The Bernie-fication of American politics

Dave Cunningham on the challenge to corporate Democrats 

The four year electoral cycle leading up to the November elections has been the oddest and most unpredictable such experience I can recall. As of about a year ago conventional wisdom had it that the 2016 run-up would see a contest of the dynasts who had dominated the highest branches of the state for the past four decades: Jeb, scion of the Bush family (2 presidents, 12 years in office, a CIA Directorate thrown in) versus Hillary Clinton, a former presidential wife for two terms, former New York Senator, former Secretary of State. In addition, both had access to tons of money (by mid-February, Jeb is said to have burned through 50 million dollars with not a lot to show for it). Outfits like this float on a cushion of money. Both presumed nominees were seen as carrying a lot of baggage. Jeb, a former Governor of Florida, was generally regarded as appallingly bad at the job. He was also running only a few years after the disastrous regime of his brother, George W. Bush, today derided as one of the worst presidents in US history, with his sloth and neglect when Hurricane Katrina demolished much of New Orleans, his sponsorship of the war against Iraq, and his catastrophic 2008 Great Recession. Meanwhile many Democrats were leery of the war hawk Hillary, purported friend of Henry Kissinger, and who had voted for and supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq (an act which probably cost her the 2008 nomination) and who was instrumental in the subsequent destabilisation of the Middle East.

Conventional wisdom

Still, no one thought this conventional wisdom (actually a hardened mindset) was seriously askew. When Bernie Sanders announced he was running for the President’s office in the late spring of last year he was derided as a crank or a ‘gadfly’ or just ignored. As for Donald Trump, his arrival on the scene got him portrayed as an unserious trickster drumming up attention for his television shows and his ‘brand’. Everyone knows how well that assumption worked out. Referring to the use of this kind of conventional wisdom endemic in media journalism, Josh Marshall of Turning Points Memo recently sardonically observed that it “has been completely thrown out between former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s disappointing showing in the GOP race, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign giving Hillary Clinton’s vast operation a run for its money and a former reality TV star handily winning the New Hampshire primary.” The problem with using the results of the Iowa and New Hampshire votes is demographical. Iowa is a small rural state with no large cities, a largely white population and few minorities. According to the US Census Bureau, in the year 2010 its total population was 3,107,126, of which white people made up 92.1% and Afro-Americans 3.4 %, and a household income less than the national average. The situation is even more atypical in New Hampshire: its total population is estimated at 1, 326,813 with whites representing 94% of the population and Afro-Americans 1.5%. (It however has some cities and a household income much higher than Iowa or the national norm.) Iowa uses a caucus rather than primary voting system, which is a jerry-built, arcane and baroque system no one understands but is profoundly undemocratic. It privileges party activists over rank and file voters. You really can’t extrapolate values and attitudes from there. To understand the bizarre nature of the Iowa caucus system, see the PBS Newshour January 16, 2016 analysis. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Iowa caucuses was not Sanders’ speedy rise to a virtual tie with Clinton, but the extent to which Sanders won over the young adult vote by an even larger percent than Barack Obama had in 2008. 84% of voters under thirty, and 58 % of voters between the ages 30 and 44, supported Sanders. Equally, in New Hampshire, he won with 83% of voters under 30.

Hillary still sees the world through the rose-coloured glasses of that ’90s consensus. Not Bernie. He sees that in 2016 rising tides don’t even lift most boats, that growth comes at a steep price


These figures are amazing and were completely unanticipated. The most succinct interpretation comes from Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind and professor of political science at Brooklyn College. He wrote: “The youngest voting generation today is the most liberal bloc in a long, long time for three reasons. “First, they’re young and poor, and young, poor people are historically more liberal. Second, they’re historically non-white. non-white Americans are historically liberal, too. Third, their white demo is historically liberal compared to older white voters…., “It’s not just a function of income … a question of race and life experiences. Non-white millennials who’ve been discriminated against—whether for reasons of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation—prefer socialism to capitalism and favor an economically egalitarian society over a competitive, meritocratic society. “That’s why young people are rallying to Sanders: no other candidate has made economic inequality, the growing divide between the haves and have-nots, so central to his or her campaign.” Robin goes on to point out that: “Nearly 70% of college graduates carry, on average, a student loan debt of $29,000.”  An article which has received a lot attention in the online journal Salon, Bill Curry’s “It’s almost over for Hillary: this election is a mass insurrection against a rigged system” gives an historical background for the Sanders/Clinton clash in the Democratic Primaries: “…In the 1990s a near bipartisan consensus celebrated a new age of globalization and information technology in which technology and trade spur growth that in turn fosters a broad and inclusive prosperity. Government’s job is to deregulate finance and trade and work with business in ‘public private partnerships’ for progress.

Rose-coloured glasses

“Twenty years on, Hillary still sees the world through the rose-coloured glasses of that ‘90s consensus. Not Bernie. He sees that in 2016 rising tides don’t even lift most boats, that growth comes at a steep price when it comes at all, and that new technology costs more jobs than it creates. He understands that when jobs flow to countries with weak governments and low wages, the American middle class can’t get a raise. He sees that public-private partnerships meant pay-to-play politics, and that the whole system runs not on innovation but corruption. My guess is the middle class sees what he sees and wants what he wants: a revolution. If he can continue to drive the debate, they may get one.” (See Curry’s Salon article online at:

More interesting than the severe tone with which Bill Curry treats Hillary Clinton here is the fact that Mr. Curry was himself a White House counsellor to President Clinton and that in his former role he presumably supported those policies and parts of that ‘consensus’ he now derides. This may very well represent Mr. Curry’s mea culpa moment, but it is also part of an historical revisionism: the attack on middle and working class lives in those years was far worse than he suggests. The Clinton Administrations of the 90s were the period of NAFTA and the World Trade Organization and the hollowing out and deindustrialization of the ‘Rust Belt’ of the US Midwest (Flint and Detroit, Michigan among them), deregulation in general, ‘welfare reform’ and the beatification of Alan Greenspan, and more.

Total capitulation

The Clinton Presidency did not initiate all or most of this, of course, but it supported these policies in a real continuity. Even more: this is the period when, as Michelle Alexander demonstrated in her book, The New Jim Crow, President Clinton, with the expressed support of Hillary Clinton (who publicly called young black children “super-predators”), helped usher in the period of mass incarceration in the black communities and performed a total capitulation to the Reagan and Bush right-wing conceptual universe of taxes and welfare and race and crime. (It’s worth noting that The New Jim Crow has recently acquired a mass readership among supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement). And that is the ‘consensus’ that Hillary Clinton sees through “rose colored glasses”! I think I wouldn’t describe the situation the same way. In this light, and assuming Sanders can maintain his present influence over younger voters for the rest of this year there would not seem to be any way this can end well for Mrs. Clinton.

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