The Democrats' Leaked Emails Pseudo-Drama: Elite Hollowness and Return to Politics as Usual

As large sections of the population reel under the pressures of falling incomes and rising inequality, the political class has gone back to business as usual, reflecting why the country is in a political crisis – one that is likely to hurt Clinton far more than Trump, come November.

The Democratic National Committee’s leaked emails pseudo-drama reveals far more than the real story at the heart of the matter – the DNC discussed means to sabotage the Bernie Sanders primary election campaign. The DNC thereby violated its claims of political neutrality between rival candidates and favoured Hillary Clinton, a party establishment darling. Diverting attention from the substance of the charge of political bias, the DNC first gently and politely nudged out its chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz (to a very comfortable honorary position) and then blamed the Russians for hacking party email servers in a bid to benefit Russian President Vladimir Putin’s (apparently) preferred candidate, Donald Trump. Trump, rising to the elite politics game, added his own flavours to the mix and attributed to Putin a racial slur against US President Barack Obama, and egged the Russians to continue leaking more emails. In the age of post-truth politics, no evidence was required for these claims but their job was done – eyes were on Russia and Trump, and not on the DNC’s wrong-doing.

While deflecting attention from the original issue, the episode also demonstrates why the US is in a political crisis today and will remain so for some time to come. While large swathes of the electorate scream from the pain of trying to make ends meet as real incomes fall and inequality rises, health care costs increase, police violence against black men reaches epidemic proportions, America’s infrastructure crumbles and people look to leaders who apparently offer ways out of the crisis, the American political class has gone back to business as usual. They take or admit no responsibility for the Iraq War or the financial meltdown of 2008, fail to mention the debacle in Afghanistan, and the massive increase in the power of Wall Street corporations in economic and political life. America’s problems today, it appears, have nothing to do with the Republicans or Democrats.

Elite party politics

This political amnesia is far more likely to damage the Democrats than the GOP’s Trump – the only candidate reflecting popular anger against elite power; indeed it plays into his hands and boosts his chances of winning the White House – unless, of course, he self-ignites following one of his red-line crossing gaffes. This election was billed as Clinton’s to lose – and she and her celebratory coterie, backed by big money, appear to be heading into a very rough election season up to November. It may be that Trump fails to win rather than Clinton defeats a candidate Obama has declared unfit for office.

Both parties’ conventions provide an insight into the crisis of elite party politics today and the more significant conclusion that neither party offers very much to their target voters. The GOP spent their convention papering over the cracks in their party’s fabric and raison d’etre, attacking the record of the Obama administration, and promising to make America great again and give it back to its own people – code for the anti-minorities xenophobia that galvanises an alliance between loyal Republicans and Trump’s white working class core support. The latter have been regaled with tales of jobs for all by abolishing free trade and bashing the Chinese. But no support for increasing the federal minimum wage or investment in crumbling roads and bridges or schools has been offered. All the while, Trump built bridges to party elites with his selection of Mike Pence as his vice presidential running mate – a dyed-in-the-wool tax-cuts-for-the-rich-and-corporations-conservative from the tea party wing of the GOP. Trump’s mission to restore America has no place for any redistribution of income and wealth, which is what a majority of Americans and large proportions of Republican voters actually want. The only threat to GOP elites backing Trump is from the billionaire candidates own penchant for outrageous bigotry.

The Democrats, convened in Philadelphia, were let off the hook by Sanders’s full-throated backing of Clinton and pretended the Sanders insurgency never happened even as Obama, his wife Michelle Obama and nominee Clinton praised him, and then started a major celebration of America’s continuing greatness and its status quo. This left them with one place to go in focusing attention: Trump.

Trump is not only at the centre of his own campaign, he is also the Democrats’ sole target. No vision backed by specific policies and programmes to curb the power of Wall Street and big money in politics, and no plans for job creation or infrastructure-building. To be sure, the Democratic platform bears witness to the compromise with Sanders – on college tuition fees, health care and federal minimum wage. But on the major question of the neoliberal order’s attachment to globalisation and outsourcing of factory jobs, and the power of big money in economy and politics, including bankrolling Clinton for decades, and the gross levels of inequality the process has generated, there is silence. Just more talk about how bad Trump is. Meanwhile Blackwater, one of the world’s largest private equity funds, whose CEO sits on the board of the Clinton-Obama think tank, the Center for American Progress, has held fundraisers for Obama and Clinton and is being tipped by some as a future treasury secretary, held a major reception in Philadelphia. Clinton has received up to $123 million from such Wall Street denizens in contrast to a paltry $19000 (yes, that’s $19K) donated to the Trump campaign. (Sanders received $0 from corporations). Clinton has personally earned over $20 million from closed-door speeches at Wall Street firms. That’s why she cannot even understand where critics of corporate-cash-dominated politics are coming from – to her, this is how normal politics works. Any plank of the Democrats’ platform needs to be read in this context.

It is unsurprising that last week’s great celebration of the glorious Obama years – also funded by major Wall Street donors – failed to address any deep-seated problems of American society; yet it plays directly into Trump’s hands and threatens a smooth transfer of power from Obama to Clinton. It permits two things: Trump appears as the change candidate, and he can turn his guns onto Clinton in a race to the bottom on who’s part of the establishment, closer to the people or Wall Street, the more dishonest and corrupt. And Trump is a lot better at playing that game than Clinton.

To Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, what’s most disturbing about the Brexit and Trump debates “is that there is zero elite reckoning with their own responsibility in creating the situation that led to both Brexit and Trump and then the broader collapse of elite authority”. Trump resonates, Greenwald commented, not due to popular stupidity but because people feel cheated and let down by “the prevailing order…. that they can’t imagine that anything is worse than preservation of the status quo”. People are so angry with the way things are that they simply want out of the current position, to throw out the existing elite, regardless of the consequences. This anti-politics is precisely the core appeal of Trumpism, a phenomenon set to outlive its eponymous hero.

The Trump and Sanders campaigns rode the deep discontents of a nation all the way to Cleveland and Philadelphia, despite sabotage attempts from party elites. The Sanders campaign has thrown in the towel and focuses on Clinton versus Trump, forgetting the structural inequality that propelled voters into its camp. Trump is in the process of betraying his core constituency, enjoying the fun and games of elite party politics.

Business as usual, normalcy, has been restored – or, has it merely been stored up for a future explosion?