The Not-So-Nice Days of Democratic Party Politics and Policy Past

After the Super Tuesday results, centrists in the Democratic Party are rightly celebrating their electoral victories. Mainstream elements consolidated around Joe Biden, and he handily won 10 out of 14 states to move ahead in the party delegate and popular vote counts. The contest isn’t over, of course. Sanders could mount a comeback over the next two weeks. But should the centrist faction ultimately take the day, it’s likely to be cold comfort for most Americans.

Centrist Democrats and the Republicans turned off by Pres. Trump all seem to pine for some “good ol’ days” that simply weren’t. Biden is explicitly campaigning on, and being celebrated for, a message of “restoration,” returning to an era before Trump. While I admit Biden might restore some political norms associated with the presidency, he is also likely to continue to endorse a failed political-economic program embraced by centrist and right-wing elements of both parties for decades.

The story of the last forty years of American political-economy has been a steady march to he right. The program has largely consisted of:

  • Tax cuts, particularly for the wealthiest
  • Trade agreements that encouraged corporate, but not worker and environmental, globalization
  • As many cuts to social programs as politically possible (Social Security and Medicare have proven highly resilient)
  • The steady shift of financial and life risk onto individuals without corresponding offsets (more below)
  • The weakening of unions
  • And a steady drumbeat of propaganda that any government-led solution is doomed to failure

Centrist Democrats explicitly signed up for this program. It was Bill Clinton who famously said, “The era of Big Government is over,” and the party’s commitment to a conservative/libertarian-framed approach to the nation’s economic affairs has persisted to this day. Breaking the world down into concentrated money power (plutocracy) and concentrated people power (democracy), modern Democrats have, for the most part, decided that money power – and deferring to and favoring those with it – is the way to go.

Let me be clear, at the time, the plan didn’t necessarily seem altogether crazy. Given the spectacular failure of uber-Big Government Soviet Communism, the stage was set for a new, emboldened set of beliefs, rooted in capitalism. My formative adult years were spent in this era, as well, and I was raised in the upper middle class, highly educated sphere. This new post-1970s program was going to make the people of the world freer, wealthier, and better well off.

People would be freer because government regulation wouldn’t interfere in business and, individually, they could make more of their own decisions. Also, later, trade with China became linked with freedom because interaction with the West was to transform the last major Communist power. As for wealth, an explosion of entrepreneurialism and business dynamism would lead to a larger, more robust economy that better served consumers’ needs and wants. And as for well-being, yes, there would be disruptions in a dynamic and changing world, but eventually all would benefit as people moved into new jobs and the results trickled down to the dislocated and least advantaged among us.

Some of the predictions of this experiment actually came true. Global wealth grew, and new products and services were created that proved popular. (What almost unbelievable device are you reading this on?) Historically enormous numbers of people in China eventually moved out of complete poverty into the global middle class.

But the promised trickle down and improvement of people’s well-being has failed to materialize.

  • Wages have stagnated for most Americans, even though productivity has increased dramatically. Virtually all wealth and income growth has gone to a very small number of people.
  • On the expense side, the basics of life – like health care and education – have become almost unaffordable, leading going without medical treatments or to medical bankruptcies and ballooning student debt.
  • The ideological capture of the regulatory system, both public and private (through the credit ratings agencies), by money power led to the greatest global financial meltdown since the Great Depression. And then a massive bailout followed for the captains of “free markets”. The rest got massive foreclosures.
  • While the overall pie has gotten bigger, overall economic growth has been slower.
  • Communist China has only become more repressive and could in the future export its system of authoritarian market captitalism/socialism.
  • Thanks to money power’s influence on our political and information systems, we’ve failed to transform our economy to prevent climate change.

In the end, this grand multi-decade-long experiment in the social engineering of our political-economy has failed to deliver for most Americans and left our individual and collective futures less secure. People are waking up to these facts. They are hungry for change and are looking for solutions. Donald Trump tapped into some of this mixed anger and despair to help his campaign. The Sanders campaign is also trying to tap into this growing realization among voters. Yes, embracing the term “socialist” remains problematic in American politics. And Sanders and his campaign have made mistakes – mostly, I think, by going out of their way to alienate moderates at times. But I also think they know very well what they’re up against, and it’s why Sanders and his people explicitly identify as revolutionary.

Virtually all of today’s professional and institutional Democrats’ formative years and professional connections and opportunities have come from the era of the great right-wing political-economic experiment. It is the ocean in which they swim, and it makes it very hard for them to see the world in a different way – or to bite the hands that feed them. Also, it’s just incredibly difficult to admit you were wrong.

But we’re running out of time for centrists to realize the water is boiling around them. I am deeply worried that, should they ultimately prevail, they’ll take the entirely wrong message away from their victory: That “restoration” is good enough. That the program they ran before was okay. That we can continue to focus on identity and ignore class. That we can continue to court and please and compromise with the plutocrats. That a new politics is the wrong way to go. If they conclude that, the American project is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.