The New Plutocracy: How Democrats Betrayed Their Origins
by Lorna Salzman (May 2016)
There are various definitions of the term "false consciousness." While Marx did not use that exact term, the concept continues to be prevalent in left-wing circles and writings and in recent years has been applied to working-class whites who vote for candidates whose demonstrated record runs counter to the basic demands of this class for empowerment and economic improvement.
While no conspiracy exists on paper, there is a "gentleman's agreement" in the two major political parties which has cemented social justice issues as the top priority in presidential elections. On the left and in liberal circles, women's rights, racism, abortion, the Supreme Court, and gun control pretty well comprise the full picture; only when prodded by renegades like Sanders do they (with timidity and ambivalence) deign to address fundamental economic issues like Wall St. rapacity, banking criminals and "free" trade. On the right, Wall St. and banks get shoved aside in favor of gun rights, abortion, religion, immigration, with token concern for workers displaced by foreign imports and corporate relocation abroad in low-wage countries, with loud side shows about the east coast "elites" (false consciousness on display here, given the Bush dynasty embedded in that class).
Thomas Frank, in his forthright tirade (Listen, Liberal!) over the Democrats' betrayal of their original union and working class sympathy, justifiably asks this question about the Democrats' perpetual excuse that the stubborn plutocrat Republicans have prevented them from enacting progressive public policies and legislation to help the less fortunate: isn't it possible that the Democrats NEVER wanted these policies to succeed in the first place? And that they counted on the Republicans to do their dirty work for them? The late political historian Walter Karp, whose writings in The Public Life spurred my political activism, wrote about this in detail in his book Indispensable Enemies: those who keep you from doing something you didn't want to do in the first place.
A slightly different scenario took place under Bill Clinton's regime, one in which Clinton, having an agenda congenial to Republicans, was able to push through harshly regressive policies with nary a "no" coming from congress or from liberals themselves: a dissolution of traditional welfare that pushed countless blacks into poverty; mass incarceration, which blacks today are protesting loudly while forgetting who is responsible for it; pushing NAFTA which led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of American jobs, and much, much more. Clinton cleverly pre-empted a Republican agenda and got away with it, as the Democrats always do because their party and their constituents still conjure up the original but long defunct image of the party that they, mistakenly, think cares about workers, the poor, the jobless and the disenfranchised.
Underlining the classic Democratic maneuver of blaming the Republicans, Zach Carter in Huffington Post referred to Bill Clinton’s statement at an April 7th rally for Hillary in Philadelphia (where blacks confronted him on his welfare reform), in which he blamed the Republicans for cutting welfare benefits:
This wasn’t an accident or an unintended consequence. The whole point of welfare reform was to kick people off the welfare rolls. Clinton had campaigned on doing just that in 1992. ‘When I ran for president four years ago, I pledged to end welfare as we know it,’ he said on the day the bill passed. ‘I have worked for four years to do just that.’ In 1996, the year the law was passed, the poverty rate was 13.7 percent. At the close of 2014 — the most recent available annual census data —it was 14.8 percent. But welfare rolls have declined roughly 70 percent, from a peak of 14.2 million in 1994 to 4.2 million today. Maybe that’s because 70 percent of the people on welfare were all lazy moochers. Republicans who continue to applaud Clinton’s actions suggest just that. But even Clinton himself didn’t make that (ridiculous) argument on Thursday. He instead claimed that the GOP was to blame for unnecessarily cutting off aid to needy people, not he.
That image is meticulously disassembled by Thomas Frank's book. It has long been true that the Democrats, not the Republicans, are more adept at implementing regressive foreign, military and economic policies because their loyal followers choose not to notice, being fixated on "social justice" issues. Here is a compact quote from Frank's book that says it all:
Clinton had famously promised to appoint a cabinet that would 'look more like America than any previous administration'. Look like us they did - black, white, brown, male, female. Examined from any other perspective other than their external appearances, however, they were not representative at all…there were more millionaires among the populist Bill Clinton’s cabinet than there had been in Bush's. In addition, more than three-quarters of them were lawyers. The country had merely exchanged one elite for another; a cadre of business types for a collection of high-achieving professionals.
Now we remember that it was Bill Clinton's administration that deregulated derivatives, deregulated telecom, and put our country's only strong banking laws in the grave. He's the one who rammed the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through congress. Mass incarceration and the repeal of welfare, two of Clinton's other major achievements, are the pillars of the disciplinary state that has made life so miserable for Americans in the lower reaches of society. He would have put a huge dent in Social Security too, had the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal not stopped him. If we take inequality as our measure, the Clinton administration looks not heroic but odious.
Why do Democrats, liberals and even some on the left still carry a torch for the DP? The "lesser of two evils" still persists at the voting booth, justified by the stubborn Republican habit of choosing abysmal candidates that the liberal media can exploit for their sensationalist but issue-deficient news coverage; for this Donald Trump fits the bill perfectly.
But that is not the whole reason. Other parts of the puzzle are the social justice activists and movements who (Frank might suggest) monopolize the media and public attention which distracts attention away from the big issues like economic inequality, corporate globalization and, especially climate change, so as to put their own relatively trivial concerns up front.
This is a devilishly clever but successful maneuver and it works every four years. If one were paranoid, one could entertain the suspicion that the Social Justice Warriors are on the Democratic Party payroll. They unwittingly aid the DP in their reluctance to address the fundamental economic and political failures (unless forced to do so by people like Bernie Sanders).
The spectacle of rich kids in Ivy League schools complaining about insensitive teachers and unfriendly racist white students is not just ridiculous; it is contemptible in its dismissal of the genuine social and political oppression going on in the world, most of whose victims are women and minorities: honor killings, child marriage, female genital mutilation, appropriation of indigenous peoples' lands and livelihoods, persecution and assassination of journalists who dare to criticize their governments, and the ecological crises such as depletion of ocean fisheries, loss of biodiversity and climate change.
Thomas Frank goes further however. Woven throughout his book is his description of the new techno-entrepreneurship society which is fertilized, propagated and disseminated by educated liberal elites, elites that cross party and political barriers but which embrace, reward and enrich anyone and everyone who depends on what Frank terms the "innovation" society.
This society follows the moral and social precepts of the social justice movement: it rewards those who benefit from it regardless of gender, race, religion or ethnic background. Hanif Kureshi's film "My Beautiful Laundrette" captured this society beautifully decades ago at the emergence of entrepreneurship. In a scene between the aging and now irrelevant Indian father lifted out of his intellectual and cultural milieu and thrust into the bustling economy of contemporary London, and his young son who complains about racism and other bad English habits, the father says: "Race does not matter in the new enterprise society".. a most prescient description of the New Innovative Society that Frank describes.
The startling point that Frank makes about the widespread acceptance of this society by people who should be more skeptical is that the financial and banking elites are no longer Republican but Democrats. A look at those who peopled the Clinton and Obama administrations reveals the truth. Lawrence Summers, Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner, Hank Paulson, Zoe Baird, Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin are on a long list of individuals who came from and eventually returned to Wall Street, after having created or participated in major financial crises without paying a penalty for their failure or their conflict of interest.
At the root of the Innovative Society is the unquestioned devotion to meritocracy, which is conferred only on those who come out of the Ivy League or Wall St. regime, or who shine as successful entrepreneurs like Gates. The elite's answer to those who inquire about the path to the meritocracy is education. This is not for individual benefit or for its own sake or for informed citizenship but education to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars that only a relatively small handful of people can afford. The unexpressed corollary of this: working class people who want to manufacture things or drive trucks or build buildings or run a family business or be a creative artist or grow food or write books will just have to grin and bear it. They are not the future of this country and their contributions pale in comparison to Silicon Valley or Wall Street.
Reading Frank's analysis of the Innovation class is a history lesson in itself, but of special interest and also some humorous revelation are his comments on how visible public figures from the arts, entertainment, academia and and intellectual sectors have aligned themselves with the new "innovation" entrepreneurs. Topping the list are Bill and Melinda Gates, who have bought into genetic engineering, the highest of high-tech, in the name of feeding the hungry billions in Africa and elsewhere, and the Clinton Foundation, global dealmaker and purveyor of the innovative economy…in the name of compassion and human rights of course.
What they confer on the Democrats is priceless: the image of concerned liberalism and liberal social thought, what Frank calls "a global commerce in compassion, an international virtue-circuit featuring people of unquestionable moral achievement, like Bono, Malala, Sting, (Mohammed) Yunus (LS note: the founder of microcredit), Angelina Jolie, and Bishop Tutu: figures who travel the world, collecting and radiating goodness."
In a brilliant insight, Frank refers to "virtue-consumers," corporations and businesses seeking a "green" or liberal image who are "purchasing liberalism offsets, an ideological version of the carbon offsets that are sometimes bought by polluters in order to compensate for the smog they churn out." And in the background but not in shadow are our universities, which turn out the elites that the Innovative Society requires.
It is no wonder that some universities are now trying to sideline the humanities and substitute the STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). Those Social Justice Warriors at Stanford University who want to stop the re-introduction of a course on western civilization should be delighted at this new non-racial diverse society that banishes the humanities and its genuine concerns about learning, philosophy, anthropology, ethics, history and the arts to the sidelines in favor of Personal Pique as the basis for societal change.
Frank shreds to pieces not only Bill Clinton and Obama but Hillary as well, who was her husband's chief advisor and highly influential in his policies. It is already known that she supported NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Trade agreement when she was a senator, and that she refused to take a position on the Keystone pipeline for years. Now her concealment of her speeches to Goldman Sachs looms large. The fact is that she has a lot to hide. But feminists are willing, as are liberals in general, to overlook or forget the actual positions and voting record of presidential candidates. The blacks are especially fond of the Clintons and their record on race but still refuse to look closely at the record which shows that it was Clinton policies on welfare and mass incarceration that are hurting them today. The only journalist, besides Frank, to tell the truth has been Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, but that is hardly the New York Times or the Financial Times when it comes to influencing the general public.
None of this lets the American public off the hook. Most Americans are literate, to one extent or another. But like other human beings, they are not isolated voters. They belong to a peer group or a professional association. Their politics were shaped by their family, education and social affiliations. Their present complaints and needs are fed or inflamed by what their peers or friends or families tell them, and not least the internet gossip network. Whatever prejudices they had are inevitably going to be echoed by others even if they are not personally affected. Human society is, in a word, flawed. Add on to this the absence of principled leadership and an independent media, an educational system now being clawed to death by anti-intellectual and authoritarian ideologies, and the usual demagoguery and cant disguised as legitimate dissent, and you have the ingredients for a complete meltdown of democracy. We are already feeling its heat.
Lorna Salzman's career as an environmental activist and writer began when the late David Brower hired her to be the regional representative of Friends of the Earth in NYC. Later she worked as an editor on National Audubon's American Birds magazine and as director of Food & Water, an early opponent of food irradiation, and then spent three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection. She co-founded the New York Green Party in 1984 and in 2004 she sought the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. She is the author of “Politics as if Evolution Mattered,” which addresses the intersection of evolution with socio-political policy.
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