I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a
good thing, and as necessary in the political world
as storms in the physical……It is a medicine necessary
for the sound health of government.
—Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to James Madison, January 30, 1787
If Hillary Clinton occupies the White House her presidency will be unpleasant for her and chaotic for the country. Ms. Clinton will encounter a nationwide rebellion she cannot comprehend and hence will not address.
The rebellion is already underway, and it will continue. It is not a violent, man-the-barricades revolution, but a visible one in which millions of voters in both parties are openly rejecting conventional candidates. They are seeking a radical transformation of American governance.
Ms. Clinton will take office because she gamed the nomination process brilliantly, but she was victimized by classic tragedy. In the most bizarre political season in memory, she was the right person in the right place at the wrong time.
Since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s day only Bill and Hillary Clinton have completed three presidential campaigns, so Ms. Clinton was armed for the fourth with unique experience and savvy: she knew precisely what had to be done, how to do it, and when. She amassed a warchest of hundreds of millions long before anyone else. She recruited 400 superdelegates even before she had opponents. She set up campaign offices in the states with early primaries. And by happy accident or clever arrangement the co-chair of her 2008 presidential campaign, Ms. Wasserman-Schultz, was put in charge of the Democratic National Committee.
When you know a system as well as Ms. Clinton does you know how to game it: she effectively preempted the candidate-space. Of the early prospective candidates, only Governor O’Malley and Senator Sanders moved on into the primaries; she out-polled both of them by monstrous margins.
Ms. Clinton then undertook an orthodox campaign of inoffensive platitudes, defining the issues with customary clichés, and proposing vacuous solutions: doing more for this cause, making improvements in that one, assuring everyone’s access to the American Dream, I’ve been working all my life to benefit the downtrodden, and let’s build on President Obama’s successes. Her campaign was exquisitely choreographed, but it was a campaign-by-formula, unimaginative and conventional.
Ms. Clinton was in the right place, however. Her two opponents were so far behind they were scarcely visible.
But the moment in time was not hers. By adopting the Obama template for governing, she through-bolted her campaign to the status quo—while a rebellion was stirring among the American people. And if Jefferson’s dictum was correct the rebellion ought to continue, as...a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.
The rebellion would blossom, as Ms. Clinton soon discovered.
The template for governing she adopted is the modus operandi of the “New Democratic Party” that Bill Clinton and she helped construct in the early 1990’s, and Barack Obama nurtured. It masquerades as the champion still of working class America, but it is in fact a centrist, even neoliberal party, awash with corporate campaign contributions, and driven by corporate interests. Rigorous scholarly research documents this, as does a voluminous popular literature.
Ms. Clinton failed to see the nascent political rebellion because she was not tuned to the deeply felt anxieties of nearly every family in the nation—i.e., all but the “One Percenters.” Comfortably within that stratum herself, she was tuned instead only to the mechanics of winning the presidency.
Prominent among working families’ anxieties is the loss of wealth and incomes occasioned by the financial crash of 2008 and the off-shoring of 30 million well-paid manufacturing jobs. These events were driven by policies of the Bill Clinton Administration, granting corporate interests priority over the common good, and the Obama Administration expanded on them. The “New Democratic Party” betrayed and abandoned the working families of the nation.
This was not lost on Senator Bernie Sanders, and something similar was soon made apparent to Donald Trump.
No one will accuse Senator Sanders or Mr. Trump of running conventional campaigns. In his very first speech Mr. Sanders acknowledged and Mr. Trump soon discovered the simmering rebellion Ms. Clinton ignored. Tens of thousands of cheering citizens attended Mr. Sanders’ rallies, applauding his call for political revolution. Mr. Trump, in his startling destruction of sixteen opponents, discovered the political patience of Republican voters was exhausted as well. The nascent rebellion burst into the open: huge blocks of voters consciously rejected their respective “establishment” parties.
Mr. Sanders’ vision has far greater clarity and his proposals are far more detailed than Mr. Trump’s. Advocating quantum changes in healthcare, higher education, trade, energy, infrastructure, and taxation policies, he seeks to recapture American democracy, to “make government work for all of us, not just the corporations and the billionaires.” His rebel partisans—nearly half the Democratic Party—display a degree of enthusiasm not seen in years.
Mr. Trump’s mind is not so disciplined as Mr. Sanders’. Linguists say it works in the wild and simplistic ways of a fourth-grader’s, but he intuits the damage done to the domestic economy by the corporate export of American jobs. The idiots in Washington don’t know how to do trade deals. They’re idiots. I know how to do deals. Hell, I wrote a book about it. I know how to do deals.
His intuition is also accurate respecting the Affordable Care Act: it is a triumph of corporate profiteering at public expense.
The reason so many more people have health coverage today is easily grasped. They were forced by law to buy it. Absent the “public option” President Obama quickly surrendered, however, there is no constraint on costs. The insurance, hospital, and pharmaceutical corporations charge anything they please, so the costs to consumers—and corporate profits—are astronomical and rising. Obamacare is a money machine. In Mr. Trump’s vernacular, it is an incredible deal for the health corporations, an incredible deal. But it’s a disaster for the American people. It’s a disaster.
In contrast to Mr. Sanders’ specific prescriptions, Mr. Trump suggests a profoundly generic remedy: Make America Great Again.
For millions of voters this holds great intuitive appeal. We used to be great: America was first in life-expectancy, first in infant survival, first in education, first in health care, first in technology, first in equitable income and wealth distribution, first in home ownership, first in industrial productivity, first in innovation, first in per capita income and wealth, first in reserves of foreign exchange, first in exports, and so on and on. But we don’t win any more.
Mr. Trump’s rebel partisans—more than half of the Republican Party—yield nothing to Mr. Sanders’ in enthusiasm.
A Hillary Clinton presidency, then, would face a national majority of citizens in open rebellion. Either intuitively or consciously they are incensed with the dominance of corporate political power. This is the template of governance Ms. Clinton helped create, the one in which she is historically and demonstrably comfortable, and the one which finances her campaigns for elected office. Wed to those donors, and locked into this mindset of the New Democratic Party, her presidency could not and would not alter significantly the status quo. Proudly she claims as much: “Let’s not start from scratch,” she says. Corporate dominance would remain unchallenged, the rebellion ignored.
Rebellion scorned will escalate; first to spirited demonstrations we have already seen, conceivably to violence. Only substantive reform can accommodate it.
Reform is neither difficult nor unprecedented. Our history displays a number of means of subordinating corporate interests to the welfare of the American people. More than a century ago—in the “Gilded Age”—the nation faced a similar crisis and dealt with it successfully. And a century before that, effective mechanisms were in place to restrain corporate dominion, even though the threat of it was already visible.
This is what Thomas Jefferson said about the issue: “I hope we shall crush… in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
Note Jefferson’s concern was merely prospective, wary of potential. Corporate enterprise was not yet dominant, only pushing to be. At the time, corporations were very strongly circumscribed, to assure their subservience to public well-being. Perhaps Jefferson feared they would escape the control mechanisms early corporations faced:
*they were chartered for a limited period of time, typically twenty years
*they were chartered for a single specific purpose, say to construct a toll road
*the charter could be revoked if the corporation’s behavior violated public interests
*stockholders, directors, and officers of the corporation were personally responsible for the corporation’s obligations or transgressions
* a corporation could not buy or otherwise merge with another corporation
Mr. Jefferson’s fears were realized.
As the 1800’s progressed corporations in America—particularly the great railroads—fought vigorously and successfully to have these constraints relaxed, and all of them were. The corporate structure escaped any meaningful public control.
Eventually corporations could grow without limit by absorbing others; they could live in perpetuity; they could undertake multiple tasks and change them at will. Personal liability was limited to a pittance, and charter revocation virtually disappeared. Then, in 1866, corporations as artificial persons became legal persons: the Supreme Court case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad extended the rights of U.S. citizenship to corporate entities. They were granted equal protection under the law, their rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. (The grant of legal personhood, Thom Hartmann discovered, was technically illegal, but it has endured. See his book, Unequal Protection.)
By the end of the century, unrestrained corporate enterprise rampaged through the economy—exploiting labor, polluting the environment, concentrating wealth—and dominated the political system. Corporations had learned the art of disguised bribery: financing political campaigns to ensure the passage (or repeal) of legislation in their interests. It was a vivid preview of the conditions we face today.
But their appalling behavior eventually became too egregious to sustain even with graft. A great wave of reformist and anti-trust legislation was enacted. Finally in 1906 Theodore Roosevelt submitted to Congress the Corporate Donations Abolition Act, prohibiting the practice. He signed it into law on January 26, 1907, and that was the end of corporate money flowing to elected officials.
Theodore Roosevelt undertook a revolution, to reclaim American democracy. Perhaps we need a Roosevelt surrogate today.
The Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1910 superseded and greatly strengthened the abolition law. It specified a further and brilliant means of assuring the independence of elected officials: it put stringent limits on campaign expenditures. If you can’t spend much, there is no need to solicit much, even from individual donors.
History displays, then, determined efforts to foreclose corporate dominance. But history also shows a failure of political resolve in the late 20th century, because American corporations escaped public oversight and control once more. The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 repealed the Federal Corrupt Practices Act and legalized political action committees, or PACs. A convoluted trickle of corporate campaign contributions flowed once more. Then two Supreme Court cases opened the floodgates. First Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 and then Citizens United v. FEC in 2010 gave birth to the Super PAC: contributing money, the Supreme Court decided, is a form of free speech.
No longer prohibited but encouraged to seek political dominance, corporations have lots of money with which to speak freely. There are laws they want passed, and others they want repealed, like the Glass-Steagall Act. That law was a firewall protecting the public interest from high-flying finance, but eleven Wall Street banks hated it. Those eleven banks speak with loud voices, having contributed $83,720,000 over the years to the Clintons’ presidential and senatorial campaigns.
Glass-Steagall was repealed during Bill Clinton’s Administration. Doing so was a direct cause of the subprime-mortgage crisis and the economic collapse of 2008. The banks were bailed out with taxpayers’ money and continue to prosper. The American people continue to suffer.
This is now the template. Corporate interests thrive—exploiting labor, polluting the environment, concentrating wealth, and dominating the political system. But the interests of the nation at large languish, and this will not change until governance is returned to democratic processes. Overturning Citizens United and reinstating The Federal Corrupt Practices Act would be an excellent beginning. Overturning Santa Clara County, to rescind corporate personhood, would be an epochal finale.
None of this will ever appear on the radar screen of a Hillary Clinton presidency.
She is indeed a victim of historic tragedy. Even supposing her intentions were worthy, she gamed the nominating process with a first-and-most strategy. But history intervened when the American people clamored for a radical reclamation of democratic governance, something she did not see, does not comprehend, and cannot possibly deliver. The sheer momentum of her campaign has carried her to the edge of success, but her nomination is by no means inevitable. Many states have yet to vote and the Democratic convention promises to be unruly. There is a good chance she will fail. For the good of the nation she must.
We don’t need a Hillary Clinton. This election must be pivotal. We need a Theodore Roosevelt surrogate.