond his depth that it seems almost unfair to blame him for any of it. But, of course, we must; he was nominally in charge. Even so, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were at least as culpable.
In a just world, George W. Bush and his retainers would be doing hard time. In our world, thanks to the magnanimity of his successor and his successor’s Attorney General, they have all gotten away with murder – indeed, with much worse than murder. There is no “ism” in that.
“Bushism” is therefore a non-starter, no matter which Bush one has in mind. “Clintonism,” however, is something else.
The term has been in circulation for some time. People know how to use it because, as Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity, you know it when you see it.
But what exactly does it mean? This is far from clear – mainly because its relation to Reaganism is complicated and subtle.
With Hillary Clinton on course to run for President in 2016 – and almost certain to win if she runs, inasmuch as the national GOP will be unable to field a credible candidate – it is not even clear whether the term refers to the husband or the wife.
It hardly matters. As an only slightly facetious metaphysician might say: “Clinton” names a supra-individual entity that takes two interdependent but analytically distinct forms.
Bill is by far the more colorful of the two because he is a horndog and a rascal who exudes meretricious charm. For people of a certain age, it is hard not to think of him as a grown-up, unchaste, version of the Eddie Haskell character on “Leave It To Beaver.”
If that show had been revived a decade or two later, it is a good bet that many a plot would have revolved around Eddie’s dalliances with hot princesses of the trailer park and Jewish American varieties; and that his consorting with the rich and famous for fun and profit would be a recurrent theme.
Meanwhile, Hillary wears pantsuits and says dumb things – dumb even by Joe Biden’s standards. When it comes to saying dumb things, Biden is a past master.
She is not even villainous in an interesting way; her character lacks depth. No wonder that the creators of the Golden Age of television never bothered with a character that calls to mind anyone like her.
Character issues aside, Bill Clinton was the best Reaganite president ever – not the most visionary, not the one with the most competent subordinates, but the most effective. No one, certainly not Reagan himself, did more to privatize and deregulate, and to undo government programs that perform worthwhile functions.
Reagan famously proposed “starving the monster.” This is what Bill Clinton did.
Meanwhile, the real monster flourished under his rule, just as it did under Reagan’s. The military and the already burgeoning national security state made out like bandits.
Clinton’s heart was probably never into putting Reaganism into practice; he was – and is — an opportunist, not a true believer. But as a Democrat, he was able to neutralize the opposition and even to bring it on board. He could therefore accomplish what Reagan and the people around him could only dream of.
This is one reason why it is hard to pin down what Clintonism is. It seems too close to Reaganism to count as an “ism” in its own right.
Clintonism eludes easy characterization too because the Clintons, along with other right-wing Democrats, effectively purged their party of its left wing. It is therefore difficult to distinguish Clintonite politics from Democratic politics generally.
Nevertheless, Clintonism is a useful concept – something Bushism is not.
Neither, for that matter, is Obamaism.
It is still possible, of course, that Obama will mess up so egregiously that “Obamaism,” or some related expression, will enter the political lexicon. However, if this happens, the term will not designate a distinctive political departure. It will be short hand for blundering incompetence.
Or for making mistakes even more disastrous than those of George W. Bush. This could happen, for example, if the Clintonites who have taken charge of American foreign policy concoct a new Cold War. They are working on it.
However, in the normal course of events – where “normal” includes enabling a brutal and lawless Israeli government to massacre Palestinians in Gaza – there will be no Obamaism.
As Reaganism took shape, Bertram Gross wrote about what he called “friendly fascism.” By calling it “fascism,” his point was that Reaganism embraced a paramount fascist objective – suppressing the labor movement and then reconfiguring the relation between Big Business and the State in ways that secure the interests of both.
By “friendly,” he meant that it did this without the blatant illiberalism and organized violence associated with the fascist movements of the inter-war period (and their successors). It helped that Ronald Reagan seemed warm and amiable, but this was not the main point.
Obama carries on in the friendly fascist tradition. And building on the work of George Bush and Dick Cheney, he presides over a related turn in American politics. An apt name for it would be “friendly totalitarianism.”
Bush and Cheney got it going, but Obama will be remembered for turning America into a 24/7 surveillance state, and for shredding privacy and due process rights. He will also be remembered for continuing old wars and initiating new ones. These things go together; perpetual war is indispensible in a totalitarian state.
He did these things and others like them without jettisoning the legitimacy-conferring friendliness Gross identified in the larger Reaganite project. We are more thoroughly policed than ever before, but not, we think, by a police state; and we have a military as capacious as any the world has ever known, but we are unencumbered with militaristic attitudes and institutions.
Putting together such a friendly totalitarian order is an achievement on a par with realizing fascism’s aims in the ostensibly benign Reaganite way.
However even this doesn’t warrant putting an “ism” after Obama’s name. As in Bush’s case, bad decisions and rank ineptitude don’t add up to a new kind of politics.
It might be different if there were significant positive accomplishments for which Obama could take credit. But apart from breaking the color line, there aren’t any. Inspiring and then dashing “hope” for “change” hardly counts.
It is different with the Clintons. They can take credit for developing a distinctive form of Reaganism, a particularly deleterious kind.
What they concocted is hard to define, but easy enough to recognize – and oppose.
Opposition to Clintonism is not the same as antipathy towards the Clintons. The latter is rampant throughout the land, according to the former First Lady; “a vast right-wing conspiracy” has it in for them.
To the extent that she is right, the question is: why? There is no remotely satisfactory political answer. On the right, Reagan is worshipped, and though Reagan’s connections with Reaganism may not be as direct as is commonly supposed, it is surely relevant that Clintonism is Reaganism in practice.
A better question is why isn’t there more antipathy towards the Clintons in liberal quarters? They certainly deserve it.
What matters more, though, is antipathy towards Clintonism. There is almost none of that within the ranks of the Democratic Party itself. But Democratic voters have a different view. Anti-Clintonism surely played a role, a significant one, in Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries.
The hope of some Obama voters back then was that an Obama victory would de-Clintonize the Democratic Party. For anyone closely following the campaign, this was a pipe dream. Obama got mileage out of it anyway.
Not surprisingly, the illusion quickly faded. Disillusionment got underway even before Inauguration Day, as news of the President-elect’s selections for key positions began to filter in. Arguably, it started even before that – when Obama picked Joe Biden for a running mate.
By the time he called on Hillary Clinton to be his Secretary of State – a post for which she was manifestly unsuited, as would soon become abundantly clear – the shape of things to come was unmistakable.
A full-fledged Clintonite Restoration followed. In the foreign policy field, the only sign of a fresh departure came later – with the empowerment of “humanitarian” imperialists like Susan Rice and Samantha Powers. Even in this, though, the foul hand of Hillary was at work.
Whether or not the impulse to revive the Cold War is coming directly from her, it is surely coming from her protégés and retainers; and she is cheering them on.
Who knows why she and the others want to embark on such a risky business. Could it be that they feel that the “war on terror,” or whatever its name in Obama-speak now is, isn’t delivering enough anymore for the military-national security state complex?
Or perhaps they realize that they’ve messed up so profoundly in the Middle East that there is nothing to do but move on — into other adventures. This would make sense, but it is unlikely that they are thinking along these lines. That would require a level of self-understanding beyond their grasp.
It is remarkable how little they do understand. Can they really not realize how dangerous a Cold War with Russia – and China too – can be? How can they not know?
This is ultimately a psychological question; the answer is therefore different from person to person. But at a political level, the broad contours of an answer are clear enough.
It is that this is what happens when the spirit of Reaganism takes hold of the ideological descendants of Cold War anti-Communists.
For nearly four decades after the end of World War II, there were liberals who were drawn by sympathy and conviction, to support the labor movement and other like-minded popular forces that put a break on capitalism’s inherent and unrelenting drive to enrich capitalists at everyone else’s expense.
These liberals were as devoted to capitalism as any other sector of the political class, but they were less inclined than the others to advance the interests of capitalism’s principal beneficiaries.
That sensibility began to wither away as the Reaganite turn took hold; soon, it all but disappeared. At the same time, social liberalism continued and even advanced as societal attitudes evolved.
In reaction, social illiberalism hardened on the right. Before long, disagreements about values, not material interests, constituted the main dividing line in American politics.
This is what Clintonism is about.
It is Reaganized liberalism; Cold War anti-Communist liberalism, without its progressive economic dimension.
Clintonites are still committed to tolerance and other non-economic liberal values, but on economic issues, there is no light between them and their Republican opponents.
This describes Hillary Clinton to a tee. Dissect her public persona and it is all there: the social liberalism, but also the economic neoliberalism and, above all, the reflexive animosity towards Russia – and China – inherited from the Cold War past.
No one could accuse Bill Clinton of being a “transformative” President in the sense that Obama thinks Ronald Reagan was. But he, along with his wife, did transform the Democratic Party – to such an extent that it may now be beyond redemption.
Richard Nixon was able to bring Republicans and right-wing Democrats along when he opened up relations with China – because he was a man of the Right who had proven his credentials many times over.
But the people he brought along remained essentially unchanged. They were viciously anti-Communist before, and they were viciously anti-Communist after Nixon had gotten his way. It was all about forging a strategic choice; not changing hearts and minds.
Bill Clinton, on the other hand, didn’t just bring his fellow Democrats along as he set about promoting Reaganism. He changed them fundamentally; causing them to make the Reagan agenda their own.
This is what Hillary Clinton will do, what she has already begun to do; and it is why the prospect that she will lead the Democratic Party is so appalling.
Turning Democrats rightward was bad enough when her husband led the way a generation ago. Imagine the consequences now, after decades of rightward drift and eight years of Barack Obama!
Clintonism is worse than just Reaganism for Democrats. It is Reaganite malware, directed at Democrats. Once it enters the system, it spreads like a virus; and all it does is corrupt.
As with any other virus, the best way to deal with it is to keep away from it. When that proves impossible, Plan B is to salvage – and restore — as much as one can.
It may already be too late; having taken a Clintonite turn, the Democratic Party, never much good anyway, may by now be too damaged to save.
By this time next year, with the 2016 Presidential campaign already underway, we will know for sure.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).