The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders reflects the political economy of neoliberalism in crisis: when the ‘free market’ fails to correct itself, politics has to do the adjusting.
The established political system in America is in shock, and it does not look as if this firestorm is likely to burn itself out anytime soon. But it is the storm before the calm. As Thomas Jefferson said of Shays’ armed rebellion against heavier taxes levied to pay the war loans of rich merchants, “a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing” for a republic. It brings to the surface the simmering frustrations of the people which forces governments to act.
This has happened before, of course: In the late 1890s, social reform followed the outbreak of violent Populism, the Great Depression of the 1930s brought forth the New Deal, and, in the 1960s major democratic and civic reforms followed the upheavals of the Civil Rights movement. Hence, there is little reason to suppose the American political system is not flexible enough to weather the Trump storm and come out stronger, more representative and resilient.
What voters seem to want is a newly-realigned order that can steer the US away from where it is today: an increasingly unequal society with fewer opportunities to achieve the American dream.
The symptoms of an unsustainable order are evident in the churning that both the GOP and Democratic primaries are witnessing. So intense is the feeling of violent anger on the right, but also idealism on the left, that the corporate-domination of American politics is under the spotlight more intensely than at any time since the early 1970s. Establishing a new equilibrium means the correction which should have occurred after the Iraq War and especially following the 2008 financial crisis must happen under the watch of the next president, regardless of which party is in office.
But let’s get back to Jefferson. A democratic government like America’s “has a great deal of good in it,” he said. “It has its evils, too, the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject… I hold it that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people, which have produced them…. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”
Therein lies the secret of American government and why the current political crisis will most likely pass even if it wrecks careers and political parties in its wake. Yet, a society riled up as the US is at present would do well to fear what Jefferson commented a year later: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” With around 300 million private firearms in America, owned by anywhere from 40% to 50% of the population, and Donald Trump’s rallies becoming increasingly raucous and aggressive as protests against his attacks on Muslims, Mexicans and other minorities mount, the danger of escalating violence hangs in the air. Should Hillary Clinton and Trump slug it out in the contest for the White House, the degree of polarisation could well lead to general ugliness – and even serious outbreaks of violence.
Ironically, a Trump-Sanders contest might bring forth a more interesting political struggle – for the hearts and minds of those who’ve missed out on the American dream and blame globalisation, the outsourcing of American jobs, and the takeover of life and politics by big corporations. The real schism is hardly between black and white or Mexicans or Muslims but between the super-wealthy and the majority of Americans. Trump’s base – his hard core support – consists of non-college educated working class whites who reject conservative small government or cuts to welfare and who want heavier taxes on the rich and big business. Their ethno-centrism prevents them from joining the Sanders people. Sanders is the only real “class” candidate who stands for working people, while Clinton wins among blacks, and whites with annual incomes over $200,000, losing among young people by wide margins.
Sanders faces a fundamental structural problem – the lack of a strong political machine or movement nurtured over time, which reaches from the pinnacles of national politics down to the local ward. Clinton has the Democratic party machine with and behind her, in her very DNA. She raises millions of dollars for local senate and congressional races. She has a history with black voters that Sanders cannot even dream of.
Sanders knows this, of course, and is glad of the endorsement of Democracy for America, a million-strong group backing progressive candidates in mainly local races around the US. Such backing means local campaigners will knock on doors, put up posters and bumper stickers, and make Sanders visible everywhere and not just on national TV. But even so, this is unlikely to be enough to provide significant political backing in Congress to President Sanders. If elected, he will not be able to govern.
More likely is a strong showing for Sanders in a closely-fought contest which allows him to make progressive demands on the Clinton campaign in the run up to November – on healthcare, college tuition fees, heavier taxes on the rich, protection of social security and pensions. And a dampener on higher military spending. In those conditions, a victorious Clinton would find it difficult openly to deliver the White House to Wall Street. There is such contempt for corporate-fuelled politics that Sanders might harness the movement to demand more from Clinton than she is currently promising.
It appears, at least superficially, that a great political realignment has begun in the US, but unless this process alters the orientation of the dominant parties, the change will not endure. Trump’s demolition of the Republican party is continuing apace and impacting his principal opponent – Ted Cruz, a ‘frenemy’ of the GOP establishment. Ironically, Sanders may be strengthening the Democratic party by hoovering up major discontent and pulling Clinton to the left. His pledged delegate count, regardless of the final outcome of the nomination contest, is likely to be so high that he could rightfully demand Clinton’s presidential election platform move further to the left than she would prefer – given her indebtedness to corporate donors.
The core message from Trump and Sanders is that the economic system is failing most Americans, increasing corporate wealth, income and wealth inequality, and polarising society and politics. The votes for Sanders and Trump are really screams against a political establishment that has been taken over by corporations, corporate mentalities and agendas – lower taxes and more state subsidies for the rich, the outsourcing of well paid jobs through globalisation to low-wage societies. It is a delayed-reaction demand for a recalibration of the system after the long reign of neo-liberal, free-markets-know-it-all politics. The ideological dominance of neoliberalism is now under severe strain. Markets do not correct themselves, politics does.
It’s the storm before the calm of which Jefferson would have approved, refreshing the tree of liberty, the health of government, and the happiness of the people.