“Where We Stand Today Is Where We Stand Today” — What the Presidential Election Says About What’s Next
Watching the dumpster fire that is the Democrats’ presidential campaign, I find that I have to change somewhat my view of the way that the ruling class sees the Trump administration. My perspective had been that the ruling class loves what Trump does to demolish regulations and foster support for authoritarian measures directed at low wage workers, immigrants,people of color, and women; but it hates his random forays into foreign policy and distrusts his egomania. And on balance, with a political system that poses little if any danger of taking drastic steps that will impact their fortunes, the tiny class of American billionaires preferred a steadier course than Trump could every provide.
I expected that in 2020 there would be a big push from the Democratic Party to try to re-capture its populist image with many winks and nods to its bases: African Americans, women, labor unions, etc. to give the message that once Trump was out of the way, there would be somewhat of a revival of liberal policy-making. Clearly, that’s not what is happening, and I think it reflects a shift not so much in how Wall Street and the banks view Trump but in the way they view the previously docile working class.
Instead, what we are seeing is the ruling elite trying to assemble a centrist government. As we get closer to November, we will see more defections from the ranks of moderate Republicans in support of Biden, and an effort to rally all of the Democrats’ traditional allies. However, there will be no pretense that a Biden presidency will herald some Roosevelt New Deal or even a Johnson Great Society.
Acting with incredible speed after Sanders’ withdrawal from the primaries, the Democratic Party leadership loudly proclaimed a dramatic shift to the Right. One of Biden’s first major campaign ads was a call to arms for war on China. Promises of dramatic healthcare reform and support for working class students and their families (free college, student loan forgiveness) virtually disappeared overnight.
Why the sudden shift? Why run a presidential campaign that appears to almost deliberately alienate young an activist liberal voters, whose legwork and enthusiasm is a mainstay of Democratic Party politics? Why promise a campaign even more lackluster and downright tone-deaf than Clinton’s in 2016?
One obvious new player on the political scene is the coronavirus. But if anything, one would have thought that the pandemic and the deep faults that it reveals in our society (inequities in healthcare, economics, civil rights, and civil liberties) might have pushed the Democratic Party in the direction of social and economic intervention. Past leaders of the Democratic Party would have responded to these social crises with calls for patriotic unity shored up with promises of relief.
Yet, ironically, at the very moment when the nation, from governors on down is decrying the lack of leadership from our Chief Executive in the White House, his Democratic opponent disappears for weeks at a time and has virtually nothing of substance to say about the pandemic or about what he will do to help us survive it.
Even Pelosi and Schumer, understood as the de facto “opposition” to Trump, have been careful not to promise real economic relief for working people. With a Democratic majority in Congress, Pelosi can’t even push a relief package that supplements the famous $1,200 working class “bail out,”
So if the pandemic doesn’t explain the system-wide shift to the Right, what does? Maybe the answer tells us something about not only how the US ruling class thinks, but about the failure of imagination of even most progressive and left leaders in the working class. Because as bad as the current pandemic feels to millions of Americans. it’s small potatoes compared to the Great Depression that is on the horizon.
Not a recession. Not even a Great Recession of the kind that simply evokes comparisons to the 1930’s. The combination of a festering global economic crisis and the pandemic is, even now, throwing the world’s economies into a tailspin — with the United States in the weakest global position it has held since the advent of World War I. The prolonged First Wave of the pandemic, to be followed by a Second that may be as bad or worse, will not only perpetuate large scale unemployment, but it has the potential to throw tens of millions of people into the throes of financial insecurity if not downright poverty. Young people with college debt, families with children, and older people dependent on pensions are likely to be especially hard hit.
As far back as the Reagan era, Wall Street leaders have set as a long term goal the flattening of the working class in the US, reducing wages and benefits so that corporations could reduce labor costs so as to be “competitive” with countries with lower labor standards. Over almost half a century, both major political parties have participated in the demands for “austerity,” “competitiveness,” and “flexibility” that come from corporate America. The result for workers has been, over time, a lowering of rates of unionization, a stagnant minimum wage, the conversion of traditional pension plans to 401(k)’s, skyrocketing health insurance premiums and the stripping away of coverage, and the incursion of the zero security/zero benefits “gig economy.” The result for communities has been the shredding of social safety nets, the sell-off of community assets, and the privatization of services — especially the public school systems and public healthcare systems.
The “success” of corporate America in the flattening of the working class has been accompanied by more frequent and deeper recessions; rising levels of poverty, homelessness, and hunger for low wage workers; and for relatively well-off workers, a greater level of income insecurity. While technological advances put increasingly sophisticated computers into our homes and our pockets, they also de-skill and destroy jobs.
This is the fragile society that the coronavirus pandemic encountered: one where millions of people work multiple jobs in order to survive, and millions more struggle to hold onto workplace benefits that perpetually increase in cost and decrease in value.
Around the world we can see that the nations that have successfully combated the coronavirus did so with robust national healthcare systems and with systems providing most of the population with a high degree of social security. Measures like isolation, social distancing, using protective equipment in public places, and closing down parts of the economy (as well as daycares, schools, and colleges) that were highly successful in those countries have met at best only very moderate success in the US. Now, as June 1, 2020 approaches, the US expects to soon mark the 100,000th death, giving it by far the highest death rate of any country, whether counted by percentage or per capita.
Without either a public health infrastructure designed to provide care to tens of millions of people infected by a highly contagious virus or a social safety net prepared to absorb the impact of a major national crisis, the US is likely to experience a prolonged period of high social and economic instability. The kinds of solutions that could stabilize the economy involve a significant shift in resources to maintaining the health and well-being of tens of millions of people living in precarious circumstances. Yet such solutions cut directly across the ongoing plans by corporate America to shift more and more resources away from the working class and into their private coffers.
This is the context in which the ruling class is making decisions about the 2020 presidential elections. It is fostering a resurgence by the centrist Democrats that will help to steady the rudder. The goal is not to beat Trump but to reign him in: take advantage of his instinct to bust regulations and defy the popular will, while limiting the damage of his random and reckless approach to foreign policy.
And just as important, the goal of the ruling class is not to allow the Democrats to cater to working people but to dole out class discipline, preparing us for the reality that temporary palliatives to address the pandemic will not slow the forced march to neoliberal austerity. Even the carefully framed “alternatives” to Medicare4All pushed by Elizabeth Warren and a half dozen other contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination are now off the table. These pipe dreams are vanished in thin air as we prepare for a “new normal” in which more people have less access to healthcare, contend for fewer good jobs, work more when they are sick or disabled, go deeper in debt, and work longer without retiring.