Monday, March 28, 2016

The Left Awakens and Finds Its Voice: The US and the UK

The UK is dealing with the ramifications of a 2015 election while the US is in the throes of nomination campaigns for a 2016 election.  It is intriguing to note that in both political systems, the two main parties are each undergoing a revolt from below as party elites struggle with insurgencies.  Could there be some common basis for what is occurring?

The British right is the ruling party in the UK and it is battling with conservatives who wish to either leave the European Union or modify the current rules of engagement with that entity.  That situation has no relationship to the issues besetting the conservative Republican Party. 

The Republican Party has been directed by an incredibly wealthy elite who defined a party agenda favorable to the wishes of wealthy people.  However, to win elections, a large number of unhappy voters driven by cultural issues had to be convinced to vote for Republican candidates based on the belief that the Republican Party actually cared about their issues.  These voters are much closer to Democrats on economic matters, but have allowed their voting to be dominated by cultural disputes with the more-liberal Democrats.  This year that subservience to the plutocratic Republicans has vanished.  The result has been a wave of candidates who have strived to demonstrate their independence from the party establishment and its traditional agenda.  Here again, there is no correlation with events in the UK.

It is on the left where things get more interesting.  Both nations have gone through periods in which the party of the left has produced leaders that were, at best, center-right in practice and supportive of some of the favorite conservative policies.  That would be the Blair/Brown era in the UK, and the Clinton era in the US.  Obama has been center-left in philosophy, but, as it turns out, those who voted for him were even further to the left than he might have imagined.

Tariq Ali provides an interesting look at what has transpired in the British Labour Party since last year’s election in an article for the London Review of Books: Corbyn’s Progress

After the election in which Labour lost a significant number of seats, the party’s titular leader resigned and the party leaders scrambled to produce a candidate to replace him.  Unexpectedly, Jeremy Corbyn, who was considered too far left to be a viable party leader, was elected.  The party leaders, media allies, and Blair/Brown did everything in their power to defeat Corbyn, including hints that the military might mutiny and refuse to be led by such a person.  Nevertheless, Corbyn easily won the majority of the votes. 

“Absolutely nobody, including Corbyn himself, thought that he could win. The campaign was intended just to show that there was an alternative to the neoliberal leadership that had ruled the country for the last three decades. What appealed to the young and to the many who had left the party in disgust during the Blair/Brown years – what appealed to the people who turned the campaign into a genuine social movement – was precisely what alienated the political and media cliques. Corbyn’s campaign generated a mass movement that renewed the base of the Labour Party – nearly two hundred thousand new members and counting – and led to his triumph. He won almost as many votes as all his opponents put together.”

The 2015 election, in which Labour lost seats to the Conservatives, was widely viewed as an endorsement of the conservative agenda.  The result is better interpreted as a rejection of an insipid Labour Party agenda.  The Labour Party actually increased its percentage of the votes cast in that election relative to the share received by the Conservatives.  It was the peculiarities that can arise in a winner-take-all election that cost it seats.

“The Labour Party that lost the election was conformist and visionless: it had forgotten what it meant to mount an opposition.”

And the party leaders from the Blair/Brown era seemed to have gotten too close to those they were supposed to be regulating and policing.

“Blair, angered by this outburst of democracy in a party that he had moulded in his own image, declared that the Labour Party would be unelectable unless Corbyn was removed. Brown kept relatively quiet, perhaps because he was busy negotiating his very own private finance initiative with the investment firm Pimco (Ben Bernanke and the former ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet are also joining its ‘global advisory board’). Simultaneously, his ennobled former chancellor, Lord Darling, was on his way to work for Morgan Stanley in Wall Street. Blair, an adviser to J.P. Morgan since 2008, must have chuckled. At last, a New Labour reunion in the land of the free. All that ‘light-touch’ regulation was bearing rich fruit. Virtually every senior member of the Blair and Brown cabinets went to work for a corporation that had benefited from their policies….It was not just the Iraq War that was responsible for the growing public disenchantment with New Labour.”

Were Corbyn’s policy goals really so extreme?  Ali believes Corbyn’s views represent the views of the majority of the citizens.  He presents this statement by Corbyn as representing his position.

“We also as a party have to face up to something which is an unpleasant truth, that we fought the 2015 election on very good policies included in the manifesto but fundamentally we were going to be making continuing cuts in central government expenditure, we were going to continue underfunding local government, there were still going to be job losses, there were still going to be people suffering because of the cuts we were going to impose by accepting an arbitrary date to move into budget surplus, accepting the language of austerity. My suggestion is that the party has to challenge the politics of austerity, the politics of increasing the gap between the richest and the poorest in society and be prepared to invest in a growing economy rather than accepting what is being foisted on us by the banking crisis of 2008 to 2009. We don’t have to set this arbitrary date, which in effect means the poorest and most vulnerable in our society pay for the banking crisis rather than those that caused it.”

With a few of the UK-specific references removed, this could have been extracted from a speech by Bernie Sanders.  Sanders is a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who was also spurned by party leaders and given no chance at success.  As was Corbyn, he was deemed too far left to be electable, and was invited to disappear and avoid mucking things up for the ordained candidate, Hillary Clinton.  For years Sanders had proudly worn the socialist label.  Who could imagine him competing with Hillary Clinton?

Ryan Lizza produced an excellent analysis of what is transpiring in the race for the Democratic nomination in an article in The New Yorker: The Great Divide: Clinton, Sanders, and the Future of the Democratic Party.

Hillary Clinton’s experience in her husband’s administration, plus her service as a senator and secretary of state were supposed to be valuable assets that would guarantee her nomination for president.  Unfortunately for her, her experience has been more a handicap than a benefit.  If one reflects on Bill Clinton’s accomplishments as president, things like Wall Street deregulation, NAFTA, mass incarceration of blacks, the destruction of the welfare system, and the Defense of Marriage Act come to mind.  This provides Sanders with plenty of ammunition to use against her.

“The subtext, and often the center, of Bernie Sanders’s campaign to upset Hillary Clinton is that too many of the signature achievements of her husband’s Presidency were a series of betrayals—the deregulation of Wall Street, an obsession with deficit reduction, the Defense of Marriage Act, his crime bill, the North American Free Trade Agreement—and that she was an enthusiastic partner in passing that agenda.”

“As Sanders noted in the debate in Flint, on March 6th, when Hillary was First Lady she publicly supported NAFTA, while he ‘was on a picket line’ protesting it. Today, both candidates oppose the agreement—and many other aspects of Bill Clinton’s record.”

Probably the most disgraceful of the Clinton legacies was the welfare reform bill. This politically profitable action was taken almost entirely with Republican support and opposed by Democrats.  Hillary vigorously supported it.

“….he signed into law a welfare-reform bill, in 1996, which passed with mostly Republican support and helped clinch his reëlection that year. Ninety per cent of Democrats in the House and the Senate, including Sanders, opposed the bill, and prominent members of Clinton’s Administration resigned in protest over it.”

Sanders also benefits from his rival being on the wrong side of history when two notable movements arose from the left: the Occupy Movement, and Black Lives Matter.

“As a long stalemate began in Washington, the activist left began to support movements such as Occupy Wall Street, which began in 2011, as a response to economic inequality, and Black Lives Matter, which arose in 2013 and addresses criminal-justice reform and institutional racism. Both movements are sharply critical of the Clinton era. Occupy points to Clinton’s deregulation of the financial industry, and Black Lives Matter has highlighted the fact that Clinton’s crime bill, which introduced the three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule, sparked a rise, in the past two decades, in imprisonment, particularly of young African-American men. Last year, Bill Clinton told the N.A.A.C.P., ‘I signed a bill that made the problem worse. And I want to admit it’.”

As in 2008 when she ran against Obama and lost, women were assumed to be a source of strong support.  However, women, and especially young women, have been less than enthusiastic about her campaign.  Zoë Heller has provided a discussion of Hillary Clinton and her troubles with women voters in an article in The New York Review of Books: Hillary & Women.

The idea of Clinton as the first woman president is insufficient to arouse support for her.  She must try to convince women that she is the candidate most likely to produce progress in areas of interest to women.  Unfortunately, her record in this arena is surprisingly weak.

“….Clinton’s record as an advocate for women is distinctly uneven. Whenever feminist principles have been at odds with what is politically expedient, expediency has tended to win the day. In the 1990s, she vigorously supported her husband’s welfare reform bill—a piece of legislation that has probably done more to immiserate the lives of poor women—particularly poor black women—than anything else over the last twenty-five years.”

Clinton has also taken the expedient and cowardly path of choosing to avoid arousing pro-life anger by buying into their lies about the “tragedy and regret” associated with a woman’s decision to have an abortion.

“In 2005, when it was politically convenient to distance herself from the pro-choice plank of the Democratic platform, she lectured family planning activists on what was regrettable and even ‘tragic’ about abortions….”

What is perhaps most striking to women about Clinton’s past is her willingness to “man-up” when it is deemed necessary to put our military in harm’s way—not necessarily an inducement for women to vote for her.

So, Hillary Clinton is the candidate associated with a past that harbors some distinctly anti-progressive actions.  She is also part of the party leadership that is deemed to have been tainted by those actions.  If the party supporters are, in fact, to the left of the party leadership, one would expect her to struggle to gain their confidence.  That is exactly what has happened. 

And if the Democratic voters are to the left of the party leaders then one might expect a vocal and reliable “left-winger” to generate some enthusiasm with the progressive base.  That is exactly what has happened. 

Lizza provides perspective on why Sanders has been successful.

What is most notable—and most encouraging for progressives—is Sanders support from the young.

“At seventy-four, with campaign ads featuring Simon and Garfunkel’s music, he seems an unlikely standard-bearer for the Democratic Party of tomorrow. But the next generation of voters clearly favors him, or at least what he stands for. Through March 8th, Sanders won voters between seventeen and twenty-nine years old in thirteen of the fifteen states for which there were entrance or exit polls. In that age range, he beat Clinton by an average of sixty-seven per cent to thirty-two per cent. His biggest victory among this group, in his home state of Vermont, was ninety-five per cent to five per cent. Millennials supported Sanders even in Arkansas, where Clinton was First Lady.”

“Sanders has long embraced the socialist label, and it seems not to hurt him among younger voters. Ben Tulchin, Sanders’s pollster, told me that millennials support Sanders ‘because their generation is so fucked, for lack of a better word, unless they see dramatic change. What’s their experience been with capitalism? They have had two recessions, one really bad one. They have a mountain of student-loan debt. They’ve got really high health-care costs, and their job prospects are mediocre at best. So that’s capitalism for you’.”

Are we observing a common trend in progressive politics in the US and in the UK?  It seems so.  In both cases party members seem to feel betrayed by a party, and its leaders, that has acquiesced to a form of capitalism that has eliminated for them any hope for a better future.  In both cases it is the young who are most invested in bringing about change.  In both cases a potential leader who was far removed from the current corridors of power was turned to by the young. 

This has the aura of a revolution—two revolutions.

Have the plutocrats who control the makers of rules and regulations finally gone too far?  Have they created an economic system that can no longer provide even the illusion of general prosperity?  Have the people finally figured out the scam that has been imposed upon them?  Have they finally noticed that other countries have better ways to do things?

It is not clear what is going to come of all this.  However, it is certain that fundamental changes are taking place in the Democratic and Labour Parties, and it is certain that those two institutions will never be the same again.

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