About a year after the launch of both Sen. Bernie Sanders’ and Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns, it’s easy to conclude that the anti-establishment backlash of 2016 was somewhat inevitable. The incredulity that many in the establishment felt when these two candidates first climbed the polls and took their respective primaries by storm has passed, and now that Trump has locked up the Republican nomination, nothing seems beyond the realm of possibility (including, terrifyingly enough, a Donald Trump presidency).
While Donald is working to secure endorsements from the few remaining GOP holdouts, Sanders is still picking up primary wins against Hillary Clinton. The senator has won in 18 states and is banking on a big victory in California, even though Clinton’s delegate lead is near insurmountable. Barring an FBI indictment of Clinton, Sanders is unlikely to be the Democratic nomination — but he has accomplished more than just about anyone could have predicted (except perhaps H.A. Goodman), and the grassroots movement that has formed around him represents the future of the Democratic party.
Both Sanders and Trump have tapped into a widespread discontent with the political system, as well as a decline in economic prospects that many Americans have experienced since the Great Recession. But while the media has labeled them both “populist” (which is fair enough, populist can be an ambiguous term), the two candidates have diametrically opposed worldviews, with very different solutions (And I’m being generous by suggesting that Trump actually has any kind of real solutions).
Sanders is a democratic socialist, Trump is a right-wing nationalist (although some mainstream commentators have simply gone with “fascist”). The one thing that they do have in common, however, is that they are both leading revolts against the neoliberal status quo, which has prevailed for the past several decades.
The neoliberal era began sometime in the 1970s, following what is commonly called the Keynesian era, i.e. the post-War period (1945-1970s), which saw unprecedented economic growth and prosperity in the West, along with the spread of Social democracy in Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States. During this period, the capitalist system became gentler and friendlier towards the proletariat, which was not an accident. When John Maynard Keynes was writing his widely influential work "The General Theory," the world was in the midst of the Great Depression, and radical and extremist political movements on both the left and right were emerging throughout the industrialized and pre-industrialized world. By the time Keynes published his epochal book, Hitler and the Nazi’s had destroyed Germany’s short Democratic experiment, while Stalin had attained autocratic control in the Soviet Union. The capitalist system was being threatened from both sides, and its volatility and excesses had made it vulnerable to radical movements and revolt from below.
Contrary to what many contemporary right-wingers chose to believe, Lord Keynes was not a socialist (indeed, Keynes considered himself a liberal — in the classical, not American, sense — and was hostile towards the democratic socialists of the Labour Party). Ultimately, Keynes wanted to save market capitalism from itself by curbing its inequities and limiting the instability of the business cycle to help stave off extreme political movements that were threatening its very existence.
And in America and Europe this is exactly what Social democracy did. FDR’s New Deal rejected laissez-faire capitalism and promoted a mixed economy with strong labor unions and safety nets, which helped avert radical movements — particularly from the left. Economic inequality steadily declined during this period and wages increased proportionately with productivity. The proletariat became the middle class, and capitalism became an economic system that promoted widespread prosperity (of course, in America, minorities — especially African Americans — were largely excluded from this prosperity for decades). There was no longer any need for radicalism, and right-wing extremists were pushed to the fringe of the GOP (Dwight Eisenhower was the first Keynesian Republican).
Of course, the counter-revolutions of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher changed everything. As noted above, the neoliberal period began around the seventies, and truly took off in the eighties, long after radical movements had dissipated. With the fall of communism in 1989, capitalism had finally defeated its mortal enemy, and its existence was no longer being threatened, as in Keynes’ time. Francis Fukuyama ecstatically declared it was “the end of history,” contrary to Marx’s prediction that socialism would eventually supersede capitalism.
Needless to say, history hasn’t slowed down in the past twenty-five years. Not only did America suffer the worst terrorist attack in its history (and subsequently start two disastrous wars that have further destabilized the Middle East), but the worst economic crisis in eighty years. The latter can be directly attributed to the neoliberal policies that started under Reagan and accelerated under Clinton and Bush, as can the ongoing increase in economic inequality. Economic deregulation, corporatist trade deals, massive tax cuts for the wealthy, privatization, welfare reform, union busting; these reactionary policies were embraced to an extent by both parties, and as the Democrats shifted to the right, the Republicans went even further.
Since this era began, labor unions have been decimated, while corporations have acquired unprecedented economic and political power. This is the direct opposite of what happened in the post-war period, when labor unions and workers managed to secure great political power and stand up to their employers, i.e. capitalists. Not surprisingly, the majority of workers have seen their wages stagnate during this period — even as productivity has increased rapidly — while the top one percent of income earners have seen their compensation surge. Additionally, since the recession, the top one percent of earners have received the majority of economic gains. To make up for this stagnating pay and to maintain high levels of consumption (which is necessary in a consumerist economy like America), Americans have taken on crippling levels of debt, which financial institutions have been eager to supply. But as the 2008 crash showed us, cheap credit cannot expand indefinitely.
Even worse than the growing income inequality has been the growing wealth inequality, which has widened along racial and ethnic lines since the Great Recession (as of 2013, median net worth of white households was 13 times greater than black households). According to Inequality.org, “Between 1983 and 2009, over 40 percent of all wealth gains flowed to the 1 percent and 82 percent of wealth gains went to the top 5 percent. The bottom 60 percent lost wealth over this same period.” One particularly shocking statistic: the 400 wealthiest Americans have more wealth combined than the bottom 150 million.
Now, some may be thinking: what does this all have to do with the 2016 election? When it comes to Bernie Sanders, it’s pretty obvious. The senator has made economic inequality and political corruption the staples of his platform, and has railed against the neoliberal establishment over the past year (and, though less visibly, over the past three decades). Sanders has advocated Social democratic policies that are reminiscent of the New Deal. While many people today believe Sanders is something of a radical, his policies are closer to those of Keynes or FDR than they are to Vladimir Lenin — and, as the reader may recall, Keynes (and FDR) wanted to save market capitalism.
On the other hand, Donald Trump has ridden a wave of right-wing populism that is reminiscent of another popular movement of Keynes’ time. In his widely shared column in the Washington Post, "This is how Fascism Comes to America," Robert Kagan describes Trump’s strongman appeal, which is frighteningly similar to the appeal of 20th century fascist leaders:
“What Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies — his proposals change daily. What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of “others” — Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees — whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision... Trump himself is simply and quite literally an egomaniac. But the phenomenon he has created and now leads has become something larger than him, and something far more dangerous....This is how fascism comes to America...”
Trump has found success in rebelling against the neoliberal status quo — his opposition to free trade deals is the clearest economic example of this. But rather than offering real solutions, Trump has employed the same kind of scapegoating of minorities and foreigners that fascist leaders once used. Even on trade, instead of directing his rhetoric at the real foes — i.e. corporations and their incessant drive cheap labor and intellectual property expansions — he has gone after foreign countries and their impoverished citizens, who are exploited by American corporations.
History seems to be repeating itself, as it is apt to do. Over the past 40 years, the capitalist system has reverted back to being a highly unequal and unstable economic system, engendering widespread discontent; and in the wake of the Great Recession, both the left and right have made a political comeback. Neoliberalism has failed, and is now facing widespread revolt. The election of Trump is a terrifying prospect, but even more terrifying is the neo-fascist — otherwise known as the “alt-right” — movement that he has helped create.
Eighty years ago, Social democracy provided an alternative to the volatile and exploitive system of laissez faire capitalism, and warded off extremist politics; today, similar policies are being promoted by Bernie Sanders in America. Of course, things have changed tremendously since Keynes was walking the halls of Cambridge, and today’s era may require even more radical solutions (especially when considering the existential threat of climate change). But it seems clear after 2016 that neoliberalism is no longer viable for the long term health of America.