Wayne O'Leary

Anti-Capitalism in America

As we head toward the backstretch of the 2016 race for the White House, the two leading antiestablishment candidates for president, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, are raising hell in their respective parties. Their startling successes to date point to something highly unusual in the land of the big dollar: the unleashing (unintentional in the case of Trump) of an indignant anti-capitalist spirit unseen in American politics since the years of the Great Depression.

Sanders and Trump are certainly an odd couple — the idealistic independent democratic socialist from rural Vermont and the cynical and profane billionaire wheeler-dealer from the streets of New York. Yet, they have more in common than you might think. Both speak for the economically based anger and anguish of a long-abused middle class that is finally standing up and demanding an accounting. And both are recoiling against attempts by their party establishments to foist upon the public candidates dedicated to politics as usual in the service of the powers that be.

There are deep differences, of course. Sanders articulates a clear analysis of the economic problem honed over decades in the trenches, and he offers substantive solutions. Trump presents a personality-driven approach laden with nativist overtones, and he offers few specifics. Sanders will (among other things) break up the big banks, regulate Wall Street, and universalize health care under government auspices; Trump will do something “great” that people will “love.” Sanders assumes voter understanding and participation in the process; Trump assumes voter adulation of the leader (himself) and blind followership.

There are other differences, most obviously the Sanders attraction to liberal-leaning portions of the middle class and the Trump attraction to its conservative-leaning counterpart. But their respective appeals are not mutually exclusive; there are conservatives who respond to Sanders’ anti-Wall Street message, and liberals who share Trump’s demand for economic nationalism.

As annoyed Republican activists well know, “the Donald” is no movement conservative; he opposed the Iraq War, rejects cuts to entitlements, supports some tax hikes on the rich, criticizes free trade, and once spoke favorably of a single-payer health-care plan. Sanders, for his part, draws as well among registered independents as he does among Democrats — far better, for instance, than rival Hillary Clinton.

If the two were to meet in the general election, they would constitute opposite sides of the same coin, and the contest to determine who was most representative of this year’s antiestablishment impulse would quickly turn nasty. Trump is unscrupulous, and he would try to misrepresent Sanders’ adherence to what the senator calls “democratic socialism” (as Clinton’s surrogates and members of the media have already done) by calling it “socialism” and leaving out the “democratic” qualifier.

Sanders is really a New Deal liberal, but to succeed, he will need to clarify his problematic use of the democratic-socialist, or social-democrat, label in order to exorcize lingering Cold War demons. Opponents, within and without the Democratic party, have already begun applying the standard dictionary definition of socialism to suggest the Vermont senator wants government to exclusively own and control the means of production and distribution of goods — in other words, to nationalize America’s industries; they will further imply that socialism is tantamount to Marxism, a harsh ideology premised on class struggle, abolition of private property, and the overthrow of capitalism, none of which Bernie Sanders subscribes to in the least.

The democratic socialism Sanders identifies with is an unexceptional concept everywhere outside the US; it was the dominant political philosophy of the postwar period in Western Europe (until the Thatcherite counterrevolution of the 1980s), as well as in countries such as Canada and Australia. Its accomplishments include Britain’s widely admired National Health Service.

The late historian Tony Judt called social democracy a “hybrid” opposed by Right and Left alike, a peaceful, incremental, anti-Marxist solution to “the injustice and inefficiency of industrial capitalism;” it was, quite simply, Europe’s expanded version of FDR’s New Deal. Far from being scary ogres, the European social democrats long ago dropped nationalization from their party platforms in favor of developing mixed economies and modern welfare states.

Pardon the extensive side trip into Sanders’ “socialism”; it’s necessary because all sorts of people with agendas of their own are using the word against him by attributing false meanings to it. Sanders himself, in a 2006 interview, defined his democratic socialism as working toward a government not dominated by big-money interests. “I mean, to me,” he explained, “it means democracy, frankly. That’s all it means.”

Others see it as something dark and forbidding, if not downright sinister. Mainstream media pundits have lined up, in almost unanimous fashion, to savage him. In the wake of their papers’ unprecedented primary endorsements of Clinton, David Brooks of The New York Times and Dana Milbank of The Washington Post have loosely tossed around the word “insanity” at the prospect of a Sanders nomination.

And Chris Matthews, resident windbag at formerly progressive MSNBC, accused Sanders, in a rant for the ages, of offering a “free lunch” to voters. Interestingly, Ed Schultz, once a prominent presence at MSNBC, has endorsed the senator, so now we know why he was banished to broadcasting’s equivalent of Siberia.

The ferocity of the insider attacks on Sanders, and the corporate media’s well-established resistance to covering his campaign, bespeaks the perceived threat he poses to the ruling establishment. Its members have reason to worry. A new politics is struggling to be born, and Sanders is its herald; he and Trump (in his crude, perverse way) represent the first serious political reaction against three decades of economic globalization and market fundamentalism that have hollowed out the American middle class.

Recently, The Economist magazine attached the name “anti-capitalism” to this incipient backlash, which it views as worldwide in scope, encompassing the emergence of new left-wing parties in Europe as well as the pronouncements of Pope Francis on the shortcomings of global capitalism.

In the immediate American political context, the Democratic party has a potential problem: its long-presumed nominee, Hillary Clinton, is inextricably tied to the existing order, political and economic. Should Donald Trump emerge as the GOP nominee and face Clinton, she could very easily come to symbolize the reviled establishment, and he the insurgent antiestablishment — not the ideal position for Democrats to be in as we approach what promises to be a change election.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2016


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