This op-ed was originally published on The Wire: http://thewire.in/79998/the-deepening-crisis-plaguing-the-uss-political-parties/
Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party’s leadership may blame everyone but themselves for their spectacular defeat in the US presidential and congressional elections, and the GOP’s oligarchs may congratulate themselves on an unexpected victory, but both would be deluding themselves.
The crisis of both political parties has just deepened and exposed their political and moral decay. The American electorate, whose disillusionment with politics-as-usual propelled Donald Trump to the White House, is unlikely to find much in its 45th president’s actions that will satisfy its hopes and dreams. It is already evident that Trump, the anti-politics non-politician, has been preparing to betray his working-class political base for several months now. The US is in for a very rough time over the next four years.
Since Clinton’s unexpected defeat, leading Democrats and liberal commentators have identified several blocs of voters to hold responsible for her loss: millennials, African-Americans, women and even those who voted for the Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green candidate Jill Stein.
But they have yet to identify the class factor in the presidential election – why did so many white and black working class men and women either stay at home or vote for Trump?
Class: the unspeakable factor
To the Democratic party, class is a force that dare not speak its name, especially the working kind. For many, the working class does not even exist, let alone possess any political saliency. The democrats have adopted in toto the politics of identity – women/gender, black/race, LGBT – and consigned the working class to the political dustbin.
Yet, they embrace with a passion the interests and ideas of the billionaire class – centred on Wall Street banks, investment firms and hedge funds. This class of people has supplied billions to the Clintons – $3 billion over the past four decades – and to the Democratic party since the 1970s. As then-presidential candidate Barack Obama noted in his book, Audacity of Hope, released before the 2008 presidential election, Wall Street bankers, as a class, think only of their own interests and have little empathy for anyone else.
Obama also noted, with a hint of disappointment, that he spent so much time with such people that he began to think just like them.
In 2012, the New York Council on Foreign Relations, the elite think tank at the heart of the American establishment, declared that Obama was in practice a traditional Republican candidate for the presidency. Wall Street had two candidates in 2012, therefore, the other being the former head of Bain Capital, Mitt Romney.
Clinton and her husband Bill’s dance with bankers and financiers has been a longer affair than Obama’s, the first African-American president who delivered little to black Americans over the course of two terms. Indeed, young African-American men are being gunned down by police at rates that have been declared a national epidemic by Harvard’s medical researchers. The politics of identity, around which Democratic politics turns, has proven to be a dead end for minorities. Obama has been a lame duck for eight years as far as the US’s minority communities are concerned. The opportunities available to their communities diminished steadily while Wall Street banks and corporations were bailed out using trillions of US taxpayer dollars.
Clinton promised nothing more than the continuation of corrupt, money-soaked politics, with all the frills of identity politics and schmaltz about diversity and unity wrapped around it – that effectively meant politics as usual. Yet, the politics of class and inequality stared the Clintonites in the face – they either could not see it for the salient political factor it had become or they defined their strategy as one designed to protect the billionaire class by focusing on the abundant negative characteristics of the Republican presidential candidates’ campaigns, Trump’s in particular.
The Democrats played court politics while the American electorate demanded radical change. How else to explain the fact that the Democratic Party organised this Shakespearian tragedy of a campaign. According to a batch of emails released by Wikileaks that contained emails to John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager and intellectual-political guru or simply her personal Machiavelli, the Clinton camp’s preferred Republican candidate was Trump, someone who probably had no serious idea that he would get anywhere in the GOP’s primaries.
Clinton’s team acted accordingly, gratuitously name-checking Trump and increasing media coverage of the controversial candidate, along with Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, people who would shift the Republican campaign even further to the right and play into Clinton’s grubby hands.
Similar sabotage tactics were deployed against Clinton’s main challenger for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders – his economic plans were declared naïve by Clinton spin doctors, he was denied full access to party voter data by the Democratic National Convention, debates were scheduled at odd times, college voter registration drives weren’t conducted with vigour as students were backing the socialist and the superdelegate system was used to build belief in the inevitability of a Clinton win.
Had Sanders’ candidacy been seen as an opportunity to galvanise the party’s base and message to all those who were screaming for change and respite from the power of Big Money, rather than a block to the insatiable political ambition of the Clinton dynasty and its acolytes, the US would likely be in a very different position today, one that would not involve the riots and protests that have attracted thousands since Trump’s victory on November 9.
Fissures in the GOP
The GOP’s crisis also continues and runs as deep as that of the Democratic Party. The Republicans have won both houses, and nominally the presidency, but have paid a very high price. Their candidate won 5 million fewer votes than Romney in 2012. Trump ran a campaign that gained ballast from anti-conservative ideological positions; he declared Muslim immigrants terror suspects and Mexicans murderers and rapists; he treated and spoke about women in the most sexually aggressive terms and boasted about numerous acts of sexual assault he had carried out. Trump’s promotion of violence at his rallies and his cult of personality, declaration of complete knowledge of every subject and solution to every problem, and refusal to accept that he could lose a fair election brought into disrepute the party’s leaders who refused to repudiate him.
The US’s soft power has been severely damaged, its image tarnished, its credibility questioned by allies. Few welcome a Trump presidency but ISIS is among his champions; how many more jihadis will Trump recruit for their cause?
But the GOP will pay a high price for victory. Trump is unmanageable – by his family, his campaign team, close advisers and his vice president. He has already rowed back on abolishing Obama’s landmark Affordable Care Act, which the party has made a centrepiece of its campaign. People backing Republican candidates for Congress did not support their conservative programmes.
What will further damage the Trump presidency and the Republican party is the betrayal of Trump’s supporters. He has forgotten his promises to white workers to hike up taxes for the rich and deliver more welfare to the needy. His attacks on free trade have softened into talk about how smart his trade deals will be and the likely pick as his commerce secretary is a steel magnate who has no time for trade unions. Trump’s options for treasury secretary are hedge fund managers. The economic and financial core of his programme centres on massive tax cuts that will largely benefit the super-rich.
An impending betrayal
The betrayal of Trump’s core voters in the US’s rust belt began some time ago when he courted the Heritage Foundation – the heart of conservative ideology in America – and sought out Ed Feulner, the think tank’s former president, to head his transition team. Feulner is drawing up lists of appointees – hundreds of them – for the major departments of Trump’s administration.
The anti-politics, anti-conservative Republican president-elect seems also to have retreated from his ‘isolationist’ reputation and adopted the Heritage Foundation’s military policy – to strengthen the US’s firepower in all armed services around the world to counter threats to American power.
That is not what Trump’s supporters signed up for. They may not care for a while and give their man a chance to find his feet. But they will be watching and waiting for some concrete actions to deliver on promises made during the campaign that might not make it through a hardcore right-wing congress.
The moral and political decay of the US’s two main political parties contains many dangers for its people, and for the world, over the next several years. Their decay is symptomatic of the crumbling of the very foundations of the post-1945 world order built by the US.
This is evident in the vote to Brexit and the crisis of the EU’s legitimacy; in the popularity of the hard right in Europe, the rise of leftist movements in Greece and Spain and, more patchily in Britain; and in the demands of China, India and other emerging powers for a greater voice in the halls of global power, while they themselves sit on the powder-keg of popular discontent from the impacts of globalisation. And it is evident in the flow of refugees flooding into Europe due to American and other western interventions in the Middle East – Iraq, Libya and Syria, among others.
But Wall Street has found a new friend in a de-regulator president – banks are safer from regulation, as are oil and gas corporations once a climate-change denier is appointed to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Inderjeet Parmar is Professor of International Politics, and Co-Director of the Centre for International Policy Studies, at City, University of London. Follow him on Twitter and via his blog.