During the Presidential campaign of 1988, the Reverend Jesse Jackson was asked, “How you are going to get the support of the white steelworker?” He replied: “By making him aware he has more in common with the black steel workers by being a worker, than with the boss by being white.” Jackson also did speak of reviving a “rainbow coalition”, but in spite of being associated with black radicalism by much of the country, he was able to obtain almost 50 percent of the Democratic delegates at the Atlanta convention through an explicit appeal which transcended race, instead invoking class. Jackson himself is not the likely future leader of the Democratic Party, but his model is one the Dems would be well to consider if they wish to recapture much of the country that they lost in last week’s election.
To a large degree, Bernie Sanders understood and appreciated this, although as we now know, the Wall Street/Silicon Valley donors which comprise the donor class of the DNC were appalled by this and actively worked to sabotage his campaign. By the time we got to the general election, the party’s message was watered down and muddled, in some races focused almost entirely on gender issues and attacks of Trump’s lack of suitability for the office.
To be sure, Donald Trump did make a strong appeal to racists, homophobes, and misogynists and whilst his GOP colleagues publicly recoiled in horror, there is no question that Trump was merely making explicit what Republicans had been doing for decades – since the days of Nixon in 1968. The dog whistle was merely replaced by a bull horn.
But that alone doesn’t explain Trump’s success. As I wrote in an earlier analysis of the Trump phenomenon, he became the voice for an increasing number of Americans, who counted themselves amongst the biggest losers of globalization and free trade. In most elections, U.S. politicians of both parties pretend to be concerned about their issues, then conveniently ignore them when they reach power and implement policies from the same Washington Consensus that has dominated the past 40 years. That’s why so many Americans have simply stopped voting (and this year was no different, as it looks like a mere 57.9% of the voter eligible population turned out). And perhaps Trump is a faux populist, who is merely deploying bait and switch tactics, but he explicitly addressed his campaign to those who have been marginalized by the neo-liberal policies dominant in both parties.
The difference this time is that once Senator Bernie Sanders lost the nomination, the Democrats made little effort to recapture these voters. That is largely because the party’s nominee was the very embodiment of the establishment policies that has created so much misery for these groups and Hillary Clinton had no credible message for what the press condescendingly termed “flyover country”. These voters instead went for the change candidate, even though his platform lacked much of the coherence of, say, the Sanders program and in many respects might make their position worse. But when you live in Youngstown, Ohio, or Scranton, Pennsylvania, and have virtually no stake in the existing system, is it at all surprising that you’re willing to place your bets with a bomb-thrower?
No question that today there is a kind of all-encompassing pessimism which transcends economics. In addition to the growing inequality and concomitant wage stagnation for the middle and working classes, 9/11 and its aftermath has certainly has contributed to it as well, as, making people long for the the Golden Age of Managerial Capitalism of the post-WWII era, which was a dynamic period of great economic achievements and pax Americana. Distilling it into movies (America’s version of a cultural yardstick), the American zeitgeist today is a weird mashup of Bladerunner, Mad Max, and Reality TV – with the characters longing for Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, hardly a recipe that brings hope for a positive future.
And if the Democratic Party is honest, it will have to concede that even the popular incumbent President has played a huge role in contributing to the overall sense of despair that drove people to seek a radical outlet such as Trump. The Obama Administration rapidly broke with its Hope and “Change you can believe in” the minute he appointed some of the architects of the 2008 crisis as his main economic advisors, who in turn and gave us a Wall Street friendly bank bailout that effectively restored the status quo ante (and refused to jail one single banker, even though many were engaged in explicitly criminal activity). He followed that up with a bailout of the private health insurance industry under the guise of so-called “health care reform” legislation, the “Affordable” Care Act (which contained no provision for containing the cost of the health insurance oligopolies, because the marginal “public option” was gutted out of the final legislation, courtesy of the lobbyists invited to craft the legislation). All of the Rubinites were brought back in to run economic policy. Wall Street and the stock market boomed, but wages continued to stagnate, and the vast majority of all the gains went to the top 1 percent of income earners. The rest of the population was left far behind.
So this gave force to the idea that the government was nothing but a viper’s nest full of crony capitalist enablers, which in turn helped to unleash populism on the right (the Left being marginalised or co-opted by their Wall Street/Silicon Valley donor class). And this gave us Trump. Add to that HRC’s neocon foreign policy instincts, which could have got us in a war with Russia and maybe the American electorate wasn’t so dumb after all. They could read Podesta’s odious emails as well as the rest of us could. (As an aside, regardless of the source of the leaks, we should be thankful for the hacked emails, which allowed us to discover that nation’s media works directly with one of the nation’s major political parties to manipulate coverage of their opponents and curry favor for their chosen nominee.)
Obama is personally likeable, but did he really give us anything as great and durable as FDR did in the 1930s? The Affordable Care Act was effectively RomneyCare (with the comparable problem that there remains no means of controlling private health insurance costs, a fact that was cruelly revealed days before the election when 25% hikes in health insurance premiums were announced), much as Dodd-Frank was a joke in terms of achieving genuine financial reform, especially when one compares it to the legislation that emerged out of the Great Depression (which lasted unchanged for over 40 years). The Pecora Commission (established in the GD’s aftermath) was given relatively free rein to investigate the causes of the crisis and to go after the fraud. Widespread defaults and bankruptcies wiped out a lot of the private sector’s debt. The financial sector was downsized and rendered relatively unimportant for several decades.
The establishment, especially the Democratic Party establishment, keeps enforcing what divides people rather than what unites people by embracing identity politics and ignoring class. Yes, a huge majority of women were offended by Trump’s “locker room talk”, but a large chunk still voted for him, and larger numbers of Hispanics voted for Trump than Romney. Doesn’t that suggest that identity politics has reached some sort of limit? Why not find common ground on the issue of class? As former Jackson advisor, Vicente Navarro wrote: “The objective of the ‘billionaire class’ is to co-opt African Americans and women into the system so they are closer and more aligned to the dominant class. The fact that so little is spoken about class in the US is because the billionaire class does not want people to speak or think in class terms.” It’s also the case that it is difficult to get a man to understand his own best interests after he’s swallowed a handful of Oxycontins and chased them with half a quart of Wild Turkey. But emphasizing class-based policies, rather than gender or race-based solutions, will achieve more for the broad swathe of voters, who comprehensively rejected the “neo-liberal lite” identity politics on offer by the Democrats this time around. It is true that this process is likely to be resisted by the donor class and it may well take another financial crisis before their power is fully broken. Voters crave effective action to reverse long term economic decline and runaway economic inequality, but nothing on the scale required will be offered to them by either of America’s money-driven major parties. This is likely only to accelerate the disintegration of the political system and economic system until the elephant in the room – class – is honestly and comprehensively addressed.