May 21st 2016

Democratic Primaries in the Shadow of Neoliberalism

by David Coates

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies

 

There is an understandable tendency, when in the thick of a long set of presidential primaries, to treat all of them simply as exercises in the choice between individual candidates, and to make them as much about character as about policy. There is also an understandable tendency to assume that what is at stake in these primaries is purely an American matter with entirely domestic roots.  

It is much more difficult to place the competing candidates and their differing policy packages on a bigger and a longer map that takes in previous candidates and previous policies. It is also very hard to break out of a purely American focus, and to see what is happening in the United States as part of a more general story.

But it is worth the effort: because by going out to the bigger picture, and then back to the detail of the campaigns, the issues that are actually at stake in those campaigns becomes just a little bit clearer.

I

One way of generating that greater clarity is to place the Democratic Party primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the shadow of something normally labeled “neoliberalism”[1] – place it in the shadow, that is, of the economic policies and general economic philosophy successfully espoused by Ronald Reagan in the United States and by Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. Neoliberalism is that economic philosophy that prefers markets to governments as allocators of resources, and prefers individual and private – rather than collective and public – solutions to social problems. For the last three decades, it has been the ruling orthodoxy on both sides of the Atlantic, but when neoliberalism was first advocated – in the second half of the 1970s – it was not. It marked then a revolutionary break with an earlier orthodoxy: one linked to the writings of John Maynard Keynes and to the politics of the New Deal; one that had markets managed by governments, and had social problems solved by public spending and policy.

The Reagan/Thatcher neoliberal revolution kept Democrats out of the White House, and kept the Labour Party out of power in London, for three whole electoral cycles; and by the end of the third of those, leading politicians in both parties had come to the same view. They had decided that their only way back to power was to meet Reagan- and Thatcher-shaped electorates on neoliberal terms. Under Bill Clinton’s leadership in the United States, and that of Tony Blair in the United Kingdom, each center-left party abandoned their earlier and more progressive sets of policies in favor of an explicit acceptance of, and accommodation with, the major tenets of the new conservative orthodox. They gave up their role as “tax and spend” progressives in favor of “new” positions. They pulled back from active industrial policies that regulated business. They “ended welfare as we know it;” and they even began to call themselves “New/Centrist Democrats” and “New Labour” to make that accommodation to neoliberal principles clear to those who would vote for them. [2]

For Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, being a progressive in the 1990s meant being a more civilized and kind-hearted Reaganite/Thatcherite. It meant taking for granted, and never challenging, very central neoliberal principles and practices that included:

LIST A

·         Lower corporate and personal taxation to encourage innovation, enterprise and job creation

·         A thinning of the welfare net to avoid welfare dependency and increase the incentive to work

·         The deregulation of labor markets by the weakening of trade unions

·         The parallel deregulation of the business community, and the celebration of income inequality

·         The privatization of publicly-owned industries and companies, and the exposure of public bodies to market forces.

That ‘third way’ acceptance of Reaganite/Thatcherite policies worked for a while. There was great job growth in the United States in the 1990s, and New Labour actually grew the UK economy without a recession from 1997-2007. But then the wheels really came off the neoliberal bus. Lightly regulated financial institutions triggered first a major credit crisis, and then the deepest recession either economy had known since the 1930s. In late 2008 and early 2009, no one was a passionate neoliberal anymore. Keynesian demand management, big injections of public spending, and the tight direction of the banking system – all three were briefly back in vogue. But only briefly. For quite quickly, conservatives in both countries found other explanations for the crisis, and told their electorates that it was the government spending that caused the crisis (and not, as in reality was the case, the other way round). Even moderate Democrats like Barack Obama then found themselves unable to govern across the aisle, because the Republican wing of the political class was in full retreat to even more extreme neoliberal positions again.

II

Two things then happened that frame the choices before us now. On the Democratic side of the aisle here in the United States, both a moderate and a more radical challenge to the earlier neoliberal orthodoxy began to crystalize. Hillary Clinton[3] and Bernie Sanders[4] may now personify those different challenges, but they are not their sole architects. On the contrary, across the Democratic coalition as a whole, the last seven years have witnessed the increasing presence in the progressive policy debate of two linked but competing lists of policy preferences. The moderate list includes

LIST B

·         The maintenance of demand through public spending and the toleration of public debt

·         The avoidance of further financial crisis by tighter financial oversight

·         The infrastructure route to growth (public spending to modernize roads, bridges, rail & internet)

·         Progressive taxation to reduce excessive inequality and to spread the cost of welfare provision to those best able to bear it

·         Greater rights for women and minorities at work, more childcare & paid parental leave

·         Moves towards a carbon-free energy policy

The more radical list includes the moderate agenda, but adds some/all of the following

LIST C

·         Greater rights for trade unions, and a major hike in both the minimum wage & Social Security

·         Systemic attack on the sources of poverty, with affirmative action while poverty persists

·         The deconstruction of the system of mass incarceration and the ending of the war on drugs

·         New trade policy to reverse the outsourcing of well-paying jobs

·         The breaking up of banks that are too big to fail

·         Less spending on the military & on foreign wars: more nation-building at home, less abroad

 

Those lists contain very specific American dimensions (not least the ending of mass incarceration and the winding down of foreign wars). But they are not, in all their essentials, American lists alone. Parallel changes in understanding and policy are in debate and dispute in many western European center-left parties right now. They certainly are in the British Labour Party, where leadership has recently switched to Jeremy Corbyn, in many ways the UK’s Bernie Sanders equivalent.[5] For the post-2008 struggle, in all advanced capitalist economies, to return to generalized prosperity and job security is obliging the center-left everywhere to re-examine the wisdom of its earlier enthusiastic accommodation to neoliberalism. It is that re-examination that lies at the heart of the current clash, in the on-going series of Democratic Party presidential primaries, between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

 

III

                The three policy lists now in play are not the same. Their centers of gravity are different because the analyses underpinning them also differ. And because they are different, and because of the history in which they sit, Hillary Clinton in particular has a double problem with her potential electoral base.

Her first problem is this. When she was the politically active first lady to her husband’s presidency, economic policy under that presidency operated on List A. So one question that Hillary Clinton has to answer now is whether economic policy under a second Clinton presidency (namely hers) will be similar, or will it be different?  Her Republican opponents will attempt to tar her with the Bill Clinton brush, pointing to sexual infidelity and possibly financial corruption or worse. Her progressive critics should worry more about the extent to which the current global activities of the Clinton Foundation point to her husband’s on-going commitment to neoliberal principles.[6] Because if he hasn’t made the break, and he remains among her counsellors, how much of a break has she really made, or how much of a break will she be able to sustain?

Then there is the second problem, the really big one: if the answer to the first question is that yes, next time policy will be very different, will it be different by operating on List B (which is basically the blocked economic policy of the Obama presidency), or will it stretch out to encompass some dimensions (or the totality, indeed) of List C, as so many radical supporters of Bernie Sanders now believe to be essential?  Just how radicalized has Hillary Clinton become? How much is show, and how much is real?

                The great fear, on the left of the Democratic coalition, is that the rupture with the original Clinton list (List A) is still paper thin:[7] and that Hillary Clinton will say radical things (from the other two lists, including List C) simply to win office. Then, when in office, she will go back to List A, triangulating with neoliberal Republicans in the manner of the first Clinton presidency. Reassuring her progressive supporters that she will not do any of this is therefore a vital task for her between now and November, because only if that reassurance is forthcoming – only if the depth of her rupture with her own past is unambiguously clear – will the vast majority of those mobilized by Bernie Sanders act as willing foot-soldiers in the electoral battle to save America from a Trump presidency.[8] And she will need those foot-soldiers.

First posted, with full academic citations, at www.davidcostes.net



[1] George Monbiot, Neoliberalism is Destroying Almost Everybody’s Lives – How Many People Even Know What It Is? Posted on Alternet.org, April 25, 2016: available at http://www.alternet.org/environment/neoliberalism-destroying-almost-everybodys-lives-how-many-people-even-know-what-it

 

[3] Jim Sleeper, The Best Reason for Bernie Sanders to Fight On: Hawkish, Neoliberal Clintons Need a Watchful Eye from Progressives. Posted on Alternet.org, April 27, 2016: available at http://www.salon.com/2016/04/26/the_best_reason_for_bernie_sanders_to_fight_on_hawkish_neoliberal_clintons_need_a_watchful_eye_from_progressives/

 

[4] Les Leopold, Why the Contest between Hillary and Bernie Is such a Big Deal for the Future of Our Economy. Posted on Alternet.org, April 17, 2016: available at http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/why-contest-between-hillary-and-bernie-such-big-deal-future-our-economy

 

[6] Paul Rosenberg, Gutless Democrats Fear Fights: Why Triangulating Neoliberal Clintonites Back Big Business Over People. Posted on Alternet.org, April 26, 2016: available at http://www.salon.com/2016/04/23/gutless_democrats_fear_fights_why_triangulating_neo_liberal_clintonites_back_big_business_over_people/

 

[7] Max Ehrenfruend, “How Hillary Clinton’s positions have changed while running against Bernie Sanders,” The Washington Post, April 29, 2016: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/04/29/how-hillary-clintons-positions-have-changed-while-running-against-bernie-sanders/

 

[8] Courtney Weaver and Demitri Sevastopulo, “US election: Can Hill thrill after you’ve felt the Bern?’ Financial Times, April 29, 2016: available at https://next.ft.com/content/37ba2c9e-0c9a-11e6-b41f-0beb7e589515

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."