by Benjamin Studebaker
I started seeing it a few weeks ago, when Daily Kos told its contributors that after March 15th, they were no longer allowed to robustly criticize Hillary Clinton from the left. As Donald Trump continues to win, win, and win some more, it has only intensified. First they asked Bernie Sanders supporters to unite behind Clinton. Now they’re accusing Sanders supporters of being privileged if they resist. And from there, it’s just a small step to calling Sanders’ people enablers of racism, sexism, or even fascism. If you haven’t seen these arguments yet, you will soon. The arguments being peddled are very poorly constructed. They rely on a mix of fear and bias toward the near.
Their argument rests on three fundamental premises:
- The differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are not that large.
- Donald Trump is a really mean scary racist sexist fascist bigot–he’s basically Hitler.
- The best way to stop Trump is to unite as quickly as possible around the candidate with the most general election appeal, and this person is Hillary Clinton.
Correspondingly, it makes three errors:
- Fundamental Ideological Divide: The difference between Sanders and Clinton is of a fundamental ideological character–in multiparty democracies, they could never possibly even be part of the same political party.
- Trump Scaremongering: Donald Trump is being deliberately made out to be more frightening than he is by Clinton supporters for political gain.
- Bias Toward the Near: We have strong reasons to believe that supporting Clinton right now makes a Trump victory more likely, and even if this is not the case, supporting Clinton will make it more likely that a Trump type candidate will prevail in 2020 or 2024.
Let’s say a bit about each, and then a bit about privilege too.
Fundamental Ideological Divide
Since the late 1970’s, both major parties have adopted the same economic ideology, which many academics refer to as “neoliberalism”. Neoliberalism attempts to drive economic growth by increasing investment. It does this by distributing wealth away from workers and toward investors. The hope is that this wealth will eventually trickle down. But instead, this results in widening inequalities and it makes it increasingly difficult for ordinary people to continue to provide the ever-increasing amount of consumption the economy requires without borrowing increasingly large sums of money. When these debt bubbles burst, the economy crumbles. The debt-fueled growth provides the illusion of economic success (e.g. Reagan in the mid to late 80’s, Clinton in the mid to late 90’s), but these booms are unstable and produce endemic busts (e.g. early 90’s recession, 2000 stock bubble, 2008 housing bubble).
Over time, it has become harder and harder to generate the borrowing necessary to prop growth back up, and in the last 16 years things have been especially dismal–most American households are worse off now than they were in the late 1990’s when you adjust for inflation:
Meanwhile more and more of the wealth and income is going to the top 1%:
Presidents from both parties have played a role in this by deregulating the market, weakening unions, allowing the real value of the minimum wage to fall, signing bad trade deals that hurt American workers, reducing access to welfare, and cutting taxes for the rich:
But it didn’t used to be this way–between the Great Depression and the late 1970’s, our society became more equal, with stronger wage growth, stronger unions, stronger regulations, higher real minimum wages, robust welfare programs, and so on down the line. Economic growth rates were higher, recessions were less severe, and recoveries were faster. Before the late 1970’s, both parties embraced a left egalitarian ideology tied to Keynesianism. Instead of trickle down, we had a feed the roots approach. By keeping wages and employment high, we ensured that workers had the resources they needed to fuel consumption without taking on unsustainable large debts. This produced a rising tide that lifted all boats.
Increasingly people realize that the economic system is not working for them, especially since 2008. They want politicians who acknowledge this problem and have a plan to do something about it. Neoliberalism offers more of the same. Clinton has consistently been a supporter of reducing access to welfare, financial deregulation, and destructive trade deals. She’s against tuition-free college and single payer healthcare. In these areas there is zero daylight between her position and Jeb Bush’s. Donald Trump destroyed Jeb Bush because Jeb Bush represents everything about the neoliberal establishment that people increasingly despise–its inability to acknowledge the severity of the economic problems faced by working people today, its support for the very same economic policies that got us into the mess we’re in, and even its dynastic tendencies. Hillary Clinton is the Democratic Party’s version of Jeb Bush.
Until 2016, there has been no alternative to neoliberalism in American politics. Both the democrats and the republicans have consistently fielded neoliberal nominees, and the differences between them have largely been about social issues and foreign policy. Many of the most damaging economic policies have been enacted by democrats, such as welfare reform, the Commodities Futures Modernization Act, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the Budget Control Act of 2011, and so on. People allow democrats to get away with hurting poor and working people because they falsely assume that democrats are reliably on their side. Reagan and Bush could never enact welfare reform–only Clinton could do something that horrifying.
But now, for the first time in 40 years, there are candidates running who are not neoliberal and offer real ideological alternatives. Bernie Sanders offers to return us to the left egalitarian Keynesianism that made America great in the 50’s and 60’s, and he even promises to include marginalized groups in the prosperity this time. Breaking up the big banks, tough new financial regulations, the financial transaction tax, a 50% top rate of tax, union expansion, huge infrastructure stimulus, $15 minimum wage, tuition-free college, single payer healthcare–these are policies designed to restore Americans of all classes, races, genders, and other backgrounds to prosperity. Hillary Clinton is against all of these policies. She either does not understand the economic problems everyday Americans face, or she does not care.
Once you see the difference, you can’t unsee it.
But left egalitarianism is not the only alternative to neoliberalism on the menu. Donald Trump offers right nationalism as an alternative, and his alternative has proven very compelling. Right nationalism acknowledges the economic problems people face, but its solutions are much more bellicose and divisive. Right nationalists believe that we are being taken advantage of by somebody, usually somebody foreign. Many people think that Trump is popular because of his personality, but the Trump persona is gift-wrapping a product, and that product is the idea that foreigners are the reason you’ve been getting a raw economic deal.
So Trump says that immigrants are taking your jobs and driving down your wages. Like Sanders, he also goes after bad trade deals. Many countries now have political parties that market right nationalism as an alternative to neoliberalism. There’s National Front in France, UKIP in Britain, the Alternative for Germany, Golden Dawn in Greece, and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, among others. Many of the leaders of these European right nationalist parties have endorsed Trump. What he is selling is not new or even uniquely American. All of these parties market themselves by telling working people that their grievances are real and offering them solutions. The solutions are terrible, but because the left has become so impotent in most of the western world today, right nationalist parties tend to do much better with these groups than leftist parties.
Clinton supporters want you to believe that if Donald Trump gets elected, it would be some kind of massive disaster, that he might start a nuclear war or enact policies that are immensely damaging to marginalized groups. This is all based on the idea that Trump is some kind of insane person. But while many right nationalist politicians are true believers who have consistently expressed abhorrent views, we have strong reasons to think that Donald Trump is exploiting the right nationalist playbook for personal gain.
This becomes clear when we look at the history of things he said and did before he became a presidential candidate. In The Art of the Deal, Trump takes several positions that were quite left wing even for the 1980’s:
- The stock market is no different from casino gambling.
- Reductions in government spending on public housing have devastated the quality of housing available to the poor.
- The government should rent control apartments, but only for the poor and middle class.
- Governments could manage businesses and construction projects much more effectively if they only had proper leadership and repealed a few critical laws that make it difficult for governments to ensure they get good work.
In a discussion about con men, Trump says:
Ronald Reagan is another example. He is so smooth and so effective a performer that he completely won over the American people. Only now, nearly seven years later, are people beginning to question whether there was anything beneath that smile.
This is why the Republican Party is so intent on stopping Trump–Ted Cruz has many of the same right nationalist positions Trump has, but Cruz is a true believer, while Trump seems to be using right nationalist rhetoric to get elected. We cannot be sure what Trump actually believes or would do once in office. At this point, I don’t take any of his campaign statements or policy promises very seriously, and neither should you.
Donald Trump is conning the Republican Party. He could very well be the most moderate republican candidate, and he may be to the left of Clinton on some issues, like regime change and trade deals. We can’t be sure what he would do, and any person who is confident that Donald Trump is definitely a crazy person or a fascist is making claims based only on the statements Trump has made after he decided to get involved in national politics–the very point at which he is most likely to have begun trying to deceive us about what he thinks. The things people say and do before they start running tell us much more about what they’re likely to do than what they say and do after.
Bias Toward the Near:
But while Donald Trump is not a right nationalist, he is marketing himself as if he is one and most people believe he is one. He’s choosing to do this for strategic reasons–he recognizes that the public increasingly holds the neoliberal consensus exemplified by the establishments of both parties in contempt. The anger they feel toward neoliberal establishment figures is so intense that they welcome it when Trump openly bullies members of the establishment on national television. The American people loved watching Jeb Bush go down in flames and the internet mocked him harshly:
At his best point during the campaign, Jeb Bush had a net favorability rating of -15.7. Donald Trump exploited his extant unpopularity and worsened it, ragging on Bush until his net rating was -22.9:
Hillary Clinton’s net favorability rating has been continuously falling for a couple years now, and Trump hasn’t even started in on her in earnest yet. She’s currently at -13.0:
This is only going to get worse. Clinton is unpopular not because she’s a woman (she was a woman in January 2013, when she was much more popular) but because she’s part of the neoliberal establishment. As economic conditions have continued to stagnate or deteriorate for many Americans, their anger toward this establishment continues to increase, and the ability of left egalitarian and right nationalist candidates to effectively channel this anger continues to grow.
Sanders, on the other hand, continues to enjoy positive net favorability:
Sanders isn’t a neoliberal–he has always been an anti-establishment figure, and this makes it impossible for Trump or anyone else to mock him as a representative of the establishment. A race between Sanders and Trump would be a race between two ideological alternatives to the status quo rather than a race between the status quo and one alternative. There is a very real chance that Donald Trump will move noticeably to the middle once he secures the nomination, improving his favorability while Clinton’s continues to deteriorate. If there is a recession in the months leading up to the election, or if there are additional major terrorist attacks in the US or in allied nations, Trump could potentially defeat Clinton in 2016 more easily than he could defeat Sanders, who is not tied to the status quo and doesn’t have to defend the democrats’ past record.
But let’s say you don’t buy this. Let’s say that you think that no matter what, Clinton is always going to be a more competitive candidate than Sanders in 2016. Let’s say that you don’t buy my argument that we don’t really know what Trump will do, that you remain convinced he is absolutely deadly. None of this changes the fact that Clinton is a neoliberal and that neoliberalism is failing too many people too conspicuously. Even if Clinton wins in 2016, continued neoliberal policies are going to continue to build anger, and if the left doesn’t develop a left egalitarian alternative to neoliberalism to channel that anger constructively, the right nationalists will become the only vehicle through which anyone can express serious effective dissent. Over time, this will strengthen the right nationalists until they do win, and when they win they might not be led by Trump but instead by a true believer, someone who is absolutely committed to every right nationalist principle–someone like Ted Cruz.
This is why the “unite behind Clinton” strategy is so short-sighted. It was Clinton and politicians like her from both parties that created the stagnation that led to the anger that gave rise to Trump. If we unite around Clinton and abandon the robust left egalitarian dissent Sanders has been leading, we will continue to feed the growth of the right nationalists while at the same time stifling the development of our own alternative, ensuring that in the long-run the right nationalists triumph as the successor ideology to neoliberalism.
This is well underway in France. France has no politically relevant left wing political force. Its Socialist Party is socialist in name only and has spearheaded an austerity program that has kept France’s working people mired in stagnation. Its Republican Party sits a touch to the right of the Socialist Party, but the two are quite similar to one another on economic policy. Marginalized and angry French people have nowhere to go to dissent against neoliberalism except for National Front, led by Marine Le Pen. In the recent regional elections in France, the socialists and the republicans cooperated to keep National Front out of power. In the short term, this worked, but in the long-term, these parties will continue to pursue policies that perpetuate stagnation, increase French anger, and strengthen National Front. It is entirely possible if this continues that Le Pen (or someone like her) will one day be elected president of France. The run to the center just frustrates the electorate. Continuing to deny people a reasonable alternative to the status quo will eventually cause them to support an unreasonable alternative. Like the French centrists, American democrats are compromising the left’s long-term viability in the interests of winning a single election. They are suffering from a bias toward the near, toward what’s immediately in front of them, and failing to think strategically about the long-term historical consequences of allowing the right nationalists to be the sole occupants of the anti-establishment space.
Clinton supporters disregard all of what I’ve written here because like Clinton herself, they don’t understand the seriousness of the economic problems afflicting the young, the poor, and the working class. They don’t understand the level of anger or the unsustainability of the neoliberal economic position. This is because Clinton supporters tend to be older, comfortable members of the professional class. They are disconnected from the problems facing people who don’t have college degrees, who work blue collar jobs, who are unemployed or even unemployable, who are burdened with debt, who can’t find a job that fits their skill set, who are stuck in communities without opportunity or hope. This is why they can comfortably accuse Sanders supporters of being privileged–they take the privileges that come with a university education and economic affluence for granted. They blame the young and the poor for their problems and reduce left wing politics to a matter of creating more opportunities for people of more backgrounds to go to college and be comfortable once they get there. Education cannot solve the problem. We need people to do jobs that don’t require college degrees, and those people deserve to lead happy lives. Almost half of college graduates are working jobs that don’t require their degrees:
Nearly half the people working minimum wage are over 25, and most of these people are women, many of them with children:
When Clinton supporters think about racism, they think about kids in college classrooms hearing words they don’t like. They don’t think about distressed low-income black and Hispanic households where children are often supported by single parents working multiple jobs for inadequate wages, with little time to spend helping their children develop into productive members of society. When they think about sexism, they think about campus rape, not the single mothers the Clintons kicked off welfare and abandoned to minimum wage jobs. And classism? They don’t think about that at all. The economic challenges faced by poor white people don’t exist to Clinton supporters. Those poor white people know that Clinton and her supporters don’t think about them. If we don’t make it clear that there is a left that cares about them, can we blame them for voting for Trump–someone who acknowledges that their problems are real and promises to do something about them?
Racism and sexism are not just about the personal comforts of the members of the professional class, they are about real disparities in incomes and resources. Classism matters. That means:
- People who work 40 hours a week deserve to live in comfort and security, whether they went to college or not.
- People who are unemployed deserve jobs that pay a decent wage and robust welfare benefits whenever those jobs are not available.
- Every person, regardless of education level or economic position, deserves to experience rising living standards and get the benefits of economic growth.
Hillary Clinton may claim to believe these things, but her decades in the public eye tell a different tale. She has frequently and habitually said one thing to the working people of this country and done another. Regardless of whether Bernie Sanders wins or loses, left egalitarians must never allow themselves to be told that the interests of poor people matter less than those of the affluent members of the professional class who mistakenly believe they stand to benefit from a Clinton presidency (even most of these people will be left behind–most new income goes to the top 1%, not to the top 5%, 10%, or 20%). Poor people matter. Young people matter. Even if they’re white. Even if they’re men. It is better for a fake right nationalist to win in 2016 and lose to a left egalitarian in 2020 or 2024 than it is for a neoliberal to win in 2016 and lose to a real right nationalist in 2020 or 2024.
They are telling the left to shut up because they don’t care about the causes or people for which it fights. If Hillary Clinton is the nominee and you don’t want to vote for her, don’t vote for her.
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