The Election: Failing Real Change, Hope Lost

The Donald Trump fiasco was enabled by the Democrats’ rejection of their New Deal coalition. Selecting Hillary Clinton to head their presidential ticket created an opening for a Molotov/Ribbentrop Pact between the ‘deplorables’ and those who could not stomach more establishment politics delivering ever more gains for Wall Street, with only more pain for the working and middle class.

The Democrats under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were long on soaring rhetoric, and short on substance. Many Americans wanted more ‘change’ and less ‘hope.’ We all know the Republicans proved obstructionist at every turn. Yet, at key moments the Democrats caved even when the opportunity opened to enact New Deal style reforms. Case in point was when President Obama held Congressional majorities his first 2 years. In his first half-year in office the GOP was cowed and Obama could have readily run the table on policy change. He could have pushed through a ‘public option’ for healthcare reform.

Instead, he and David Axelrod advanced a new politics of conciliation that would herald a new era of cooperation. This Age of Aquarius might have been realizable in the context of an acrimonious academic department or small community in need of healing. Yet, we live in a rough and tumble world of politics where egocentric, sociopathic alpha personalities representing billionaire interests position their tools in political office with the expressed purpose to turn policy in their direction by any means necessary. In short, Obama and Axelrod’s represented a combination of good intentions and vanity that could only end badly in the real world of interest-based politics. The rhetoric of hope would not trump interests.

Meanwhile, the Clintons bent on every point of principle. They learned from their re-election defeat after Bill’s two years in office as Governor of Arkansas. Politicians recalibrate after political losses and accommodate to either the conservative impulses of the electorate, or the demands of powerful special interests. Yet, the Clintons became too comfortable with this accommodation. They morphed into center-right democrats and failed to pivot to progressive policies when political openings presented themselves: case in point being Hillary’s rejection of single-payer healthcare in 1993 when the electorate was briefly in favor of it. They no longer merely represented the establishment. By the 1990s, they became part of it.

President Obama delivered the Republican’s healthcare reform. This kept Big Insurance well fed, but failed to control costs. This consistent accommodation to power cost Democrats the White House in 2016. The public in 2009 was ready for far-reaching economic reform. Obama’s (and the Democratic establishment’s) ‘evolutionary’ approach to reform was doomed to fail. Having a beer in New Jersey with CounterPunch’s dear late Alexander Cockburn in September 2009. We expressed total frustration at this once in a 2 or 3 generation opportunity presented by the 2008 financial crash to introduce major policy change. We were dismayed that Obama and Axelrod had already lost their window for launching real policy change, while giving time for Republicans to re-organize and mount their counterattack.

Obama made sensible reforms of the health insurance industry (covering children to 26 years of age, not penalizing women on costs for merely being women, no dropped coverage for pre-existing conditions, etc.). The thinking was that this could be followed by more reform. But, by delaying major change when there was an opening for it (e.g., the failure to cover people under a public option) meant Big Insurance could still levy big premium increases. That they did within a month of Hillary Clinton’s election bid should surprise no one. These big cost increases delivered the coup de grace to Hillary’s flagging campaign. The working and middle classes failed to benefit from Obama’s economy (and would have done no better under Republicans). Hillary promised all the policy failures of Obama, minus the soaring rhetoric of change. This was hardly a combination for electoral victory.

The Democratic Party lost the confidence of many in the working and middle classes. The public showed great patience over the 4 terms of Clinton and Obama, but saw few gains. Democrats to failed to advance a New Deal style agenda and finally paid the price on November 8, 2016. The hubris of Clinton/Obama/Wasserman Democratic establishment led to this electoral loss. Latinos, African-Americans and millennials failed to turn out in the numbers and margins the Democratic establishment cynically counted on.


Trump’s win is a disaster for the judiciary. With GOP control of the Senate, Trump will remake the Supreme Court and Federal Judiciary into an even more reactionary check on public power. These changes will last a generation and will most powerfully impact the powerless.

Economy: expect a behind the scenes intra-GOP debate over whether to reprise Reagan’s ‘sailor on shore leave’ big deficit military spending to juice the economy, or to default to the austerity zealots of the party. The former would make the GOP heroes for people seeking work, but risk more war as weapons that are built, often get used. The latter (austerity) would create dissent at home as the economy fails, thus leaving the GOP looking for distractions, in short, more foreign adventures, again.

Foreign policy: while there is an opening to reduce tensions with Russia, for the reasons stated immediately above, expect the GOP to remain the war party. More weapons or austerity could both lead to more war.

Politically: Democrats have now (it appears) won the popular vote twice in 16 years, while losing the election. This demands electoral college reform. Instead, expect the GOP to double down on this undemocratic institution that continues to deliver them unearned electoral victories. Moreover, failing a massive legislative wins by Democrats in 2018 and 2020, expect the GOP to further gerrymand legislative districts. This ensures victories even when they lose the vote. For example, the state of Wisconsin legislature won 60% of the seats with only 44% of the state vote. Expect more of this, along with more institutionalized voter suppression going forward.

Future: Democrats must advance candidates committed to real policy change, not just rhetorical masters on hope. Hillary’s loss may just be the event that finally discredits their leadership and creates a new politics that either takes over their party or failing that creates a new one.

Jeffrey Sommers is a professor of political economy and public policy from Wisconsin, who spends significant time in Latvia.

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Jeffrey Sommers is Professor of Political Economy & Public and Senior Fellow, Institute of World Affairs of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is Visiting Professor at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. His book on the Baltics (with Charles Woolfson), is The Contradictions of Austerity: The Socio-economic Costs of the Neoliberal Baltic Model

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