Hillary and her cocoon of advisers are deeply out of touch. They will drive liberalism off a cliff,* from which there may be no return for a generation.
Brexit has rattled the Western elites: pundits, politicians, professionals, and Wall Street financiers. Suddenly major publications, including the NY Times, are writing front page stories bemoaning the depth of the populism that is roiling Western Europe, and—now, they notice—the U.S. These are the same elites who consistently underestimated the appeal of both Trump and Sanders, whose combined votes in the primaries far exceed those of Clinton. The disturbing, yet comforting, explanation that the elites have offered: these annoying ruptures in the space-time continuum are due to low information voters—i.e., dumb folks—who are moved by tribalism, racism, and xenophobia.
No doubt xenophobia and racism can be found among the populists, but it would be a serious error to dismiss them on these grounds. If you listen to the voices of the anti-establishment populists, what’s clear is that for most of them their nationalism is primarily an anti-internationalism, which may or may not involve racism. They know that there are powerful people and forces in the world, constantly pressing for more globalization, which have left them high and dry, and over which they have no control. They know that promises were made and left unfulfilled. And they are right. The system has not been working for them, and it’s not been working for a long time, a couple of generations. Take the situation in the U.S., which can be summed up in one chart:**
Globalization and excessive dependence on “free” markets have done nothing to improve the income of the average American since the late 1960’s. The same cannot be said for the top 10%, which has done quite well, even factoring in the great recession of 2008. Notice that neither Reagan’s nor Clinton’s administrations led to any sustained improvement for the bottom 90%, especially in comparison with the top 10%. In addition, we all know that the top 1% and .1% have done exceedingly well over the last few decades:
Part of the reason the grievances of the many have not been recognized by the elites is simply a matter of the bubbles people live in. We tend to live in neighborhoods and associate with people at work who are roughly in the same economic strata. Elites talk to elites. But this is only part of the explanation. Another feature of it involves the ways in which our accounts of events draw on stories that we tell ourselves about how the world is organized.
One of the master narratives among the elites is that cosmopolitanism is a good. It reduces tribalism and the provincialism that can lead to wars, for example. Our great urban centers are centers of culture and enlightenment, unlike small towns and rural areas, in which folk “cling to guns or religion” (Obama, 2008). Of course, if one frames cosmopolitanism as an antidote to parochialism and war, it is hard to argue against it.*** But cosmopolitanism can no longer be separated from globalization, and contemporary globalization is a function of the spread of a form of capitalism that depends on a parasitic finance sector: people making money, lots and lots of money, off of money. It also involves a class of capitalist elite, whose members have more in common with each other than their fellow citizens. And don’t think that the plebs aren’t noticing: according to the Washington Post, “they villainize globalization”(!).
Which takes us back to the charts. How is it with all of our new technology and free markets, most of the population in the U.S. hasn’t seen an increase in their incomes since the late 1960’s? Reagan’s supply side economics didn’t make a difference. Neither did Clinton’s policies, or even the coincidence of his time in office with the tech boom of 1990’s. Neither did Bush’s or Obama’s economic policies.
Which takes us back to Hillary, who has promised us that Bill will be “in charge of revitalizing the economy, because, you know, he knows how to do it.” This might be reassuring for those in the top 10% who did quite well during Clinton’s presidency, but it shouldn’t be reassuring at all to the rest of the population. Hillary is promising us the slow and steady hand of the experienced policy wonk or bureaucrat. She will not be rash. She will follow established policies and protocols. She is promising us a version of the Remain camp in Great Britain: slow and steady progress through established institutions. According to the Clinton-friendly NY Times,
She offers reasonableness instead of resentment, urging voters to see the big picture and promising to manage economic and immigration upheaval, just as Mr. Cameron did. She, too, is a pragmatic internationalist battling against nationalist anger, cautioning that the turmoil after the so-called Brexit vote underscores a need for “calm, steady, experienced leadership in the White House.”
How’s that worked for those of you in bottom 90%? Not so good, right? There is nothing in Hillary’s economic proposals that will rock the boat. But that boat, to extend the metaphor, isn’t going anywhere for 90% of the population. For most people it’s slipping backwards, relative to the top 10%. For many, it’s just sinking.
After four or eight years of Hillary Clinton’s “liberalism,” which will accomplish nothing transformative on the economic front, people will be even more fed up than they are now. And because Clinton has taken to calling herself a liberal and progressive, guess what the reaction is going to be down the road: reactionary politics. We won’t be electing any “liberal” to save us in four or eight years. We will be electing a populist, but unfortunately the populism is likely to be on the right, not the left, precisely because the left will be associated with Clinton’s failure. (There is one hope here: Sanders and his followers building a genuinely, and persuasively, anti-establishment left. But that’s another story.)
Hillary’s energies have been focused on identity politics. And of course tolerance and protections for marginalized peoples are crucial. But this is only half of the picture. As Clinton provocateur James Carville was fond of saying in the early nineties, “The economy, stupid” (which became, “It’s the economy, stupid”). Focusing on identity politics without addressing the ways in which 21st century capitalism is out of control, will only make matters worse down the road. It will increase not only the feeling but the fact that the global elite is out-of-touch. It will further inflame the bottom 90%. The price we’ll pay for electing another Clinton may well be the demise of the left for a generation.
* With apologies to Susan Sarandon.
** Forbes, chart found here.
*** I’ve written in support of a version of cosmopolitanism, Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism; and The Cosmopolitan Self: George Herbert Mead and Continental Philosophy. But it is impossible to see it as an unmitigated good because of the extent to which it is increasingly entangled with globalization.