Clinton and Trump, Two Candidates Enveloped by the Shadow of Goldman Sachs
In November, the American people will likely be faced with a choice between two representatives of the corporate oligarchy — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
One is a politician who has benefited greatly from the opportunistic generosity of Wall Street, oil lobbyists, and the insurance industry; the other is a billionaire who has often boasted about his fruitful history on the other side of the equation, where he has spent his time and vast wealth buying influence and access in Washington.
However, both, in their stump speeches and formal campaign promises, have vowed to reign in America's largest financial institutions.
These claims have — rightly — been met with immense skepticism.
Hillary Clinton has been assailed from the left by those who view her promises as riddled with contradictions: How can a candidate who has accepted millions of dollars in speaking fees from some of America's largest financial institutions — including such giants as Goldman Sachs and Bank of America — effectively impose stringent regulations?
Clinton has offered several responses to this question, none of them satisfactory — and some of them patently ridiculous.
In an attempt to combat her image as a genial partner of Wall Street, Clinton has deployed rhetoric that sounds awfully like that of her opponent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, promising to put a stop to Wall Street's fraudulent and risky behavior and to empower consumers.
Wall Street executives, however, are not exactly trembling with anxiety at the prospect of a Clinton presidency.
Progressives fighting aggressively for campaign finance reform have been equally skeptical of Clinton's rhetoric, but for different reasons. For many, Clinton's acceptance of corporate cash — along with her flippant dismissal of those who insist that it is corrupting — is indicative of a deep, philosophical problem that has yet to be addressed.
"While Clinton is great at warring with Republicans, taking on powerful corporations goes against her entire worldview, against everything she's built, and everything she stands for," writes Naomi Klein. "The real issue, in other words, isn't Clinton's corporate cash, it's her deeply pro-corporate ideology: one that makes taking money from lobbyists and accepting exorbitant speech fees from banks seem so natural that the candidate is openly struggling to see why any of this has blown up at all."
Donald Trump, for his part, has railed against his opponents for selling out to corporate America and has portrayed himself as an independent soul that will not cave under the pressures and temptations of big money.
"Remember this: They have total control over Jeb and Hillary and everybody else that takes that money," Trump has said. "I will tell you this: Nobody's putting up millions of dollars for me. I'm putting up my own money."
But now, as the presumptive Republican nominee, Trump is facing the prospect of a long general election contest in which, as he has been forced to concede, his own fortune will not be sufficient to compete with the vast fundraising machine of his likely opponent.
In an effort to kick-start his fundraising and perhaps to assuage skeptical elites, Trump picked Steve Mnuchin to be his national finance chairman.
Surprise, surprise: Mnuchin is a hedge fund manager and former Goldman Sachs executive. He has also donated to Hillary Clinton in the past.
So even Trump, whose campaign has rested upon open contempt for candidates bought by elite sectors of American business, is constrained by the far-reaching shadow of corporate America.
It is a striking picture: Goldman Sachs consistently donates hefty sums to both parties, and their former employees often fill the ranks of political campaigns and occupy key positions in government.
In 2010, a CBS News "analysis of the revolving door between Goldman and government" found "at least four dozen former employees, lobbyists or advisers at the highest reaches of power both in Washington and around the world."
Trump and Clinton, while they each claim to bring something different to the table, seem to be offering more of the same.
Matt Taibbi's famous characterization of the bank as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money" has never been more apt.
Mnuchin, who will face the task of raising an estimated $1 billion for Trump and the Republican party, worked for Goldman Sachs for seventeen years and, as Peter Dreier observes in The Nation, his "hedge fund has had business dealings with Trump."
And, Dreier adds, the two have much in common. "Both Trump and Mnuchin have run businesses accused of widespread racial discrimination, and they both represent the excessive wealth and greed of the billionaire developer and banker class. And both men have hedged their political bets, donating big bucks to Democrats as well as Republicans."
We are living, it seems safe to conclude, in the world depicted by John Dewey, in which "politics is the shadow cast on society by big business." And, as Dewey understood, "the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance."
As long as both parties remain subservient to the interests of corporate America, "attenuation" in the form of shifting party leaders will not undercut the true "substance" of American politics.
"In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes," write Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, the authors of an influential study examining the extent to which key sectors of society shape public policy. "When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose."
Goldman Sachs embodies both the capture of American politics by large financial institutions and the disastrous results that follow, from a two-tiered justice system that disproportionately punishes the poor to an economy that enriches the already wealthy at the expense of everyone else.
Whoever America's largest financial institutions throw their weight behind, one thing is clear, as William Cohen has observed: "Wall Street often gets what Wall Street wants."
Or, as Joel Kotkin has put it, "Rather than a right- or left-wing upheaval, this election will end up less a celebration of populism than the ultimate triumph of oligarchy."