The battle for the soul of the Democratic Party and the future of the United States has been joined. On Monday, in the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton may seize the electoral momentum that eluded her eight years ago. If she does, even the very likely victory of Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire will not be likely to derail her, with a string of southern primaries coming up. But if she does not, if Sanders wins the first two contests, and if Elizabeth Warren responds by endorsing him, the analogy I posited some months ago between 1968 and 2016 will become more apt. For the second time in eight years Hillary will be fighting from behind against a candidate with far more support from younger voters (though not, at least as yet, from minority voters.) If Sanders gets the momentum, his nomination will become a distinct possibility.
I shall come in a moment to the issue of what I see at stake, but first I want to discuss the reaction of Boomer and Xer liberal journalists to these developments. It appears to be almost unanimous. One after another, the pundits of the mainstream "left"--whose views increasingly resemble those of that nearly extinct species, republicanus moderatus--are lining up behind Clinton. To oppose Sanders, they argue, is a sign of maturity.
Jonathan Chait, in New York Magazine, writes that the evidence for Sanders's essential argument: "that the problems of the American economy require far more drastic remedies than anything the Obama administration has done, or that Clinton proposes to build on"--is "far weaker than he assumes." Dodd-Frank has weakened, though not destroyed, the big banks, he claims, and the ACA has reduced the number of uninsured. Chait is also nervous about the economic consequences of raising the minimum wage too high, and complains that Sanders doesn't pay enough attention to foreign threats. Ezra Klein declares on vox.com that Sanders's single-payer plan for health care is "not a plan at all," and complains that it relies too heavily on taxes on the rich and that it has no role for the states. Two weeks ago, my local paper, the Boston Globe--now owned by hedge fund manager John Henry--fired a double shot across Sanders's bow. Joan Vennochi identified Sanders's outrage as "his greatest strength," but also his greatest weakness, one that reminded her of Donald Trump and would prevent him from working with Republicans in Washington, and Michael Cohen, echoing her paragraph by paragraph, says Sanders "doesn't understand how politics works." Dana Millbank of the Washington Post strikes an avuncular pose, assuring us that while he "adores" Bernie Sanders and find Hillary Clinton a "dreary" candidate, "Democrats would be insane to nominate him." And last but hardly least, Paul Krugman, who has been the only highly visible voice of New Deal Liberalism for at least sixteen years, argues today that the white working class is so disaffected that a coalition of the economically weak has now become impossible and that Obama/Clinton style liberalism on social issues and palliative measure on the economy is the best that we can hope for.
Now from one perspective, these commentators, I might argue, are proving me right. On December 4 last, in probably the most important post I have ever put up there, "The Fourth Great Crisis in American National Life," I argued that more that 35 years of ceaseless Republican struggle had led us into a new Gilded Age, that Barack Obama had lost the last chance to reverse the course we were on when he came into office, and that even the nomination of Bernie Sanders was not likely to reverse the tide. I am quite certain that none of these commentators read that piece, which I spent the better part of a year trying and failing to place in a major outlet, But they are saying the same thing that I did: that the United States in 2016 no longer has any room for genuine New Deal liberalism. The difference between me and the rest of them is this: while I view it as a tragedy that the nation will take decades to recover from, they seem to be quite at peace with it. Nor, given the surprising strength of the Sanders campaign, am I quite willing to give up yet.
Let's spend a minute on some key substantive issues. Yes, Dodd-Frank--or something else that we do not understand--has apparently imposed some limits on irresponsible financial behavior, and we have had, as yet, nothing like another crash. Personally I am among those--and there are many--who are not confident that we shall be able to say the same in 2026, say, but even if we can, that simply means that the system which Sanders rightly describes as "rigged" will be functioning more smoothly. The system is "rigged" for the reason that Piketty identified nearly two years ago: it systematically channels the proceeds of economic growth into the capital accounts of the very rich, not into the pocketbooks of the lower 90% of the population. And indeed, there are increasing signs that the growth or decline of our GDP is linked more closely than ever to the fortunes of the very rich. That is why some commentators are arguing that the fall in oil prices that has put billions into the pockets of American consumers might in the net be bad for the economy--because it is hurting the oil giants and the industry that supplies them. Chait, Millbank, Vennochi, Klein, Krugman and myself all were born into a relatively equal world thanks to the New Deal and its aftermath--as Krugman, at least, used to understand. Now they are willing to turn their back on that world, because they are rejecting the only candidate who wants to re-impose the measures (including Glass-Steagall) that made t possible.
As for the ACA, it has provided insurance to millions of people who did not have it, which is a good thing. The achievement is threatened, however, by drastic increases in many premiums and deductibles which will deprive many of them of real economic security. And as Sanders points out, in the end, the ACA did nothing about the overall cost of health care, which is notoriously at least double the cost in other advanced countries. Sanders cleverly (and accurately) calls his plan "Medicare for all." Now that I've been on Medicare for a few years myself, I better understand how our health care system works. Because the government pays for Medicare, doctors and hospitals have been forced to provide seniors with care at relatively low rates of return. (The pharmaceutical industry, as far as I can tell, does just as well out of seniors as other patients.) Insurance companies, doctors and hospitals make their profits--profits which simply don't exist in other advanced countries--by charging working Americans and their families much more. That increases generational income inequality and can't be good for America's future This is the problem which Sanders, and Sanders alone, wants to do something about.
The ACA is like the earned income tax credit, which both Democrats and Republicans have relied on to help the growing numbers of working poor over the last several decades. Rather than ensure that everyone is paid a true living wage, it tries to get low wages nearer that standard by giving them a big break on their taxes. That, of course, increases the size of the "dependent" population, the "47%" Mitt Romney complained about four years ago. And that has negative political consequences. The system hurts working families, and they will be vulnerable to appeals by Republicans to their resentment of people whom feel do not work unless the system changes.
Krugman hints at, but does not develop, another aspect of the failure of liberalism of the Clinton variety. While Sanders, he says, believes that money is the root of all evil, Clinton believes that money is not "the whole story." "Instead, racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice are powerful forces in their own right," and this difference of emphasis "matters for political strategy." What this initially seemed to mean, to me, was that Clinton was going to rely on appeals to women and minorities in both the primaries and the general election, which certainly seems to be the case. But Krugman takes this in another direction. "If the divisions in American politics aren't just about money," he writes, "if they reflect deep-seated prejudics that progressives simply can't appease, such visions of racial change [as Sanders proposes] are naive. And I believe that they are." The Trump campaign has proven to Krugman, it seems, that racism and sexism are so deeply ingrained in America that the union of the lower classes has become impossible. (He feels homophobia has drastically lessened as a political force.) There are internal contradictions in this position: if they are really that powerful, then how can Clinton possibly win by stressing these issues? Isn't it entirely possible that the white working class has gone Republican precisely because they don't think the Democrats care about straight white males? But in any case, it is the most appalling surrender to a dreadful vision of America that I have ever seen, one of which Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy would never have been guilty.
In the climactic scene of the indispensable book and film, Primary Colors, the composite figure Libby Holden berates Jack and Susan Stanton (Bill and Hillary Clinton) for betraying the ideals they all shared when they helped nominate McGovern in 1972. We were young then, Susan replies. We didn't understand "how the world works." As Hillary's record of speaking engagements and public positions makes all too clear, she understands only too well how today's world works. One can cast one's self as a fighter for the middle class and a crusader on social issues, so long as one takes care not to offend powerful economic interests and disturb the distribution of income. I can't help but wonder whether Chait, Vennochi, Cohen, Millbank, and even Krugman also can't help but trust a system which, for whatever reason, has found a very nice place within itself for them. Yet whether that strategy can get her the nomination and the White House in 2016 depends on whether the world has passed her by.
The wild card this year is the Millennial generation, which simply cannot shut its eyes to the inequalities of our economic system because it is being so much affected by it. Even highly educated Millennials can't afford homes in major metropolitan areas. They are burdened with debt and uncertain prospects. Strauss and Howe, writing in the 1990s when the oldest Millennials had not even reached puberty, expected them to save the nation and the world like their GI grandparents. As I have said many times, the GIs did it under the leadership of the Missionaries, led by FDR,while the Millennials will not do so under the leadership of the Boomers. (It is no accident, by the way, that the only representative of New Deal liberalism in the Presidential race is old enough to remember FDR's death and its impact on the adults on his life.) But they could do so at the ballot box. Their parents have forfeited their trust and they want something new. Bernie is offering it. That is the coalition that could conceivably get the United States back on a different track. This may not be likely, but if it will be delighted to have had my post of December 4, 2015, proven wrong. And in any case, I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for keeping the ideals of an earlier era alive, when almost no one in my generation cares enough to do so.