Is Bernie Sanders halfway there? No – not to the nomination, much less the White House. What Sanders has done is to establish himself as a force in the Democratic Party’s selection process. He has done so by demonstrating two qualities that have largely disappeared from America’s political life over the past few decades. One is conviction and intellectual honesty. The other is articulate statement of a progressive creed that was the party’s heart and soul when it dominated the country’s electoral life, before lapsing into the “me-too” wing of our current Establishment uniparty. Sanders, thereby, has flinted a spark of life into those nominally liberal circles whose lazy and complacent inertia had led them to declare the compromised Hillary Clinton as their latest champion.
None of this was foreseen by the commentators and strategists who set the tone for our political discourse. Their domination of the electronic airways generates the Washington Consensus that few dare dispute. That consensus is invariably wrong – on almost every matter of electoral and policy consequences. They boast a record of unrelieved obtuseness that does nothing to undermine their authority in delimiting what or who qualifies for “serious” discussion. One could amass a fortune simply by betting against the Washington Consensus. A quicker and more socially responsible alternative to joining in the corrupt shenanigans that pass for finance these days.
The “experts,” in their typical blinkered way, overlooked or grossly underestimated some stark truths. Most Americans are poorer today than they were 45 years ago. Stagnant salaries may have left them on a par with or very slightly ahead of where they were in 1970 in absolute terms, but they have lost all purchase on the kind of lives led by those who are infinitely better off in relative terms. In America’s status society where well-being is measured in life style terms, that counts for a lot. Especially so, when the outlook for your children is a struggle even to keep up with their parents. Moreover, tens of millions of earnest workers have seen themselves degraded and downgraded as “temps” and part-timers, shorn of job security and benefits, in the name of “productivity” and “efficiency.” They are marooned in a limbo just a layer above migrant agricultural workers.
This is taken by their leaders to be the inescapable price to pay in order to keep up with the Malaysians and the Chinese. Democratic President Barack Obama rubs their noses in it by promoting the Trans-Pacific commercial Pact, largely written by big business, which will undercut the authority of the United States government to alleviate their condition. For the cognoscenti of the political class, this blunt reality is a revelation – ignored for decades and now filed away under the label “inequality.” For them and for the candidates they promote, “inequality” is just another abstraction about which nothing practical will be done – like the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” So long as they themselves are comfortably off, all is more-or-less right with the world.
Consider this: Apple and GE, two of America’s most profitable corporations, are paying Zero federal taxes. Their aggregate taxes paid to governments worldwide is 0% and 3%. Apple – always the most innovative – declares itself headquartered somewhere in cyber space where no tax laws apply. That assertion is uncontested by Washington. President Obama has ignored this scandalous tax evasion, his administration has taken no executive initiatives and proposed no legislation remedy. Democrat leaders in Congress are equally inert. Candidate Clinton ignores it.
Another overlooked truth is that it is finally dawning on some Americans how misled and ill-served they are by self-absorbed, careerist politicos. They have suffered from two kinds of abusive behavior: the perversion of our public institutions, legislative and executive and regulatory, by the onslaught of moneyed interests; and the calculated stratagems designed to keep the populace distracted and ill-informed through distortion and misrepresentation. These features of American democracy are not entirely new, of course. However, in the past they were offset by party competition wherein one party – the Democrats for the past century – felt an interest at once principled and electoral to expose and denounce at least a segment of these schemes and machinations, at least the domestic ones. That no longer is the case. The Democratic Party has sold out – with a few exceptions – on most significant issues.
Selling out means a number of things: actively allying with the vested Establishment interests; staying mute due to dependence on big money’s campaign contributions; concentrating on cosmetic reform and minimal steps in a progressive direction (e.g. Dodd-Franks and its non-implementation). This has been institutionalized during the Clinton and Obama administrations in concert with Democratic Congressional leaders. An historic landmark of incalculable importance was the sequester initiative of President Obama whereby all federal spending was cut substantially across the board (with the notable exception of off-the-books military spending on the global wars against terror). This reckless action gave the Republicans a long dreamt of boon: a weakening of government programs in line with their laissez-faire ideology. Those cuts are now the baseline for the fights over further reductions. Federal spending as a fraction of GDP is at its lowest level since the 1920s.
The full implications have been masked by a) a negligent, pandering mainstream media; and b) the takeover of the Republican Party by radical reactionary elements that make the Democrats look liberal – if only by comparison. This swing toward the conservative end of the political continuum is supposed to have helped the Democratic Party win elections. It hasn’t. The picture presented across the country is of a Republican tide that has swept state houses, governorships, and local offices. Republican ideology frames issues and shapes public discourse. Success in presidential elections by Clinton and Obama had more to do with the feeble opposition they faced in congenial circumstances and some artfully contrived posturing as savior of the Republic.
The political landscape sketched above is doubly important: it helps explain why a liberal revival such as personified by Bernie Sanders was written off by the “professionals,” and why it nonetheless so quickly has made a mark. Where exactly this will lead is unclear. Some changes, though, are already visible. The most obvious is that Democratic candidates cannot continue to slight the party’s progressive wing. They cannot simply take it for granted and keep it calm by the dual strategy of offering a few tokens of half-hearted rhetoric while keeping attention fixed on the “social” issues of abortion and gay marriage. That obviously had been Hillary’s strategy. Now, she is being forced to pronounce on matters like taxes for the 1% and serious financial regulation. Her credibility in the minds of those who know her record and who have a measure of discernment may be zero, but she at least had to lay down a few markers. The same holds for Joe Biden were he to jump into the fray.
A second change is to thrust before Democratic leaders the awkward fact that their constituents are well to the “left” of the official party. Opinion surveys, for whatever they’re worth, show clearly that on a wide range of socio-economic issues there are significant majorities that favor, inter alia, an expansion and strengthening of Medicare, a strengthening and expansion of Social Security (both of which Barack Obama has shown himself ready to curtail), meaningful financial regulation, stronger not diluted regulation of the pharmaceutical industry, and polluters, rejection of business friendly and job unfriendly “trade” deals, and even gun control. Bernie Sanders, by harping on these very issues, has increased the electoral risks for Hillary to continue playing hide-and-seek with her potential voters.
Third, Sander’s manifest commitment and integrity places in stark relief the evasive, manipulative manner of the current crop of politicians – Hillary outstanding among them. The psychology of this is elusive. There seems little doubt, though, that her lack of forthrightness on matters ranging from her home basement server while Secretary of State to her cozy and dubious dealings with big money donors will cost her more now that there is an example of a quite different conception of public responsibility on the screen.
The cumulative effect of these changes induced by the Sanders phenomenon could take a variety of forms. That Sanders actually would win the nomination is the most unlikely. For several reasons. Hillary’s money, machine and cynical ruthlessness will be hard to overcome. Much of the electoral territory, in the South and West, is not yet ready to accommodate a “Socialist” from Brooklyn/Vermont. It will take years for the Democrats to revive the tradition of Southern populism eclipsed by race and facilitated by their own lassitude. Moreover, the Establishment is mobilizing to stop in its tracks the sort of progressive populism that Sanders represents. It is too unsettling – in terms of policy, ideology, and personal comfort.
The New York Times, for example, has given us abundant evidence that it wants to see a Hillary-Jeb contest. For them, that is the “safest” pairing for the country’s good. The paper’s massive coverage of all things Hillary began more than a year ago with the assignment of a full-time reporter to the Clinton beat – a sort of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Their occasional reporting of her numerous misadventures does not begin to offset the effect of exhaustive, sympathetic coverage in an age when celebrity is what it is (almost) all about.
This week they outdid themselves in running a featured front page story claiming that Biden may lose the respect of friends and relatives – and his legacy – were his challenge to Hillary to deflect this Jeanne d’Arc from Destiny’s call to the White House. If Hillary’s rendezvous with destiny turns out to be no more than a tryst with destiny, copious tears will be wept on West 43rd Street.
One must also speculate about the fortunes of Joe Biden were he to take the plunge. Sanders in a sense has opened the way for Biden by softening up Hillary. He has forced her to take some positions (however tentatively) that she wanted to avoid, her lack of authenticity has been implicitly made to stand out, and her lukewarm supporters who saw her as their best hope to avoid a Republican Armageddon now are beginning to rethink their reliance on a savior who simply may not have the “right stuff.” In this sense, Sanders might be playing Gene McCarthy to Biden’s Robert Kennedy in 1968. Biden is no Bobby Kennedy; but then Hillary is no LBJ.
There are, in fact, two worries about Hillary. One is that there is yet another scandal hovering beneath the surface that could sink her credibility once and for all. With the Clintons, anything is possible. We don’t know what was on the thousands of emails she “accidentally” deleted before sending on the residue to the State Department. No doubt they contained the most sensitive, potentially damaging material. If somebody else has retained copies, there may be enough there to capsize Hillary’s would-be ship of state once and for all. The other is that her cumulative negatives will leave her so tarnished and deflated as to render her the under-dog. There is a chance that Hillary could arrive in Boston with the nomination locked-up but DOA insofar as the general election is concerned. That presumes a Republican nominee who himself is viable.
Jeb Bush probably will be the nominee. If the election were held on the basis of video images and puff reporting by the mainstream media, he would be formidable. However, every time he opens his mouth, primitive and reactionary views come out of it. “When I hear the sound of gunfire I hear the sound of Freedom.” The effect is reinforced by an evident lack of nimbleness and quick-wittedness which appears to be a family trait.
Even were Bush, and his advisers, to reprogram him as they did his brother, he runs up against the arithmetic of Republican primaries now dominated by the far-Right crazies of various stripes. No more than 15% of the total electorate, their high turn-out in Republican primaries and their fanaticism make them an intimidating force.
Bush’s hope is that whatever he must do to win the nomination will be forgotten come next fall. Given the short attention span of Americans and their self-absorbed lives, that is a reasonable calculation. Anyway, Hillary’s own shortcomings make her too tentative and over calculating to pursue the kind of all-out aggressive strategy that could leave Bush dazed and stumbling. It will be a challenge to lose to Jeb Bush. The Democrats are up to it, though. Remember that Al Gore managed to ‘lose’ to his brother George under far more favorable circumstances
In other words, the forecast is for another Presidential contest between losers – from the progressive vantage point. The fruits of Bernie Sanders heroic efforts will not be ripe until four years from now – assuming that there will be someone ready to harvest them.
Michael Brenner is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations and Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Article used by permission of the author.