The Scourge of Neoliberalism: Why the Democratic Party Is Failing the Poor
By: Jake Johnson
When Democrats began their rightward lurch in the late 1960's, they were not content to merely broaden their coalition in order to quell the rise of the ultra-reactionary right; they have been concerned, also, with preventing left-wing insurgencies that could spook their patrons and push the party left.
After Ronald Reagan's decisive victories — first in 1980 against an incumbent president whose administration had, in many ways, fueled the neoliberal turn, and again in 1984 — the efforts of Democrats eager to transform the party, both superficially and ideologically, intensified.
"The only alternative for Democrats now was to modernize," notes Shawn Gude, summarizing the prevailing attitude of the Democratic leadership. "Anything but a wholesale rethink of the party's more social-democratic commitments would invite future electoral disaster."
'The problem is, ultimately, systemic: It is about who writes the rules, and how these rules act in the real world to create extraordinary gains for some while leaving others to compete, endlessly and ruthlessly, for the rest.' (Image: DonkeyHotey/flickr/cc)
Though it was often framed as a tactical move necessary to undercut movement conservatives, Democrats' shift to the right was accompanied by lucrative material advantages, advantages that organized labor, even at its peak, could not provide.
But the Democratic Leadership Council's takeover of the party didn't just have the effect of bringing over business interests previously wary of Democrats' ostensible commitment to labor's causes — key DLC advisers, noted Robert Dreyfuss in an analysis of the Third Way's rise, included such corporate giants as Enron, Aetna, British Petroleum, Chevron, and Philip Morris.
It also had a significant, and often devastating, impact on the poorest Americans.
Though Democrats were happy to take their votes on election day, lower-income Americans were increasingly faced with a party that had taken on a managerial posture, one characterized by both a growing commitment to market principles and an abandonment of the notion — fostered by the New Deal period — that government could play a significant role in improving the material conditions of the population.
This message of business friendly "moderation" resonated with rich Americans.
"The 1992 election marked an inflection point of sorts," notes Lee Drutman. The year in which "Democrats changed their policies, with Bill Clinton as the standard bearer for a new pro-business, neoliberal centrism that sought to win over the growing professional classes," the very rich began to find comfort within the party's ever-broadening tent.
Though there have been diversions, these trends have largely continued up to the present. "The wealthiest 4 percent of voting-age Americans, by a narrow plurality," backed President Obama in 2012, Drutman observes.
Today, confronting the flailing and odious candidacy of Donald Trump, Democrats have seized upon yet another opportunity to expand their coalition. And, once more, they have looked not to the left — the diverse bloc of Sanders backers pushing for social democracy — but to wealthier constituencies, including those that tend to lean Republican.
Presenting the 2016 election as a vote for or against "American values," the Clinton campaign has frequently deployed the right-wing language of exceptionalism and patriotism, and Clinton herself has eagerly embraced the endorsements of billionaire businessmen and women eager to legitimize their own wealth by highlighting Trump's history of fraud and abuse.
Of course, these moves are in no way ahistorical.
"There is," writes Carl Beijer, "a distinct history of Clintonian coalition-building with right-wing Republicans." And as even the most cursory examination of this history reveals, Democrats' opportunistic and strategic solidarity with the right has real-world consequences; in Beijer's words, such an approach is "undertaken at the risk of normalizing their politics."
From the gross demonization of poor minorities that permeated Bill Clinton's tenure to the Democratic Party's tacit — and in some cases eager — acceptance of a political process dominated by business interests, this is largely what has happened.
Sky-high wealth inequality has become the new normal, and far from embracing and aggressively pushing a radical redistributionist agenda, Democrats have embraced a meritocratic message, one that emphasizes the centrality of hard work, dedication, and personal responsibility.
Such platitudes, while reassuring to the winners of globalization, ring hollow in the ears of those who rightly feel abandoned by the political system in general — and by the Democratic Party in particular.
This year, with the insurgent campaign of Bernie Sanders doing much to expose long-standing rifts within the Democratic establishment, the flaws inherent in a party reliant on both high-income and lower-income voters have been thrown into sharp relief.
In a recent piece for the New York Times, Thomas Edsall nicely captures this tension, using housing as the focal point.
Contrasting Baltimore County — a majority white community where the median household income is over $68,000 — and Baltimore City — a majority black community where the median household income is just over $42,500 — Edsall details "how hard it is for the Democratic Party to reconcile the interests of its upscale wing with those of its lower-income wing."
Baltimore City, Edsall notes, has always been a Democratic stronghold, but Baltimore County, "in the wake of an influx of educated, higher income professionals, immigrants and minorities," has, of late, been leaning Democratic, as well; Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney there decisively in 2012.
But progressive attempts to lift poor families in the city — to provide better opportunities for housing, education, and other means of upward mobility — have been met with strong resistance from wealthier communities that, though they increasingly vote Democratic, are wary of attempts to integrate poor and rich neighborhoods.
The result, Edsall quotes former Maryland attorney general Stephen Sachs as saying, is "economic apartheid."
To demonstrate the rifts between the county and the city, Edsall cites the recent efforts by Baltimore's Housing Authority to buy homes "in prosperous suburbs to use as public housing." Attempts to provide affordable housing have long been a key component of anti-poverty programs, but opposition to such programs by wealthy county residents has proven intractable.
Despite attempts by public officials to work "under the radar" to provide opportunities for poor families, anger was quick to mount.
"The reaction from many was outright racist," Doug Donovan, a journalist who has followed this issue closely, told Edsall.
"The problems for Democrats on matters of race and housing subsidies are not confined to Baltimore," Edsall points out. "In Westchester County, just north of New York City, an ongoing battle over the court-ordered construction of affordable housing has played a key role in the election and re-election of a Republican county executive — in a suburban jurisdiction that, in presidential elections, has become increasingly Democratic."
Given her attempts to take both sides on matters of class, and given her embrace of big-tent liberalism, it makes sense that Hillary Clinton has been rather mute on this topic — despite the fact that, as Edsall observes, Clinton owns a home that "happens to be located in the midst of an affordable housing conflict."
This willingness to quietly accept a status quo that privileges wealthy communities at the expense of the poor pervades the thinking not just of Clinton Democrats, but of the two-party system as a whole.
Across the board, the interests of organized wealth and economic elites are prioritized over those of much of the population. The case of housing is just one example; health care, including Obamacare, which was subordinated to the interests of the private insurance and pharmaceutical industries at great cost to the most vulnerable, is another.
In 1996, Adolph Reed denounced Clintonian neoliberalism as "a politics motivated by the desire for proximity to the ruling class and a belief in the basic legitimacy of its power and prerogative. It is a politics which, despite all its idealist puffery and feigned nobility, will sell out any allies or egalitarian objectives in pursuit of gaining the Prince's ear."
Over the last several decades, the consequences of such a dynamic — one in which both major parties are eager, above all, to serve the needs of their wealthiest constituents — have been stark. While those at the very top are doing extremely well in the aftermath of decades of deregulation and privatization, almost everyone else is in a state of stagnation or decline.
As Neil Irwin observes, "81 percent of the United States population is in an income bracket with flat or declining income over the last decade."
And while Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both vie for the support of economically insecure middle class Americans, the poorest are virtually ignored.
"We don't have a full-voiced condemnation of the level or extent of poverty in America today," Matthew Desmond, the author of an essential book on evictions and deep poverty, told the New York Times. "We aren't having in our presidential debate right now a serious conversation about the fact that we are the richest democracy in the world, with the most poverty. It should be at the very top of the agenda."
But it isn't. Not satisfied with a crime of omission, however, Democrats, particularly in 2016, have moved in the opposite direction, earnestly courting and proclaiming the benevolence of "the good billionaires," in contrast with the pernicious Donald Trump.
Such distinctions say, in effect, that staggering systemic inequities are okay, just as long as those benefiting from these inequities are admirable people — they're not, of course: Warren Buffett has made a lot of money exploiting the poor, and Michael Bloomberg has been quite Trump-like with his extensive history of sexist remarks.
Because they eschew any honest critique of capitalism, these are the absurdities to which Democrats are confined: They must justify the economic order and insist that there are good and bad economic elites, those who, out of the kindness of their hearts, share the spoils with their workers and those who, like Trump, don't.
Missing is any meaningful discussion of the ways in which the poor are pushed to the margins and ruthlessly disenfranchised by norms established and perpetuated by Democrats and Republicans — norms, from business-friendly trade policy to welfare reform to Wall Street deregulation, that are to be expected in the context of a "a political order subservient to the needs of the economy."
And often, Democrats have not merely capitulated to the anti-poor agenda of the right; they have adopted swaths of it, pushing it on their own under the guise of political compromise. It is no wonder, then, that the poorest tend to not turnout on election day — they feel disowned by a political system that has, in actual fact, disowned them.
The campaign of Bernie Sanders helped to bring to the surface Democrats' history of rightward sprints, and it offered a brief glimpse of the class and ideological warfare brewing within the confines of the Democratic Party, a party divided by its ostensible commitment to "the people" and its actual commitment to the business interests and the economic elites that have so skillfully captured the legislative process.
This shaky coalition, Corey Robin notes, "rests upon the age-old powder keg of race, class, and real estate that's just waiting to explode. Everything about the neoliberal Democratic Party depends upon suppressing this conflict."
We saw this throughout the primary process, during which the Sanders coalition, whose core priority was an aggressive approach to income inequality, was smeared repeatedly as racist, sexist, and class-reductionist.
The elite anger the Sanders insurgency provoked was telling: It made clear the opposition within the political establishment to "even mild social democracy." It teased out the distinctions between those who believe corporate money is inherently corrupting and those who don't, those who support single-payer health care and those who don't, those who support a radical approach to both redistributing income and wealth and addressing the crisis of poverty and those who don't.
These are meaningful distinctions, and they will animate future political contests and, hopefully, successful progressive movements and campaigns.
With Hillary Clinton at the helm, though, it is unlikely that the Democrats' drift toward becoming "the cosmopolitan elite party" will slow, particularly if Trumpism becomes the dominant current within the GOP. Also, given Clinton's "embrace of amoral billionaires," notes Nathan Robinson, it is "highly unlikely that the party will follow through on any meaningful attempt to reduce American economic inequality."
But the crises we face — deep poverty is just one of many — reach far beyond the realm of electoral politics, and even the election of the Right Leaders will not move us any closer to ameliorating the suffering in America's most vulnerable communities.
The problem is, ultimately, systemic: It is about who writes the rules, and how these rules act in the real world to create extraordinary gains for some while leaving others to compete, endlessly and ruthlessly, for the rest.
As long as those who write the rules are primarily concerned with securing gains for their wealthy constituents, and as long as Democratic initiatives are shaped by the "truly advantaged wing" of the party, there is little reason to believe the steps necessary to eradicate poverty will be taken.
"If we are going to spend the bulk of our public dollars on the affluent — at least when it comes to housing — we should own up to that decision and stop repeating the canard about this rich country being unable to afford more," Matthew Desmond writes. "If poverty persists in America, it is not for lack of resources. We lack something else."
In the present, we lack the mass organization necessary to launch a meaningful counter-offensive to combat "the scourge of neoliberalism," a political and economic framework that atomizes individuals who would otherwise share common objectives, undercutting avenues for democratic reform and entrenching the power of private capital.
And, according to the latest census figures, the costs of our inability to challenge these institutional powers are startling: Over 46 million Americans live in poverty; the poverty rate for children under the age of 18 is 21.1 percent. Millions, furthermore, live in deep poverty; over 17 million families suffer from food insecurity.
The problem is no longer, as it was prior to the publication of Michael Harrington's famous study The Other America, that the poor are invisible, unseen by the political class and by those enjoying the gains of an "affluent society."
The problem is that we have a political system almost wholly captured by those hostile to the radical redistributive agenda necessary to ameliorate the suffering poverty inflicts in communities throughout the world's wealthiest nation. We have, in other words, a political class that sees the poor, but does nothing in response.
"No other advanced nation," writes Eduardo Porter, "tolerates this depth of deprivation."
In such a context, even the election of Bernie Sanders would not have been sufficient to alter the nature of the political and economic order. Only labor-based mass movements sustained beyond the extravaganzas of electoral politics and working independently of the anti-democratic forces that so dominate Washington can produce sufficient force to create lasting change.
Such efforts will be dismissed as Utopian, unfeasible, too idealistic; they will fail more often than they succeed; and they will always provoke a response from those uninterested in ceding the gains they have gone to great lengths to consolidate — they are necessary, nonetheless, given the stakes.
"Never before has humanity depended so fully for the survival of us all on a social movement being willing to bet on impracticality," write Mark and Paul Engler, in a similar vein as John Dewey's observation, penned in the midst of the Great Depression, that it is, ultimately, "the pressure of necessity which creates and directs all political changes."
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