The final triumph of the 1980s
Platypus Review 82 | December 2015 – January 2016
THE CAMPAIGN CYCLE for the 2016 general election in the U.S. has been characterized by some throwbacks to the 1980s, most notably in the two major party challengers, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Most remarkably, the Sanders campaign has introduced the word “socialism” into mainstream political discourse. It’s clear that what socialism means in Sanders’s mouth, however, is New Deal liberalism — despite the poster of Eugene V. Debs that hangs in Sanders’s Senate office.1 The specter of “socialism” is just that: the meaning it has for Obama’s Tea Party opponents. As Marx wrote over 150 years ago,
“Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most insipid democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an ‘attempt on society’ and stigmatized as ‘socialism’.” (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852)
Just because Sanders embraces instead of rejecting the pejorative hurled at any and all proposed reforms of capitalism doesn’t make the charge any more true in fact: for Sanders it is a mere ethic. But it appeals nonetheless.2 Sanders’s candidacy seems to fulfill the demands borne of the post-2008 economic crisis and downturn, the discontents with neoliberalism — itself an artifact of the post-1973 crisis that was met by the 1980s “Reagan revolution” — and to offer the electoral vehicle for the Occupy Wall Street generation of activists disenchanted by Obama and the Democrats after 2012.3
The Occupy generation’s wielding of the corpse of social democracy in getting behind Sanders as the standard-bearer of reform recalls the 1980s film Weekend at Bernie’s (1989), in which the protagonists in the movie hide behind the eponymous man’s body as an excuse for wild adventure — in this case, a hardly naïve adolescent misadventure with the Democrats. It is regressive. In a dynamic reminiscent of Jesse Jackson’s Presidential campaigns of the 1980s, Sanders has offered “Left” opposition to Democratic Party Centrism, but not by opposing but trying to capture it as well. Sanders meeting with Killer Mike isn’t the answer — Mike already had endorsed him back in June.
Sanders’s campaign from its inception in May has been surprisingly and increasingly successful. But it has since plateaued. For a moment in September, it looked like Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy was in jeopardy due to the Benghazi hearings. Even Obama threw the Democrats’ favorite under the bus, acknowledging in an interview on 60 Minutes (October 11, 2015) that Clinton had mishandled her email communication as Secretary of State. In the same interview, Obama asserted that he would win a third election, and — much the same thing — that Biden’s experience as Vice President eminently qualified him to be President. But Hillary survived Benghazi; and Biden bowed out.
The Democrats, since the 2014 midterm elections in which they failed to dislodge the Republicans’ Congressional majority, have been faced with the problem of reproducing the “Obama majority” that was victorious in 2008 and 2012.4 This has been described as the challenge of uniting the Democrats’ “Left” and “Center” voters: the “Left” is organized labor and others concerned with socio-economic issues; the “Center” — really, the Right — are those concerned with identity-group politics, women, blacks and gays. This potentially fatal split among the Democrats was seen in the 2015 Chicago city-wide election, in which Obama’s former Chief of Staff, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was challenged by fellow Democrat, Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García, who had the support of the Chicago Teachers Union that had struck against Emanuel and his neoliberal education reforms in 2012, seeking to embarrass the Chicago native Obama precisely during his campaign for reelection.
In the 2015 Chicago mayoral election, black Democrats supported Rahm against Chuy. This was not merely a division between blacks and Latinos, but rather a split of and within the Democrats’ organized labor base from its ethnic constituency “community”-based neoliberal politics. The former 1960s Black Panther, U.S. Congressional Representative Bobby Rush, for instance, denounced Chuy’s campaign for trying to usurp the mantle of the (first black mayor of Chicago) “Harold Washington majority” (as against the prior Daley political machine) that first emerged in the 1980s, which Rush implied could only be reproduced (if at all) by black (and not Latino) leadership — that is, a neoliberal Center/Right majority, and not a labor-based politics. Washington was supported by the “Left:” his campaign chief was a former Maoist — shades of Van Jones? For Rush and other black Democrats in Chicago, Rahm is the “Washington majority” candidate. As Obama was, and Hillary will be. Chuy’s challenge to Rahm has actually provided Emanuel with the opportunity for achieving the electoral mandate endorsement he previously lacked: now a majority has voted in favor of his neoliberal policies. Far from a crisis for neoliberalism, neoliberalism has been further consolidated against any contenders. This is a lesson for Sanders’s supporters: when Hillary is elected by primary voters as the Democratic Party candidate for President, they will have chosen and given a mandate to neoliberalism.
Hillary’s ability to unite the “Left” and Right of the Democrats is uncertain: if she can do so, still, she will not be able to generate the same level of enthusiasm that Obama did in 2008. Certainly this goes for labor. Obama’s 2008 campaign for instance offered organized labor the prospect of passing the Employee Free Choice Act under a Democratic majority, but was unceremoniously dropped after the election. Obama’s campaign demanded — and achieved — a reuniting of labor in the AFL-CIO from its split in the Change to Win Federation, so that they would have to negotiate with only one rather than multiple labor constituencies: Obama sought to bring labor under control, specifically in the context of the potentially explosive 2008 economic crisis. The Democrats did not face a labor insurgency. Neither will they now.
Into this bitter legacy steps Sanders, whose call for “political revolution” he explicitly described as an electoral strategy for raising turnout, especially among younger, newer voters, and thus returning the Democrats to a Congressional majority that they enjoyed when Obama was elected until the 2010 Tea Party Congressional election insurgency. Sanders has offered himself as a better champion for the Democrats in the 2016 general election than Hillary can be. The problem has been on the Democratic Right: Sanders’s alleged “problem with women and blacks.” Hillary has supposedly maintained appeal to the social identity constituencies, despite some turbulence from Black Lives Matter and the memory by gays that both Clintons have had a poor record on marriage equality. The presumptive character of Hillary’s nomination, especially as a woman candidate, has exhibited a complacency that chafes and is not guaranteed to pay off in terms of voter mobilization.5
The degree to which the “Left” has gotten on-board with Sanders, it has been in the form of the alleged “brocialists” — straight white men. “Socialism” has meant a backlash against identity politics, an attempt to return to the Democrats’ historic role as economic reformers going back to FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, which had pressured the Republicans such that even Eisenhower and Nixon were purportedly to the “Left” of the Clintons on economic policy. There is also the sense that in the post-2008 environment Sanders could appeal to and win back an older generation of disaffected voters, the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” whose shifting allegiances allowed the Republicans to triumph since the ’80s, now approaching retirement age and concerned about the opportunities for their children and grandchildren bequeathed by 30 years of decrepit neoliberalism.6
Sanders thus offers the Democrats an answer to the Tea Party that has been sorely lacking since 2010, as expressed by the frustration that bubbled over in the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests. A new generation of activists was mobilized to “get the money out of politics,” especially in opposition to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allows unlimited campaign spending, a generation whose concerns about “social justice” and the erosion of “democracy” Sanders speaks to. The question has been whether the Sanders campaign is “for real,” or whether, rather, it is merely a protest pressure-tactic on Hillary, slowing and perhaps redirecting, however slightly, the Clinton juggernaut.7 Sanders’s claim that higher turnout means electoral gains for the Democrats neglects that not only the Republicans but they themselves engage in and benefit from voter suppression, especially among blacks, especially in the Democrats’ urban strongholds. The Democrats have no interest in popular political mobilization, even behind the most anodyne and unthreatening symbolic gestures — see Black Lives Matter — and so seek to curtail it.8
Not least, this is because the Democrats don’t want the political responsibility that would come with large majorities, as was clear in 2008-10, in which they bent their Congressional supermajority over backwards to placate the utterly prostrate Republicans. Any substantial increase in the voting electorate would present problems of political integration. See the Tea Parties’ challenge to the Republican establishment, which would really rather do without such berserkers in their midst. Even before the Tea Parties, in the 2008 bailout crisis, it was unclear whether Congressional Republicans were to fall victim to their own neoliberal rhetoric instead of taking required action to prevent a complete financial meltdown. International financial markets constantly worry over the “political paralysis” in the U.S. yielded by the Republicans hostage to the Tea Party Congressmen and the implications of this for the world economy. The Democrats would be challenged by such unruly voters (especially at the local level of municipal and state governments, as in Illinois) at least as much if not more so than the Republicans are.
Neoliberalism needs to be seen as both an accommodation to and a reinforcement of social and political demobilization after the 1960s, visible for instance in the decimation of labor unions but also of other civil society institutions, after abandonment of their original liberal raison d’être in favor of integration in what the Frankfurt School called the authoritarian “administered state,” already observable to C. Wright Mills and other political scientists after the waning of the radicalization of the 1930s through WWII: what remained was the political parties’ organization of a “power elite.” But even this structure has atrophied since the 1960s. Privatization through NGOs has not meant a renaissance of civil society, but has left the political field abandoned of any substantial forces for reform since the 1980s. Even what Eisenhower decried as the “military-industrial complex” in the Cold War has been revealed after the Iraq war as a massively corrupt freewheeling affair, and not a political force to be reckoned with: Enormous sums of money may be thrown around to government contractors, but this hardly amounts to political control over policy; 1970s Ford administration veteran Donald Rumsfeld went to war not only against foes in Afghanistan and Iraq but against the Pentagon itself, in a neoliberal privatization campaign of “slimming down” the military, to the embitterment of the officer corps, even amid soaring expenditures. What C. Wright Mills warned about “political irresponsibility” in “liberal rhetoric and conservative default” has only grown more unchecked since the ’60s. Indeed, Mills seems too optimistic in light of even more miserable realities today. The “political establishment” is actually quite threadbare and in evident disarray, not a convincing “power elite.” But: “There is no alternative.”
The issue is whether the post-2008 crisis has been an opportunity for undoing neoliberalism — reversing the ’80s — or for further entrenching it. But to overcome neoliberalism there would need to be an organized political force for doing so. The Democrats are decidedly not this, in any conceivable way. The crisis in Europe has demonstrated an opportunity for expanding and deepening neoliberalism, and not for returning to “social democracy” — despite SYRIZA, Podemos, and Jeremy Corbyn’s wresting seasoned 1980s (Bennite) leadership of the U.K.’s Labour Party, back away from the “Third Way” spectacularly unconvincing 1990s-offspring Blairite runts.
Sanders has more evident conviction than Hillary could ever exhibit. This recalls heroic opposition to Reaganism — why his followers have been affectionately nicknamed after the Sandinistas. One key issue for the Sandernistas that is also similar to the dynamic of Corbyn’s supporters in the U.K. is the 2000s George W. Bush-era anti-war movement as touchstone: Sanders, like Corbyn, opposed the Iraq war, which makes him amenable to the “Left.” Does the Sanders campaign represent a potential political turn, or is it the last gasp of Occupy activism before growing up and joining the fold of the Democrats? Sanders’s abandoning his hitherto vintage 1960s “independence” from the Democrats points the way for the younger generation of 21st century activists.
The “Left” may be tempted to imagine the Sanders campaign as a potential crisis for the Democrats — just as Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party could be seen as a crisis and opportunity for the “Left.” It is more likely that — just as Corbyn will save and not wreck the Labour Party — Sanders will boost and not undermine the Democrats’ campaign around Hillary in 2016. Or at least that is his avowed hope.
What if any kind of political movement could come out of the Sanders campaign? The Sandernistas certainly do not think of the campaign as a way to reconcile themselves to the Democratic Party but rather hope to transform it. Like with Chuy in Chicago, the hope is to mobilize new forces through the campaign that will be sustained after the election. Will this be within or outside the Democratic Party? Perhaps it will be both. In the 1980s, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) was established; in 2004, the Progressive Democrats of America was founded out of the Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich Presidential campaigns. The first was, in DSA founder Michael Harrington’s words, “a remnant of a remnant” of the New Left; the second was in many respects a repeat of the first. These have not been auspicious developments indicating possibilities for where the Sandernistas might go after 2016. The DSA supported Jesse Jackson’s Democratic Party campaign for President, which Sanders also endorsed, in protest against Reaganism. The precedents in the 1980s legacy of the 1960s New Left suggest the further adaptation to — through protest of — the Democrats’ moving ever Right-ward.
Sanders like Trump demonstrates the hollowness of the two U.S. political parties today, if only through the inability to stop their candidacies by the “establishment.” The parties are no longer the formidable “machines” they were in the 20th century — confronted by the 1960s New Left generation — but are merely brandings anyone can buy into — whether wholesale by billionaire magnates like Trump himself or the Koch Brothers Tea Party-backers, or through tiny payments to Sanders’s 2016 campaign, as had been made to Obama in 2008, as an internet media phenomenon. Clinton at least still needs to win over union endorsements and particular capitalist business-sector funding. But in any case there is no political process involved, but only the aestheticization of politics as a consumer article9. As such it can and will be rendered in typical postmodernist pastiche of non-partisan eclecticism. “Politics” means what any- and everyone wants to make of it. This is even claimed as a virtue, of “divided government.”
The worst possible outcome of this is the most likely, that Hillary will be elected as President, but the Republicans will retain a Congressional majority, reproducing the polarized stalemate and deadlock that actually sustains — stabilizes — U.S. politics around a conservative neoliberal consensus, in which certain social issues are given obligatory genuflections without being actually addressed let alone ameliorated. Since the Democrats won the “culture wars” under Obama’s neoliberal leadership, a new division of labor with the Republicans has been established: that the Republicans will represent “straight white men,” especially in rural and exurban areas; and the Democrats, under the leadership of the Clintonite neoliberal Center/Right, will represent “women, blacks and gays” in their petit bourgeois ethnic constituency urban (and more urbane suburban) communities. Welcome to the “new normal.” It began in the ’80s with Reagan’s Presidency, under which the Democrats retained control of Congress.
In the 1980s, the “yuppies” — young urban professionals, that is to say, grown-up children of the 1960s — were regarded as new but conservative; today, they are called “hipsters” and considered liberal as well as entirely normal: an electoral demographic spanning everyone from college to middle-age, referred to in conventional polling analysis as “voters under 50,” i.e., the generation that came of age after the ’80s. Sanders (like Trump) indicatively does best among them — where Clinton does better among those over 50. In the 1980s, identity politics consolidated the accommodation to and resolution of neoliberalism in the “Reagan revolution.” What Adolph Reed has called the “Jesse Jackson phenomenon” exemplified this. It has continued up to the present, through such eminently respectably conservative measures as gay marriage equality. Obama has not brought about any social changes, but only granted them legal legitimacy. But where Obama at least seemed to symbolize “change” — a new post-’60s generation — Sanders as well as Clinton represent a return: diminished expectations. Sanders raising the specter of the “Old Left” 1930s-60s New Deal Coalition’s venerable political heritage for the Democrats, which came to grief in the ’80s, will be the means not for resuscitating but finally burying it.
There will be no “political revolution” — apart from the one already long underway since the 1980s. The final decades of the 20th century were successfully seized by the same “end of history” to which the 21st century will yet continue to belong, evidently for a long time to come. Daniel Ortega’s return to power as part of the greater Latin American “Pink Tide” in the 2000s represented the final surrender — or was it rather the ultimate triumph? — of the Sandinistas, and put paid to any ’80s “Left” nostalgia on which he may have traded. The same will go for Sanders. Sanders, as an outlier 1960s remnant of the Reagan era, becomes a mainstream political phenomenon today only as a function of giving up the ghost. The 1960s were not defeated but institutionalized in the 1980s. Today, this recent historical process has been completely naturalized, the domesticated televised version of the 1960s as historical curiosity. What needs to be reconciled today — by contrast with 2008 — is not the ’60s but the ’80s: not the last hurrah of the former 1960s radical Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers who helped Obama get his political start as a generational bequest 40 years after Chicago’s Days of Rage, but the 1980s Mayor of Burlington, Vermont (alongside the vintage 1980s New York City real estate speculator) will be the specter haunting 2016.
The 1960s New Left in which Sanders and Clinton — and Corbyn — took part could not and will not give any rebirth to “socialism,” however defined. It could not prevent and indeed actively assisted and not merely accommodated the demise of the Great Society. Whatever regrets it may have now do not point any way forward, but only towards its retirement, and a historical settling of the past.
Just as Clinton’s election in 1992 did not reverse Reaganite neoliberalism by pot-smoking former campaigners in 1972 for George McGovern, Sanders’s late protest today may seal neoliberalism’s unalloyed triumph. Margaret Thatcher claimed Tony Blair as her ultimate achievement. Sanders begging to differ from Hillary before her election as Clinton II will thus be the final victory of the 1980s. | §
Postscript on the March 15 primaries
The primary elections for the nomination of the Democrat and Republican candidates for President have demonstrated the depth and extent of the disarray of the two Parties. Sanders has successfully challenged Hillary and has gone beyond being a mere messenger of protest to become a real contender for the Democratic Party nomination. But this has been on the basis of the Democrats’ established constituencies and so has limited Sanders’s reach. Turnout for the Democratic Party primaries has not been significantly raised as Sanders hoped. The Republican primaries by contrast have reached new highs.
Donald Trump has been the actual phenomenon of crisis and potential change in 2016, taking a much stronger initiative in challenging the established Republican Party, indeed offering the only convincing possibility of defeating Clinton. The significant crossover support between Sanders and Trump however marginal is very indicative of this crisis. Trump has elicited hysteria among both established Republicans and Democrats. Their hysteria says more about them than about him: fear of the base. Sanders has attempted to oppose the 1930–40s New Deal and 1960s–70s Great Society and New Left base of the Democratic Party, established and developed from FDR through the Nixon era, against its 1980s–2010s neoliberal leadership that has allegedly abandoned them. Trump has done something similar, winning back from Obama the “Reagan Democrats.” But the wild opportunism of his demagogy allows him to transcend any inherent limitations of this appeal.
Trump is no “fascist” nor even really a “populist,”10 but is what the Republicans accuse him of being: a New York-style Democrat (like the blowhard former 1980s New York City Mayor Ed Koch). He challenges Hillary precisely because they occupy such similar Centrist positions in U.S. politics, whatever their differences on policy. But Trump more than Sanders represents something new and different: a potential post- and not pre-neoliberal form of capitalist politics, regarding changes in policies that have continued from Reagan through Obama, driven by discontents of those alienated from both Parties. Sanders could potentially best Trump, but only on the basis of a much greater and more substantial mobilization for a different politics than it is evidently possible to muster through the Democrats. The biggest “party” remains those who don’t vote. | §
P.P.S. on Trump and the crisis of the Republican Party
June 22, 2016
Further amendment after the end of the primary elections.
Trump is no “fascist,” nor even really a “populist,” but is precisely what the Republicans accuse him of being: a New York-style Democrat — like the socially and economically liberal but blowhard “law-and-order” conservative former 1980s New York City Mayor Ed Koch. Trump challenges Hillary precisely because they occupy such similar moderate Centrist positions on the U.S. political spectrum, whatever their various differences on policy. Trump more than Sanders represents something new and different in this election season: a potential post- and not pre-neoliberal form of capitalist politics, regarding changes in policies that have continued from Reagan through Obama, driven by discontents of those alienated from both Parties. Trump has successfully run against and seeks to overthrow the established Republican 1980s-era “Reagan Revolution” coalition of neoliberals, neoconservatives, Strict Construction Constitutionalist conservatives and evangelical Christian fundamentalists — against their (always uneasy) alliance as well as against all of its component parts. Established Republicans recoil at undoing the Reagan Coalition they have mobilized since the 1980s. Marco Rubio as well as Ted Cruz — both of whom were adolescents in the 1980s — denounced Trump not only for his “New York values” but also and indicatively as a “socialist.” Glenn Beck said that Trump meant that the America of “statism” of the Progressives Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had won over the America of “freedom” of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Of course that is ideological and leaves aside the problem of capitalism, which Trump seeks to reform. Sanders could have potentially bested Trump as a candidate for reform, perhaps, but only on the basis of a much greater and more substantial mobilization for a different politics than it is evidently possible to muster through the Democrats, whose nostalgia for the New Deal, Great Society and New Left does not provide the necessary resources.
Trump has succeeded precisely where Sanders has failed in marshaling the discontents with neoliberalism and demand for change. Sanders has collapsed into the Democratic Party. To succeed, Sanders would have needed to run against the Democrats the way Trump has run against the Republicans. This would have meant challenging the ruling Democratic neoliberal combination of capitalist austerity with New Left identity politics of “race, gender and sexuality” that is the corporate status quo. The results of Trump’s contesting of Reaganite and Clintonian and Obama-era neoliberalism remain to be seen. The biggest “party” remains those who don’t vote. Trump will win if he mobilizes more of them than Clinton. Clinton is the conservative in this election; Trump is the candidate for change. The Republicans have been in crisis in ways the Democrats are not, and this is the political opportunity expressed by Trump. He is seeking to lead the yahoos to the Center as well as meeting their genuine discontents in neoliberalism. Of course the change Trump represents is insufficient and perhaps unworkable, but it is nonetheless necessary. Things must change; they will change. As Marx said, “All that is solid melts into air.” The future of any potential struggle for socialism in the U.S. will be on a basis among not only those who have voted for Sanders but also those who have and will vote for Trump. | §
- Bernie Sanders, Speech on “democratic socialism,” Vox.com, November 19, 2015 http://www.vox.com/2015/11/19/9762028/bernie-sanders-democratic-socialism; and Dylan Matthews, “A leading socialist explains what Bernie Sanders’s socialism gets right — and wrong: An interview with Jacobin magazine editor Bhaskar Sunkara,” Vox.com, November 20, 2015 http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2015/11/20/9767096/bernie-sanders-socialism-jacobin [↩]
- Ben Geier, “Bernie Sanders is a socialist, but he’s not a Socialist,” Fortune, September 19, 2015 http://fortune.com/2015/09/19/bernie-sanders-socialist/; and “Bernie Sanders just answered the biggest question of his campaign,” Fortune, November 19, 2015 http://fortune.com/2015/11/19/bernie-sanders-democratic-socialism/ [↩]
- Walker Bragman, “More like Reagan than FDR: I’m a Millennial and will never vote for Hillary Clinton,” Salon.com, November 30, 2015 http://www.salon.com/2015/11/30/more_like_reagan_than_fdr_im_a_millennial_and_ill_never_vote_for_hillary_clinton/ [↩]
- Jonathan Martin, “After losses, liberal and centrist Democrats square off on strategy,” New York Times, November 14, 2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/15/us/politics/democratic-party-iberals-and-moderates.html [↩]
- Michael Eric Dyson, “Yes she can: Why Hillary Clinton will do more for black people than Obama: A skeptic’s journey,” The New Republic, November 29, 2015 https://newrepublic.com/article/124391/yes-she-can [↩]
- Christopher C. Schons, “From Reagan to Bernie Sanders: My political odyssey,” Counterpunch, November 4, 2015 http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/11/04/from-reagan-to-bernie-sanders-my-political-odyssey/ [↩]
- Bruce A. Dixon, “Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders: Sheepdogging for Hillary and the Democrats in 2016,” Black Agenda Report, May 6, 2015 http://www.blackagendareport.com/bernie-sanders-sheepdog-4-hillary [↩]
- Glen Ford, “Blacks will transform America, and free themselves, but not at the ballot box in 2016: Black voters cannot be counted on to support the most progressive presidential candidates available at the polls,” Black Agenda Report, October 21, 2015 http://www.blackagendareport.com/blacks_wont_free_themselves_at_ballot_box_in_2016 [↩]
- See Walter Benjamin, “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” (1936). [↩]
- See Tad Tietze, “The Trump paradox: A rough guide for the Left,” Left Flank (January 25, 2016). Available on-line at:<http://left-flank.org/2016/01/25/the-trump-paradox-a-rough-guide-for-the-left/>. [↩]