Blame the Neoliberals: Toxic Ideology Paved the Way for Trump

How corporate centrism has failed to defeat even the most incompetent figurehead of the nativist right.

Congratulations are not in order. Donald Trump’s bigotry, his heinous treatment of women, his authoritarian posturing, his hatred of free speech, and his stupendous ignorance are more than sufficient to make him a figure worthy of unqualified contempt — and now he is president of the United States.

In the coming months, Trump will attempt to impose himself on the country, and the state of the countervailing forces is hardly reassuring; Republicans are abhorrent, and Democrats are feckless.

We’ve long understood the former point; after all, the conservative movement gave birth to Trump. As for the latter: Democrats have no one to blame for their fecklessness but themselves. And their failures as a party created the opening through which Trump has just walked.

For decades, Democrats have been expanding their coalition, but in the wrong direction. Instead of strengthening their relationship with organized labor and building a platform sufficient to inspire and raise the expectations of working class Americans, the so-called Third Way Democrats devised a plan to win over the professionals, the so-called moderates — these “reformers” wanted the party to become what it has, in fact, become.

Lee Drutman calls it “the cosmopolitan elite party.” And while this party still relies heavily on minority voters, its ability to deliver material benefits to this constituency has been compromised by its partnership with corporate America and wealthy professionals who, even if they identify as “liberals,” couldn’t care less about income and wealth inequality.

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But it’s not just that they have left the working class in a state of stagnation. Democrats have done tremendous harm. A Democrat destroyed welfare; a Democrat signed the North American Free Trade Agreement into law; a Democrat, at the behest of the business class, tore down much of what was left of the regulatory apparatus that was tenuously restraining the financial sector.

When it all came crashing down in 2008, a president who proposed “change we can believe in” staffed his transition team with Wall Street loyalists. President Obama has also, against the fierce protests of those he once claimed to be fighting for, aggressively pushed for a far-reaching “trade” agreement that is, in large part, a power grab by massive corporations.

Move ahead to the present, and you’ll see that these trends have only accelerated.

Hillary Clinton was a near unanimous hit among the Democratic establishment, chosen as the ideal presidential candidate before she had formally announced her intention to run. She had at her command “the biggest big-money operation” in history, and her ties to corporate America were far deeper and stronger than President Obama’s. Her path to the White House was, it seemed, rather clear.

And then a genuine progressive came along and messed everything up. Bernie Sanders put forward an ambitious agenda that affirmed goals the Democratic Party was previously happy (in word) to champion — from a $15 minimum wage to free public college tuition to universal healthcare — and he garnered striking enthusiasm from a remarkably diverse coalition.

The response from the establishment was, again, nearly unanimous: Sanders is a great guy and all, the narrative went, but he could never win; his proposals were, said the punditry and high-ranking Democrats in a synchronous torrent of takes and assessments, insufficiently pragmatic. Dismissed out of hand were plausible arguments that Sanders, given his scandal-free record and his appeal among younger and otherwise inactive voters, would do better in a head-to-head match-up with Trump.

But Sanders wasn’t just denounced and then ignored. As we have recently learned, and as we long suspected, he was actively undermined.

Hillary Clinton ultimately won the nomination, and the presidency, it seemed, was in sight. Republicans nominated an incompetent wrecking ball. The commentariat enjoyed a self-satisfied chuckle.

It was widely believed that Clinton would move rightward after the primaries, that she would hunker down in her natural place on the political spectrum: the center-right. And that’s what she did, with a sprinkling of the gross American exceptionalism and hawkishness that had so angered progressives in the past.

In her private speeches to large financial institutions, made available by WikiLeaks, we learned — to no surprise — that Clinton is precisely who Bernie Sanders said she was: A friend, an ally, of the bankers. Her path on the campaign trail made it clear, also, that she preferred the wealthy to the working class: Clinton was, the New York Times reported, “more than accessible to those who reside in some of the country’s most moneyed enclaves.”

Despite frequent rumblings about “the most progressive platform in history,” WikiLeaks also revealed that the Clinton team’s relationship with organized labor is, and always was, cynical and one-sided: Clinton was, of course, happy to take union money, but she would not commit to helping them fight their most essential battles.

I wrote back in August that this kind of stale, center-right posture may be sufficient to foreclose the possibility of a Trump presidency this time around, but it would be insufficient to address our most pressing concerns and to defeat future, more organized products of the nativist right.

I was wrong: Corporate centrism has failed to defeat even the most incompetent figurehead of the nativist right.

This should be a wake-up call for those bent on perpetuating the neoliberal order that has given us soaring inequality and a political system thoroughly captured by organized wealth. This should be a wake-up call, also, for those who have insisted, in response to Trump’s nostalgic rhetoric, that “America is already great.”

It’s not. People are in serious pain, and the pundits who point smugly to recent economic data as evidence that, as Matt Yglesias put it, “we are currently living through the best of times” are part of the problem.

There is, to be sure, plenty of blame to go around for Trump’s rise; no single factor can wholly explain Trump, the individual, or the appeal of Trumpism.

What is clear, though, is that much of the blame must fall on the party that relentlessly pushed a terrible candidate, who then went on to implement a terrible strategy — a strategy that placed more emphasis on recruiting elite Republicans and war criminals than on appealing in good faith to working class voters who were skeptical of her willingness to deliver change.

None of what happened was predetermined; choices were made, agendas were pursued or not pursued, words were said or left unsaid, and now we will face, and do all we can to resist, the consequences.

Trump’s victory is a horrifying moment. He poses a tremendous threat to the most vulnerable members of our society; he is unwilling to acknowledge climate science, let alone to act on its findings; and he now has his hands on everything that President Obama succeeded in institutionalizing, including the authority to carry out executions from afar without oversight.

Much ink will be spilled predicting what is to come and diagnosing what “went wrong.” There can be no doubt that pure racism and misogyny played a role in Trump’s success, but to ignore other factors is to commit the same mistakes that have helped pave Trump’s path to the White House. As Nate Cohn observed on Twitter, “Clinton suffered her biggest losses in the places where Obama was strongest among white voters. It’s not a simple racism story.”

The most general takeaway from this fact is the following. There is something wrong with the Democratic Party: Namely, it is ideologically bankrupt. Neoliberalism, the party’s driving force, is toxic, and it has failed not only much of the United States, but also much of the world, driving wealth into the hands of the few while leaving the rest to fight for the crumbs. People are sick of it. And without a populist left offering an ambitious alternative to the status quo, the nativist right has thrived, and will continue to thrive.

“Elite liberalism, it turns out, cannot defeat right-wing populism,” several editors of Jacobin concluded on Wednesday.

Given recent history, I’m not confident that Democratic politicians, operatives, and pundits will make an honest effort to confront the implications of Tuesday’s results. So:

If we have just witnessed the death of the Democratic establishment, well, good riddance.

This post first appeared in Common Dreams.

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