How Bill Clinton and Barack Obama prepared the ground for Donald Trump

Thomas Frank has recently been in Australia, spruiking his book Listen, Liberal or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People. He told Richard Fidler that

    the Democratic Party has drifted away from its working class roots and been captured by technocrats — lawyers, financiers and professionals.

    As a result, the Democrats have lost interest in the problem of inequality and the increasingly stressful lives of the everyday people who used to vote for them.

He told Fidler that Democrats believed that if people felt they had been left behind (“the deplorables”) it was because that is what they deserved. They had made the wrong choices, studied the wrong subjects, or hadn’t tried hard enough.

I checked my trusty Political Ideologies, second edition, by Andrew Heywood. Sure enough, Liberalism as a political philosophy, stresses individual responsibility and effort, which naturally lead to meritocracy – the cream rises to the top.

Frank says that the Democrats in the US had nevertheless traditionally been the workers’ party, the party of social solidarity. No longer, he says.

So what did Bill Clinton do that made such a difference?

Firstly, he signed the NAFTA Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico, an agreement that had been negotiated largely by the Republicans to favour big business.

Frank says that NAFTA was not essentially about free trade. It was about enabling big business to exploit its workforce. If the workers wanted more pay management could threaten to move to Mexico, or in fact actually move. Frank says that a lot of people who voted for Trump were still in well-paid jobs. However, they had seen what had happened to others, and their own positions were under threat. In this article from March 8 last year Frank warned that trade was central to Trump’s campaign, not bigotry, racism, building walls or whatever. He said:

    Left parties the world over were founded to advance the fortunes of working people. But our left party in America – one of our two monopoly parties – chose long ago to turn its back on these people’s concerns, making itself instead into the tribune of the enlightened professional class, a “creative class” that makes innovative things like derivative securities and smartphone apps. The working people that the party used to care about, Democrats figured, had nowhere else to go, in the famous Clinton-era expression. The party just didn’t need to listen to them any longer.

Bill Clinton’s other big legacy was to entirely deregulate the financial markets, so they had no supervision, no constraints.

In time this gave us the GFC.

Obama took over in 2008, just as the GFC wrecking ball was doing its worst. Obama had the opportunity to remake the financial system. Certainly he got it working again, but no-one responsible was put in jail, and the system is basically the same as it was before. All he did was tweak the system around the regulatory edges.

Frank’s book was published in mid-March last year, so he’s not being wise after the event. Beverley Cage in this New York Times review gives a taste of what the book is about. This boggles the mind:

    Today’s leading Democrats actually don’t want to reduce inequality because they believe that inequality is the normal and righteous order of things. As proof, he points to the famously impolitic Larry Summers, whose background as a former president of Harvard, former Treasury secretary and former chief economist of the World Bank embodies all that Frank abhors about modern Democrats. “One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated closer to the way that they’re supposed to be treated,” Summers commented early in the Obama administration.

    “Remember, as you let that last sentence slide slowly down your throat, that this was a Democrat saying this,” Frank writes.

Frank compares Obama unfavorably with Franklin Roose­velt:

    Roosevelt took advantage of the Great Depression to reshape American society in fundamental ways, introducing social welfare and labor protections that shifted real power into the hands of the middle and working classes.

We appear to be heading back to the early 19C, when the “social question” was a concern. Basically people in the emerging industrial economy were not being paid enough to live on. That spawned Marx and the unions.

Frank back in March 2016 was of course touting Bernie Sanders as the last hope for the Democrats*. After the election he said that Hillary Clinton was very much the wrong candidate, a system insider when people wanted change.

Beverley Cage points out that Frank has nothing of substance to offer as to what should be done. Jo Stiglitz certainly did in his critique of Barack Obama, which I plan to post on given time.

Meanwhile Yahoo’s Andrew Romano told Sarah Macdonald on Nightlife that the Trump healthcare package being out through in a rush will keep many of the elements of Obamacare. However, the poor will have to pay more, and there will be tax relief for the rich as the special levy to cover the program is reduced.

Reward the rich and if people choose to be poor, then more fool them.

*First published as “Republicans”, which was a typo.

23 thoughts on “How Bill Clinton and Barack Obama prepared the ground for Donald Trump”

  1. I haven’t read the book but it may be counter-productive in some ways. At Crooked Timber, which is supposed to be a ‘progressive’ blog, there were a group of Bernie supporter types who started using that kind of rhetoric – metaphorically pointing the finger at anyone who disagreed with them on anything and saying ‘listen liberal!’.

    It didn’t matter how many times people pointed out that they were not liberals and didn’t subscribe to that political philosophy, it didn’t make any difference. Anyone who disagreed with their views was classified as a liberal (or neoliberal) and critiqued on those grounds often quite abusively. CT have had to change their whole moderation policy as a result.

    Frank may not have intended his book to be used that way, and no doubt there is some valid analysis in it. Unfortunately the US seems to have a particular type of male-dominated, holier-than-thou leftists who have seized upon that aggressive rhetoric and applied it to anyone who disagrees with them about anything, including people who are actually more ‘left’ than they are.

  2. Bill Clinton’s other big legacy was to entirely deregulate the financial markets, so they had no supervision, no constraints.

    In time this gave us the GFC.

    Bush NINJA loans, caving in to ACORN iced that cake.

  3. My take is that a society is measured by what is happening to the people at the bottom of the pile, not the size of the pyramids built by those at the top.
    Parties such as Labor and the US Democrats have become dominated over time by the educated descendants of the working class. Descendants that think the solutions to the working class problem (such as the education) that allowed them or their parents to escape from the bottom of the pile can be available for everyone even though the hard fact is that not everyone has what it takes to get a degree.
    Add to that the need for political parties to fight for the middle and we get where we are now. A country where the checks and balances that used to protect the working class have been weakened and unrestrained free markets are held up as a solution.

  4. A country where the checks and balances that used to protect the working class have been weakened and unrestrained free markets are held up as a solution.

    Unrestrained market regulation ( corruption of free market ) hurts the poor more because it take away their right to choose what’s best for them, and the right to choose whats bad for them.

    The State uses armed men to enforce their purchase preferences, Enterprises can use no such fascist coercion, only free will.

  5. “touting Bernie Sanders as the last hope for the Republicans”

    Probably a typo, but I really think Bernie couldn’t have won.

    Outsider versus outsider, vote for the apparently wealthy TV person, or the nerdy parliamentarian??

    Vote for a democratic socialist ???? In the land where demonstrators carried hammer and sickle signs when protesting against a new health insurance scheme ????? Where Obama’s association with left wingers like Saul Alinsky and a Weatherman were frequently referred to????

    I think not.

    US politics isn’t at all like Australian or European, where democratic socialist groups are commonplace and have been elected to government (without any gulags).

    You could say “more fool them”…… it doesn’t change their electoral tone.

  6. Jumpy:

    Unrestrained market regulation ( corruption of free market ) hurts the poor more because it take away their right to choose what’s best for them, and the right to choose whats bad for them.

    Unrestrained free market globalization has converted too many working class people who had choices into unemployed people with declining hope. That is part of what Trump’s victory was about but it looks as though he is more about looking after rich people like himself.
    Fortunately the WA voters seem to have realized that Pauline was just as bad as the Libs.

  7. “touting Bernie Sanders as the last hope for the Republicans”

    Ambigulous, you were right, I meant “Democrats”, now corrected.

    Whether Sanders would have survived a scare campaign about his socialism and the other dirt they would have thrown, we’ll never know.

    Val, I haven’t read the book, and don’t consider myself expert of even well-informed on American politics. And I don’t have time to get over to Crooked Timber much at all.

    Frank’s criticism looked coherent and logical, so I thought I’d share.

    I decided to look further, and found John Halle’s review, which suggests that Frank was on the right track, but showed bias in leaving the unions and labour movement off the hook.

    Then there was John Alter in the Washington Monthly. Alter finds Frank un-rigorous and factually problematic. That is wrong at times, problematic in what he selects and what he leaves out.

    The whole thing is obviously vastly more complicated than Frank would have us believe.

    Alter is the author of one book about Franklin D. Roosevelt and two about Barack Obama. He ends:

    This book perfectly captures the mind-set of Sanders voters. Is it also a harbinger of their unwillingness to suck it up and vote for the wife of the main villain of the piece? Let’s hope Frank is willing to set aside his bile long enough to use his credibility on the left to face the hard realities of politics and help protect us from a cruel fate this fall.

    However, it still leaves Frank’s basic concern that the Democratic Party has deserted the workers intact, I think.

  8. Carlos Lozada at The Washington Post:

    “Every two years, they [the Democrats] simply assume that being non-Republican is sufficient to rally the voters of the nation to their standard,” Frank concludes. “This cannot go on.”

    It can. Unless Sanders pulls off a miraculous resuscitation, the old Democratic Party is dead. Depending on where you stand in the 2016 campaign and the 2016 economy, it was either a noble death or a suicide.

  9. Unrestrained market regulation” is not the same as “checks and balances that used to protect the working class“.
    Jumpy, your hyperbole is showing.

  10. BTW, can anybody give an example of “unrestrained market regulation” happening in a democracy? (note for Jumpy – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is not actually a democracy).

  11. Yes, Brian
    We’ll never know whether Sanders would have crashed and Berned.

    But a discussion about the major parties and their relationships to various social groups, is well worth having. In America I think there is a tradition of highly critical books on parties and their platforms, their funding sources, their internal workings etc. And books that are produced specifically as a prelude to the author’s Presidential campaign, or to sell during a campaign (“A Woman in Charge” by Carl Bernstein, about Mrs Clinton, for instance).

    Whereas here, I think, we see more politicians’ biographies, books on general policy questions, or books BY pollies (recent examples: Mr Abbott, Mr Latham, Mr Tanner, Mr Carr, Mr Swan, Mr Howard on Menzies, etc.)

  12. Dear Brian, v. interesting analysis. Applies mutatis mutandis also to the SPD, who are in their Wahlkampf trying to offset this a bit.

  13. Greetings, Christoph, I don’t know why your comment got stuck in moderation.

    For those who don’t know, the SPD is the main ‘socialist’ opposition party, currently in a ‘grand coalition’ with Merkel’s mob.

    A Wahlkampf is literally a fight for the vote.

    FWIW my son Mark reckons the European voting systems tend to produce featureless centrist coalitions, which invite activity at the extremes.

  14. BTW, can anybody give an example of “unrestrained market regulation” happening in a democracy?

    Venezuela, they can choose between the Socialist party or the Communist party.
    How they going ?

  15. JD

    My take is that a society is measured by what is happening to the people at the bottom of the pile, not the size of the pyramids built by those at the top.

    That’s my take too.
    All the jobs that went to China, lifting millions out of abject poverty. In fact, due to increased corporate taxing and rising wage costs, some major private Chinese companies are moving to Ethiopia to the betterment of their abject poor.
    It’s hard to argue that Corporate Free market globalisation doesn’t naturally seek to redistribute wealth from the ( by World standard ) wealthy customer Countries to the poorest Countries to lift them out of abject poverty. No Governing body ever dreamed of has done a fraction of that.
    We are a Global society now, a person on welfare in Australia or US is ” The Rich “.
    Who do you reason is ” at the bottom of the pile ” ?

  16. Venezuela, they can choose between the Socialist party or the Communist party.

    You’re so predictable.

  17. Jumpy, at what level do “checks and balances” turn into “unrestrained market regulation”?

  18. It’s not a one way street zoot, address my comment, and Johns, at 3:26 pm first and I’ll answer your next.
    My ” unrestrained market regulation (2nd)” was in response to Johns “unrestrained free markets (1st)”.
    There are none of the 1st and you haven’t addressed the 2nd.

    Hope thats easy for you to read.

  19. You’re so predictable.
    Alinsky 4, 5 and 6 right there.
    Have you got them printed out and framed on a wall where you sit ?
    Honest question.

  20. Jumpy, Venezuela is Venezuela. I wish you’d stop pretending it’s relevant.

    Frank talked to Richard Fidler about the effect of NAFTA on Mexico. Mexicans hired at slave labour rates, except that slaves in America were fed, clothed and housed. Small farmers devastated by American farm exports.

    If you clocked off 8.17pm you would have missed Four Corners The Price of the American Dream. I know that people in the building industry have to get up early. Four Corners showed us a building worker who went to Seattle, because a lot of buildings were being built. He had to show at the day labour place at 5.30am to have a chance. He and his family were left living in a tent erected in a churchyard, refugees in their own country.

    The program also looked at the effect of GE moving a factory from Eerie to Texas, where the wages were half.

    It’s not the way to make the world a better place.

    Barbara Ehrenreich said:

    When someone works for less pay than she can live on … she has made a great sacrifice for you …. The “working poor” … are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone. (p. 221)

    Those are the working poor.

    That was back in 2001, as a result of the Clinton ‘reforms’.

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