Friday, March 11, 2016

Trump, Clinton and the Future

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.


Bozon said...



Great summary.

My only quibbles with this are in details re how far back these problems go....

all the best

Shelterdog said...

Depressing, especially if you're correct. Yet I think there's so much more that plays into this. Three principal forces come to mind. First, the Republican reaction to the Civil Rights movement, spurred by Nixon's "Southern strategy," offered a new home to racists and virtually obliterated the Republicans' historic position as the party of Lincoln. Second, the Republican party attacked every Democratic presidential candidate from 1968 to 1988 as soft on crime and hostile to business. The Democrats' reaction, led by people like Bill Clinton, was to become more centrist, pro-"law and order," and to cozy up to big business. Third, world economic forces, including the economic rise first of Japan and later China, dramatically changed the relationship between labor and management in the US, generally making them more collaborative and less confrontational, but also reducing the power and influence of organized labor in the Democratic party. All these forces--and others--have forced changes in the traditional coalitions of both parties, some for the better and some for the worse.

ed boyle said...

Little hope for America left. Bled dry by walmart, goldman sachs, bbig pharma, armaments manufacturers for wars while the population is distracted by arguing about race, gender, religion. It seems a few trillionaires who pay no taxes and live in the bahamas will sit laughing at a 3rd world wreck from a scifi flickin a generation. Thank God I left when I did.

Unknown said...

Fine account, David. I think you're quite right about Trump making his peace with the GOP establishment. As his apparent recent shift on health care policy suggests, he'll move wherever it's convenient. And once he's the acknowledged nominee, it will be back to the usual GOP talking points, with the possible exception of trade policy. One after another establishment Republican will soon (like Carson!) be professing how reasonable the @realDonaldTrump turns out to be.

Unknown said...

I am now, officially, depressed.

Thankfully, I live in Oregon where recreational cannabis is legally available.

This all reminds me of a cartoon of years gone by. In the 1930's, two old men are sitting on a porch and one says to the other "This country is going to hell." And the other replies, "Yes, and it always has been." (I paraphrase this remembrance).

Or, in the prescient words of author Kurt Vonnegut, "So it goes."

Skimpole said...

One problem with this column is that it poses a false contrast between class politics and identity politics. First off, white men are a minority of the American working class, so any class politics has to deal with other groups. Second, suggesting that an issue like paid maternity leave is irrelevant to white men would only be true if white men didn't have any children. Third, it gets the Democratic support for such issues dangerously wrong. Democrats didn't support pro-gay politics because they wanted an issue after abandoning class politics. In point of fact, when gay marriage was unpopular they hedged on the issue, and once gay marriage supporters started winning referendums, they became more supportive. The same logic can be seen with gays in the military. Fourth, if there is a journal of opinion that represents the post-New Deal Democratic Party, it is "The New Republic" in its Peretz Years (1978- ultimately 2014). If there is a journal that represents the Sanders viewpoint it is "The Nation" And during the last fortyyears not only is the latter journal consistently more pro-union and more critical of capitalism and increasing inequality. It has also been consistently more feminist and more supportive of civil rights. Fifth, African-American House Democrats have consistently been the most Social Democratic element in American politics for decades. That they would support the more conservative Democratic candidate, however, is not surprising given that she is the key candidate from what is among African Americans a massively popular and respected administration.

And again, I have to disagree with the whole generational focus of the previous column. One starting point is that Albright, Cheney and Rumsfeld were not boomers. Second, it is not clear that generation helps unlock the foreign policy debates over the past quarter-century in journals across the political spectrum from the National Review, to Commentary, to The New Republic, to The New York Times and The New York Review of Books, to The Nation and Dissent. Third, it's hard to see the hostility that led to intervention in Libya, war with Iraq and a desire to repeat it in Syria as the result of s specific generational boomer moralism. Clearly, it has two sources. The Pro-Israel lobby does not want to give up Israel's 1967 gains, and therefore is virulently hostile to Israel's Arab and/or Muslim enemies. This in itself would not be sufficient if the United States did not have a bipartisan tradition, going back to Wilson, of refusing to negotiate with countries who are regularly excommunicated from the basic diplomatic courtesies. We see this with the Soviet Union, Mao's China up to 1971, Castro's Cuba, a united Vietnam and North Korea to the present day.

Fourth, I don't agree that the war in Kosovo or NATO expansion was the cause of our present day difficulties with Russia. Clearly, it goes back to Bush, who was slow to realize Gorbachev's good faith, took advantage of his weakness, did nothing to assist him and once he fell, decided that Russia would sink or swim under Yeltsin's shock therapy. Nor was this betrayal simply the fault of one politician, the Lord High Everything Else of the Republican Party. You may think the bien pensants of the American centre were unlucky to bet everything on one corrupt incompetent authoritarian. But the authoritarianism was not a bug but a bonus: austerity enforced under Yeltin's plebiscitarian authority over a depoliticized citizenry has been standard operating procedure all across the globe. And for all their talk about civic responsibility the aforementioned bien pensants had no interest in any debate over the Russian and Soviet past that didn't agree with The New York Review of Books. It was overwhelming bipartisan consensus, not generational whim, that wanted a weak Russia subordinated to, but never properly integrated into, a pro-American Europe.

Philippe O said...

" 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. "

Eh, i think Clinton would be able to deal with major problem much better than Sanders. Politics is art of what possible. and Sanders (and his supporters) seems to believe that Presidency as bully pulpit is more valuable than actual politics of creating law, appoint people to various position and helping downballot win elections to continue reform and change.

If 2016ers decide they only need to vote for President to change America, they are wrong. They should learn from 2008-ers lessons, that failure to elect Liberal to replace Ted Kennedy and failure to vote Democrats in 2010s prove devastating and turn Obama into lame duck for six years.

" But it turned out that Obama, like the Clintons, had no fundamental quarrel with the system that had been so good to him. "

There are limit of ability to 'change the system' when majority of Americans don't care enough about it. Americans elect Republicans in 2010, even now many Americans believe in Trump and Cruz, this show that desire for change to further left is very limited among Americans. Rural populations and suburbanites particularly devoted to return to 1950s rather than further change.