When Ideologies Run Out of Ideas
The “establishment” candidates Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush had money and media backing, but their bankrupt ideas doomed their campaigns.
The 2016 US presidential election revealed the splits within the Democratic and the Republican Parties. We witnessed the breakdown of the coalitions that each party had relied upon in past elections. As the political tendencies within both coalitions grew estranged from each other, the conventional ideology and slogans of each party became increasingly hollow and unconvincing. This new reality was revealed over the course of the primaries and the general election, as the ordinary tactics of the ‘establishment’ candidates proved not only ineffective and often completely counterproductive.
At the outset of the presidential primaries, however, it seemed that only the Republican Party was facing a true identity crisis. The first sign of trouble was that well over a dozen Republican politicians declared their candidacy for the Party’s presidential nomination, reflecting the perceived weakness of the supposed frontrunner Jeb Bush. Moreover, some of these candidates had risen to prominence on the back of the so-called Tea Party movement, which rewarded politicians who aggressively challenged the ‘moderate’ Party leadership.
Yet, despite the breakdown in Party discipline and open criticism of Republican leaders, nearly all of those seeking the nomination imagined, on the basis of past primaries, that a viable candidate would have to pledge loyalty to the sacred principles of the Republican Party, such as Christian values, a belief in small government (i.e., welfare and tax cuts), faith in corporate deregulation and the free market, and blind support for overseas military adventures. Those core principles roughly correspond to some key factions within the Republican coalition: the pious Christian right, the small-government “libertarians” (‘free market’ capitalists), and the hawkish Neocons.
Those factions were already coming into severe conflict with each other years before the 2016 election. For instance, the obsession of the Christian right with issues like abortion or gay marriage, was alienating Republicans (particularly those in urban areas) who were less interested in serving God’s will than in rendering unto Caesar as little as humanly possible. The Libertarians and other true believers in small government were, in turn, vehemently opposed to the massive spending on the military and foreign wars, bringing them into sharp opposition with the Neocons and the foreign-policy establishment. And the Neocons themselves already had one foot planted in the Democratic Party, which had continued under the Obama administration the Bush-era policy of aggressive ‘regime change.’
Yet even while the Republican coalition was splitting along such lines, the Republican candidates stuck to the idea that it was necessary to come across as a Bible-thumping, corporation-loving Christian warmonger in order to win the nomination. The one candidate who ignored that outdated common sense was of course Donald Trump, himself a Tweet-wielding, corporation-running, Capitalist a-hole.
Trump refused to genuflect at the altar of orthodoxy, it can be imagined, simply because it did not suit his brash showbiz persona. Whatever the case, his approach turned out to perfectly suit the public mood. And, with surprising eagerness, the rank-and-file abandoned supposedly cherished Republican beliefs in order to back a two-time divorcee from that ‘den of sin’ New York City who called for economic protectionism and stimulus spending (along with his tax cuts) and declared that the invasion of Iraq was a colossal blunder.
The willingness of Republicans to turn their backs on Party dogma in favour of the ‘straight-shooter’ Trump was a sign that the public mood was shifting dramatically. But the Democratic leadership looked on complacently, confident that the Republican primary was unfolding in a way that would benefit Clinton.
In April 2015, Democratic strategist and Clinton confidant Sydney Blumenthal suggested in an email (later released by Wikileaks) that the Clinton campaign should elevate what he called the ‘Pied Piper candidates’ (like Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Donald Trump) ‘so that they are “leaders of the pack and tell the press to take [them] seriously” as a way of moving “established candidates further to the right” and making the “more extreme candidates . . . actually represent the mainstream of the Republican Party.’
Under normal circumstances this may have been an astute strategy. But this time around the Democratic leaders were badly misreading the situation in concluding that only a moderate from either party was a viable candidate. The Republican leaders shared that common sense,’ but fortunately for them (in the end) they lacked the tools that the Democrats had to crush an insurgent campaign.
Thanks to the Democrats’ ‘super delegates’ and frontloaded southern primaries, not to mention a Democratic National Committee crawling with Clinton operatives, the nomination of Hillary was all but a foregone conclusion more than a year before the primaries even began.
Even the participation of Bernie Sanders in the primary seemed, at first, to play right into the typical election strategy of the Democrats. His assigned role, like Dennis Kucinich and other ‘radical’ candidates in the past, was to generate just enough interest in the election among youth, trade unionists, and others on the ‘Left’ to prevent them from deserting the Democrats for a third-party candidate. Bernie himself seemed to have no greater ambition initially than to ‘push the Party to the left,’ but to his surprise, no doubt, a powerful movement began to gather around him.
Despite all the careful preparations to keep the rabble from being roused in the election, the split between rank-and-file Democrats and the Party leaders was laid bare over the course of what became a bitter primary battle between Sanders and Clinton. As in the case of the Republicans, the election campaign was not the cause of the split, but it did make very clear to the public the deep divisions that had been papered over during the Bush and Obama years.
In fact, the fraying of the Democratic coalition was already well underway back in the 1990s under the Bill Clinton administration. The coalition had once centred on the strength of the labor unions, who could mobilize campaign workers and funds to back Democratic candidates. The steady decline of organized labor (accelerated thanks to Clinton-era policies) altered the balance of forces within the Party. Moreover, the Democratic leadership were able to take labor-union support for granted, since organized workers were hardly likely to defect to the rabidly anti-union Republican Party. Another group whose unconditional support was assumed were African Americans, who had been almost uniformly opposed to the Republicans ever since President Nixon implemented his ‘southern strategy’ of appealing to white southern workers.
This election, the Democrats also thought the Hispanic vote was in the bag, thanks to Trump’s vilification of Mexicans and obsession with building a border wall. But Obama has deported well over two million illegal immigrants during his terms in office, breaking the record of George W. Bush, which may account for why Hillary only won just over 60 percent of the Hispanic vote.
In any case, taking the votes of so many of the rank-and-file Party members and supporters for granted was premised on the singular awfulness of the Republican Party — and for a time the strategy seemed to work well enough. But an ideology that is largely negative or defensive offering few positive principles or goal — seems doomed to failure.
And the end did come in November 2016 with the defeat of the ideologically bankrupt Clinton campaign, which had smeared supporters of Trump (and Sanders!) as misogynists and racists, and even dabbled in laughable conspiracy theories suggesting sinister links between Trump and Putin.
Granted, the central ideas of the Sanders and Trump campaigns were based on a nostalgia for the good old days (that never were) — whether returning the Democratic Party to its role as the supposed party of the working class or bringing ‘greatness’ back to American somehow — but at least their slogans did challenge the status quo and create the impression of having some positive content.
It might seem that the Trump and Sanders insurgencies offer the two parties a way out of their ideological and organizational impasses. But is that the case?
Trump, certainly has taken a broad axe to the rotten planks of the old Republican platform. But his own incipient platform looks to be very shaky. For instance, how is he going to balance tax cuts with expanding the military budget and increasing spending on infrastructure as a stimulus measure? His surprising victory has brought a temporary unity (or truce) among warring factions within the Party, but no fundamental compromise is on the cards.
Meanwhile, Bernie’s supporters hope to win Party leadership from the Clintonites to implement ‘progressive’ policies. Much of their criticism of the Party establishment is on the mark, but they overlook the very basic fact that capitalism is a system of production for profit. This reality shapes policy and leaves only a limited space for the sort of reformist policies the ‘Berniecrats’ are advocating. The supporters of Sanders may be right about a strategy to win voters to the Democratic Party, but the role of the Party is not simply to win elections but to administer capitalism effectively, which is to say, ‘profitably.’
It is impossible to predict exactly where the Republican or Democratic Party might be headed, but if either party were to undergo a decisive split it would not be too surprising. Then again, both may very well manage to more peacefully realign themselves along different lines, in altered coalitions.
In any case, the 2016 election has revealed the current fault lines within those two parties and also taught us (or at least reconfirmed) a number of valuable lessons. It has become clear, for instance, that the ‘faithful’ of each party may not be as blinded by loyalty as their opponents imagine. Ultimately, each party has to gain and maintain the support of its members and of voters on the basis of ideas. Even a campaign backed by the power of money and the media can fall flat without any coherent ideology at its basis.
The obvious case example is the Clinton campaign, which enjoyed a formidable fundraising apparatus and network of media lackeys. But the mixed message of the campaign, reflecting the gap between Clinton’s words and deeds, left her vulnerable to Sanders and vanquished by Trump. The weapons the Clinton campaign wielded ended up harming her more than her opponents by exposing to the public, without much room for doubt, that she was the establishment candidate. The more money Clinton raised from her donors and the more articles published to praise her or attack her opponents, only ended up underscoring that status as the champion of the status quo.
This fascinating fiasco is highly encouraging to a socialist party. One can expect the ruling class to launch ferocious attacks against the socialist movement, starting with the media, once the movement has grown too powerful to ignore. But there is every likelihood that the effort to attack and discredit the socialist rebellion, will only contribute to its strength. It is already rather astounding that in a US presidential election, of all places, a Democratic candidate and his supporters would embrace terms like ‘socialist’ or ‘revolutionary,’ which are ordinarily used to smear a leftwing opponent. We have come a long way from the 1990s, when Democratic politicians lived in fear of being labelled ‘liberals’ by their Republican opponents.
The 2016 election campaign suggests that now is an ideal moment for socialists to boldly attack the thread-bare ideologies of bourgeois political parties and present our alternative to capitalism.