Stunned by the rise of Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton has been at pains to assure the Democratic rank and file that she too understands their concerns; that just like her rival, she is capable of denouncing wealthy interests, of promising to break up big banks and even of hinting that she might prosecute powerful financiers.
After her landslide defeat in New Hampshire last week, she conceded that “the way too many things were going just wasn’t right”. There was a difference between her and the senator from Vermont, however: she was the candidate who would get things done, who could “actually make the changes that make your lives better”.
These are noble sentiments. Unfortunately, what voters are rejecting is not Hillary the Capable; it is the party whose leadership faction she represents as well as the direction in which our modern Democrats have been travelling for decades.
In my younger days, the Democratic party seemed always to be grappling with its identity, arguing over who they were and what they stood for all through the 1970s, the 1980s and into the 1990s. What Democrats had to turn away from, reformers of all stripes said in those days, was the supposedly obsolete legacy of the New Deal, with its fixation on working-class people. What had to be embraced, the party’s reformers agreed, was the emerging post-industrial economy and in particular the winners of this new order: the highly educated professionals who populated its clean and innovative knowledge industries.
The figure that brought triumphant closure to that last internecine war was President Bill Clinton, who installed a new kind of Democratic administration in Washington. Rather than paying homage to the politics of Franklin Roosevelt, Clinton passed trade deals that defied and even injured the labor movement, once his party’s leading constituency; he signed off on a measure that basically ended the federal welfare program; and he performed singular favors for the financial industry, the New Deal’s great nemesis.
Among the legions of the respectable at the time, Bill Clinton’s many reversals of Democratic tradition were thought to establish him as a figure of great historic significance. A telling example of this once-common view can be found in an admiring 1996 book by the then Guardian journalist Martin Walker, who asserted that the president’s few failings were “in the end balanced and even outweighed by his part in finally sinking the untenable old consensus of the New Deal, and the crafting of a new one”.
That Clintonian consensus, which slouches on in the bank bailouts and trade deals of recent years, is what deserves to be on the table in 2016, under the bright lights of public scrutiny at last. As we slide ever deeper into the abyss of inequality, it is beginning to dawn on us that sinking the New Deal consensus wasn’t the best idea after all.
Unfortunately, focusing on the money being mustered behind Hillary Clinton by various lobbyists and Wall Street figures misses this point. The problem with establishment Democrats is not that they have been bribed by Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and the rest; it’s that many years ago they determined to supplant the GOP as the party of Wall Street – and also to bid for the favor the tech industry, and big pharma, and the telecoms, and the affluent professionals who toil in such places.
Consider the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street, which drew so much public outrage in the early days of the Obama administration … or the revolving door between Washington and Silicon Valley, which has been turning briskly in recent years without much public notice at all. Or the deal the pharmaceutical companies got as a result of the Obamacare negotiations. Or the startlingly different ways in which Obama’s Treasury Department treated beleaguered bankers and underwater homeowners. Or the amazing double standard his Justice Department seems to have erected for dishonest mortgage financiers and dishonest mortgage borrowers. Or the way office-holding Democrats of nearly every rank throw money at the people they call “innovators” while telling working-class Americans that little can be done about their ruined lives.
The reason Democrats treat these professionals so respectfully in everything from trade deals to urban bike paths is because that is simply who the Democrats are today. Read through the party’s favorite works of political theory from the last few decades and you repeatedly encounter the same message: the highly credentialled experts and innovators at the top of the nation’s hierarchy of achievement belong there by virtue of their brilliance. That these people also happen to be colleagues and classmates of leading Democrats only reinforces the party’s identification with them. Liberals love to mock the One Percent and their self-serving ideology, but they themselves serve the needs of the top 10% just as blindly.
In truth, our affluent, establishment Democrats can no more be budged from their core dogmas – that education is the solution to all problems, that professionals deserve to lead, that the downfall of the working class is the inevitable price we pay for globalization – than creationists can be wooed away from the tenets of “intelligent design”. The dogmas are simply too essential to their identity. Changing what the Democratic party stands for may ultimately require nothing less than what a certain Vermonter is calling a “political revolution”.