What happened to the Democratic party? I've tried to figure out why it is that wealth inequality grew from about 1980 to the present regardless of which party controlled Congress and which party held the White House. This post answers the question in the context of the 2016 Democratic Presidential primary.
Instead of asking who is better connecting with minorities, or who will or won't attract female voters, or who will appeal to millennials, or who is more electable, the author of this blog begins by highlighting the fundamental economic problem of inequality. Then he, Benjamin Studebaker, traces how the Democratic party that dealt with wealth inequality in the 30s - 70s became the Democratic party that contributed to the return of extreme wealth inequality in the 80s, 90s, 00s, and 10s. Studebaker argues that what is at stake in the election is the character, the very soul, of the Democratic party. Clinton and Sanders represent different ideologies and different visions of the party. Only Sanders, it is argued, represents the extension of the party of FDR and LBJ.
On economic policy, contemporary establishment democrats have more in common with contemporary republicans than they do with the FDR/LBJ democrats. Carter and Clinton took the party away from economic progressives. The Democratic Party, which was once the party that saw economic inequality and poverty as the core causes of economic instability, now sees inequality and poverty as largely irrelevant. Instead of eliminating inequality and poverty to fuel the capitalist system and produce strong economic growth, establishment democrats now largely agree with establishment republicans that the problem is a lack of support for business investment.
So Bernie Sanders is not merely running to attempt to implement a set of idealistic policies that a republican-controlled congress is likely to block. He is running to take the Democratic Party back from an establishment that ignores the fundamental systemic economic problems that lead to wage stagnation and economic crisis. Those who say that the Democratic Party cannot be reclaimed by the FDR/LBJ types or that if it is reclaimed it will flounder in elections against the GOP are thinking too small. In the 1968 and 1976 republican primaries, this guy called Ronald Reagan was running to take the Republican Party back from the Richard Nixon types who went along with the democrats on welfare and regulation in a bid to return the republicans to their 1920’s Calvin Coolidge roots. At the time, Reagan’s plan was considered madcap–everyone in the 60’s and 70’s knew that hard right Coolidge style economics leads to depression and crisis. But the stagflation in the 70’s created an opportunity for Reagan to convince republicans and eventually the country as a whole to fully embrace a totally different ideology that was much closer to Coolidge’s politics than it was Eisenhower’s or Nixon’s. In the years since 2008, many Americans, in particular young people, are willing to consider the possibility that neoliberalism–the economic ideology espoused by both the post-Reagan republicans and the post-Carter Clinton-era democrats–is fundamentally flawed and must be revised or potentially replaced entirely.
This can only happen if democrats recognize that Bernie Sanders is not just a slightly more left-wing fellow traveler of Clinton’s. This is not a contest to see who will lead the democrats, it’s a contest to see what kind of party the democrats are going to be in the coming decades, what ideology and what interests, causes, and issues the Democratic Party will prioritize. This makes it far more important than any other recent primary election. The last time a democratic primary was this important, it was 1976. Only this time, instead of Anybody But Carter or Anybody But Clinton, the left has Bernie Sanders–one representative candidate that it is really excited about. The chance may not come again for quite some time.
Hillary Clinton is a neoliberal building on the legacy of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. She doesn’t understand the pivotal role inequality plays in creating economic crisis and reducing economic growth. She has been taken in by a fundamentally right wing paradigm, and if she is elected she will continue to lead the Democratic Party down that path.
Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist building on the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. He understands that inequality is the core structural factor in economic crisis and that growth in real wages and incomes is required for robust, sustainable economic growth.
It doesn’t matter which one is more experienced, or which one’s policies are more likely to pass congress, or which one is more likely to win a general election, or which one is a man and which one is a woman. This is not about just this election, or just the next four years. This is about whether the Democratic Party is going to care about inequality for the next decade. We are making a historical decision between two distinct ideological paradigms, not a choice between flavors of popcorn. This is important. Choose carefully.
h/t Jerry Stoops