By this time next week, it seems likely that Donald Trump will have removed the main remaining obstacles to his nomination as the Republican candidate for President. Every poll in Florida shows him with a comfortable lead over Marco Rubio, who would not survive a defeat there, and most (but not all) polls show him leading John Kasich in Ohio as well. Ted Cruz will undoubtedly continue his campaign to solidify his position as the standard bearer of the Evangelical right, and will probably win some more primaries in western states, but he has no chance of being nominated. And I expect most Republican office holders to fall in line behind Trump--if only because giving in to power is what modern politicians do.
Donald Trump is a super-rich businessman with a very spotty financial record, a television celebrity who has never shown any concern for the lives of ordinary Americans. Yet he is likely to be the major political beneficiary of the economic catastrophe that has befallen the lower half of our population over the last 40 years, and of the general distaste for politics that has gone along with it. This is not because he is the most popular political figure among less well-off Americans. Bernie Sanders outpolled Trump by 152,000 votes to 100,000 in New Hampshire and by 595,000 to 483,000 in Michigan. But Trump is likely to get the Republican nomination while Sanders will probably lose the Democratic one to Hillary Clinton. That, I would suggest, is because the Democratic party establishment has maintained enough of a base within the party to prevail over an insurgent. But sadly, this means that the major problems of our country will only get worse, and a whole generation may be turned off of politics for the foreseeable future.
A recent article by Thomas Edsall summarized, once again, the economic changes that have devastated the American working class over the last 40 years. Hourly wages adjusted for inflation have been nearly stagnant since 1964, and the middle class has shrunk. The de-industiralization of the US--which has gone much further than in the major European countries--has devastated working class communities in states like Michigan and Ohio. In a rational world, all this would have strengthened what is supposed to be our left wing party, the Democrats, and led to legislation which would have reversed some of these trends. But this is not happening. Why?
The reasons, in my opinion, go back about half a century, and particularly to two bad decisions by the last New Dealer to occupy the White House, Lyndon Johnson. The first, most catastrophic decision was the Vietnam War, which alienated the Boomer left from Johnson and to some extent from politics, and threw away the enormous Congressional majorities he had secured in 1964. But the second was the redefinition of poverty as a minority problem, not a national one. Ironically, the first target of Johnson's War on Poverty in 1964 was Appalachia, then as now the poorest region of the nation, and at that time, a Democratic stronghold. But the problems of Appalachia have only gotten worse over the last 50 years, and it has become a Republican stronghold, now firmly in the pocket of Donald Trump. The white southern working class has also abandoned the Democratic Party, convinced that Democrats care only about blacks, immigrants, women, and homosexuals. Both Trump and Sanders voters know that their lot has been getting worse, and that neither major party seems to care very much about it. Sadly, they are right.
Since the mid-1970s, when the first prominent "new Democrat," Gary Hart, specifically repudiated the New Deal's approach to problems, the Democratic Party has increasingly been dominated by a wealthy establishment that focuses largely on social issues--women's rights, gay rights, and affirmative action--and cooperates with most of the most powerful economic interests in our society, led by Wall Street. Going with the flow, Bill Clinton in the 1990s appointed Treasury secretaries from the big investment banks, repealed Glass-Steagall, and allowed the orgy of private borrowing that eventually led to the 2008 crash to begin. Going with the flow,. as Thomas Piketty's book showed two years ago, means promoting increasing economic inequality. Such inequality is the natural result of the operation of the capitalist system and only government intervention can stop it. Clinton went with the flow in other ways as well. His crime bill was a key step towards mass incarceration, and his welfare bill left many Americans defenseless. Urban poverty, as a new book about evictions has shown, has become much worse. Meanwhile, the leadership of the black community, it seems, had focused on creating a black establishment, especially in politics. The gerrymandered black districts that were created in most major urban areas became rotten boroughs, firmly under the control of perpetual incumbents, who remained a power within the Democratic Party but do not seem to have been able to do much for their constituents. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton, obviously, have invested a great deal of time cultivating that establishment, and it has paid off. Although younger black people have turned against their parents and flocked to Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton has nonetheless built up a large delegate lead with the help of black votes, especially in the South. But most of those votes will be useless in the general election, where Democrats have no chance in the Deep South.
The economic crisis of 2008 revealed the structural flaws in our new economy and the disastrous consequences of deregulating the financial industry. It also brought Barack Obama into power, and many of his supporters, including myself, hoped that he would become the new FDR. But it turned out that Obama, like the Clintons, had no fundamental quarrel with the system that had been so good to him. He too appointed leading financial officials with Wall Street backgrounds, who were determined to "do no harm" to the investment banks that had brought down our economy. (Until recently I had forgotten my post about Ron Suskind's book, Confidence Men, on January 20, 2012, but it is worth re-reading now.) Obama's two years as a community organizer padded his resume in the same way as Hillary's work for the Children's Defense Fund, and had as little impact on his world view. And thus, in 2009, it was the Republicans, not the President, who mobilized middle- and lower-class anger against the financial system and the powers that be, channeling it into the Tea Party and sweeping the elections to the House of Representatives the next year. They also won control of various state legislatures and locked in their control of the House, probably for the rest of the next decade, through gerrymandering. That was the end of any attempt to rein in the financial community, as FDR had done, to deal with this crisis.
Because the cost of campaigns and the Citizens United decision have given so much power to large contributors, both parties are now in the hands of the financial community. Nor is this all. Every year, the big Wall Street firms recruit an astonishing percentage of the smartest graduates of our leading institutions, guaranteeing the perpetuation of their power. Many poorer Americans have now seen the light. Surrounded by gutted factories and neighborhoods, plagued by heroin addiction (brought about, in large part, by big Pharma), and finding higher education less and less acceptable, they realize that neither party cares about their fate. A substantial part of the poorer white population is opting for Trump, partly out of racism and the resentment of immigration, but also because Democrats like Hillary Clinton have convinced them that they only care about women, gays, and minorities. (The other night's debate suggested that Hillary might be wising up rhetorically: she talked mostly about economic issues and dropped one of her favorite lines, that doing something about Wall Street would not end prejudice against women, minorities, and the LGBT community.) But Sanders, to repeat, is drawing far more votes than Trump, and might even now be able to re-orient our politics. He will probably fail, however--because of the establishment of the Democratic party and its allies in the media.
More than thirty years ago, during the Reagan years, my brother Robert did a weekly commentary on NPR. I especially remember hearing one of them in my car, a discussion of the new "upper middle class" that now dominated both politics and the media elite. That elite has shrunk along with our major newspapers and tv networks since then, but its remaining members are as cut off as ever. They--and their contemporaries in academia--live in a world in which the status of women, gays and minorities remains a key issue--but the economic status of ordinary Americans of all genders, races, and sexual orientations does not. Like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, they simply can't believe that something could be fundamentally wrong with a system that has been so good to them. Thus they cannot bring themselves to demand that Clinton release the transcripts of her Wall Street speeches--which she obviously would do if they did not show too much sympathy for her audience. And thus, Bernie Sanders, who moved to Vermont but never abandoned his radical New York roots, is an embarrassment precisely because he never sold out. The extent to which the major media outlets continue to belittle Sanders is extraordinary. The three broadcast network news agencies have practically ignored his campaign. The New York Times's lead story on Wednesday dealt with the impact of the Michigan primary--on Hillary Clinton's campaign. Even Democratic academics are quick to point out flaws in his economic plans, implying, in effect, that our current economic system is the best that we can do. That, of course, is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Clinton will probably defeat Sanders thanks to black voters in the Deep South and super delegates who depend on the same fundraisers that she does. The question will then become whether wealthier #neverTrump Republicans will be more important than disaffected working class Democrats in determining the outcome in the New South and the upper Midwest, the key battlegrounds in the election to come. There is little to look forward to in either a Trump or Clinton victory. Trump's deportation plans will in my judgment lead to violence and chaos, while a Clinton victory will continue the deadlock between Congress and the White House. Neither one will do anything to replace prevailing economic trends. If a substantial portion of the Democratic establishment could get behind Sanders, I believe that he might not only win the nomination and the election, but also make significant gains in Congress and perhaps allow us to reverse prevailing trends. This however remains at this time a very unlikely outcome.
Trump's appeal to poorer whites is significant but it should not be exaggerated. He has consistently beaten his Republican rivals among all his party's major constituencies. He will easily make his peace with the Republican party, and his election would immediately be followed by another big round of tax cuts, ballooning deficits, and greater inequality. Meanwhile, whether he or Clinton were elected, several issues--crumbling infrastructure, relations between the police and inner city populations,. and gun rights--could at any moment lead to a real breakdown of our society. We need a real civic rebirth more than ever, but it seems unlikely that we are about to get it.