As 2019 stutters in, so does a new phase in the dramatically evolving and bitter politics of the United States. Large-scale global shifts and rifts continue apace as do related shifts in the US domestic landscape.
But it is the smaller things that frequently signal upcoming significant developments. Among those, two pieces of recent news appear telling: that Democratic house speaker Nancy Pelosi is now more popular (or, rather, less unpopular) than Republican President Donald Trump; and the New York Times, the house organ of the Democratic party, has begun a campaign to undermine US Senator Bernie Sanders as the Democrats turn their attention to choosing their champion in the Titanic contest that the 2020 US general election threatens to be.
And, almost as quietly, the Koch empire is manoeuvring its forces behind Republican congressional candidates (but not necessarily presidential – a shot across Trump’s bows on immigration and tariffs, while enjoying the benefits of tax cuts and deregulation). Yet, the Koch-ists are also developing a more sophisticated intellectual elaboration of Trump’s “America First”, pragmatic realist foreign policy agenda.
It all indicates a continued long-term move to the political right in American elite politics.
Most of this movement seems aimed at containing political discourse and debate within the narrowest of boundaries, to return it to ‘normalcy’, in effect to bury the nightmare of 2016. The American political establishment wants to prevent the birth of a new political order that more accurately reflects broadly popular aspirations by any means necessary; yet, the logics of establishment mindsets and interests, and therefore their two main political parties, fail to provide a way forward for ordinary people to live at anything approaching a comfortable level, not to mention to staunch growing economic and financial hardship and its attendant social ills.
But there is actually no going back – US elite politics is moving further to the authoritarian right as the electorate, especially millennials, move further to the left, and strikes and mass protests continue to erupt.
Nancy Pelosi, whose net worth a couple of years ago stood at around $100 million, and who is credited with fundraising from corporate donors to the tune of $700 million since 2002, is the newly-elected speaker of the House of Representatives. The house is now in Democratic hands, after the party routed the GOP in November 2018 by winning 40 seats.
President Trump rhetorically put himself on the ballot and made the election a referendum on his own standing and record, and lost the house, although slightly increasing the GOP majority in the Senate.
But facts are facts and 2018 threw up plenty of important ones: Democrats won over 9 million more votes than the GOP, the largest gap separating the parties in mid-term history, while the 8.1% spread between the parties is a larger point differential than even major midterm elections in 1994 (R+7.1%), 2006 (D+8.0%), 2010 (R+7.2%) and 2014 (R+5.7%).
And this is despite GOP gerrymandering efforts without which the Democrats would likely have picked up even more seats. But victories in several gubernatorial races as well as significant successes in state legislatures indicate that Democrats will be in a position to redraw electoral constituency boundaries and reverse GOP attacks on voting rights for years to come.
The composition of the Democrats
The composition of the Democrats has drawn much attention – more women, more minorities, and even socialists like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib.
Yet, it should also be noted that the right of the Democratic party has also become stronger, partly due to gains in previously-held GOP districts Trump won in 2016, but also because of a dozen former CIA, FBI and military officers who won seats as part of a strategy to court national security oriented candidates to challenge Trump’s foreign policy from the right. This itself is a big clue to where the official party of opposition to Trump is headed: further to the right.
The normalcy which Democrats and liberal Trump critics crave is a veil; there is no going back and they know it. The Democrats are banking on the fact that they won the popular vote in 2016 with a basic “identity-politics-we’re-all-fine” platform after wresting by dubious means the nomination from Bernie Sanders.
They believe hat Trump is being swallowed by up storms of his own making, and is therefore losing affluent college-educated female and male GOP voters in suburban districts. This has made the Democrats’ main political play an attack on Trump’s alleged warmth towards Russia, Russian interference in US politics, and the necessity of increased internet censorship to tackle alleged Russian information warfare.
Americans opposing war or inequality or police racism are the real target; hundreds of Facebook accounts of mainly left-wing organisations have been shutdown and many leftist websites downgraded via algorithmic means.
What does this mean for the politics of 2019-2020?
For Democrats, it means even greater intensity of focus on investigating every aspect of Trump’s existence – his personal life, his university, his foundation, his finances and businesses, his appointees, his campaign team and the 2016 election. And there is plenty that needs investigating, no question.
But put it all together and what we have is a party offering very little by way of social change, job protection, relief from student debt, challenging income and wealth inequality, reversing corporate tax cuts, providing comprehensive healthcare reform, or stemming the war on immigrants that is Trump’s principal political weapon, his white identity nationalism.
No sooner had she taken up the gavel as speaker, Pelosi secured from her party support for the ‘Pay as you Go’ principle – a programme that guarantees austerity for ordinary working people: no social spending without tax increases or budget cuts elsewhere. This leaves untouched the trillion dollar corporate tax giveaway that Trump handed to the wealthiest Americans in 2017, exacerbating already historically high levels of inequality and adding exponentially to the national debt.
The Democrats’ favoured strategy
The Democrats’ favoured strategy – largely focused on identity politics therefore clashes with Bernie Sanders’s economic class-based message that, much to his and others’ surprise – won such popularity in 2016. Sanders garnered 13 million votes for a programme that centred on a critique of Wall Street interests and income and wealth inequality.
It is interesting to note that charges of sexism – largely unsubstantiated – are now being made against the Sanders campaign. The term ‘Bernie Bros’ has resurfaced to describe the alleged sexism of Sanders supporters as well, while the New York Times now dubs Sanders an ‘insider’ who needs to respond to the demands of the #Me Too Movement.
Without in any way detracting from the legitimacy of calling out sexist behaviour and moving to prosecute in the courts sexual assault, how the process is driven is important. Due process on evidence-based charges in a court of law should be the driving principle and method, not trial by media exposure (although the latter may sometimes be the only way). We must guard against an environment in which the onus is on the accused to try to prove their innocence, placing them on the back foot. It is all too easy to slip into smear politics, inadvertently mirroring the Trump administration’s own contempt for legal principles.
This is not in any way to downplay the importance of bringing guilty parties to justice, only to indicate how accusations or innuendo can be mobilised in the dirty game of party politics. And the latter point is important too as identity-related politics have become a key way of undermining the politics of class – of economic interests and inequalities that cut across race, status, gender, ethnicity, immigrant or native.
Meanwhile the GOP remains in its own Trump crisis – a pragmatic accommodation laced with contempt on both sides, awaiting a rupture once the Trump aura dissipates and GOP elected officials fear for their own seats. But they are responsible for the environment that brought Trump to power, are following him even further rightwards, as he shuts down the government and threatens to declare a national emergency to bypass congressional opposition to a border wall.
Trump is trying to side-line Congress, and override public opinion (56% of Americans oppose a wall), and the GOP is backing him to the hilt as he and Fox News galvanise his political base. Previous government shutdowns have been caused by congressional bids to curb presidential authority; Trump is effectively doing the opposite – intimidating Congress while building the basis of a presidential dictatorship with full support of the GOP leadership.
The Koch empire of right wing donors, notwithstanding reports to the contrary, remains loyal to the GOP – they spent around $400 million during the 2018 midterm elections – despite their cool attitude to Trump’s chaotic governing style, draconian attacks on immigrants and protectionist tariffs against China, Canada, Mexico and the EU, among others.
But backing the GOP in 2018, and declaring continued support in 2020, while chiding Trump, is hardly principled opposition; it’s more like a disciplining exercise to try to bring Trump to heel, to temper his more anarchic, incoherent style.
On the foreign policy front, however, the Koch network is funding scholarship at elite universities that aligns with its support for ‘strategic restraint’ – a foreign policy that seeks to avoid another Iraq war, nation-building anywhere, accept geo-strategic realities in the post-Soviet space including Crimea and the Ukraine.
A cursory analysis shows just five universities receiving over $13 million (Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Notre Dame, UC, San Diego) since 2015 to fund research centres such as the Harvard-MIT Grand Strategy, Security, and Statecraft Fellows Programme. All the while, however, there is nothing ‘isolationist’ or anti-US military power about the programme: it’s all about details, vital interests, restraint, balancing, and not ‘doing good’, unlike the liberal hegemonic establishment – or ‘The Blob’.
MIT, Harvard, Tufts, and other elite universities’ scholars are now on board the Koch Foundation’s multi-million dollar programmes to provide greater intellectual heft to what is essentially a Cato Institute-esque foreign policy programme against liberal hegemony.
At a 2016 Koch-Brookings-Politico-sponsored joint conference, Harvard’s Stephen M. Walt outlined a strategy of “offshore balancing.” Walt is summarised in the conference report as arguing that such a strategy “would maintain the United States’s military superiority in the Western Hemisphere and also maintain sufficient military power to challenge potential rising hegemons in Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf without becoming involved in conflicts that do not directly threaten the security of United States.”
This is essentially the line advanced in Walt’s latest book, The Hell of Good Intentions, in which he critiques Trump for incoherence and lack of policy follow-through while broadly supporting the president’s critique of the disasters of post-Cold War liberal hegemonic strategies. Trump is a blunt instrument, widely reviled as a ‘buffoon’, but he has called out the liberal establishment’s foreign policy disasters in (allegedly) trying to ‘do good’ in the world as opposed to taking care of ‘vital interests’.
To be sure, Koch has not created or in any sinister way suborned scholars – Walt, John Mearsheimer (Chicago), Christopher Layne (Texas A&M), and others, have been arguing the case for restraint and realism for years.
What the libertarian Koch complex is enabling is a larger, politically more significant platform funded with large grants that might broaden the debate and allow their ideas to achieve something approaching the heft of the liberal hegemonic establishment, funded by the Fords, Carnegies and Rockefellers for around a century or more.
Given the elitist Kochs’ success in funding so-called grassroots movements, this overtly elite project seems designed to make respectable ‘strategic restraint’ and train new academic cadres for a more decentred, multi-polar world in which the US would remain the dominant power in every region and domain.
This new faction at the periphery of the US foreign policy establishment opens up new political possibilities for opponents of war and militarism and broadens the debate over what kind of global-imperial hegemon the US elite might be.
But given its backing by the Kochs’ billions, this new force is one to watch. It appears to want to place Trump’s 2016 campaign rhetoric against the liberal international order – NATO, etc. – on a sound political and intellectual footing.
It will very likely outlast the Trump administration.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor and head of the Department of International Politics at City, University of London. He tweets @USEmpire. His latest book is Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power.