The establishment looks like this: The real reason why Clintons always push our politics to the right

Hillary and Bernie have two different visions. You can make a case for either -- but they're not the same

Published February 16, 2016 10:59AM (EST)

Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton    (Reuters/Chris Keane/Jim Bourg/Photo montage by Salon)
Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Chris Keane/Jim Bourg/Photo montage by Salon)

The morning after the last Clinton-Sanders debate, a friend tweeted, "Generally speaking, debates are as much a dispute about what the debate is about as anything else," which instantly struck a chord for me.

It's clarifying to think in terms of the two broad organizing visions the two candidates represent, each influencing how the respective candidates view the world.

Visions, however, can take a while to unpack, and fully understand. So let me tick off three successive arguments. First is an argument of the party elite versus the party base. Second is an argument between Clinton's market-based, individualist vision, which sits well with elites who overwhelmingly support her, and Sanders' social democratic vision—universal healthcare, free public college, a minimum $15/hour living wage, etc.—which speaks to the base, women possibly even more than men. Third is an argument between two different conceptions of progress reflecting both those two different constituencies.

Clinton's elite, individualistic worldview reflects the logic, values and organization of the liberal welfare state model found in English-speaking nations around the world, which primarily aims to remedy market imperfections with minimal interference to the basic market system. Sanders' base, social democratic worldview reflects the socialist or social democratic welfare state model found in Nordic countries, which is grounded in humanistic values, providing livable social benefits for all, and treating the market as a means, not an end. We'll return to discuss these worldviews further, below.

The Unfolding Elite/Base Argument—Is it Personal? Or Structural?

But first, let's consider how the debate argument unfolded. A key aspect of Sanders' campaign is his belief in the need to reinvigorate American democracy in general, and the Democratic Party in particular—his call for a political revolution. And so, when Rachel Maddow questioned him over his “long history of running against Democrats as a third-party candidate,” he vigorously restated those dual goals. After pointing out his long history of caucusing with the Democrats for 25 years in Congress, leading two Senate committees on their behalf, he reaffirmed his commitment to grow and expand the party:

I am running for president as a Democrat. And if elected, not only do I hope to bring forth a major change in national priorities, but let me be frank, I do want to see major changes in the Democratic Party. I want to see working people and young people come into the party in a way that doesn't exist now. And you know what, I want a 50-state strategy so the Democratic Party is not just the party of 25 states.

Clinton responded in typical elite fashion; she not only ignored the opportunity to discuss the need for a 50-state strategy, but she subverted it into a lead-in to a recitation of her elite support in Sanders' backyard: “You know, the person who first put out the idea of a 50-state party strategy is former Gov. Howard Dean, who is with us tonight. And I'm very proud and grateful to have the support of so many elected Vermonters and former officials. Two former governors, the current governor, the current other senator. I really appreciate that.”

Rachel Maddow effortlessly echoed Clinton's subtext, turning it into text: “She's implying that that says something about the people who know you best,” prompting Sanders to offer a different interpretation, reemphasizing the elite/base divide:

I am -- will absolutely admit that Secretary Clinton has the support of far more governors, mayors, members of the House. She has the entire establishment or almost the entire establishment behind her. That's a fact. I don't deny it.

But I am pretty proud that we have over a million people who have contributed to our campaign averaging 27 bucks apiece. That we have had meetings where 25,000-30,000 people have come out. That our campaign is a campaign of the people, by the people, and for the people.

So, Rachel, yes, Secretary Clinton does represent the establishment. I represent, I hope, ordinary Americans, and by the way, who are not all that enamored with the establishment, but I am very proud to have people like Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva in the House, the co-chairmen of the House Progressive Caucus.

Clinton's vast endorsement lead with party elites is obviously no secret. It's a prime feature of her campaign. But the word “establishment” is troubling to her, personally, because it turns the feature into a bug:

Well, look, I've got to just jump in here because, honestly, Senator Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment. And I've got to tell you that it is... (APPLAUSE) It is really quite amusing to me.

Talk about a bug! It's turned Hillary Clinton into Carly Fiorina! Heck, maybe even Margaret Thatcher! If being a woman is all it takes to not be establishment... the mind boggles. So Sanders responded, again from outside of Clinton's individualistic framework, where patterns of power and influence are clearly visible for all to see:

What being part of the establishment is, is, in the last quarter, having a Super PAC that raised $15 million from Wall Street, that throughout one's life raised a whole lot of money from the drug companies and other special interests.

To my mind, if we do not get a handle on money in politics and the degree to which big money controls the political process in this country, nobody is going to bring about the changes that is needed in this country for the middle class and working families.

Note that Sanders did not say that Clinton had done anything wrong, but he did restate the impossibility of securing the necessary changes so long as those donors control things.

Nonetheless, Clinton construed it as a personal attack—which then justified her openly attacking Sanders with a Donald Trump “counterpunch”:

Yeah, but I -- I think it's fair to really ask what's behind that comment. You know, Senator Sanders has said he wants to run a positive campaign. I've tried to keep my disagreements over issues, as it should be. But time and time again, by innuendo, by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth, which really comes down to -- you know, anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought.

And I just absolutely reject that, Senator. And I really don't think these kinds of attacks by insinuation are worthy of you. And enough is enough. If you've got something to say, say it directly. But you will not find that I ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation that I ever received....

So I think it's time to end the very artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out...

Artful Smear or Inconvenient Truth?

An “artful smear”? Not quite, Common Dreams commented, linking to a CNN analysis, “$153 million in Bill and Hillary Clinton speaking fees, documented,” which reminds us, again, that money in politics is an issue, not just a distraction from the issues, as Clinton had argued against Sanders. The CNN story said:

Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, combined to earn more than $153 million in paid speeches from 2001 until Hillary Clinton launched her presidential campaign last spring, a CNN analysis shows.

In total, the two gave 729 speeches from February 2001 until May, receiving an average payday of $210,795 for each address. The two also reported at least $7.7 million for at least 39 speeches to big banks, including Goldman Sachs and UBS, with Hillary Clinton, the Democratic 2016 front-runner, collecting at least $1.8 million for at least eight speeches to big banks.

Note that none of that proves, or even points to anything, illegal. That's not the point. It's not about being bought off by one payment, it's about buying in to a system where money flows like wine, and everyone is always drunk. “But you will not find that I ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation that I ever received,” Clinton said, expressing her individualist view of the problem, and I'm perfectly willing to believe her. But that's not what the argument is about. Structural money influence doesn't require an individual to be corrupt, any more than structural racism requires an individual to be racist. In fact, it works even better because no one is consciously doing anything wrong. It's part of how the system perpetuates and defends itself. But the victims suffer just the same.

The role of money in politics is mind-boggling. Its sheer volume makes ordinary bribery seem almost quaint. A 2014 Sunlight Foundation study, “Fixed Fortunes: Biggest corporate political interests spend billions, get trillions,” found that “Between 2007 and 2012, 200 of America’s most politically active corporations spent a combined $5.8 billion on federal lobbying and campaign contributions,” and received “$4.4 trillion in federal business and support,” in return—$760 in benefits for every dollar spent. That return “represents two-thirds of the $6.5 trillion that individual taxpayers paid into the federal treasury”

The difference between this setup and the aristocratic court systems of pre-democratic Europe would seem to be primarily a matter of scale: there's far more loot to be had these days, and people are very well paid to make convincing arguments that it's being spent for the public good. One doesn't have to suppose that any individual politician is corrupt to see that the whole system is. The whole is far more rotten than the sum of its parts. Those whose sincere beliefs align with the needs of the donors find themselves elected, those whose beliefs don't align are out of luck. That's how a rigged system works—and it doesn't require anyone at all doing classic quid-pro-quo vote-selling or bribery, not with spending and rewards on such a spectacular scale.

The structural argument that Sanders is making here about the corrupting power of money is directly analogous to the Black Lives Matter argument about the racist criminal justice system. There really may be “only a few bad apples,” but if the system is riddled with small biases, excuses, oversights, and lax standards, the end result is far worse than anyone embedded in the system can even begin to imagine.

Competing Models & Visions of Progress

In the beginning, I spoke of three offshoot arguments. So far, we've been dealing with evidence of the first two. It's now time to turn to the different concepts of progress, rooted in two different welfare state models. But to tell the full story, we need the full picture of all three welfare state models Esping-Andersen described. As already noted, there's the social democratic welfare state, whose basic logic is concern that everyone be cared for and treated with dignity, epitomized by the Nordic countries, with the lowest poverty rates and least inequality in the world. For Sanders, who comes out of the tradition based on this worldview, progress means approaching or trying to surpass the already-attained levels of their success, using the tools they've already shown to work. Then there's the liberal welfare state, whose basic logic is concern for the market itself, fixing the problems it cannot solve with minimal impact on the market system, which is found throughout the English-speaking world.

As I explained before, “While certain elements of the U.S. system are social democratic in spirit (most notably Social Security and Medicare), the large size of the private welfare state (particularly subsidized healthcare and retirement plans) puts the system as a whole clearly in the market-oriented liberal welfare state category.” For Clinton, who lacks a broader international perspective, progress is defined entirely in terms of the existing American system, trying to improve it without altering its basic logic. Given that our welfare state falls well short of even other liberal welfare states, there's clearly much room for improvement. But the fact that progress can be made within the model does not mean such progress takes us beyond the model's limits—which is exactly what Sanders is arguing for.

But that's actually only a first approximation for what's really going on. To get the full picture, we need to first fill out our understanding of Esping-Andersen’s “three worlds,” which will then help us better understand our own recent history. There is a third model, first implemented in Germany by Otto von Bismarck, which, I noted, “aims to consolidate the existing social order and its hierarchical relations in various ways,” What Bismarck and other European conservatives did was take the ideas of the social democrats—most importantly, universal health care, old age and disability pensions—and reshape them into particular forms that would reinforce the social hierarchies conservatives wished to defend. This allowed Germany industry to compete with England, and provide workers the promise of a decent life, reducing the flood of emigration to America, while reinforcing the central role of the male breadwinner (even if debilitated or killed on the job) and the state (state workers were well-paid and well-trained).

This conservative re-purposing of the welfare state is a crucial thing for us to keep in mind, as we try to make sense of Clinton's politics come from, and how they differ from Sanders'. Her political vision comes out of the liberal welfare state model, but she represents a recent modification of it, the neoliberal worldview which the Clintons and other “New Democrats” advanced in the 1980s. As Bhaskar Sunkara put it recently at Al Jazeera America:

The New Democrats pursued a “third way” between the European-style social democracy and free-market orthodoxy and rallied together under the auspices of the now defunct Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in the late 1980s.

But this isn't quite right, since the liberal welfare state is already exactly such a “third way” between the social democratic welfare state and the free market—which actually exists nowhere on earth. In fact, as I argued at Open Left in 2010, (What's wrong with the third "Third Way"), the social-democratic welfare state itself was the first “third way”—between naked capitalism and revolutionary socialism. The liberal welfare state was itself the second “third way,“ between social democracy and naked capitalism. So what the New Democrats were promoting was actually the third “third way,” which, with its many conservative-friendly features found in Clinton-era “welfare reform,” could well be thought of as an anemic American parallel to the robust European conservative welfare state: it, too, used forms originally derived from the social democratic tool box, but repurposed them for conservative ends, primarily preserving and strengthening hierarchical relations.

How The Clintons Pulled The Party To The Right—And Lost Congress, Too

With this important distinction added to the mix, Sunkara's account is most refreshingly clear: the Clinton's arrived as part of the New Democrats cohort whose notion of "progress" was away from the New Deal and the Great Society, not toward perfecting what they had begun, which is how Hillary Clinton defines herself today. But that's not at all how she came to power. As Sunkara explains:

According to the New Democrats, blue-collar whites were wary of “big government.” By crafting policies palatable to these voters, Clintons and their allies, the story goes, were able to capture the White House and at least guarantee some form of progressive governance, albeit watered down, after the era of Reagan.

But much of this conventional wisdom is wrong. As political scientists Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers note in “Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics,” in 1979 close to 80 percent of Americans polled thought there was too much power concentrated in large corporations. A majority in the same survey thought that business was making too much and supported a cap on corporate profit.

What the Clinton Democrats actually did was build a coalition based around the interests of business, not those of most voters.

The disastrous results of this coalition were immediately obvious: after the passage of NAFTA, Democrats lost the House of Representative for the first time in 40 years, and they've only held it for four years ever since, despite the fact that Republicans have only won the popular presidential vote one time since 1988. Loses in state legislatures were similarly unprecedented. The New Democrats' program was a disaster for the Democratic Party, though it did work out well for the Clintons and a newly consolidating party elite, which now endorses Hillary almost universally. At the time, Sunkara notes:

As first lady, Hillary Clinton echoed the administration’s tough-on-crime rhetoric and strongly supported landmark achievements such as the 1996 welfare reform bill, which placed onerous new restrictions and requirements on recipients of the program, and the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

But those positions were not enthusiasms shared by the base. This is particularly clear with NAFTA, which was a disaster for Democrats. It played a key role in alienating Perot from the Democratic Party, opening the door for Republicans to make a play for his voters, which turned out to be crucial for them in winning control of Congress in 1994, as Ronald Rapoport and Walter Stone explained in their book, Three's a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence.

The irony, of course, is that NAFTA passed only because of overwhelming Republican support—but the Democratic Party paid the price for Clinton and Gore's leadership. In the House, Republicans voted for NAFTA by more than 3-1: 132-43, Democrats voted against 3-2: 156-102. Looking at 3 swing states in the industrial heartland, where the battle for working-class swing voters was arguably most central, the partisan split was far more stark: Democrats opposed NAFTA 93-7%, 29-2, Republicans supported NAFTA 79-21%, 19-5. In Michigan all 10 Democrats voted against, all five Republicans voted for.

The Clinton/New Democrat opposition to the party's base could not have been more clear. If it's true that the Clintons remade the party in their image—and to a large extent it is—that image was of an establishment profoundly out of touch with the working class it still pretended to represent. Far from being an exotic outsider, Bernie Sanders represents the very embodiment of the heartland Democratic Party which opposed NAFTA by over 90%.

The “Forgotten” Liberal Feminist Gift of “Welfare Reform”

The numbers were even more stark when it came to welfare reform's final House vote before going to conference with the Senate. Before turning to those numbers, we should note two things: the bill's author was one John Kasich, and Hillary's support for it broke with the Children's Defense Fund—an association she misleading touts to this day. "Hillary Clinton is an old friend,” CDF founder Marian Wright Edelman said in 2007, “but they [the Clintons] are not friends in politics." Edelman's husband, Peter, resigned in protest from the Clinton Administration in protest two weeks after Clinton signed the bill into law. “I am deeply opposed to the current welfare law,” he said at the time.

With that firmly in mind, let's turn to the numbers. Republicans voted for welfare reform almost unanimously, 98 percent to 2 percent, 226-4. Democrats voted against more than 4-1, 85-15%, or 165-30. In New York, all 17 Democrats voted against, 13 Republicans voted for--one abstained. But it wasn't just New York. In Michigan, all 9 Democrats voted no, all 7 Republicans voted yes. In those same three heartland states—Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—81 percent of Democrats voted no, while Republicans voted yes 100%, 29-0. No wonder the Edelmans condemned it.

When Sanders shows unexpected strength among younger women voters, this is part of the reason, whether those voters know this bit of history or not. The liberal feminist vision that could blind Hillary Clinton to the damage that the Edelmans very clearly saw has likewise prevented her from seeing countless other ways in which she could have earned those younger women's enthusiastic support, if only she had had a broader vision, both of what was necessary, and of what was possible.

The Closing Argument For Opening Horizons

There are other issues one could point to—Wall Street deregulation and mass incarceration, obviously. But these are sufficient to drive home the point that the Clintons were very much involved in pulling the Democratic Party to the right—for which they were highly praised, even though the base remained staunchly opposed, and the promised political rewards never materialized.

How, then, does Hillary Clinton run as a progressive today? There are at least five good answers that help explain it: (1) People forget. (2) Media conventional wisdom supports and reinforces it. (3) The term is both inherently and historically ambiguous—progress toward what? In 1896, the first big-money presidential candidate William McKinley was sometimes touted as a progressive, against the supposedly backwards-looking populist/Democratic attack on the oligarchic rule of the day. (4) Clinton's politics shift over time. (5) Those who would question it tend to be forgotten, ignored, or voluntarily mute themselves for various reasons.

Sanders' emergence as a credible challenger has helped to remind people that Clinton's claim to be progressive is only selectively defensible, at best, and requires us to completely ignore the entire thrust of the politics which first brought her and her husband into power, and brought the Democratic Party into prolonged disarray, which it has yet to recover from.

I don't believe Bernie Sanders is a perfect candidate. I don't believe anyone is. But he has done an incredible job of bringing long-neglected issues, people and over-arching perspectives into the political process—which in turn invites and encourages others to do the same. That's what a political revolution looks like. Its claim to be progressive is much more straightforward than Clinton's claim can ever be. And the social democratic vision it derives from provides a much better, broader framework for understanding the world than the neoliberal framework that Clinton champions, regardless of real-world results.

Clinton Imitates Barking Dog at Campaign Stop

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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