The acute capitalist crisis of 2008 has in the years since developed into a chronic complaint, to be managed but not overcome. In wealthy countries, ultra-low interest rates prop up consumer spending and, for investors, prolong the ‘asset-price Keynesianism’ described by Robert Brenner in the 2000s: the money conjured into being by government deficits no longer boosts the economy, through public investment and purchases, in the way of old-fashioned Keynesianism, but takes the form of cheap loan capital, which (funnelled through private banks or wagered on a bank’s own account) inflates the prices of stocks, bonds, and other paper or digital assets. Swollen private portfolios induce luxury spending, and the size of the resulting wealth effect, as Alan Greenspan liked to call it, does a lot to determine what volume of crumbs spills from the banquet table in the form of worker’s wages. Because the rich spend a smaller proportion of their income than others, asset-price Keynesianism is an inefficient way to inject demand into an economy. But the method has its allure: what could suit the rich better than rapidly inflating prices for what they have to sell – namely, financial assets – while prices of the ordinary goods and services they buy fail to rise at even the 2 per cent annually sought by central bankers as a minimum rate of inflation? To purchase the results of toil with the weightless gyrations of fictitious capital is a good bargain.
Nowhere has the availability of cheap money inspired enough new investment – either by corporations in production, or by governments in infrastructure – to return mature economies to the rates of growth known in past expansions, and in Europe per capita GDP is little if any higher than before the crisis in 2007. In the US, economic conditions have been better, but the gains from new growth have gone mostly to the wealthiest decile and, especially, percentile of the population, a point reiterated by Bernie Sanders in every stump speech during his campaign for the Democratic Party nomination in the bygone spring. In other words, capitalism still turns M into M’ for the rich, their money becoming more money. For the remainder of the population, sustained income growth appears to be over, perhaps for good – a scenario that if it persists can only erode the legitimacy of national variants of capitalism and, at length, capitalism tout court.
In Europe, a chief result of stagnation has been to breed new populisms, in some countries of the right (e.g., France’s National Front), in some countries of the left (Spain’s Podemos), in other countries of both left and right (Syriza and the Golden Dawn in Greece, Corbyn’s Labour Party and UKIP in Britain), and, at least in Italy, a sort of muddled populism of the centre (the Five Star party). Twenty-first century populism took longer to reach the US, where the economy has been stronger and the winner-take-all electoral system suffocates new parties. Unlike in most of the EU, populist challenges from Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders emerged from inside long-established parties (respectively, the Republicans and the Democrats), though in both cases attached to a figure who had only recently joined the party he sought to lead. Otherwise, these new American populisms of right and left broadly resemble their European counterparts: the former is hostile to immigrants, minority populations, and educated ‘elites,’ and the latter to large corporations and the rich. Both strains of populism are sceptical of the benefits of the selective liberalisation of international markets known under the fond name of free trade.
It can be said about all populisms, in spite of their bewildering historical variety, that at a minimum they construct a virtuous ‘people’ to pit against a more or less real or imaginary elite that places its own interest above that of the people. Just what segments of the actual populace (i.e., all the people in the country) identify with the symbolic people evoked by a given populism of course determines its social character and political strength; but since ‘the people’ is a generic unity aspiring to maximum size, its contingent makeup will rarely be specified and thus restricted by populists leaders themselves. Populists are quicker to specify the membership of perfidious elites, perhaps invariably in a way that evades the question of class even as it raises it: that is, the elites of the populist imaginary will be smaller and more perverse groupings than those great blocs, united by natural self-interest, known as socioeconomic classes.
For Bernie, the people turned out to be younger voters especially, white and non-white, and poorer ones (while Hillary Clinton’s strongest support in Democratic primaries came from wealthier and older voters, as well was as older – and, needless to say, typically poor – African-Americans). The elite that Bernie inveighed against consisted particularly of ‘the Billionaire class’ (there are fewer that 600 billionaires in the US, a nation of 300 million); of the 1 per cent evoked by Occupy Wall Street; and of the corporations and wealthy individuals who largely underwrite US electoral politics. The policy proposals defining Sanders’s populism included universal healthcare, free college tuition at public universities, transition to a post-carbon energy system, a non-interventionist foreign policy, and reform of the ‘criminal justice’ system that makes the US uniquely barbarous among wealthy neoliberal nations. (This last desideratum would be hardest for a president to achieve, since the sentencing, disenfranchisement, torture, forced labour, and legalized murder of American prisoners occurs mostly at the discretion of the individual states.) In all, Sanders the ‘socialist’ – an old self-description that in 2016 he neither repudiated nor emphasised – floated a program of modest social democratic reform that would hardly transform the US into a socialist country but would unquestionably make it a more humane and equal one.
Trump’s ‘people’ is made up especially of older whites who appear to consider themselves American in a ethnonational sense that may be the more profound for almost always going unconfessed. While some can be described as working class, his supporters – with a poverty rate of less than 3 per cent, a median income of almost $80,000, and, typically, prior to retirement, white collar jobs – mostly belong to a sort of American petite bourgeoisie, consisting not so much of shopkeepers as downwardly mobile professionals. Trump’s elite, if vaguer than the one pointed to by Sanders, certainly encompasses whatever censorious media and academic figures have imposed their regime of political correctness on the country and outraged the (bigoted) common sense of l’americain moyen sensual; it also includes the professional politicians who – so Trump, the unbeholden amateur, can declare – have sold out the country, permitting its invasion by (Latino) immigrants and infiltration by (Muslim) terrorists.
From time to time, uncoordinated sightings of real conditions emerge in Trump’s unscripted monologues, in allusions to the parlous state of American infrastructure or the diminished life chances of rural whites. He has also had the candour, rare in the GOP, to acknowledge a generation-long stagnation of wages and the catastrophe of the Iraq War. As for the policies whose vague outlines can be discerned through the Trump’s haze of unspecified and –racially – unmentionable grievances, he proposes a foreign policy at once more isolationist and sadistic than the recent norm: fewer ‘interventions’ (the going euphemism for attacks and invasions) abroad, but more ‘waterboarding, and a hell of a lot more than waterboarding’ of suspected terrorists. Economically, he would unleash growth through ruinous tax cuts; force American allies to pay for their own military protection; and refrain from trade deals prejudicial to the national interest. Before a series of personal scandals engulfed him during the autumn, his signal issues were mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, and the aggressive ‘vetting’ or outright prohibition of Muslim refugees and visitors. Some appeal to commonsensical egoism, looking out for number one, seems to unify this miscellaneous program, and, at the crest of his popularity, Trump, in his very peculiar person, could appear to have hit upon a temporary solution to the paradox of neoliberal populism: how to inspire collective feeling among deep-dyed individualists, and massify the atomised?
Above all, Trump appeals to Americans afflicted by a not wholly inaccurate sense of comparative national decline. In military terms, the US remains by far the preeminent power but seems unable to win wars, as it was during World War II and must have briefly appeared to be during the recent Bush years. Destroying the Ba’athist government in Iraq to defeat Salafist terrorism was a non sequitur, but it could be done; the caliphate of Da’esh is another matter, and Obama’s helplessness in the face of ISIS has been in sharp contrast to Bush’s bluff adventurism (never mind that the former is in part a consequence of the latter). Economically, the comparative decline of the US has been going on since as long ago as the late 1940s, but the long Chinese boom, together with feeble growth at home, has shaken that sense of singular providential prosperity that infuses the national feeling especially of Americans born before the mid-60s. For many of Trump’s supporters, personal ageing has coincided with a loss of international stature for the country with which as nationalists they identify, as well as with the swift if incomplete erosion, within the US itself, of the caste status of whites. (You might say they are downwardly mobile in status more than income.) Trump’s promise to reverse these developments possesses much of the fraudulent appeal of an elixir of youth.
Comfort can be taken from the thought that the coalition briefly assembled by Sanders looks like an emergent property of the American scene, and the one now marshalled by Trump, a residual one. While Trump’s base is largely older and white in a country where whites will soon cease to be a majority, Sanders’ politics were most attractive to young people from all ethnic and racial categories, and nothing suggests that new batches of high school and college graduates will enjoy much lighter debt burdens or rosier job prospects than those of so-called millennials today. The tolerant social views of younger Americans – nonchalant about race and sexual orientation, laissez-faire about drugs and religion – also make them less vulnerable than their elders and inferiors to being divided, politically, by the culture-war battle lines that configured so much of American politics over recent decades. The best hope for future experiments in rancid ethnonationalism along Trumpian lines would probably be to reconfigure real Americanness to include brown-skinned non-Muslims but implicitly exclude African-Americans, as a dependent and criminal surplus population, and continue stigmatising Muslim communities as incubators of terror.
Too much was made of the apparent similarities between Trump’s populism and Sanders’s, from a supposedly shared ‘anger’ (as if indignation were always unseemly in voters, regardless of the cogent or cracked reasoning behind it) to an allegedly overlapping appeal to the white workers. The two populist campaigns were utterly contrasted in their constituencies, ideology, intellectual cogency, and basic decency, and vanishingly few former Bernie supporters switched to Trump after Sanders conceded the Democratic nomination. Still, two broad similarities between the candidates – one practical, the other rhetorical – seem important.
First, both Bernie and, during the primaries, Trump refused corporate or ‘big money’ funding of their campaigns. Trump’s enormous – if characteristically exaggerated – personal fortune enabled him to underwrite his own candidacy, while his celebrity ensured him vastly more free publicity or ‘earned media’ (in the euphemism preferred by the press to describe its economy of attention) than any other candidate. Sanders, for his part, declined, unlike Clinton, to collaborate with or approve so-called SuperPACs (for ‘political action committee’) acting on his behalf, and denounced the 2010 Supreme Court decision that permitted these entities to collect unrestricted quantities of money, often from obscure sources, in the service of promoting one or another candidate for public office. Individual supporters, whose average donation, Bernie boasted, was merely $27, financed his campaign instead, and more handsomely than could have been imagined; prospective future candidates for office surely took note that small donors made Bernie’s official campaign wealthier than Clinton’s and, in spite of the largesse of Clinton’s nominally independent SuperPACs, allowed his spending on advertising to rival hers. Because of their unusual approaches to campaign finance, Sanders and Trump could both criticise the capture of public elections by private wealth with a rare affect of sincerity. Later, the financial exigencies of the general election led Trump to drop the theme of the bought-and-paid-for politician that he used to great effect against his Republican rivals in primaries, but, during the spring, he and Sanders together showed that a huge portion of the electorate disdains the purchased politics and open-air corruption that necessarily result from a system which rations political influence according to the ability to pay. And here, too, it is the Sanders model that looks to have the more promising future: a mass of small donors is easier to replicate than personal celebrity and a private fortune.
It can’t be coincidental that Sanders and Trump also – a second similarity – broke with the conventions of US politics on the plane of rhetoric. No doubt partly because they had few large benefactors to fear offending, both came across as having formed their political opinions independently of pollsters and as saying more or less what they thought. Of course they produced this impression in the most opposed ways. For Bernie, it was dogged adherence to the same political values across the half century of his adult life, including long decades when socialism remained a dirty word and most people would have regarded Sanders’s politics as a holdover from his 1960s youth. Trump, on the other hand, appeared candid – if never the least bit honest – thanks to the frankness of his narcissism and prejudices, the unembarrassed vulgarity of his tastes, and his remarkable incapacity for shame. In short, it was Bernie’s decency that made him seem straightforward, and, for Trump, his indecency. Together they considerably expanded the range of the respectable politics in the US, in the polar directions of social democracy and something like fascism.
Notwithstanding the unexpected success of both apparently straight-talking populists, the next president of the United States will very likely be the most careful and rehearsed of American politicians, identified with the very elites – in finance, politics, and media – castigated by Sanders and Trump. What accounts for the ascendancy of Hillary Clinton in a country fuming with anti-elitist grievances?
Hillary – with whom the public has long been on a first-name basis – owes much of her strength as a candidate in 2016 to her prior fame, exceeding even Trump’s. Not widely beloved, the former First Lady, Senator from New York, and Secretary of State is nevertheless a familiar and, for many people, comforting presence, associated with the popular president she represented abroad, and with the booming economy and happier pre-9/11 mood of her husband’s second term. These are advantages peculiar to Hillary, and can’t ground any general strategy for centre-left neoliberals in the years ahead. Nevertheless, the campaign Clinton waged against Sanders during the primaries, and the lines of battle she has now drawn against Trump in the general election, suggest how the dead centre of social or centre-left neoliberalism may try to hang onto power, in the US and elsewhere, with populism encroaching on both sides.
Hillary’s first great disadvantage against Bernie was simply that his program, distinctly to the left of hers, more closely aligned with the preferences of the average Democratic primary voter. Her second was that the consistency of Bernie’s views over the years and his refusal of corporate money made him the more appealing personality in many eyes: principled where she was opportunistic, sincere where she was none too forthright. In the face of the first problem, Clinton shifted her proposals and rhetoric leftwards for the duration of primary season, a customary feint. But her campaign and its media boosters also deployed a newer tactic against Sanders, using identitarian tropes of symbolic achievement and semantic grievance to present Hillary as the more progressive candidate. The logic of symbolic achievement made it imperative to put a woman in the White House rather than another white man, never mind that Sanders would have been the first Jewish president. (In extreme form, the argument was, mutatis mutandis, that of Daisy Benson in the Independent arguing against Corbyn and in favour of a woman, any woman, as head of the Labour Party: ‘If it’s truly progressive, Labour will have voted in a female leader – regardless of her policies.’) The complementary tactic was to cast the further-left campaign as in fact a stalking horse for racism, misogyny, and the jealous retention of class privilege.
Thus Bernie’s loud speaking voice and interruptions of Hillary in their televised debates (no more frequent than hers of him) testified to his sexism, and the enthusiasm of his male supporters to an aversion to powerful women. When polls showed that women in their twenties supplied Bernie’s strongest constituency, liberal feminist pundits averted to the naiveté of young women (less aware of the enormity of sexism because of scanter experience of the job market) and even their boy-craziness (backing Sanders, as Gloria Steinem surmised, to gain the favour of young men). That Hillary enjoyed more popularity among black voters could likewise be taken to suggest that Sanders supporters paternalistically presumed to know better what lay in African-American interests. So could Bernie’s references to ‘the Deep South’ as a place where his campaign fared poorly and to poor black neighbourhoods as ‘the ghetto’ be construed – or, you might suspect, deliberately misconstrued – as bespeaking a loss of touch with black concerns. (It’s true that ghetto is no longer the flat factual word it was during Sanders’ youth as a Civil Rights activist, when an even younger Clinton campaigned for the segregationist Goldwater.) Finally, the support Sanders drew from students and intellectuals, in a country where higher education is a luxury item priced out of most budgets, marked his proposed ‘political revolution’ as the idle fantasy of privileged children with little to lose from the election of Trump, despite the facts that it was the richest primary voters who chose Hillary in overwhelming numbers while Bernie prevailed among the hard-pressed and indebted, and that polling suggested Sanders, not Clinton, would do better against Trump in a general election.
Identitarian neoliberalism, if you like, proposes not just that bigotry and chauvinism can be found on the left, as no one could deny, but that they discredit the left in particular. Presumably this is either because leftists, given their professed commitments, don’t need to be unusually bigoted to count as unusually hypocritical, or because leftward politicians and voters who benefit from privileges of race, class, or gender, or all of these at once, are secretly more determined than anyone to guard their perch. Most insinuations along these lines against Sanders (or Corbyn in the UK) are plainly, if unprovably, in bad faith. The question is whether they can be effective in splitting the left side of the electorate so that the neoliberals come away with the larger share. Politicians and journalists of the centre left must think so, to judge by their persistent and often comically strained attempts to impute reactionary attitudes to the most progressive political formations to appear in the US or Britain for decades.
The approach seems likely to feature in the national politics of both countries as long as Democratic or Labour voters favour a social democratic program over the dead centre’s neoliberal holding pattern: at one moment trimming left toward public provision, at another trimming right toward further privatisation, but basically circling in place while economies grow less dynamic and incomes more unequal. Unable to defend this complacency on its own terms, the centre-left first warns that nobody advancing a more attractive program can be elected. To the extent that this stops being convincing, it tallies up discrediting examples of left hypocrisy – ideally unrepresentative but, if need be, imaginary. Identitarian neoliberalism will always find populist challenges at once excessively radical and insufficiently woke. The rhetoric of ‘breaking down all barriers’ of social injustice – as Clinton assured primary voters was her ultimate object, in contrast to Sander’s preoccupation with economic matters – vouchsafed that her program, if it fell short of universal emancipation, represented the maximum of the currently achievable. With luck, the mainly symbolic conquests and discursive progress proposed by identitarian neoliberalism will seem, to progressives or would-be radicals, the utmost that is it able to do and, to centrists more at ease with the status quo, the utmost that it intends.
The ‘inevitable’ nominee before the primaries began, Hillary escaped them, Democratic nomination in hand, far more narrowly than anyone anticipated at the outset. By late summer she had become inevitable again, now as president. People who can stomach the oddly mawkish gloating of US nationalism in full spectacle mode pronounced the Democratic convention a triumph, and at the very least it baited Trump into the folly of picking a fight with the Muslim parents, brought on stage by the Democrats, of an Army captain awarded a Purple Heart after being killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq. In the two months since, Trump’s hopelessly undisciplined campaign has further lost the plot and staggered from scandal to scandal. There are grounds to suspect this wealthy man has paid no personal income tax for many years; he has flirted with suggesting that his opponent be assassinated and denying the legitimacy of an unfavourable election result; and, most vividly, he has been exposed by leaked video tapes and the testimony of numerous female acquaintances as an inveterate harasser and assaulter of women. The succession of blows has obscured Clinton’s own scandals, including the release by WikiLeaks of hacked transcripts of talks she delivered in recent years before Goldman Sachs and other financial firms. In one, Clinton locates the public’s alleged reluctance to see the very wealthy appointed to high office in ‘a bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives’; in another, she recognises bankers as the ideal authors of financial regulation: ‘The people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry.’ Other leaks have her deriding climate change activists as irritants who should ‘get a life.’ The New York Times publishes on its website a daily revised estimate of Clinton’s and Trump’s respective chances of victory and, with election day hardly two weeks away as I write, rate hers at 93 per cent.
There’s no need here to add to the general discussion of Trump’s howling inadequacy as a politician and human being, or Clinton’s more ordinary cravenness and ineptitude. In other liberal capitalist countries and future US elections, the right-wing populist won’t be such a grotesque or the standard bearer of the centre left so evidently entitled and triangulative. For now, it’s enough to wonder what Clinton’s exceedingly cautious strategy in the general election suggests about the viability of centrist politics at a time when the neoliberal consensus, still very formidable, is crumbling on both sides. Clinton’s case against Sanders was that, while she shared and indeed improved on his progressive values, she possessed a better understanding of the limits of the feasible in US politics and the greater capacity ‘to get things done,’ never mind which; facing Trump head-to-head, she has stressed his unpresidential temperament and departures from bipartisan consensus more than her own program. Her overtures to uneasy Republican voters and neocon foreign policy thinkers propose her as the tribune of a collective common sense. The strategy is not irrational: Trump’s personality almost surely is too off-putting, and his program too extreme, for him to win the presidency.
But Clinton’s courtship of the GOP reinforces the impression that she is a politician faithful mainly to expediency, and her efforts to cast Trump as an unhinged interloper in the circle of elite agreement and collaboration make her seem complacent, comfortable, in a way that much of the electorate clearly is not. Trump himself has become the national emergency, rather than the conditions of stagnation and inequality and perceived decline that made Trump and Bernie plausible candidates in the first place.
In a two-party, winner-take-all system, a centrist neoliberal, from whichever party, will presumably enjoy the advantage against a populist from left or right. The populist challenger will represent merely the more extreme end of one side of the electorate, while the sensible centrist can speak for centre-left and centre-right alike as well as appeal, as a defensive measure, to whatever constituency lies ideologically opposite the populism on offer. In the name of realism, the centrist can represent a settled common sense whose assumptions scarcely need explaining or defending. Alain Badiou, in his little book In Search of the Lost Real, points out that invocations of ‘reality’ have a disciplinary or chastening function, and observes that in liberal capitalist societies the economy is now the guarantor of ‘the real’: ‘It could be said that it is the economy that is entrusted with knowledge of the real. It is the economy that knows.’ With the aid of academic experts, mainstream politicians interpret this awesome knowledge in the circumscribed ways that alone count as realism, and assure the public that getting any bigger ideas would be irresponsible. Populist is the favoured term of abuse in the respectable press for such contraventions of reality. And yet neoliberal realism is faltering, its plausibility impaired by runaway inequality, lingering stagnation, and the vagaries of capital flows that leave whole industries and regions derelict. Its status as common sense slips away at its premises become harder to explicitly assert. The political centre is eroding to either side. In a two-party system, it won’t give way until it does so all at once.
In the US, legislative stalemate and bipartisan foreign policy have combined with the candidates’ own mythopoeia – The Shatterer of the Glass Ceiling versus the Artist of the Deal – to make the president seem as much a national totem as the agent of the general will. Voters accordingly vote for who they want more than for what they can expect, and, in the present case, much depends on whether Clinton or Trump makes for the more rousing symbol. Many voters who would have cast a ballot for Sanders simply won’t show up or will vote in protest for a third-party candidate, and the same goes for GOP voters put off by Trump but lukewarm to Clinton. In other words, Hillary’s larger ‘sane’ or realist constituency won’t turn out in proportion to its size while that of the madman Trump will muster enthusiastically. In combination with the reflexes of automatic GOP voters, this might have been just enough to make Trump president if he weren’t dragging after him such a vile career as a misogynist. Equally important, in the three debates between the two candidates, Clinton has been at her very best, her amused scorn for Trump and her superior command of policy coming across as natural and sincere in a way that her pious communing with the travails of ordinary Americans never does. She needn’t pretend to respect Trump as she must the public.
As long ago as the first caucuses and primaries in February (the most anomalously warm month on record: a reminder that, from now on, all comparatively petty electoral dramas play out against the backdrop of planetary ecological crisis), 2016 already counted as the most interesting election year in the US since 1968, when Nixon promised ‘peace with honour’ in Vietnam and defeated Johnson’s Vice President, Humphrey, on the basis of the so-called southern strategy of inducing white voters in the historically Democratic states of the old Confederacy to vote Republican in protest of Johnson’s accommodation of the Civil Rights Movement.
The most lasting effect of the 1968 election on the international posture of the US was to rule out lengthy ground wars for a generation. Congress replaced a conscript army with a professional force (incidentally providing a sort of jobs guarantee to poorer youth), and no extended foreign occupation took place before Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, a bipartisan adventure in which the broad public acquiesced expecting that, like the Gulf War of 1991, it would cost little time and few American lives. Since Bush’s 2007 ‘surge’ in Iraq ebbed away, aerial attack, now by remote-controlled drones, and sponsorship of friendly local factions have resumed the place they have occupied since the 70s as preferred techniques of US imperialism. Domestically, the most important consequence of 1968 was a Republican Party committed from now on to securing the allegiance of poorer whites nursing racial grievances against blacks and, more and more as time went on, cultural grievances against freer-thinking and relatively feminist college graduates. Almost half a century later, this program of resentment, combined with traditional Republican fealty to American business, continues to win elections for the GOP. What was once called the New Left failed to assemble, in 1968 or after, any similarly effective coalition; its main components – organised labour, the non-unionised non-white poor, and college-bred liberals and leftists like myself – have never coordinated their politics very well, and, even if they had, might have lacked the numbers to dominate and define US politics. Electorally, this reduced the broad American left to the position it still endures as the appendage of a Democratic Party it can neither possess nor abandon.
Much of the interest of the 2016 election comes from putting into question the durability of what might be called the 1968 settlement. Will the GOP coalition – of the economically prosperous together with the racially and culturally resentful, including of course those who are both – survive Trump’s candidacy, which in many ways looks like a lurid epitome and last gasp of the southern strategy? And did the strength of the Sanders campaign prefigure a new opening for social democracy in the US under the aegis of the Democrats?
It would be rash to expect any sudden change in the composition or habits of power. On 8 November, an American electorate all but certain to consist of less than 60 per cent of the eligible population will almost certainly send to the White House a notably hawkish neoliberal Democrat: no great departure from current circumstances. Clinton’s bellicosity is greater than Obama’s but, given public war-weariness, might not be easy for her to indulge in office, and if the Republicans retain their congressional majority, her instinct for political compromise will probably meet the same intransigence that thwarted his. Safe bets would then be on the continuation of imperialism by drone warfare abroad and legislative stalemate at home. Either Clinton or Trump will likely be an unpopular president regarded as illegitimate by much of the population. Interesting as 2016 has been, for most of the year institutional drift has looked unstoppable and populist polarisation – so far – ineffectual.
And yet in recent days it has come to seem that, by a Hegelian ruse of reason, Trump the pluto-populist and quasi-fascist may have been selected by history to accomplish progressive ends. Hillary sought to improve her chances at the presidency but surely hurt the prospect of a Democratic congressional majority when she decided to portray Trump as a renegade from both parties rather than the inevitable excrescence of the GOP. Nevertheless, the cartwheeling disaster of Trump’s campaign now looks as if it may depress Republican turnout so much that the GOP loses control of Congress. If so, Trump will have delivered in 2016 what even Bernie the dreamer was sober enough to know would have to wait at least until the 2018 midterms: namely, a Democratic Congress, without which any progressive let alone social democratic agenda is stillborn at the national level. In such a case, the old fear that Clinton might ‘get things done’ by collaborating with Congress would yield to a mixture of hope and fear reflecting the fact that the Democratic Party shelters many hawks (who will press for war in Syria) and neoliberals (glad to degrade public education through so-called charter schools and publicly funded retirement through obligatory Wall Street-controlled pensions) but also the leftmost national legislators in the US. These include Bernie Sanders, prospective chair of the Senate Budget Committee, and at the moment the most popular politician in the country.
Bernie and Trump have performed the service of revealing the Democratic and the Republican parties to be largely empty vessels, much more readily commandeered by their ideological fringes than anyone supposed. But the empty vessels are not frail barks; these have been the two principle parties in the US since before the Civil War, and no matter what other developments perturb US politics neither party will readily cede to an upstart. Much easier than to displace either party, if still daunting enough, is to take it over, as Trump has at least temporarily done to the GOP, or to radicalise it from within, as a generation of politicians, activists, donors, foundations, and publications did in shifting the Republicans ever-further to the right.
The idea of similarly remaking the Democrats from the left, as well as attempting from now on to field presidential candidates closer in outlook to Sanders than Clinton, may not seem alluring or plausible after party officials undermined Bernie in the primaries and Clinton courted Republicans to counter Trump. But the party is essentially a shell, with a small permanent organisation in the form of the Democratic National Committee and no formal dues-paying membership in the European style. The gerrymandering of congressional districts meanwhile renders most contests for the House of Representatives uncompetitive: whoever wins the primary of the dominant party wins the general election. The same goes for the majority of Senate races in a country for the most part divided into inertly red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) states with two senators apiece. (The national electorate is far more evenly split between the parties than most states or districts.) The advantage of long-established parties is that much of their support is habitual, as that of younger parties can’t be; the advantage of populists is the capacity to attract passionate new support. Together, these conditions suggest left populist candidates affiliating with the Democrats have a future to seize in the US, particularly if Congress lies in Democratic hands. Sentimentally, this may be a repugnant conclusion, given the long history of Democratic collusion with the worst of US politics, and it underscores all the classical left fears of electoral participation as, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, apostasy. Logically, however, if US radicals are to have anything to do with contests for national office under a system innocent of proportional representation, then occupying and redirecting the Democratic Party as far as possible looks more promising than launching a new party onto the margins of American politics. My somewhat embarrassed conjecture is that the failure of social democrats in office to effect the transformation that only revolution can achieve will do more to hasten the break with capitalism than their continued exclusion from power. In the face of reactionaries, reform seems adequate – in the face of reformists, only revolution will do. I hope the thesis isn’t too dubious to debate with comrades come 9 November, the day after the election, and, by the revolutionary calendar, the 18th Brumaire. Until then, liberalism has us where it wants us, desperate not to lose and with no hope of winning.
23 October 2016
Benjamin Kunkel is the author of Indecision, a novel; Utopia or Bust, a collection of essays; and Buzz, a play.If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.