Many people despaired at the election of Donald Trump. But would things have been all that different if Hillary Clinton had become president?
Anyone who follows politics in Western countries knows that the US is different from other liberal democracies. It is commonly noted that the US is the only country where there has been no major socialist or communist party. Its politics is skewed to the right.
This wouldn’t make all that much difference if the US were a small country like Estonia or Ireland. After all, every country has its own political peculiarities. But the US is a looming presence on the world stage, with nearly half of all military expenditures, military bases in dozens of countries, a disproportionate influence on world economic arrangements (usually to serve US-based massive corporations), and more generally a society that is dysfunctional in many ways. Among the world’s affluent societies, the US has the highest imprisonment rate, an extraordinary murder rate, the highest infant mortality rate, the lowest life expectancy despite the world’s highest per capita medical expenditure, and a shockingly high level of economic inequality.
Although such statistics would cause leaders in other countries to be ashamed, US politicians and many citizens continually proclaim that the US is a shining beacon to the rest of the world. But that is another story.
US politics are so skewed to the right that the policies of conservative parties in many other countries would be seen as extreme left in the US and called socialist, used as a term of abuse and dismissal.
Since the 1980s, with the rise of neoliberalism in much of the world, many governments have adopted policies that benefit large corporations, disadvantage workers and hurt people in need. This process has been just as savage in the US, but starting from a worse position.
Decades ago, I read a book titled The Best Congress Money Can Buy. The author, Philip Stern, documented the way the US Congress is driven by campaign contributions. It’s possible to predict the votes of most members of Congress: the more money received from a group with a vested interest, the more likely the Congressperson’s vote will serve that interest.
My colleague Sharon Beder has written extensively on what she calls “business-managed democracy,” which basically means the manipulation and control of the system of representative government to serve the interests of big business.
Within the US, the Republican and Democratic parties are often seen as embodying right-wing and left-wing politics. However, the Democrats are left-wing only by contrast. Transposed to countries such as Australia, they would be on the far right.
In case you had any illusions about the Democrats, you should read Thomas Frank’s highly engaging and hard-hitting new book Listen, liberal, or, what ever happened to the party of the people?
The subtitle refers to “the party of the people”. That has been the self-image of the Democrats since the 1930s, during the great depression, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” introduced welfare measures and when trade unions were recognised. The federal government came to play a much larger role in managing the economy. Since then, the Democrats have had the reputation of being pro-labour.
Frank says all that has changed. He argues that since the 1990s, including with the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democrats have forgotten the working class and tried to distance themselves from the New Deal.
Frank’s diagnosis is harsh. He analyses all the major initiatives under the Clinton and Obama administrations, finding that poor people have been sacrificed. One example is the “welfare reform” bill passed under Clinton’s administration that removed benefits from struggling families, plunging them into abject poverty. Another is the crime bill that vastly expanded the prison population, with penalties that unfairly targeted African Americans.
If you read only the speeches by Clinton, Obama and other Democrat luminaries, you would not have an inkling of the problem, because rhetorically they continue to express concern about the struggles of “ordinary Americans”. What Frank has done is expose the policy reality behind the public rhetoric.
The new orientation of the Democrats
The Democrats have a new idol: the professional class and “innovation”. Frank reviews writings on what various writers have called the “new class” or the “professional-managerial class”. The traditional working class is in decline and a new group is in the ascendant, composed of lawyers, scientists, engineers, financial managers and a host of others with specialist training who reap rewards from the use of their intellects.
In the Democrats, the rise of this group is most clearly manifested in the appointments in the Clinton and Obama administrations. A large number of those chosen had degrees from Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Yale, in many cases advanced degrees. Not only are degrees from elite institutions prized: there is a great emphasis on these individuals being smart. Intelligence is the new currency for advancement.
Frank diagnoses the Democrats’ orientation as a commitment to meritocracy, which refers to a system in which those who have the most merit receive the greatest rewards. Attending Harvard is assumed to establish a person as worthy. In this way of seeing the world, being rich is the just outcome of a system that rewards performance. Inequality is the inevitable result of an unequal distribution of merit.
Frank gives an extended treatment of Hillary Clinton’s politics. (He wrote the book before she lost the 2016 election.) She had many fine words about empowerment of women. How was this to be done? Basically, they just needed to be treated according to their merits. This is the usual prescription of liberal feminism, with the main concern being about well-off women held back from obtaining the very highest positions. As Frank notes, this offers little for the large numbers of women in the worst jobs, or without jobs, for whom equal opportunity is a pious phrase given structural conditions that keep them in their place.
Another feature of the Democrats’ political orientation is an adoration of innovation. Frank describes Boston’s Route 128 area of high-technology start-ups and universities, a haven of support for the Democrats and a model for what Democrat leaders see as the future for the country. Yet just fifty miles away, in the decaying rust-belt small town of Fall River, the desperate workers and townspeople are forgotten. These are the losers in the great transition to an innovation-driven future, and they are forgotten by the Democrats.
Frank tells of Hillary Clinton’s hope for women worldwide. It is that they become entrepreneurs, running their own innovative businesses, following the footsteps of the multibillion-dollar tech companies. Micro-lending is touted as the salvation for Third World people in poverty, especially women, but, as Frank bitterly notes, it entwines them in the market and often makes them worse off than before.
So why do Democrats turn their back on the traditional working class? One answer is that they have a new source of support: high-tech business, providing ample donations to the Democrats. But campaign contributions are not the only factor, according to Frank. As noted, high-tech companies are exemplars of the success of the smartest people who went to the best universities, and they represent the triumph of innovation, seen as an unalloyed good. Meanwhile, the Democrats took for granted the support of working people. Where could they turn? (The answer: Trump.)
But could it have been any different? Perhaps the Democrats in power are so constrained by various powerful constituencies that doing something different is almost impossible. Frank has no time for this face-saving explanation. He points to the early days of Obama’s presidency. The economy was in peril due to the greed and shady operations of the bankers. This was a golden opportunity to shake up the system, and there were cries from across the country for the bankers to pay the penalty for their corrupt behaviour. So what did Obama do? He bailed out the banks with government money, leaving ordinary workers to pay for the damage. No bankers went to prison or were even charged. Instead, they got to keep their bonuses. Obama served the rich at the expense of the poor.
Listen, Liberal is an eloquent, impassioned complaint about the failure of the Democratic Party to address the plight of working class people in the US. But what are the implications? Frank hopes to raise awareness about what is happening, and does not propose solutions. In a long afterword written in 2017, after Trump’s election victory, he explains why Trump was so successful: he spoke to the people’s concerns about jobs and income. Frank has no illusions about Trump, anticipating that he will serve only the rich and betray the interests of his supporters. What Frank sees in Trump is the outcome of a two-party system that has offered no alternative to corporate globalisation and every-increasing economic inequality.
In US politics, the focus on the presidency is excessive. It’s as if everyone is looking for salvation from a supreme leader. This is misguided, but it is difficult to turn away from the spectacle. However, vast numbers of citizens have given up on electoral politics, at least if voter turnout is any indication.
What Frank does not describe are the many signs of hope. In my visits to the US, I have always been impressed by the high level of local activism on all sorts of issues. US activists are just as committed, insightful and resourceful as those in many other countries. The difference is that they have little visibility in the mainstream media and little effect on the positions of the major political parties. In Australia, reading the mainstream media, few would realise that after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in parts of the US there were protests against the war for weeks, months and even years afterwards.
Frank doesn’t address this sort of grassroots activism, perhaps because it so often bypasses the political parties. Frank does not even mention the Occupy movement that originated in the US, spread worldwide and put economic inequality on the political agenda. The Occupy movement steadfastly refused to make formal demands of the political system, instead seeking to exemplify a participatory alternative to representative government.
In the US, there are numerous economists questioning the neoliberal model. There are proponents and promoters of local currencies, an alternative to the usual centralised money system. There are climate change and other environmental activists building local energy systems. There are numerous initiatives based around cooperative work, of which Wikipedia and free software are the most well known. There are campaigners for alternative forms of governance.
Frank is rightly depressed by the capitulation of the Democrats, as well as the Republicans, to big business. But instead of yearning for the Democrats to return to the New Deal of the 1930s, perhaps it is time to question the value of party politics altogether.
“It is time to face the obvious: that the direction the Democrats have chosen to follow for the last few decades has been a failure for both the nation and for their own partisan health. ‘Failure’ is admittedly a harsh word, but what else are we to call it when the left party in a system chooses to confront an epic economic breakdown by talking hopefully about entrepreneurship and innovation? When the party of professionals repeatedly falls for bad, self-serving ideas like bank deregulation, the ‘creative class,’ and empowerment through bank loans? When the party of the common man basically allows aristocracy to return?” (pp. 255-256)