Bernie, The Donald, and the Sins of Liberalism

Published on
by

Bernie, The Donald, and the Sins of Liberalism

An American version of class struggle

(Photo: Shelly Prevost/flickr/cc)

Arising from the shadows of the American repressed, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have been sending chills through the corridors of establishment power. Who would have thunk it? Two men, both outliers, though in starkly different ways, seem to be leading rebellions against the masters of our fate in both parties; this, after decades in which even imagining such a possibility would have been seen as naïve at best, delusional at worst. Their larger-than-life presence on the national stage may be the most improbable political development of the last American half-century.  It suggests that we are entering a new phase in our public life.

A year ago, in my book The Age of Acquiescence, I attempted to resolve a mystery hinted at in its subtitle: "The rise and fall of American resistance to organized wealth and power." Simply stated, that mystery was: Why do people rebel at certain moments and acquiesce in others?

Resisting all the hurts, insults, threats to material well-being, exclusions, degradations, systematic inequalities, over-lordship, indignities, and powerlessness that are the essence of everyday life for millions would seem natural enough, even inescapable, if not inevitable. Why put up with all that? 

Historically speaking, however, the impulse to give in has proven no less natural.  After all, to resist is often to risk yourself, your means of livelihood, and your way of life.  To rise up means to silence those intimidating internal voices warning that the overlords have the right to rule by virtue of their wisdom, wealth, and everything that immemorial custom decrees.  Fear naturally closes in.

"The rebellion that has carried Sanders aloft is not afraid to put capitalism in the dock."

In our context, then, why at certain historical moments have Americans shown a striking ability to rise up, at other times to submit? 

To answer that question, I explored those years in the first gilded age of the nineteenth century when millions of Americans took to the streets to protest, often in the face of the armed might of the state, and the period in the latter part of the twentieth century and the first years of this one when the label “the age of acquiescence” seemed eminently reasonable -- until, in 2016, it suddenly didn’t.

So consider this essay a postscript to that work, my perhaps belated realization that the age of acquiescence has indeed come to an end.  Millions are now, of course, feeling the Bern and cheering The Donald.  Maybe I should have paid more attention to the first signs of what was to come as I was finishing my book: the Tea Party on the right, and on the left Occupy Wall Street, strikes by low-wage workers, minimum and living wage movements, electoral victories for urban progressives, a surge of environmental activism, and the eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement just on the eve of publication. 

But when you live for so long in the shade of acquiescence where hope goes to die or at least grows sickly, you miss such things.  After all, if history has a logic, it can remain so deeply hidden as to be indecipherable... until it bites.  So, for example, if someone had X-rayed American society in 1932, in the depth of the Great Depression, that image would have revealed a body politic overrun with despair, cynicism, fatalism, and fear -- in a word, acquiescence, a mood that had shadowed the land since “black Tuesday” and the collapse of the stock market in 1929. 

Yet that same X-ray taken in 1934, just two years later, would have revealed a firestorm of mass strikes, general strikes, sit-down strikes, rent strikes, seizures of shuttered coal mines and utilities by people who were cold and lightless, marches of the unemployed, and a general urge to unseat the ancien régime; in a word, rebellion.  In this way, the equilibrium of a society can shift phases in the blink of an eye and without apparent warning (although in hindsight historians and others will explore all the reasons everybody should have seen it coming). 

Liberalism vs. Liberalism

Anticipated or not, a new age of rebellion has begun, one that threatens the status quo from the left and the right.  Perhaps its most shocking aspect: people are up in arms against liberalism.

That makes no sense, right?  How can it, when come November the queen of liberalism will face off against the billionaire standard bearer of Republicanism?  In the end, the same old same old, yes?  Liberal vs. conservative. 

Well, not really.  If you think of Hillary as the “limousine liberal” of this election season and The Donald as the right-wing “populist in pinstripes,” and consider how each of them shimmied their way to the top of the heap and who they had to fend off to get there, a different picture emerges.  Clinton inherits the mantle of a liberalism that has hollowed out the American economy and metastasized the national security state. It has confined the remnants of any genuine egalitarianism to the attic of the Democratic Party so as to protect the vested interests of the oligarchy that runs things.  That elite has no quarrel with racial and gender equality as long as they don’t damage the bottom line, which is after all the defining characteristic of the limousine liberalism Hillary champions.  Trump channels the hostility generated by that neoliberal indifference to the well-being of working people and its scarcely concealed cultural contempt for heartland America into a racially inflected anti-establishmentarianism. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders targets Clintonian liberalism from the other shore.  Liberalism is, in other words, besieged.

The Sixties Take on Liberalism

How odd!  For decades “progressives” have found themselves defending the achievements of liberal reform from the pitiless assault of an ascendant conservatism.  It’s hard to remember that the liberal vs. conservative equation didn’t always apply (and so may not again). 

Go back half a century to the 1960s, however, and the battlefield seems not dissimilar to today’s terrain.  That was a period when the Vietnam antiwar movement indicted liberalism for its imperialism in the name of democracy, while the civil rights and black power movements called it out for its political alliance with segregationists in the South. 

In those years, the New Left set up outposts in urban badlands where liberalism’s boast about the U.S. being an “affluent society” seemed like a cruel joke.  Students occupied campus buildings to say no to the bureaucratization of higher education and the university’s servitude to another liberal offspring, the military-industrial complex.  Women severed the knot tying the liberal ideal of the nuclear family to its gendered hierarchy.  The counterculture exhibited its contempt for liberalism’s sense of propriety in a thousand ways.  No hairstyle conventions, marriage contracts, sexual inhibitions, career ambitions, religious orthodoxies, clothing protocols, racial taboos, or chemical prohibitions escaped unscathed. 

Liberalism adjusted, however.  It has since taken credit for most of the reforms associated with that time.  Civil rights laws, the war on poverty (including Medicare and Medicaid), women’s rights, affirmative action, and the erasure of cultural discrimination are now a de rigueur part of the CVs of Democratic presidents and the party’s top politicians, those running the mainstream media, the chairmen of leading liberal foundations, Ivy League college presidents, high-end Protestant theologians and clerics, and so many others who proudly display the banner of liberalism.  And they do deserve some of the credit.  They may have genuinely felt that “Bern” of yesteryear, the one crying out for equal rights before the law.

More importantly, those liberal elites were wise enough or malleable enough, or both, to surf the waves of rebellion of that time.  Wisdom and flexibility, however, are only part of the answer to this riddle: Why did mid-twentieth century liberalism manage to reform itself instead of cracking up under the pressure of that sixties moment?  The deeper explanation may be that the uprisings of those years assaulted liberalism -- but largely on behalf of liberalism. Explicitly at times, as in the Port Huron Statement, that founding document of the ur-New Left group, Students for a Democratic Society, at other times by implication, the rebellions of that moment demanded that the liberal order live up to its own sacred credo of liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness.

The demand to open the system up became the heart and soul of the next phase of liberalism, of the urge to empower the free individual. Today, we might recognize this as the classic Clintonista desire to let all-comers join “the race to the top.” 

Looking back, it’s been customary to treat the sixties as an era of youth rebellion.  While more than that, it certainly could be understood, in part, as an American version of fathers and sons (not to speak of mothers and daughters). An older generation had created the New Deal order, itself an act of historic rebellion. As it happened, that creation didn’t fit well with a Democratic Party whose southern wing, embedded in the segregationist former Confederacy, rested on Jim Crow laws and beliefs. Nor did New Deal social welfare reforms that presumed a male breadwinner/head of household, while excluding underclasses, especially (but not only) those of the wrong complexion from its protections, square with a yearning for equality.

Moreover, the New Deal saved a capitalist economy laid low in the Great Depression by installing a new political economy of mass consumption.  While a wondrous material accomplishment, that was also a socially disabling development, nourishing a culture of status-seeking individualism and so undermining the sense of social solidarity that had made the New Deal possible.  Finally, in the Cold War years, it became clear that prosperity and democracy at home depended on an imperial relationship with the rest of the world and the garrisoning of the planet.  In the famed phrase of Life Magazine publisher Henry Luce, an “American Century”  was born.

Uprisings against that ossifying version of New Deal liberalism made the sixties “The Sixties.”  Political emotions were at a fever pitch as rebels faced off against a liberal “establishment.”  Matters sometimes became so overheated they threatened to melt the surface of public life.  And yet here was a question that, no matter the temperature, was tough to raise at the time: What if liberalism wasn’t the problem?  Admittedly, that thought was in the air then, raised not just by new and old lefties, but by Martin Luther King who famously enunciated his second thoughts about capitalism, poverty, race, and war in speeches like “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”

Most of the rebels of that moment, however, clung to the ancestral faith.  In the end, they were convinced that once equilibrium was restored, a more modern liberalism, shorn of its imperfections, could become a safe haven by excluding nobody. Indicted in those years for its hypocrisy and bad faith, it would be cleansed.     

Thanks to those mass rebellions and the persistent if less fiery efforts that followed for decades, the hypocrisy of exclusion, whether of blacks, women, gays, or others, would indeed largely be ended. Or so it seemed. The liberalism inherited from the New Deal had been cleansed -- not entirely to be sure and not without fierce resistance, but then again, nothing’s perfect, is it?  End of hypocrisy.  End of story.

The Missing Link

Yet at the dawning of the new millennium a paradox began to emerge.  Liberal society had proved compatible with justice for all and an equal shot at the end zone.  Strangely, however, in its ensuing glorious new world, the one Bill Clinton presided over, liberty, justice, and equality all seemed to be on short rations.

If not the liberal order, then something else was spoiling things.  After all, the everyday lives of so many ordinary Americans were increasingly constrained by economic anxiety and a vertiginous sense of social freefall.  They experienced feelings of being shut out and scorned, of suffering from a hard-to-define political disenfranchisement, of being surveilled at work (if they had it) and probably elsewhere if not, of fearing the future rather than hoping for what it might bring their way. 

Brave and audacious as they were, rarely had the rebel movements of the fabled sixties or those that followed explicitly challenged the underlying distribution of property and power in American society.  And yet if liberalism had proved compatible enough with liberty, equality, and democracy, capitalism was another matter.

The liberal elite that took credit for opening up that race to the top had also at times presided over a neoliberal capitalism which had, for decades, been damaging the lives of working people of all colors.  (Indeed, nowadays Hillary expends a lot of effort trying to live down the legacy of mass incarceration bequeathed by her husband.)  But Republicans have more than shared in this; they have, in fact, often taken the lead in implanting a market- and finance-driven economic system that has produced a few “winners” and legions of losers. Both parties heralded a deregulated marketplace, global free trade, the outsourcing of manufacturing and other industries, the privatization of public services, and the shrink-wrapping of the social safety net.  All of these together gutted towns and cities as well as whole regions (think: Rust Belt America) and ways of life.

In the process, the New Deal Democratic Party’s tradition of resisting economic exploitation and inequality vaporized, while the “new Democrats” of the Clinton era and beyond, as well as many in the boardrooms of the Fortune 500 and in hedge-fund America, continued to champion equal rights for all.  They excoriated conservative attempts to rollback protections against racial, gender, and sexual discrimination; but the one thing they didn’t do -- none of them -- was disturb the equanimity of the 1%.    

And what does freedom and equality amount to in the face of that?  For some who could -- thanks to those breakthroughs -- participate in the “race to the top,” it amounted to a lot.  For many millions more, however, who have either been riding the down escalator or already lived near or at the bottom of society, it has been a mockery, a hollow promise, something (as George Carlin once noted) we still call the American Dream because “you have to be asleep to believe in it.” 

Given their hand in abetting this painful dilemma, the new Democrats seemed made for the already existing sobriquet -- a kind of curse invented by the populist right -- “limousine liberal.”  An emblem of hypocrisy, it was conceived and first used in 1969 not by the left but by figures in that then-nascent right-wing movement.  The image of a silk-stocking crowd to-the-manner born, bred and educated to rule, networked into the circuits of power and wealth, professing a concern for the downtrodden but not about to surrender any privileges to alleviate their plight (yet prepared to demand that everyone else pony up) has lodged at the heart of American politics ever since.  In our time, it has been the magnetic North of right-wing populism.

Class Struggle, American Style

In 1969, President Richard Nixon invoked the “silent majority” to do battle with those who would soon come to be known as “limousine liberals.”  He hoped to mobilize a broad swath of the white working class and lower middle class for the Republican Party.  This group had been the loyalists of the New Deal Democratic Party, but were then feeling increasingly abandoned by it and disturbed by the rebelliousness of the era.

In the decades that followed, the limousine liberal would prove a perfect piñata for absorbing their resentments about racial upheaval, as well as de-industrialization and decline, and their grief over the fading away of the “traditional family” and its supposed moral certitudes.  In this way, the Republican Party won a substantial white working-class vote.  It’s clear enough in retrospect that this confrontation between the silent majority and limousine liberalism was always a form of American class struggle.

Nixon proved something of a political genius and his gambit worked stunningly well... until, of course, in our own moment it didn’t.  Following his lead, the Republican high command soon understood that waving the red flag of “limousine liberalism” excited passions and elicited votes.  They never, however, had the slightest intention of doing anything to truly address the deteriorating circumstances of that silent majority. The party’s leading figures were far too committed to defending the interests of corporate America and the upper classes.

Their gestures, the red meat they tossed to their followers in the “culture wars,” only increased the passions of the era until, in the aftermath of the 2007 financial meltdown and Great Recession, they exploded in a fashion the Republican elite had no way to deal with.  What began as their creature, formed in cynicism and out of the festering jealousies and dark feelings of Nixon himself over the way the liberal establishment had held him in contempt, ended up turning on its fabricators.

A “silent majority” would no longer remain conveniently silent.  The Tea Party howled about every kind of political establishment in bed with Wall Street, crony capitalists, cultural and sexual deviants, free-traders who scarcely blinked at the jobs they incinerated, anti-taxers who had never met a tax shelter they didn’t love, and decriers of big government who lived off state subsidies.  In a zip code far, far away, a privileged sliver of Americans who had gamed the system, who had indeed made gaming the system into the system, looked down on the mass of the previously credulous, now outraged, incredulously.

In the process, the Republican Party was dismembered and it was The Donald who magically rode that Trump Tower escalator down to the ground floor to pick up the pieces.  His irreverence for established authority worked.  His racist and misogynist phobias worked.  His billions worked for millions who had grown infatuated with all the celebrated Wall Street conquistadors of the second Gilded Age.  His way of gingerly tiptoeing around Social Security worked with those whose neediness and emotional logic was captured by the person who memorably told a Republican congressman, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” Most of all, his muscle-flexing bombast worked for millions fed up with demoralization, paralysis, and powerlessness. They felt The Donald.

In the face-off between right-wing populism and neoliberalism, Tea Party legions and Trumpists now find Fortune 500 CEOs morally obnoxious and an economic threat, grow irate at Federal Reserve bail-outs, and are fired up by the multiple crises set off by global free trade and the treaties that go with it.  And underlying such positions is a fantasy of an older capitalism, one friendlier to the way they think America used to be.  They might be called anti-capitalists on behalf of capitalism.

Others -- often their neighbors in communities emptying of good jobs and seemingly under assault -- are feeling the Bern.  This represents yet another attack on neoliberalism of the limousine variety.  Bernie Sanders proudly classifies himself as a socialist, even if his programmatic ideas echo a mildly left version of the New Deal.  Yet even to utter the verboten word “socialism” in public, no less insistently run on it and get away with it, exciting the fervent commitment of millions, is stunning -- in fact, beyond imagining in any recent America. 

The Sanders campaign had made its stand against the liberalism of the Clinton elite.  It has resonated so deeply because the candidate, with all his grandfatherly charisma and integrity, repeatedly insists that Americans should look beneath the surface of a liberal capitalism that is economically and ethically bankrupt and running a political confidence game, even as it condescends to “the forgotten man.”    

To a degree then, Trump and Sanders are competing for the same constituencies, which should surprise no one given how far the collateral damage of neoliberal capitalism has spread.  Don’t forget that, in the Great Depression era as the Nazis grew more powerful, their party, the National Socialists, not only incorporated that word -- “socialism” -- but competed with the Socialist and Communist parties among the distressed workers of Germany for members and voters.  There were even times (when they weren’t killing each other in the streets) that they held joint demonstrations.

Trump is, of course, a conscienceless demagogue, serial liar, and nihilist with a belief in nothing save himself.  Sanders, on the other hand, means what he says.  On the issue of economic justice, he has been a broken record for more than a quarter-century, even if no one beyond the boundaries of Vermont paid much attention until recently.  He is now widely trusted and applauded for his views. 

Hillary Clinton is broadly distrusted.  Sanders has consistently outpolled her against potential Republican opponents for president because she is indeed a limousine liberal whose career has burned through trust at an astonishing rate.  And more important than that, the rebellion that has carried Sanders aloft is not afraid to put capitalism in the dock.  Trump is hardly about to do that, but the diseased state of the neoliberal status quo has made him, too, a force to be reckoned with.  However you look at it, the age of acquiescence is passing away.

Share This Article