The New York Times is serious about playing its crucial role in putting the Democrats back on track after so much recent disappointment. Hillary Clinton’s otherwise inexplicable failure to be crowned in 2016 led to the newspaper’s firm commitment over two years to pushing the Russiagate fantasy. Its newsroom chief, Dean Baquet, recently admitted as much.
Now, The Times has perceived a new source of disappointment: the lackluster roster of electable establishment Democratic candidates for the upcoming presidential primaries. Their preferred figure, Joe Biden, has shown himself to be vulnerable and not only in the primaries. The shady business with his son in Ukraine will make him an easy target for US President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
For The NY Times and establishment Democrats, the next most likely candidates are two obviously uncontrollable radicals: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, though Warren may be easier to bring into the fold than Sanders. Warren has even gone to the trouble of defining herself as a “capitalist to my bones.”
Still, all middle-of-the-road Democrats consider the pair to be “extremists” for daring to challenge the orthodoxy of the current system of oligarchic capitalism. Their unpardonable sin will be to raise taxes to pay for expensive reforms. Along with Wall Street and much of the media, mainstream Democrats have pushed the idea that Sanders and Warren are seriously threatening to undermine the institutions the Democratic Party is most committed to and dependent on: the profitability of the corporate sector and an aggressive foreign policy that legitimizes war.
Reporting on the quandary that the Democratic Party finds itself in today, The Times relates the testimony of Connie Schultz: “There’s more anxiety than ever.” Schultz is a journalist “married to Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, another Democrat who some in the party would like to see join the race.”
Other voices have similarly cried out: “‘I can see it, I can feel it, I can hear it,’ Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor, said of the unease within the party.” Britain’s The Independent, evoking a possible new run for Clinton, reaches this conclusion: “[T]he report illustrates a deep unease within the Democratic donor and establishment class, which backed Ms Clinton strong and early during the 2016 election.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
For wealthy people, the feeling of profound discomfort associated with their fear of not receiving a significant payback for money spent on a political bet that may fail
Why are they so worried? What’s wrong with the current crop of candidates? After all, President Trump appears to be an agonizing combatant, on the verge of impeachment, soon to be imitating Richard III, ready to do a deal to exchange his kingdom for a horse to whisk him back to Mar-a-Lago. Couldn’t any of the current Democratic candidates beat him in a fair fight?
A look at the roster that so worries the Democratic team management tells an interesting story. There’s a crowd-pleasing centrist who happens to be gay, which might just work. It would be great if he wasn’t actually gay but simply a “normal” (discreetly unmarried) politician who expressed his sympathy for people who were gay and his commitment to defend their rights.
Every reasonable person in the party has assessed the danger. Back in the America of 1960, the politically astute realized that the Roman Catholic (and Irish) John F. Kennedy could never be elected and shouldn’t have received the nomination. Likewise, running a gay today would be far too risky to gamble on. The prospect of barring a gay from the White House would excite and unify the Republicans. Kennedy nevertheless did get the nomination and won. But of course, that was simply a stroke of good fortune, thanks principally to the Roman Catholic Italian mafia in Chicago that rigged the election in his favor and delivered the crucial electoral votes of Illinois.
Beyond the trio of Biden, Warren and Sanders, there’s a range of marginals fighting it out on the monthly debate stage: a pure techie from Silicon Valley; a would-be Obama clone from New Jersey; a black woman, former prosecutor from California with less than sterling credentials as state attorney general; a maverick Texan known for his liberal use of bleepable words and his un-American opposition to the possession of assault weapons (a weakness worse than being gay); a billionaire willing to play on Trump’s electoral promise that consisted of saying, “I’m so rich I don’t need to cheat”; some more centrists with a fuzzy public image; and finally a female veteran who single-handedly challenges the war mentality that every reasonable Democrat knows is the key to ensuring the US economy’s leadership in the global economy.
Hillary Clinton has now “revealed” that this minor candidate, Tulsi Gabbard, is either a Russian or a Republican asset (or both), who has no business decrying war inside a party committed to the special role war plays in the global economy and the nation’s endemic and narcissistic admiration of its own power.
The problem is Joe Biden. He appeared to be the perfect solution: continuity in his association with a two-time winner (Barack Obama), someone who seems to get along equally well with lobbyists and the working class. What else could the party ask for? Theoretically the ideal candidate, Biden’s lack of substance and tendency to undermine his own avuncular image ended up creating enough doubt among donors that no one could be sure that the funding required to push him through to victory would justify the outlay.
In a last-minute twist, Biden now seems to be reemerging. He cleverly renounced the commitment of this crop of Democrats to eschew corporate funding, opening the floodgates to anonymous, self-interested campaign cash. Politico reports: “Calls to a half-dozen maxed-out Biden donors [on October 25] revealed that they would gladly dig deeper for the former vice president and contribute to a super PAC that enables them — and corporations — to give and spend unlimited amounts of money.” The “unease” felt by the wealthy miraculously disappears when the burden is transferred from accountable individuals to the equivalent of a corporate venture managed by oligarchs.
The Democratic Party is clearly split down the middle by two existential issues that have historically been present but successfully papered over by its leadership for the past 80 years. Those issues concern a belief system (capitalism) and empire, or what amounts to a disguised means of centralized control over the national and global economy: the military-industrial complex.
Over his three full terms of office starting in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt saved the faltering US capitalist economy in two complementary strokes. First, he introduced measures boosting the active role of the government in the economy, employing ideas borrowed from the economist John Maynard Keynes. Neoliberals have consistently branded those practices “socialistic,” because they require raising taxes and empowering a central government over the states, but they effectively saved the capitalist system and credo from implosion. Second, Roosevelt belatedly but effectively engaged America in World War II, which transformed the formerly isolationist US into a successful war economy.
The New Deal established the idea that the Democratic Party was committed to social justice and the active promotion of economic equality designed to attenuate the worst effects of liberal capitalism. The success of the World War II economy, which put the US in the position of arbiter of the global capitalist economy, led to the creation and rapid growth of the military-industrial complex, on which both the government and political parties became dependent, though “addicted” might be a more appropriate epithet.
For several decades, Democrats enjoyed their image as the promoters of what in post-war Germany came to be called the “social market economy.” It had as its aim “to establish a market economy tempered by social safeguards which are consistent with free market principles,” an idea borrowed from the 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill.
Post-war Europe was built up around this idea, which it still applies everywhere. Almost all Europeans see it as a compromise between capitalism and socialism. But in the US, committed to ideological slogans, no compromise is possible, especially when words are concerned. And so, since Roosevelt, Democrats have accepted the ideology of capitalism and developed a mortal fear of being labeled socialist by Republicans. That explains why Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats” found it natural to drift further and further away from the New Deal and into the logic of Milton Friedman’s neo-liberalist capitalist belief system.
In 2015, remembering the tradition inaugurated by Roosevelt, Bernie Sanders dared to counter both the Clintonite drift and Hillary Clinton’s candidacy by proudly embracing the idea of “democratic socialism.” He proposed a means of escape from the capitalist belief system that resonated particularly with the young. The powerful emotional charge attached to the words “capitalism” and “socialism” in US discourse meant that, even with partial success, Sanders had created a deep rift in the party’s culture.
Tulsi Gabbard has attacked the party’s unity on the other issue: war. That is far more delicate because of the economy’s addiction to war. Every reasonable Democrat — including Sanders and Warren — understands how deeply embedded the military mindset is in the US economy and culture. Empires always focus on defense and defense always takes place in other people’s territories. Pulling back is not an option. But the trauma of George W. Bush’s never-ending wars has alienated a significant proportion of especially young Democratic voters (and much of the Vietnam generation) to the point of splitting the party into a pro-war and pro-security state establishment on one side and a rebellious generation sensitive to the high and persistent cost of war and focused on saving the world from the climate disaster that may also undo empire.
The establishment and its donors clamor for party unity, as if the only point of democracy is to allow one party or the other to rule for a given time. That unity no longer exists and it should be apparent that there is little hope of finding it again.
That, more than the quality of the candidates, should explain the donors’ unease.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.