I have been firmly in Camp Sanders since that unassuming day one year ago when the Vermont senator announced his presidential bid in front of a small troupe of reporters on a small patch of lawn. Prior to that, I had been clamoring for an Elizabeth Warren campaign run, and prior to that I had been hoping and praying that Obama would prove his most far-right wing critics correct and announce that he was staying on as Emperor-In-Perpetuity.
While Obama certainly aligns more closely with the neoliberal agenda (part of this is due to the centrist-corner Republican congressional obstructionism has consistently backed him into, and part of this is due to the fact that Obama was always more moderate than many believed), the resonance of his 2008 campaign and his audacious calls for “hope” and “change” still offered echoes of FDR’s inspirational radio broadcasts.
Sanders and Warren, on the other hand, are not shy about expressing their interest in yanking the Democratic Party back from the precipice of a neoliberal cliff.
But just what is neoliberalism? And what is New Deal liberalism? And can the two possibly co-exist outside of the progressive talking points of a savvy rhetorician like Obama?
According to Investopedia:
Neoliberalism is a policy model of social studies and economics that transfers control of economic factors to the private sector from the public sector. … Governments must limit subsidies, make reforms to tax law in order to expand the tax base, reduce deficit spending, limit protectionism, and open markets up to trade. It also seeks to abolish fixed exchange rates, back deregulation, permit private property, and privatize businesses run by the state.
At face value, those seem to be the types of policies in direct opposition to New Deal politics. David Kenneth, of Demand Media explains:
New Deal Liberalism is a belief in a government, large in size, that is active in regulating the economy and society to achieve what it perceives as fairness.
Specifically, The New Deal was a set of initiatives set forth by Roosevelt to help jump-start an economy on life support during the Great Depression. While most economists also credit the mobilization of forces in World War II for helping turn the country’s economic fate around, there is ample evidence that FDR’s progressive agenda also played a significant role. Massive expansion of jobs programs, the development of unprecedented worker protections (including union protections and a minimum wage), and the creation of the crown jewel — The Social Security Act –were all parts of the formal New Deal agenda, though many additional elements would be added later, keeping New Deal liberalism front-and-center all the way through Lyndon Johnson’s tenure.
A conflation of factors, from rapidly rising globalization to Ronald Reagan’s steep tax cuts and austerity measures, would work together to dismantle in just one decade what had taken a generation to create and foster. By the end of the 1980s, New Deal liberalism was hardly recognizable, having been gutted so thoroughly.
Democrats, seeking to finally regain executive power after 12 years out of the White House, made peace (some more grudgingly than others) with many of the Republican’s moves towards privatization and deregulation. They accepted economic compromises that would have startled Roosevelt or Truman, but they appealed to their party’s base by shifting much of their attention to social issues. Emerging from Reagan’s fierce embrace of the evangelical Christian right, this was not a difficult pivot for Democrats, and along with several new workers’ protections initiatives, party leaders were ultimately able to wrest executive control from the GOP for 8 years (24, if you count Florida’s ballots in 2000).
Under the Obama administration, the Democratic Party would become stalwart defenders of the rights of historically marginalized groups such as the LGBT community.
Yet for over 30 years, under democrats and republicans alike, income inequality has worsened, until, as Bernie Sanders’ notes:
Today, we live in the richest country in the history of the world, but that reality means little because much of that wealth is controlled by a tiny handful of individuals. The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time.
It does not matter if Barack Obama or Bill Clinton is running the show; income inequality worsened under both leaders (albeit at a slower pace than under republican leadership). And due to cutthroat business practices, climate change worsened as well. The Affordable Care Act, while an important first step towards 21st century healthcare, is merely a mandate that Americans purchase Wall Street-traded health insurance. And of course Wall Street itself has spent the past 8 years seeing robust — even unprecedented — gains, thanks primarily to the American taxpayers who bailed the greedy (even criminal) financial sector out during George W. Bush’s last few months in office.
Finally, Citizens United has made campaign financing so corrosive that using the ballot box to overturn the effects of these compromises has become exceedingly difficult. While on the surface Bernie Sanders’ populist campaign may seem to suggest otherwise, private interests are still pouring a collective billions into races across the country — from statehouses to judgeships.
The underlying economic dynamic hasn’t really changed, regardless of the party running the show.
Neoliberalism has had its day in court, and the verdict is startlingly clear: without a major return to New Deal-esque investments, the status quo will become unsustainable for millions of Americans. Dystopian proclamations of an encroaching oligarchy overshadowing our functioning democracy will become economic reality, and this dissolution will occur sooner rather than later.
In the Democratic primary the delegate math heavily favors Hillary Clinton. And undeniably the popular former senator, secretary of state and first lady wields a strong and experienced record on domestic social issues. She has been remarkable for women’s rights and gay rights (yes, Sanders has been exceptional in these areas as well). She has staked out a long overdue, stringent gun control platform, one desperately needed to end the scourge of tragic and daily gun violence in this country.
Yet Hillary will not be able to move forward without us Sanders’ supporters. If we collectively choose to support our candidate in November, it is exceedingly likely that a Republican will take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Considering how far right the political spectrum has shifted, this Republican president will most assuredly roll back many critical social and economic reforms. And if the Grody Orange One (G.O.O.), known widely as “The Donald,” wins the election, we’ll almost certainly be subjected to a minimum of four years of knee-jerk, reactionary leadership and even life-or-death decisions made on a blusterous, impulsive whim, with little regard for consequences.
So Madam Secretary Clinton, Sanders’ supporters would like to strike a deal. We will wholeheartedly support you in November. We will donate to your campaign. We will knock on doors for you. We will stand on busy street corners with pro-Clinton placards. We will phone bank. We will harness our grassroots energy and mobilize on your behalf.
But in return we’d like you to re-visit the New Deal politics that made the Democratic party such a formidable and admirable 20th century force.
We would like you to attend the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia not merely with an eye toward the future, but also with a clear perspective of the party’s glorious past.
This means we would like you to arrive in Philly with a fully formed plan to end Citizens United. This means we want to see transparent proposals for tough Wall Street regulation. This means we want to hear a strong pledge to break up any banks that take the American public for a disastrous ride. When it comes to income inequality and climate change, we don’t want you to pursue incremental progress, rather, we want you to aggressively pursue as much as you can.
Today, the Democratic party is quite polarized. We’ve splintered into factious groups that land scatter-shot along a spectrum that ranges from New Deal progressivism to neoliberal pragmatism.
Madam Secretary, we would hope that you feel the momentous bern of the progressive movement, so that come November we can proudly and enthusiastically declare, “I’m With Her.”