The Democratic Party’s Mitosis

Bernie Sanders’ win in the Michigan primary may signal a turning point in the race for the Democratic nomination, but it also highlights the fact that Hillary Clinton is having difficulties in states that typically vote Democratic in November. Clinton’s seven-state win on Super Tuesday had much of the corporate media declaring her nomination a sure thing, but a closer look reveals a troubling pattern. Six of those seven states are likely to vote Republican in November’s election, and the one Democratic state (Massachusetts) was nearly a tie with Sanders. If the Democrats want to chase after the Southern vote, maybe Hillary should be their candidate, but it will be a repeat of a pattern that has hurt working Americans time and time again.

Losing the South

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he is said to have remarked that he might have handed the Southern states to the Republicans for decades to come. The story may be an apocryphal one but the backlash the Democratic Party faced for enacting legislation aimed at dismantling the discrimination and segregation rampant in much of the United States was very real. Over the next few decades, Republicans capitalized on the white backlash by campaigning on “law and order issues,” defending “family values,” and often painting Black people as the undeserving poor or, even worse, as a largely criminal underclass that was a threat to the predominantly white middle class.

The Democratic Party was seriously wounded after the 1968 and 1972 elections. Some analysts blame the nomination of George McGovern as the root cause, claiming that he was far too liberal for American voters. That may have been the case, but the more important factor was the success they saw Georgia Gov. George Wallace have in his bids for the presidency. Wallace may have been the most overtly racist candidate for that office in all of the 20th century. He was famous to many for standing on the State Capitol steps in 1963 and proclaiming “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” and for physically blocking the doorway to prevent Black students from entering the University of Alabama. Wallace ran for the presidency as an Independent in 1968 and received 13.5 percent of the popular vote and won outright in five southern states. In 1972, Wallace changed tact and ran for the Democratic nomination. He won 23.5 percent of the Democratic vote and was narrowly defeated by Hubert Humphrey and the eventual Democratic nominee, George McGovern, who went on to lose to Nixon in a historic landslide.

Johnson might have been right about delivering southern voters to the Republicans for a long time, but then Watergate happened and Nixon delivered millions of voters right back. In 1976, the Democrats nominated a southern candidate, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, who successfully took on the hobbled Republican Party and narrowly won the popular vote nationally and, very importantly, carried the south and its electoral votes to win the presidency over Gerald Ford.

What does all of this have to do with this year’s election? The simple answer is that for several decades the Democratic Party has been trying to win back a lot of the conservative voters that it had lost. Consequently, the leadership of the party made a conscious decision to downplay economic populism that might have attracted many working class voters and, to a large degree, to rest on its laurels regarding the struggle for Black/white equality. Black Americans might have been easy for the party to neglect, since the candidates put forth by the Republican Party have been so bad on policies and issues that concern many Black voters that Democrats could count on their support without working for it. The overall neglect of the working-class might be a little more complicated, but it has been very real.

The bottom line is that the Democratic Party chose to go after many of the voters who had swung over to the Republicans. Older Americans and people with higher incomes are more likely to vote and, importantly, those voters are often more in step ideologically with the upper class that exercises dominance over the party. But this is a strategy that is eroding our democracy, making it more and more exclusionary. Hillary and Bill Clinton are at the very core of this problem, which was worsened by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) they helped to empower in the mid-1980s.

Clintonism

The DLC was founded in 1985 by Al From, who would go on to become a key advisor to the Clintons over the following three decades. In the 1990s, From and Hillary Clinton offered encouragement to British Prime Minister Tony Blair as his government pursued “a third way” a neoliberal strategy that promoted private-public partnerships that marginalized the general public. In 2000, at a speech at Hyde Park, President Bill Clinton said, “It would be hard to think of a single American citizen who, as a private citizen, has had a more positive impact on the progress of American life in the last 25 years than Al From.”

At the heart of From’s principles (and the DLC’s) was a determination not to pursue economic populism as a strategy. The class preferences of the DLC can be seen in its nearly unwavering support of global trade rights over workers’ rights and environmental concerns. The interests of the DLC reached its pinnacle during the Clinton presidency, and it’s clear that both Hillary and Bill were 100 percent on board. Clintonism became the real-world manifestation of DLC ideology and strategy.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton represents the establishment — the corporate wing of the Democratic Party that is tied to old ways that have eroded our democracy and added to growing inequality. For decades, the party has failed to adequately fight for working people in this country. While the Republican Party pursued policies that chipped away at government programs and departments that promoted the common good, and confounded true progress by inflaming sentiments that divided the population, the Democratic Leadership Council – and the Clintons in particular – pursued a policy of triangulation that took positions between those of the moderate American middle and the extreme conservatism of the Republican far right. Triangulation marginalized the working class and helped legitimize the terms of political discourse as put forth by the far right.

The DLC was dismantled in 2011, but its spirit lives on within much of the Democratic establishment. The overall strategy has resulted in specific policies that have worsened economic inequality and insecurity in the United States. International trade agreements, for example, have accelerated the flow of investment capital and jobs out of the country. The record of the Democratic establishment is not uniform in doing so, but this is the clear historical trend. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) all put trade and corporate rights above the interests of workers and the environment. Throughout her political career, Hillary Clinton has toed the party line on trade matters. In fact, to some extent, she was an originator of one of the most detestable ingredients in these trade agreements – that any government regulation having to do with the environment or workers’ rights, that denied or threatened the ability of an industry to make money was tantamount to an illegal “taking of property” and gave the industry the right to financial compensation for the loss of future profits. This is what she argued while working in Arkansas in the 1970s for the Rose Law firm in its attempt to roll back state regulations on the price of electricity.[1]

Mimicking the Right

Voting for a woman is not a vote for women. Having a woman president would be a ground-breaking and historic accomplishment. Hillary Clinton’s victory would mean a lot to many and it would be a repudiation of the vile attacks made by the right wing over the years. But it would mostly be a symbolic victory, which is not enough.

In step with the Democratic Party’s efforts to be as “tough on crime” and the “underserving” poor as theRepublicans, Hillary supported the reform of welfare “as we know it,” which made life more difficult for millions of women and children across the country. “We have to do what we have to do and I hope our friends know it.”[2] The 1996 Welfare reform act, cleverly named the Welfare Reform and Personal Responsibility Act, left poor Americans – particularly women and children – with little safety net. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which was abolished by the Welfare Reform and Personal Responsibility Act, helped lift 2.2 million children out of poverty, while its successor, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) did the same for just over 600,000. Welfare reform increased the amount of extreme poverty in the US. The book, $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by sociologists Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, documents the war on the poor and how miserably TANF has failed. For every 100 families in poverty in 1996, 68 received cash assistance. Now it’s only 23 in 100.

Hillary Clinton served six years on the board of directors of Walmart, a company that has made a fortune exploiting low-wage workers, women in particular, and has tenaciously fought their workers’ right to unionize.The company also benefits from a low minimum wage and government support to its workers for food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies and the like. No single company may have benefited more, nor destroyed more US jobs, as a result of the Clintons’ efforts to permanently normalize trade relations with China in 1999, which Bill disingenuously claimed would “open China’s markets to American products made on American soil — everything from corn, to chemicals, to computers.” It comes as no surprise then that Walmart heir Alice Walton has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Hillary’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Some of Hillary’s supporters portray her as a longtime supporter of universal health care, she says she is for it but Hillary’s leadership on health care reform in the 1990s is more accurately read as attempt at minor reform that would avoid the type of single-payer solution in place in Canada and advocated without equivocation by Bernie Sanders. Hillary brought health industry leaders together to fashion a health care proposal that had the approval of the industry, but little buy-in from other constituencies.[3] In the end, the proposal offered little of value to the US public, lacked sufficient congressional or public support and could not get passed (yet, she is the candidate who “can get things done”).

Hillary Clinton is the incarceration candidate. She strongly advocated for her husband’s 1994 crime bill, which built more prisons and extended prison sentences. Maybe you’ve seen her quote from 1994: “There is something wrong when a crime bill takes six years to work its way through the Congress, and the average criminal serves only four. There is something wrong with our system.” That same year, Clinton told a room of police officers: “We will be able to say, loudly and clearly, that for repeat, violent, criminal offenders — three strikes and you’re out. We are tired of putting you back in through the revolving door.”

Acclaimed critic of mass incarceration, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, had this to say on the topic:

If anyone doubts that the mainstream media fails to tell the truth about our political system (and its true winners and losers), the spectacle of large majorities of black folks supporting Hillary Clinton in theprimary races ought to be proof enough. I can’t believe Hillary would be coasting into the primaries with her current margin of black support if most people knew how much damage the Clintons have done — the millions of families that were destroyed the last time they were in the White House thanks to their boastful embrace of the mass incarceration machine and their total capitulation to the right-wing narrative on race, crime, welfare and taxes. There’s so much more to say on this topic and it’s a shame that more people aren’t saying it. I think it’s time we have that conversation.

Hillary Clinton also represents the merger of governing, fundraising and campaigning — engaging in the Machiavellian use of public opinion to say what is needed to get elected and to win the backing of wealthy campaign funders. For the sake of focus and brevity, I’ve stayed away from foreign policy issues (other than trade) but her history shows that she is clearly in step with the general sentiment of the US ruling class on these issues, and that her critics are right “she hasn’t met a war she didn’t like.” Her cozy relationship with the hideous Henry Kissinger should be enough to scare off progressive voters.

A Clear Choice

While the Sander’s “political revolution” may be too much of a one-person act that runs the risk of leaving Congress only modestly changed, there are structural changes occurring that are much greater than the inspirational leadership of one person. With younger voters favoring Sanders by a huge margin maybe the future is brighter regardless of which candidate wins the nomination. By all indications, a dramatic culture shift is taking place among young Americans. They are not scared off by the label of socialism. They are more supportive of the need to struggle against inequality, the need for a political revolution, and the concepts of a “billionaire class,” a “rigged economy” and a “rigged justice system” seem innately meaningful.

In addition, there is reason to think that these changes in consciousness are not likely to fade. The proliferation of alternative media is providing fertile ground for democratic participatory journalism that allows stories and perspective to be shared that are otherwise ignored by corporate media. Consider how much of an impact cell phone videos have had in exposing police violence across the nation and in creating and strengthening the Black Lives Matter movement. The rise of social media and alternative news websites maybe a bigger force than we can know.

The current political system offers little to the millions of young Americans who are overburdened with more than a trillion dollars of student loan debt. The economy creates plenty of low-paying jobs but few with decent pay and good benefits. A future of economic insecurity is creating a culture and consciousness not likely to fade away after November.

Footnotes:

1. Doug Henwood, My Turn, OR Books, p. 21).

2. Henwood, p.2.

3. Melvin Konner, M.D. Dear America (New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1993), pp. 68-71.