In a thoughtful piece at Vox, Mike Konczal outlines how US politics shifted right in the 1980s and that only now the Democratic Party is finding its way back. For decades, “socialism” and “welfare” were bad words that evoked the failure of Soviet communism, and the success of the United States was ascribed to libertarian capitalism.
Now that Hillary Clinton’s loss to a nincompoop has called the status quo into question, the left is wondering how it came to this. Konczal points out that neoliberalism is being used as a meaningless catch-all phrase to describe a Dark Ages of the American left.
I think it would be productive to ask not only where things went “wrong” with politics, but also question what engenders the new perspective today. While avoiding oversimplifications that ascribe everything to those inscrutable Millennials.
I suspect we’re at the tail end of a prosperity-fueled delusion. Late-20th-century America had a seemingly unstoppable economy. Maybe this was due to our perfect growth position for post-war globalization, accelerated exploitation of domestic resources, economic colonization of oil-rich lands, the information revolution, or some other historical force my layperson perspective neglects. Perhaps it could even be ascribed to New Deal policies that fell victim to their own successes. Probably any narrative of clear causality is foolish.
So most voters felt their quality of life improving. The only set eager to change the way things are going are those oppressed through discrimination, but they don’t constitute enough voters to maintain a viable party in winner-takes-all American politics. Naturally, Democrats shifted their policies toward the center. Planks of the platforms regarding equality and social justice remained but weren’t expressed strongly in day-to-day governing.
To look back now and wonder why they lost their way is to undervalue context. If Bill Clinton had allowed “the economy” to suffer because the nation needed to focus on improving the lives of all Americans and making the country safer for everyone, he probably would have been a one-term president and a failure as a party leader.
We can wish he had, of course. Just as we can wish post-war America had followed the model of Western Europe. But that is to ignore that the realities of the not-so-cosmpolitian US electorate.
Anyway, the boom ended, and just about when climate change is beginning to make everything harder. Maintaining the status quo has required extraordinary measures for some time already, and most of the body politic has been feeling a deceleration in their quality of life. This is upsetting, so we want change. The right offers to Make America Great Again, assures us someone else is to blame, and offers to do something about those other people.
The left intuits this and offers a hopeful Yes We Can but is too slow to rebound from decades of rightward drift. They will go so far as to discuss free higher education and serious welfare programs like basic income, but are still afraid of being called socialist. So serious progressive taxation and resolute regulation of capital’s ability to exploit workers and consumers are too edgy for mainstream discussion.
To achieve progress in the present let us focus on the opportunity a dissatisfied electorate represents. Voters want change so badly they will vote for Donald Trump. We need more than only Bernie Sanders proffering alternate changes to soften the psychological blow of economic deceleration. Left-leaning voters are so desperate they’ve begun admiring foreign politicians. If the Democratic Party doesn’t provide some clear leadership at the national level, we’re going to see all of their energy spent on local elections and #resisting.