What the Hell Is Going On?

So, it seems to be my turn to try to make sense of the insanity that is the presidential primary races this year, primarily the Democratic primary. How has a self-declared socialist been able to cut through conventional wisdom and inspire so many people, especially young voters? Why isn’t the woman with the best chance in history to become President of the United States winning more votes from young women? Why do so many Democratic voters seem unconcerned with “realism” or with the prevailing will of the Democratic party?

The short answer, as we’ll see in a bit, is that the economic model and core ideology that undergird both U.S. political parties is in serious crisis. Americans by and large feel themselves to be on stable footing — but they believe that their situation is not going to get any better. But our satisfaction with the status quo in this country has always been deeply tied to its ability to produce a better future for ourselves and our children. As that promise seems less and less plausible, more and more voters are rejecting any politician tied too closely to the institutions of power, and embracing figures that attack those institutions.

Part of this situation has to do with the Tocqueville Effect:

“Patiently endured so long as it seemed beyond redress, a grievance comes to appear intolerable once the possibility of removing it crosses men’s minds. For the mere fact that certain abuses have been remedied draws attention to the others and they now appear more galling.”

In other words, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign brought people hope that it was possible to “change the ways of Washington.” The popular narrative (that Obama was naive and wrong and we now know better) is contradicted by a growing demand that his project be completed and anger at the prospect that it could be abandoned. A can of worms has been opened, and the leadership of both parties is struggling — and failing — to respond. Every time someone says “the perfect can’t be the enemy of the good” or “let’s be realistic and not give into fantasy,” a growing number of Americans hears “the ways of Washington can’t change.” That’s not a message they’re willing to accept.

Instead, it’s starting to occur to people that they might be able to vote for people. They are sick and tired of voting for lizards.

Another significant factor, I think, is that many voters under 40 perceive themselves as having been born into a rigged economic system. They don’t remember a time when the U.S. economy didn’t seem rigged, so the system appears intransigent and impervious to change by anything less than “revolution” (whatever that means exactly). Older voters, who may believe they have lived to see the system become rigged over time, may therefore believe that it can become unrigged in just as gradual and non-radical a fashion.

The immediate inspiration for this piece, though, is this essay (and its predecessor) by Benjamin Studebaker. I think Studebaker is both very right and very wrong, so I’m going to spend most of my time reacting to him.

First, the right part: it’s pretty clear, as I said above, that the ideology that has underpinned both political parties in the United States for the last forty years is crumbling, and both parties are being thrown into chaos as a result. Studebaker names that ideology — neoliberalism — and he does a good job of summarizing the core macroeconomic difference between neoliberalism and its predecessor. To wit: neoliberalism rejects the premise that economic inequality kills growth and that it was a cause of the Great Depression and the Great Recession. Instead, neoliberalism pretends that robust growth can be achieved through stimulus and business development, even when too much wealth is concentrated at the very top.

(Neoliberals may fight against income inequality — as Obama has sought to do — but they do so out of a belief that it’s the morally right thing to do, that an unequal nation isn’t the kind we want to live in. They do not believe — Neither Clinton nor Obama believe — that inequality is a blight that prevents the economy from functioning in the first place. They see it as effect rather than cause.)

But, as Studebaker reminds us, strong, sustained growth in an economy driven by consumption is impossible when the ultra-wealthy have too much of the money, because they invest their wealth rather than spending it, effectively idling the engine of economic growth, consumer spending. The result is stagnation and ever-increasing inequality, as investments pay off but wages stay flat. Thus, it does not work to try to create growth first and assume that the “rising tide” of a healthy economy will lift all the boats, because we aren’t in boats. It’s more like we’re standing at the river’s edge, and inequality is a cement block that we’re tying around our own ankles and throwing into the river. Inequality must be reduced before growth is possible. That’s why “supply-side” economics is “voodoo economics.” But, that voodoo is currently still an important part of both parties’ economic policies.

Here’s Studebaker’s key insight:

…when an economic ideology catches on in America, it tends to capture both major parties at once. During the 50’s, 60’s, and early 70’s, even republicans like Eisenhower and Nixon reduced economic inequality. Post-1976, even democrats like Carter, Clinton, and Obama raised inequality. Economic ideologies change when there is an economic disaster that is seen to discredit the prevailing ideology. The Great Depression discredited the classical economics practiced by right wingers like Calvin Coolidge, allowing for left wing policies that in the 1920’s would have sounded insane to ordinary people. The stagflation in the 70’s discredited the Keynesian egalitarianism of FDR and LBJ, allowing Ronald Reagan to implement right wing policies that would have been totally unthinkable to people living in the 1960’s. I submit to you that the 2008 economic crisis and the stagnation that has followed have discredited the neoliberal economic ideology of Reagan and Clinton not just among democrats, but for supporters of both parties, and that new policies and candidates are possible now that would have been totally unthinkable to people as recently as 10 years ago.

Studebaker sees two ideologies rising now, one on the right (nationalism) and one on the left (egalitarianism). Both are competing to replace neoliberalism. He portrays the 2016 election as part of a race between the two parties to see which one will elect a non-neoliberal president first. Bernie is a left egalitarian to Hillary’s neoliberal moderate. Cruz and Trump are right nationalists trouncing the neoliberal Rubio, Bush, and Kasich. And whichever party nominates a non-neoliberal will win the election, thereby making their economic ideology into the dominant American ideology for the coming decade(s). That’s Studebaker’s story, in a nutshell.

Feel free to go read more (again, here’s the link). I’ll wait.

Okay, now for my reaction (aka, the wrong parts):

  1. It’s too simplistic to insist that all politicians embody only a single ideology. People are contradictory, and they can contain contradictory, competing ideologies within them. Barack is not 100% neoliberal. Bernie is not 100% left egalitarian. They are both (potentially) transitional figures in different ways. It’s not particularly helpful to obscure this fact.
  2. Relatedly, ideologies don’t take hold just because a president believes them. Studebaker makes the case that Carter enacted neoliberal policies, but it was Reagan who captured the imagination of the voting public and the pundits, expressing neoliberalism in a way that decisively sent the United States down the path it has tread ever since. (This is what candidate Obama meant when he said in a 2008 interview that Reagan was the last politician to have a new idea — and why Bill Clinton was so pissed at him for saying that out loud.)
  3. Neither of the two ideologies Studebaker lists as potential neoliberal replacements could last for more than a few years. Right nationalism can’t actually fix the economy, and it would increase rather than decrease both inequality and crisis. A right nationalist president could do horrible damage, but he wouldn’t instate three or four decades of nationalist orthodoxy; the next game-changing crisis would come far sooner than that.
  4. Left egalitarianism that is solely class-based, or that takes economics as its only lens, is also not equal to the task. The simple fact of the matter is that white supremacy, sexism, and xenophobic nationalism have been used for the last 40 years (and much longer, of course) as such effective and ingrained mechanisms of inequality that they must be confronted head-on — called out and redressed directly, with concrete policies — if the inequality they have wrought is to be lessened. Economic solutions alone won’t work. So, what we need is not left egalitarianism. It’s multicultural social democracy. (That would mean, to take just one example, not just reforming the criminal justice system to end its decimation of communities of color, but naming that decimation fully and investing the vast resources necessary to help those communities rebuild and recover.)
  5. It would also mean coming to terms with the sexism that’s been deployed against Hillary’s campaign. I think that Studebaker is right to see Hillary as a classic neoliberal, but that doesn’t mean that sexism against her is any less destructive, immoral, or counter-revolutionary than sexism generally. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, or so I’ve heard.
  6. So, what does this all mean for the Democratic primary? Two imperfect human beings are running to hold our highest office. It may well be the case that this election is about competing ideologies, but ideologies are inflected through people; you don’t vote for an idea, you vote for a candidate. (Though it’s very often the job of the candidate to convince you that you’re voting for an idea.) And if the last few presidencies have taught us anything, it’s that a president very often gets defined by the unforeseen crisis that s/he is forced to work on, rather than the agenda on which s/he campaigned.

I support Bernie, warts and all, because he’s on the right side of history, if only partially, and the movement forming around him can help us form a bridge to a better America where people have more power and elites have less. He can do that regardless of how many of his proposals survive political reality intact during his administration. His election would represent the fall of political and economic orthodoxies that have long outlived their usefulness.

Whether or not you buy into Studebaker’s model of left and right ideologies competing to replace neoliberalism, it is certainly the case that a majority of Americans of all political stripes is pissed at the status quo. Nominating (or even electing) a candidate who seeks to defend the status quo (let alone one who knows how to use it to her advantage) is not in the long-term interests of the left or of the Democratic Party. It’s probably not even in their short-term interests.