Sunday, May 1. 2016
If all Democrats had the same beliefs and agenda, the only real question for the primaries would be who could best represent those values in the general election. Likewise, there would be no reason for candidates who weren't successful to continue, and when they withdrew they could be counted on to fall in behind the winner. But there are vast differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, so even though at this point it will be impossible for Sanders to overcome Clinton's lead, Sanders' supporters still have reason to get out and vote, and Sanders has an obligation to stay in the race and represent them -- at least as long as the campaign has sufficient funds, which doesn't appear to be a problem.
Sanders' people pretty much all understand this. They can give you a list of substantive platform differences between Sanders and Clinton. Moreover, they can point out that Sanders has a long and impressive record of sticking to his positions, whereas the Clintons have a history of playing up populist themes while they're campaigning then turning around and working for special interests once elections are over. Many voters, having been lied to and screwed over repeatedly, are looking not just for policies that help them but for politicians who will defend them tenaciously.
On the other hand, Clinton's people don't quite get this, although not always for the same reasons. Under her husband, the Democratic Party was refashioned from the party of labor to the party of highly educated socially-liberal professionals and businesses. Some people made a lot of money off the Clintons (and with a clear conscience), and they see nothing untoward in their triangulations -- indeed, they form the core of her donor class. Add to that those with some form of patronage attachment to the party: for them she represents success, and a meal ticket. Then there are the settlers: the people who accept the party line that significant changes are impossible given hard realities ranging from globalization to Republicans obstructionism. That, of course, is easier to accept if those realities haven't hit you personally that hard, but the age skew between Sanders and Clinton supporters suggests that they're getting harder to ignore. Indeed, Clinton's most favorable demographic got their start in more benign economic times -- before the Clintons came to power.
Less partisan observers may have noticed that the Clintons actually had something to do with the rise of the superrich and the hollowing out of the middle class, the creation of an economy that is stagnant for all but the rich, and the cult of austerity that thrown such a wet blanket on the very possibility that "the government of the people" might actually work to the benefit of the vast majority. Indeed, Thomas Frank has argued that only a Democrat could have blunted rank-and-file opposition to allow things like NAFTA, "welfare reform," deregulating banks and financial markets, declaring "the era of big government is over," and balancing the budget to pass -- all "highlights" of Bill Clinton's presidency. Frank even argues that Democrats like Clinton may turn out to be much worse than the "lesser evil" they're often viewed on the left as.
Both political parties are necessarily coalitions of imperfectly aligned interests, some attracted positively, others negatively. Both have always crossed class lines, because money has always mattered in American politics, and increasingly so lately. As the middle class withered, both have had to find voters where they could. The GOP went for the white backlash vote, playing up religion and patriotism (war) and the "fear of falling" (as Barbara Ehrenreich put it), while using whatever power they gained to feather the coffers of the rich. That cost the Democrats large chunks of their New Deal coalition -- Baptists in the South, Catholics in the North -- while the unions declined and shifted from manufacturing to services (mostly government), which they eventually replaced with educated professionals, high-tech businesses, and anyone sufficiently terrified by the rightward march of Republicans.
Still, if we've learned anything from this year's primaries, it's that the masses who picked their party negatively have started to turn on the party leaders. We've seen this in Democratic Party with the widespread rejection of Hillary Clinton -- has any Democrat other than an incumbent president ever started with such complete control of the party, then gone on to perform so poorly? Bernie Sanders nearly upset her, running on a platform the party rulers couldn't even conceive of. And something similar happened among the Republicans, where the masses preferred Donald Trump to every proper establishment candidate (even the loathsome Ted Cruz).
I started writing this to introduce some comments on recent posts by Paul Krugman, who has been so relentless in his recent attempts to discredit Bernie Sanders that he's risking becoming an incoherent crank. For instance, see Why I Haven't Felt the Bern and Sarandonizing Economics, as well as minor digs like A Note on the Soda Tax Controversy (really? I wouldn't mind a VAT if other taxes were sufficiently progressive, but a sin tax on soda is just the sort of moral snub that makes liberals seem so overbearing, so intent on imposing their values on everyone else). The "Sarandonizing" post only mentions the actress/activist once:
So Sarandon is "evil and useless" because made a joke about Hillary -- one that is built on numerous kernels of truth, from her past as a "Goldwater girl" to other traits we associate more with Republicans, like her coziness with Walmart (she's a former board member) and Goldman Sachs (that $650k speech) to her notorious hawkishness. What makes the joke effective (maybe even insidious) is the suspicion that Hillary's not really on our side -- that when push comes to shove she'll always wind up siding with the people who got the money and the power. That's certainly her track record. Why should we think that now will be any different?
For some reason, Krugman can't stand the idea that anyone on the left should have the temerity to question Clinton's leadership. She is, after all, the only person standing between civilization as we know it and the Republican Dark Ages. Still, it's not just Clinton he's getting so defensive about. It's also the authority of all those Very Serious People in the economic profession that he hasn't already lampooned himself: you know, the ones like Christy Romer and Larry Summers (and himself) who properly understand the true gospel of IS/LM. He's upset that Sanders is proposing a very serious expansion in the level of investment in infrastructure, not so much because he's against such investments as because some pro-Sanders economists have argued that the expansion will result in a level of economic growth (like 4.5%) that his own faction of economists have decided is impossible -- therefore he's repeatedly panned such analyses as equivalent to the "supply side" snake oil that right-wing ideologues like Arthur Laffer have been peddling.
When Krugman tries to explain his position, he gets slippery:
What's he trying to say here? That the left only has pie-in-the-sky visions, but can't come up with any stepwise programs to get there? (That the only "reforms" possible are cynical schemes that right-wing think tanks used to kick out, the sort of things Clinton/Obama have dusted off and presented as bipartisan?) And that the left cannot even defend their pie-in-the-sky on its merits without sinking into "ad hominem" attacks against their supposed enemies, because they're fundamentally irrational and vindictive even when they see themselves as idealistic? Or is he just talking about Sanders, who by simplifying leftist ideas into sound bites has brought out his followers latent anti-intellectualism? Or is he just saying that only professional mandarins like himself are competent to weigh in on economic matters?
There can be no doubt that social scientists have a bad history of doing "research" that winds up doing little more than advancing their prejudices. For starters, we can point to the history of race studies, since virtually every "scientific" claim to find differences has been thoroughly debunked. Economics is rife with political scams, and Krugman has slayed more than a few of them. Back when I majored in sociology, it seems like I spent most of my time identifying untoward presumptions in studies -- indeed, a common textbook at the time was How to Lie With Statistics. David Hackett Fischer wrote a whole book cataloguing Historian's Fallacies. So Krugman's warning against something real, but rejecting Sanders' programs out of hand is every bit as arbitrary. If he didn't start out with a political bone to pick, he might put some effort into refining the proposals. For instance, he's probably right that breaking up "too big to fail" banks doesn't solve the problems with "shadow banking," and he may even be right that the latter is more crucial than the former. So why not show Sanders that it's possible to come up with a plan that better achieves his goals? One reason might be he's opposed to those goals. Another is that he just doesn't like Sanders or his followers. Another is that he's committed to Hillary regardless of the issues.
I don't know which it is, but Krugman certainly fits Frank's concept of "the liberal class" -- that may be pigeonholing him a bit, but for the most part the shoe fits. His reluctance to back Sanders, much like the reluctance of similarly aged, educated, and well-heeled feminists like Gloria Steinem, smacks of class consciousness. Even if they can understand and empathize with the profound damage caused by inequality and war, they still feel that class bond with Hillary, not least because in large part they've personally never felt the costs of her mistakes.
Sure, I snuck war into that line belatedly, but that's a perilous issue to ignore with Hillary. And much like economists like Krugman are very good at rationalizing liberal compromises -- indeed, it was mostly Krugman who convince me that ACA was a pretty significant improvement even though it was far from what I wanted -- there exists a comparable body of foreign policy and security mandarins that can be counted on to rationalize all sorts of American military interventions, regardless of the track record of previous wars. I'd even say that the latter are far worse than the economists -- the latter are blinkered to alternative approaches, but the former are nothing less than obsessed with their own hegemony.
I'm reminded here of something McGeorge Bundy said, about the difference between how Kennedy and Johnson approached the challenges of war: Kennedy wanted to be smart, but Johnson wanted to be seen as tough. Both faced pressures to escalate the wars in Southeast Asia, and while Kennedy did some things there that turned out to be not so smart, Johnson made the really disastrous decisions. One might say the same things about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton: he wants to be smart (but isn't always), and she wants to be seen as tough (even if that puts her in the "do stupid shit" faction). That's an analogy that doesn't bode well.
I also wanted to mention David Frum: How to Save the Republican Party, aside from begging the question of "why bother" -- we now seem to be generations removed from any form of Republican Party that that might make any sort of constructive contribution to the political system. Still, Frum's vantage point on the far right occasionally yields insights, like his observation that where the Republicans fear their base, the Democrats loathe theirs. Consider this:
When I first read this I reasoned that he was generalizing about both parties -- that "the center" rose up to nominate Clinton as well as Trump -- but he's really only concerned with the Republicans. Still, although Sanders is well to the left of Clinton, Sanders' supporters may well be closer to the center, certainly to the "underrepresented" masses that flocked to Trump. That the Democratic Party end of the "duopoly" was able to prevail over the uprising was mostly due to the party elites' unity behind a single candidate. The Republican elites had no such unity, partly because all of the candidates recited from the same party talking points -- or so it seemed at first.
The only issue Republicans were much divided on was immigration, where elites liked the idea of using guest workers to weaken labor markets, but a great many Republican-leaners were fantic not just in opposition to "amnesty" but to anything that would dilute white America. And that was the issue Trump captured, not by taking the most uncompromising stand possible but by expressing his stand with the most unforgivable rhetoric -- folks knew he meant it when he wouldn't take it back. Trump later proved shameless, refusing to walk back one gaffe after another, everything from quoting Mussolini to getting endorsed by David Duke. His willingness to go off message started to trouble the party nabobs, but all they seemed to be able to charge Trump with was not being a true conservative. As Frum shows, that turned out to be a toothless complaint, as nothing the GOP has been peddling has resonated less with the base than laissez-faire economics. One suspects that the real problem party bigwigs have with Trump is that he risks unselling their scams to help the rich. Indeed, one thing that makes him suspect is that he isn't under the thumb of a trusted billionaire. He is his own billionaire, which makes him less controllable -- even if he ultimately reverts to pursuing his own self-interest (like his doppelganger Berlusconi).
Frum is properly alarmed by Trump, and blames "the failings and self-seeking of Republican leaders":
Frum thinks it's possible to save the party by articulating a program which actually serves the base, that returns some tangible reward for their support. I have no idea what that might look like, because I don't see anything Republicans support or believe in that offers any actual hope to anyone but the already rich.
On the other hand, one can imagine the Democratic Party flipping from Clinton to Sanders, much as they previously flipped from Grover Cleveland to William Jennings Bryan, or from Al Smith to Franklin Roosevelt. Such changes occur when conservative elites no longer have answers for real world problems. But Republicans have no answers: just homilies to "family values," and a media that stokes seething rage against their supposed enemies (pretty much everyone but the rich, and even there they manage to find enemies).
Some miscellaneous links (since this is Sunday):
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