Clintonism the Future? NYT’s Political Science Fiction
Just before the New York primary, the New York Times (4/16/16) published an op-ed by Michael Lind called “Trumpism and Clintonism Are the Future.” It’s a good guide to how the wishful thinking of the pundit class will likely lead them to misread the clear message of the 2016 elections.
Lind is a former conservative who found a new home in the world of centrist punditry as a critic of the right. He’s now at the New America foundation, which he helped found, a think tank whose top funders include the Gates Foundation, Google chair Eric Schmidt and the US State Department.
The thesis of Lind’s essay is that “Trumpism represents the future of the Republicans and Clintonism the future of the Democrats.” People who think the GOP will “soon return to free-market, limited government orthodoxy are mistaken”—as are “those who believe that the appeal of Sen. Bernie Sanders to the young represents a repudiation of the center-left synthesis shared by Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.” No, says Lind: “In one form or another, Trumpism and Clintonism will define conservatism and progressivism in America.”
For Lind, “Trumpism” is a “socially conservative, economically populist” movement that took over the Republican Party long before the emergence of Donald Trump: “The Republicans of 2016 rely for their votes on the Southern white and Northern white working-class constituencies that were once the mainstays of the other party,” and so they’ve pushed aside “the traditional conservative wing focused on business and limited government.”
As anyone who follows US politics should recognize, it’s absurd to present the Republican Party of 2016 as somehow no longer a pro-business party. Lind refers to the supposedly passe “Chamber of Commerce boosterism” of the old-style Reagan-led GOP; if you look at how the actual US Chamber of Commerce rates politicians, it’s obvious they are much more in tune with Republicans than even establishment Democrats. House Speaker Paul Ryan gets an 89 percent rating from the Chamber, for instance, while Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is rated at 26 percent; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is 92 percent in line with the Chamber, Minority Leader Harry Reid is 38 percent.
As for “limited government,” Ryan’s budget blueprint, taken literally, would eliminate the entire non-military discretionary federal budget by 2050 (FAIR.org, 4/7/16). It’s hard to limit government more than that.
Lind’s take on the Democratic Party is no less fantastical: “Today’s Democratic base is, to simplify somewhat, an alliance of Northern, Midwestern and West Coast whites from the old Rockefeller Republican tradition with blacks and Latinos.” This argument—that the Democrats, not Republicans, are now the party of the affluent—has been made in the Times before, and it was no less spurious then (FAIR.org, 10/9/15). It’s not hard to look up exit polls and see how various income groups voted; Barack Obama in 2012, for example, won by getting 60 percent of the votes of people who made less than $50,000; Mitt Romney won people who made more than $50,000, 53 percent/45 percent.
But this fantasy that the Democratic Party is now an alliance of affluent whites with voters of color allows Lind to advocate for Democrats to steer sharply to the right on economic issues:
The success of the Democrats in winning the popular vote for the presidency in every election since 1992 except 2004 has convinced most Democratic strategists that they don’t need socially conservative, economically liberal Reagan or Wallace Democrats any more…. The Clintonian synthesis of pro-business, finance-friendly economics with social and racial liberalism no longer needs to be diluted, as it was in the 1990s, by opportunistic appeals to working-class white voters.
Note that this assumes (falsely) that people of color are not even interested in economics, let alone “economically liberal”: The issues that these “core constituencies” favor range “from criminal justice to immigration enforcement.” This is how Lind argues for “the centrality of identity politics, rather than progressive economics, to the contemporary Democratic Party.”
It’s true that the leading Democratic presidential candidate—Hillary Clinton—tends to stress identity politics over progressive economics. As Lind quotes Clinton on the campaign trail: “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism? Would that end sexism?”
But that is not to say that Democratic voters, white or otherwise, are uninterested in progressive economics. When asked by NBC News (1/12/16) to name the most important issue facing the nation, Democratic voters’ top choice was “jobs and the economy” (29 percent), followed by healthcare (17 percent), the environment (15 percent) and education (13 percent). (For Republicans, the top choice was terrorism, picked by 34 percent.)
And Democratic voters’ views on jobs and the economy contrasts starkly with the approach of Republican voters. In another NBC News poll (10/30/15), Democrats and Republicans were asked the best way to spur economic growth. Seventy-three percent chose “spend more on education and infrastructure, raise taxes”—as opposed to “lower taxes, cut government spending,” picked by 76 percent of Republicans. It’s hard to find here the “pro-business, finance-friendly” constituency of Lind’s imagination.
Polling on the specific issues that separate Clinton from Sanders doesn’t provide much support for Clintonism as the future of the Democratic Party—or even its present. For example, 81 percent of Democrats (along with 58 percent of the public at large) support single-payer healthcare—a system that Clinton insists “will never, ever come to pass.”
So how does Lind prognosticate that “the future of the Democrats will be Clintonism—Hillary Clintonism, that is, a slightly more progressive version of neoliberalism freed of the strategic concessions to white working-class voters associated with Bill Clintonism”?
Part of it relies on a cartoon version of the Sanders movement as uninterested in issues beyond class: “On the social and racial issues that are important to today’s Democratic base, it is Mr. Sanders, not Mrs. Clinton, who has had to modify his message,” he says:
At the beginning of his campaign, Mr. Sanders the democratic socialist focused in the manner of a single issue candidate almost exclusively on themes of class, inequality and political corruption. But because he is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, he has had to put greater emphasis on other issues, including racial disparity in policing and sentencing and the environment and immigration.
This being the 21st century, of course, you can look up what Sanders, as well as Clinton, were saying as they launched their campaigns. Unsurprisingly, Sanders had a major emphasis on climate change in his announcement speech, with three paragraphs of a detailed climate agenda. It was Sanders, not Clinton, who brought up racial disparities in his speech—not in sentencing, but in employment: “Youth unemployment is over 17 percent and African-American youth unemployment is much higher than that.” Sanders, telling his personal story, stressed as he usually does that his father was an immigrant. And he concluded his speech with the promise of a country “where every person, no matter their race, their religion, their disability or their sexual orientation, realizes the full promise of equality that is our birthright as Americans.”
The reason that Lind cites as “most important of all” for Clintonism being the future is his assertion that an attraction to Sanders-style social democracy is something you grow out of:
It would be a serious mistake to assume that the growing sympathy of many of today’s millennials for the concept of democratic socialism as embodied by Mr. Sanders will translate into a social democratic America in the 2030s or 2050s. Half a century ago, as the Age of Aquarius gave way to the Age of Reagan, many of the hippies of the ’60s became, in effect, the yuppies of the ’80s — still socially liberal, but with new concerns about government spending, now that they were paying taxes and mortgages.
Actually, the political attitudes people have as young adults have a powerful impact throughout their lives. As Pew’s Drew Desilver (7/9/14) noted:
On an individual level, of course, many people’s political views evolve over the course of their lives. But academic research indicates not only that generations have distinct political identities, but that most people’s basic outlooks and orientations are set fairly early on in life. As one famous longitudinal study of Bennington College women put it, “through late childhood and early adolescence, attitudes are relatively malleable…with the potential for dramatic change possible in late adolescence or early adulthood. [B]ut greater stability sets in at some early point, and attitudes tend to be increasingly persistent as people age.”
Or as Amanda Cox observed in the New York Times (7/7/14): “It’s no longer true, as it was in the 1960s, that Republican vote share increases linearly with age.”
As a gauge of the impact the Sanders campaign will have on the cohort born around the end of the 20th century, Obama—himself a powerful generational influence—beat Clinton by 20 percentage points among voters under 30 in Iowa in 2008. In 2016, Sanders beat Clinton by 70 percentage points (Atlantic, 2/2/16).
Such gaps have recurred again and again throughout this campaign. In New York, exit polls indicated that Sanders got the votes of 81 percent of voters aged 24 and younger. In California, 71 percent of those under 30 say they intend to vote for Sanders (LA Times, 4/24/16).
These voting patterns reflect not just a personal attraction to Sanders, but a profound ideological shift among young adults. When Americans aged 18-26 were asked by GOP pollster Frank Luntz (Intercept, 2/24/16), “Which type of political system do you think is the most compassionate?,” 58 percent said socialism. Sixty-six percent said corporate America “embodies everything that is wrong about America.” Accordingly, 31 percent said that Bernie Sanders was the political figure they “like and respect the most”—a figure that rose to 40 percent among the younger half of respondents, aged 18-21. (The corresponding numbers were 11 percent and just 3 percent for Hillary Clinton.)
The idea that such attitudes won’t matter is Lind’s “most important” reason why Clintonism is the future, but it’s really just a just-so story based on Lind’s sense of the way things ought to be. I would suggest that that’s not in fact the real reason he’s so confident in this Clintonist future; rather, it’s the explanation he offers just before that:
The pro-Sanders left objects to the solicitude of the Democratic Party for Wall Street and Silicon Valley, the sources of much of its funding. But it is safe to assume that most progressives, when confronted with conservative candidates, will prefer incremental, finance-friendly Clintonism over the right-wing alternative.
Did you catch that? “Most progressives” will choose “incremental, finance-friendly Clintonism”—because the only other choice will be the right. They’ll choose Clintonism, in other words, because they won’t be given any other choice.
There is no doubt that that’s how the Democratic establishment—and the Gateses and the Googles who stand behind it—will try to move forward, once (they hope) the Bernie Sanders campaign of 2016 is just a bad memory. Sanders, in this view, is a one-of-a-kind candidate, leading youth astray through sheer star power. (“Part of the explanation” for “the appeal of Bernie Sanders,” Lind writes, is that “Mrs. Clinton is less charismatic a candidate than Barack Obama or her husband was.”) Once he exits the stage, Democratic voters will get what they get and they won’t get upset.
As we’ve seen, though, this theory is based on ignoring everything we know about the demographics and attitudes of Democratic voters, particularly young Democratic voters. This suggests that corralling them up again for a Clintonist future is going to be more difficult than Lind and his colleagues in corporate media want to believe.