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Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The American Elite’s Political Crisis

The American Elite’s Political Crisis

The American sociologist Alvin Gouldner once noted that if there is an iron law of oligarchy, there must also be an iron law of democracy. Power all too frequently becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, corrupting democracy in the process and debasing the broader political culture. But nothing lasts forever and perhaps the most dangerous time for any system is when its guardians are most comfortable, made complacent and even smug by the feeling that “we’ve never had it so good”.

For the American political elite – regardless of political party - 2016 must feel more and more like 1973:  then, elites complained that the biggest threat facing them came from “a highly educated, mobilized, and participant society”. To many, that’s called democracy. To elites, as Bill Domenech noted recently, mass mobilizations look like chaos and disorder. In 1973, and 2016, elites want to shepherd the enraged sheep back into the flock, resume their allotted place, voting every 2-4 years and otherwise enjoying life as consumer-sovereigns. The sheep don’t appear to be listening at the moment because the market is not delivering.

The current crisis in the US Right and insurgency from the Left are shattering the consensus forged over decades and centred on the might of the market. But the mental universe of elites has rendered invisible the plight of the many while they’ve been enjoying the spoils of privatization, the profits of globalization, and the licence of corporate non-regulation, presided over by a political class more or less completely in the grip of Wall Street mentalities. They do not see that the world has moved on, that there are working and middle class people whose living standards and prospects bear no relationship to the classless utopia or American dream of some golden age. In truth, the golden age disappeared around 1973 and, for minorities, its lustre was a mere mirage.  

The pent up rage on the Right represents the shrill cry of people in the shadows upon whose psychic and social plight Donald Trump’s demagoguery has shone an energising ray of light. Many of them would hardly shrink, might even celebrate, the subliminal slogan at the heart‎ of Trumpism – white, working class power. It may be a road to nowhere but division by mobilising resentment and pain through irresponsible, but well thought out, knee-jerk bigotry and ethnocentrism. Yet its adherents look to a golden past when America was theirs, as was the world. At home and abroad, they see defeat and humiliation at the hands of lesser peoples, including a Muslim foreigner in the White House. So they want their country back and to make it great again. In this scenario, perhaps Donald Trump is like Benito Mussolini restoring the Roman empire. Racial antipathy among marginal white workers appears to have conjoined two forces that conventionally pull in opposite directions; class matters in America but in usual ways. President Obama has unwittingly proved a prime target for racist anti-elitists.

The frustrations of the young, many workers and middle classes rest on the Left with Bernie Sanders's socialism. The under thirties don't care about the cold war and its constructed Red Threat that the over fifties were force-fed and imbibed for decades after 1947; they want Swedish welfare capitalism in spades, to be relieved of lifelong indebtedness incurred at college, and the costs of corporate-controlled healthcare. They would rather divert war spending to building a new America worthy of the American dream, tax the rich, stem the flow of big money into politics, and restore the healthier public political culture of the 1960s – built by a mobilized, educated and participatory populace who had had enough of racial and gender oppression, militarism and war – and a corrupt, arrogant elite. 

Sanders talks the politics of class which actually accords with the cry of white workers backing Trump – but the latter cannot see past their identity politics of ethno-racial loss. So the two groups with so many complaints and demands in common remain divided, one of the reasons sociologist Werner Sombart gave over a century ago in answer to his question: “Why is there no socialism in the United States?”

With Ted Cruz still on the margins of the Republican elite’s affections, only Hillary Clinton stands unequivocally for defence of the existing system, explaining why Republicans – the creators of “Stop Trump” organisations - may end up holding their noses and voting Democratic in November. But they may not get the chance if Sanders continues to surprise by adding more wins to add to his current 15 especially in big states like California and New York.

The short term political prospects are pretty bleak and Americans are prepared for a bumpy ride into the summer nominating conventions. But the discontent released is so intense that there’s likely to be a correction. The US system has proved very flexible in the past including when it was captured by corporate money and then recaptured/recalibrated by more enlightened elements allied with reformist politicians. The Gilded Age of ‘robber barons’ – Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt et al - in the 1880s and 1890s gave way to leftist and conservative progressivism (both state building programmes against the excesses of the market); in turn, progressivism gave way to red scares after 1918 and the free market jamboree of the ‘20s that ended in the Wall Street crash of 1929.  The New Deal of the 1930s inaugurated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt just about outlived the Second World War but came under the intense scrutiny of the FBI and McCarthyism. And the pendulum swung again with the Great Society programmes under Lyndon Johnson, and again with Reaganomics in the 1980s and 1990s (by then known as the Third Way).

Major party realignments in US history seem to happen every 30-40 years – 1896, 1932/6, 1968, possibly 1994 – so we may be heading towards another one, though it’s early days. The GOP’s days look numbered, while the Democratic party reels under the Sanders insurgency. That’s the terrain on which a new politics will probably emerge but only if organised constituencies develop to maintain pressure on their leaders to remind them where their interest lie. Alvin Gouldner’s iron law of democracy demands it.

Monday, 21 March 2016

America’s revolt against the political elite is the storm before the calm

America’s revolt against the political elite is the storm before the calm:

“a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing”- Thomas Jefferson on Shays’ Rebellion, 1786

But more worrying is Jefferson’s oft-repeated quotation: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

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, Shays’ armed rebellion of 1786 against heavier taxes levied to pay rich merchants’ war loans, “ 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 in the late 1890s with social reform after the outbreak of violent Populism, in the 1930s with the New Deal during the Great Depression, and in the 1960s with civil rights legislation. Hence, there is little reason to suppose that the political order is not flexible enough to weather this Trump storm and come out stronger, more representative and resilient – a newly-realigned order more reflective of the state of the nation today – an increasingly unequal society with fewer opportunities to achieve the American dream. 

The symptoms of an unravelling and unsustainable order, being played out in both the GOP and Democratic primaries, demand that the correction that should have occurred after the Iraq War and especially following the 2008 financial crisis happens under the watch of the next president, regardless of party in office. 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.

But let’s first get back to Thomas Jefferson: Jefferson noted that a democratic government like America’s, “has a great deal of good in it…. 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 as the American is at present would do well to fear what Jefferson commented a year later about Shays’ uprising: “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 between 40% and 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 out the contest for the White House, the degree of polarisation could well lead to serious outbreaks of violence and general ugliness.  

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 is white 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 incomes over 200K pa, losing among young people by wide margins.

Sanders faces a fundamental structural problem – his lack of a strong political machine or movement nurtured over time and 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, and raises millions of dollars for local senatorial 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 United States. Such backing means local campaigners knocking on doors, putting up posters, bumper stickers and making 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. He will not be able to govern.

More likely is a strong showing for Sanders in a closely-fought contest which allows Sanders 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 U.S., but unless it changes 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. But 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 is further to the left than she would prefer to be given her indebtedness to corporate donors. 
The core economic message to Americans 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, more state subsidies for the rich, outsourcing of well paid jobs through globalisation to low-wage societies. It is a delayed-reaction demand for a recalibration of the system after a long neo-liberal, free-markets-know-it-all-party. That ideological dominance is now under severe strain. Markets do not correct themselves, politics do. The whirlwind of hate, resentment and, it must be said, idealism, has turned on its progenitors.

It’s the storm before the calm of which Thomas Jefferson would have approved, refreshing the tree of liberty, the health of government, and the happiness of the people.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Trump crushes Republican Establishment

What does America stand for? Trump crushes Republican Establishment – is half-way to the Republican Nomination
Donald Trump’s emphatic victories in Florida, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina, to add to his previous thirteen wins, makes him the clear favourite to win the GOP’s nomination for president in November 2016 while Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders remain locked in the battle for Democratic nominee. But it is clear that the big story of this cycle of primaries is the routing of the Republican establishment by the populist property tycoon, Donald Trump, who has just dumped out of the race the principal GOP establishment candidate, Marco Rubio, crushing him in his home state, Florida, 45-27% of the vote. Many worry about the damage to America’s standing Trump’s populist-paranoid style, is doing, as his illiberal, Islamophobic, racist, ‘anti-politics’, galvanises crowds and provokes violent protests across the country.

With 621 delegates to the nominating convention, Trump is almost half-way to the 1231 he needs to become the popular choice of registered Republicans, while Ted Cruz languishes in distant second with 396. Yet Cruz is also deeply hostile to the Republican party’s leadership and is, for now, the Tea party’s chosen son. Only John Kasich, who won his home state, Ohio, is openly loyal to the party but has just 138 delegates (mainly from his Ohio triumph).

Trump’s victories should not be surprising by now. His average polling in all five contests yesterday was 32.5%, and he’s getting even more popular, topping 50% Republican voter support, nation-wide, for the first time. With his rallies turning violent, and attracting widespread protests, Trump has raised the temperature by refusing to condemn aggression and assaults by his supporters, and instead blamed Bernie Sanders and anti-Trump Republicans for the violence. According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s recent survey of hate crime, the inflammatory political rhetoric used by Trump, Cruz, Rubio and others, including by various more liberal voices, has created a climate of violence against minorities.

The GOP is as puzzled as everyone else: a few days ago, Rubio defended Barack Obama against Trump’s accusation that the president had divided Americans; and it’s Rubio who’s been dumped out of the primaries by Floridians. Last week, over a hundred so-called ‘reasonable Republicans’ – including some supporters of Bush’s global war on terror, rendition, torture, and the Iraq war – declared Trump a racist, militarist warmonger – and the republican electorate has delivered four more states to the Trump tally. Those dubbed the ‘crazies’ by the George HW Bush administration are now calling Trump names but few Republicans are listening.

When academics were asked, early on in the primaries: “Is Trump a fascist?” most laughed. But comparisons to Benito Mussolini’s style are becoming more common. Trump’s anti-intellectual, illiberal, anti-minority, anti-democratic, anti-politics, which harks back to a mythical golden age of American greatness, which Trump promises to restore, his profound prejudice against minorities and outsiders, and opponents regardless of their politics, his flip-flopping and inconsistencies, and encouragement of violence at home and abroad – makes the comparison more viable. His campaign, and especially his rallies, look and sound like those organised by segregationist third party candidate George Wallace in 1968 whose language about protestors and disorder were remarkably similar to the restore-order-through-violence rhetoric of Donald Trump. Both Wallace and Trump appear to welcome violent altercations because of their essentially authoritarian approach and appeal to strength over weakness.

With all this thunder on the right, it is important to remember that there is a real contest brewing in the Democratic party primaries. Although Hillary Clinton has won many more states than Bernie Sanders, with a little under 1100 pledged delegates, she is just 320 ahead of the ‘socialist’ candidate, mainly due to the proportional distribution system in party primaries. Sanders has been a strong second in several contests, including losing by under 2% in Illinois and by just 0.2% in Missouri. He lost Massachusetts (1.4%) and Iowa (0.2%) by tiny margins as well. But Sanders’s best states – i.e., those outside the deep South are yet to come – and those states’ demographics weigh towards Sanders. In such conditions, come the nominating convention in July, Clinton’s majority might be much smaller and force the hand of the so-called super-delegates of party elders towards Sanders. And, finally, most polls show Sanders defeating Trump in a presidential contest more handsomely than Clinton does.

But the bigger meaning of the primaries was perhaps delivered by the defeated Marco Rubio. From within the Republican elite’s tent, he condemned the party’s leadership for complacency, arrogance and elitism towards conservatives: "…I blame... a political establishment that for far too long has looked down at conservatives as simple minded people... as bomb throwers…. taken conservatives' votes for granted, and that has grown to confuse cronyism for capitalism and big business for free enterprise.”

With a few tweaks, that could as easily be said about the Democratic party establishment – as Bernie Sanders suggests and millions of votes attest. The gap between the established political elite and the vast majority of Americans is now wider than it has been since the 1970s – the last time the very legitimacy of the American political system was called into question in the wake of the horrors of the Vietnam War, the illegal bombing of Cambodia, the furore over the leaked Pentagon papers, and the Watergate scandal that destroyed President Richard Nixon.

It is unlikely that a contest between Donald Trump and any Democratic candidate will not be ugly, possibly violent, divisive, and damaging to America’s global standing. But it might clarify what America really stands for.