«For the first time in a very long time, a candidate who represents the average citizen appears to have an outside shot at winning the Presidency. Will we have the good sense to elect him?»
– John Atcheson, July 4th, 2015
A System in Disrepute
It would not be a stretch to argue that the most consequential development in the world over the last third of the twentieth century was the asphyxiation of the public interest in the United States. The largest and most advanced economy in history effectively neutered its own political system, thanks primarily to sustained pressure from wealthy interests (who promoted the dogma of free market beneficence, maligned and stigmatized government, systematically suborned politicians and regulators to do their bidding, narrowed the range of political discussion in the mass media, etc.). Momentous consequences ensued, both domestically and internationally.
On the home front, the economy now served owners. Where wages had kept pace with productivity in FDR's New Deal society, the two now separated decisively: wages stagnated while productivity maintained its impressive climb, as this startling graphic illustrates:
Further, in a story that is now so familiar to everyone, the swelling financial sector co-opted the US government to free it from a wide variety of regulations that had stabilized the economy since the 1930s. The resulting bacchanalia brought the world the financial crisis of 2008, second only to the Great Depression of the 1930s in the annals of purely economic disasters. (We may add here that the decoupling of government from the public interest – combined with the disappearance of the Soviet Union as a deterring influence – facilitated the pursuit of momentous military adventures, like the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But that is a discussion for another time.)
Alert observers of the American scene warned throughout these decades that the political system was going bankrupt, and word got out to some. Towards the close of the big economic boom of the 1990s Ralph Nader's presidential campaign on behalf of the nascent Green Party harped on both the Democratic and Republican parties' wholesale surrender to corporate sponsors, and highlighted how the two parties made it almost impossible for competitors to arise. Nader got nearly three percent of the national vote; more important, his campaign did more than anything else to awaken the nation to the stranglehold of big business over both parties and the economic system.
The catharsis of Barack Obama replacing George W. Bush and co. via the election of 2008 propelled hopes for effective government to great heights. But once Obama took office his myriad capitulations to capital (if we may phrase it so) greatly outweighed his periodic commitments to democratic principles, as we (among others) have detailed in many previous publications in this forum. Ralph Nader made the call himself. In one little noticed gem, when asked on PBS at the moment major networks were declaring Obama the winner of the 2008 election, «Ralph, your reaction?»: «Prepare yourself to be disappointed».
Disappointment in Obama intensified rapidly as he both failed to hold the rich and powerful to the rule of law and refused to push progressive economic and fiscal policies the mass of the population supported. And public perception of the legitimacy of the whole political system sank to alarming lows. The summary we offered in this forum in 2011 bears repeating here:
«…an all-time record 69 percent now say they have little or no confidence in the legislative branch of government, up sharply (by 6 percentage points) from 2010; a record 57 percent have little or no confidence in the federal government to solve domestic problems (topping 2010's record reading of 53 percent); on average, Americans now believe the federal government wastes 51 cents of every tax dollar (up from 46 cents a decade ago, and 43 cents in the 1980s). Finally, 82 percent now express dissatisfaction with the way the nation is governed. This reading is more than double the level obtaining throughout the period 1984-2003. It has risen at an unprecedented rate since then…»
This, we argue, is the grand narrative that has been on hold ever since: the mass of the population has largely written off both the legislative and executive branches, and is emotionally dead to anything closely associated with the political establishment. More than 40 percent of registered voters now decline to identify with either party, and many (or even most) of those who remain are ready to give up: one survey last summer found 66 percent of Republican primary voters and 40 percent of Democratic primary voters felt betrayed by their party. One can hardly blame them for that, nor for the anger and trepidation which now color their outlook. A recent study determined that a full half of Americans are angrier than they were a year ago, and another found just 48% of baby boomers being satisfied with their overall economic situation, down from 76% as recently as 2011. That is a very sharp dive, amid what the Obama administration is touting as a sustained economic recovery.
Six Levels of Charade
The huge reservoir of political despair would seem to be ripe for harvesting by any politician with the sense to advocate for the public interest. After all, on myriad issues, mild to enormous majorities of the American population support common-sense policies to the left of what Washington has provided. Alas, the Democratic Party's fealty to corporate donors is more deeply entrenched now than ever, such that the party can hardly produce any leader to challenge the status quo. It is no accident that iconoclast Senator Bernie Sanders is the only one who has emerged to expose the bankruptcy of US politics. Sanders built his career outside the Democratic Party, joining it only a year ago, so as to campaign for its presidential nomination. His decision to pursue the campaign without any corporate donations has guaranteed him the high ground, both morally and as regards issues. Along the way, his rise has exposed at least six separate mountains standing in the way of any challenge to the establishment. Each of them is a major impediment to the «democracy» America prides itself on.
The fund-raising imperative is the first hurdle, of course, which Sanders has solved by harvesting millions of small contributions – enough to compete on nearly even terms with a fund-raising behemoth like Hillary Clinton (we need hardly add that prior to the internet age this could never happen). The second is the endorsement game, wherein authority figures weigh in on the candidates and shape public opinion. The scorecard here (from Fivethirtyeight.com, as cited by «All in with Chris Hayes» on MSNBC, January 14, final segment) could not be more damning to the credibility of the Democratic Party:
This tally is no reflection of party elites' conscience on policy. MSNBC host Chris Matthews laid the logic bare while musing about what underlay Vice President Biden's tacit endorsement of Sanders over Clinton in an interview he gave on January 11: «If you and someone else are aiming at the same spot, you offer him something, that's the way it usually works, something like Secretary of State for Biden. But that didn't happen here, apparently». (that is, Clinton chose not to buy Biden off, or he refused her offer).
The third hurdle is the presence of the Democratic National Committee as a guardian of the status quo. Being a central player in Washington's political patronage industry, the DNC decided very early to do what it could to silence the Sanders campaign, in which it surely saw a threat to the political officials-for-sale system that enriches the establishment (and deprives the public of real leadership). First, the DNC blatantly buried the party's debates for this election, so as to minimize the public's exposure to Sanders or anyone else who might be tempted to speak truth to power. More important, the DNC set aside almost 30 percent of the national nominating convention delegate pool for appointees (so-called «super delegates»), and pressured these appointees to declare their allegiance to Clinton well before the primary elections begin (in Iowa, on February 1st). These appointees duly did so, declaring for Clinton by a 45-1 margin. The Democratic Party is not long on democracy, obviously.
The fourth hurdle is the cooptation of labor union leaders with the political establishment, to the detriment of union rank-and-file. The 2015-16 election cycle is not breaking new ground in this respect, of course. But the current campaign has revealed the perverse degree to which labor union leaderships in the US have surrendered conscience to expediency. It is difficult to find any exception to the trend: whenever union executives endorse a candidate independently, they choose Clinton; whenever union memberships are asked, they choose Sanders. Most union executive committees are bypassing their memberships and cozying up to Clinton, the establishment flagship, thereby depriving Sanders of concerted support from labor in getting out the vote in the primaries.
Hurdle five is the establishment's capture of public interest organizations that shape public opinion, including the media (obviously) and issue-specific organizations that channel popular pressure from below. A prime example here is the League of Conservation Voters, an important environmental issues watchdog. The LCV board publicly endorsed Clinton, despite Sanders dwarfing Hillary on environmental issues according to their own rating system. The real issues for the LCV, apparently, are the fact that its Board Chair is close to the Clintons, and the organization receives lots of funding from Wall Street banks and finance sector luminaries.
The upshot is that the entire system of communication to the public is fraudulent as regards any serious challenge to the status quo. As John Atcheson summed it up:
«We used to think that the civil institutions functioned as a third arm of society distinct from government and business, and capable of holding both accountable. The press, unions, NGO’s, religious organizations – in theory, at least – worked to hold both business and government accountable… So, not only has our government and political process been bought, but the senior members of the NGO and Union community have become enmeshed in the game of money and power that is destroying our Democracy».
As if all of these obstacles to an honest reform effort were not enough, the current campaign is exposing one more especially insidious one, sketched out most famously by Chris Hedges, in The Death of the Liberal Class (2010): the tendency of liberals in high places to turn against the most courageous members of their own movement, if serious change appears on the horizon. As we summarized Hedges in this forum in 2011:
«During the First World War, the liberal class gradually purged and marginalized its radicals, populists, and iconoclasts. Gradually, the liberal class merged with the establishment, endorsing and legitimizing it, all the while securing universities' and churches' recognition, support, and protection from the political and economic establishment. In the process, the liberal class lost its ability to defend the interests of the population, and has stood by, blind or helpless, over the last few decades as American society changed its shape».
The pathological proclivity of the liberal elite to stigmatize and silence a potent reform movement came glaringly into view in mid-January, just as soon as polling showed the Sanders campaign within striking distance of Hillary Clinton. A raft of liberal luminaries who have long purported to stand for the public interest put out articles belittling, trivializing, and mocking Sanders as misguided, naïve, unrealistic, etc. The highest-profile case is economist Paul Krugman, but the list is long.
The backlash against the wave of articles attempting to suppress Sanders has been sharp and penetrating (see here and here, e.g., for insightful examples). And Senator Sanders has defended himself ably from the liberal elite's assaults. But his campaign will surely face more of the same at every step. In fact, they will have to clear all six of the hurdles we have detailed here over and over again if the reform candidate is to secure the Democratic nomination for this November's election.
Thankfully, a good portion of the public is hearing Bernie Sanders. More and more of the population understands that democracy in the US is an illusion – as are equality before the law, equal opportunity, etc. They understand that it will remain so unless a sustained mass movement reinvigorates the political system, and that the Sanders campaign is the only hope for the foreseeable future. Further, they understand that the meaning of the Presidency can extend very far beyond the territory of specific policy achievements. Having been prepared in part by the euphoria-turned-disappointment of the Obama experience, they are coming to sense what Franklin Roosevelt explained in 1932:
«The Presidency is not merely an administrative office. That is the least of it. It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership. All of our great Presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified».
As political observer Conor Lynch put it recently:
«Sanders believes in moral leadership, which starts with refusing to play by the current set of rules, where special interests hold politicians hostage. If that is not a sign of a transformative leadership, I don’t know what is».
In addition to proposing a full slate of common-sense policies that majorities of Americans already support, Senator Sanders is poised to change the trajectory of political discourse. His administration would adamantly discard rapacious neoliberal economic doctrine and arrogant neoconservative foreign policy, and elevate in their place a full slate of progressive values to guide the nation's public life.
This prospect might awaken enough Democratic primary voters to put Sanders on the ballot in November. And who could stop him then? No one. Not even that enduring GOP coalition, the Republicans' three Rs: the rich, the racist, and the retarded.