A widely accepted view of the cold war defines the period as a conflict between a bloc of democratic capitalist states headed by the United States and a bloc of authoritarian communist states headed by the Soviet Union. It began immediately after the Second World War in 1945 and concluded with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—a decisive victory for the Western bloc defined by private property, free markets, and popularly elected governments. Such a momentous event was naturally construed as an ideological triumph. According to the dominant thinking of the “new world order,” material prosperity and civil freedoms were best guaranteed—could only be guaranteed—by an open society and capitalist economy composed of individual agents. Capitalism, as an economic system, had become universal; liberal democracy, its political counterpart, was sure to follow. The risky slopes of human history converged upon the calm peak of the eternal American present.
This complex of economic/political thought, it’s generally agreed, found its most coolly lucid exponent in Francis Fukuyama, a Japanese-American neoconservative intellectual and State Department Soviet specialist whose book The End of History and the Last Man, an elaboration of his 1989 essay of nearly the same name (the original, “The End of History?,” was more open in its implications), remains a vital point of reference for proponents as well as detractors of what would come to be known as the neoliberal consensus. In keeping with Fukuyama’s preternatural sense of timeliness, his book was published at the end of March 1992: just as his essay from the summer of 1989 had been punctuated by the crumbling of the Berlin Wall later that year, the outcome of the first presidential election season following the cold war’s end would confirm the political power of neoliberalism in theory and practice.
Presidents have come and gone since 1992, but the faith in the virtues of trade liberalization and the superior intelligence of free markets relative to that of state planning, professed unanimously by Presidents, American business conglomerates, and the professional political and business media, has remained both constant and unchallengeable—until this year. The 2016 presidential election has revived debates on industrial and economic policy absent from the national stage for nearly a quarter century: cumulative shifts in economic stratification, cultural representation, and communications technology promoted under neoliberal hegemony have generated the conditions of its demise. If topically the 2016 election season resembles nothing so much as the election season of 1992, it also represents the inversion of the ideological consensus forged by the former season’s outcome.
For an incumbent President, George H. W. Bush was uncharacteristically vulnerable. The nation was in the midst of a significant recession which, combined with the violation of his 1988 pledge not to raise income taxes, had dashed the extremely high approval ratings he had garnered by expelling Baathist Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. The scion of a New England patrician family who had made his fortune in Texas oil, Bush embodied the state of a Republican Party that, since Nixon’s 1968 election, had been transitioning electorally from its original core in New England to a new base in the South while retaining its traditional status as the preferred party of corporate interests. As a former congressman, chairman of the party’s national committee, director of the CIA, and vice president, Bush was intimately familiar with the workings of a party hierarchy which he could, consequently, unify behind him.
Loyalty above, however, was not complemented by trust below. Bush had campaigned as a conservative and governed as a centrist; unlike many of the voters who had elected him, he was neither culturally Southern nor an evangelical Christian. As a non-catastrophic incumbent, he could not be ousted by his own party, but, like Gerald Ford pushed by Reagan in 1976, he could be forced further to the right by a challenger, and was: Pat Buchanan, the former Nixon speechwriter, Reagan White House communications director, and quasi-fascist intellectual, opposed Bush on a platform blending cultural conservatism with economic populism—in particular, Buchanan decried the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that President Bush and congressional Republicans had proposed, which he believed would result in the loss of millions of American manufacturing jobs. Though he won no states he amassed a protest vote amounting to almost three million voters, slightly less than one-quarter of the primary electorate. The price for conciliating Buchanan was granting him the keynote address at the party’s national convention:
Friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America.
Having vanquished Communism abroad, the Republican Party would now aim to exterminate liberalism at home. Buchanan’s speech terminated with a barely veiled racist analogy: as the riotous streets of Watts were cleared by the National Guard, so too must party stalwarts reclaim the cities, the culture, the country which were rightfully theirs. The ensuing years would witness Buchanan’s drift out of the Republican mainstream. Yet it’s important to note that it was his defense of workers in American manufacturing and his opposition to foreign wars, not his racial bigotry and moral puritanism, that estranged the aspiring demagogue from the party he had served.
Revulsion against black Americans would play a key role in the Democratic nomination process as well. At the time of Fukuyama’s book launch, a crowded and tumultuous field had narrowed down to two men, the governors of Arkansas and California. Amply financed and possessed of the common touch, Bill Clinton had overcome a slow start and allegations of financial and sexual misconduct to take a large, but not yet decisive lead; provided that Jerry Brown (who, in keeping with his pledge to reform campaign finance, only accepted small donations from individuals, and so was not amply financed) maintained his lead in the polls in delegate-rich New York, the race might tighten to a dead heat. But when Brown suggested, speaking before an audience of prominent New York Jews, that he would consider the Reverend Jesse Jackson as a vice-presidential candidate, his lead in New York rapidly evaporated: Jackson’s friendship with Louis Farrakhan, his support of Palestinian rights and a Palestinian state, and his use of a racial slur during an 1984 interview had rendered him anathema to Jewish-American political organizations. After his defeat in New York, Brown’s campaign, with its focus on campaign finance and tax reform and its support for labor (and hence opposition to NAFTA), lost momentum and popular funding, devolving into a protest candidacy. Like Buchanan, Brown concluded his candidacy with a fiery speech at his party’s national convention. But unlike Buchanan, whose party granted him a nationally televised keynote speech, Brown was denied the right to speak by his own party and could only deliver his address as he seconded his own nomination on C-SPAN in the off-hours.
However, the most significant challenge to a corrupt campaign finance system and trade liberalization came from outside the two-party system altogether, when a diminutive Texan tech billionaire financed a campaign to elect himself President. Unlike Buchanan or Brown, Ross Perot was indifferent to the struggles over cultural representation then raging; political economy was his primary concern, and his opposition to federal deficits, corporate lobbyists on Capitol Hill, and, above all, NAFTA comprised the entirety of his appeal to voters. This appeal was formidable: by mid-June Perot had risen above Bush and Clinton in a national poll, scoring 37 percent while the party nominees mustered 24 percent each.
Perot was not a natural politician and he did not run a perfect campaign. His command of his organization, staffed largely by major-party defectors whose loyalty he suspected (probably correctly), was shaky, and he refused to spend large sums of money on television commercials in an era when television dominated. Most damaging, Perot dropped out of the race during the vital ten-week period between mid-July and October, alleging that Republican Party operatives were blackmailing him by threatening to leak nudes of his daughter prior to her wedding. Whatever momentum he regained in the final campaign month during the televised debates between himself, Bush, and Clinton (Perot was a keen debater) was dwarfed by the momentum he had sacrificed by leaving the race.
Given the magnitude of his support and the potential he had displayed, Perot’s platform could not simply be dismissed. His plan combined backing for balanced budgets, term limits, cuts in domestic spending, tax increases on the wealthy, and heavy federal investments in infrastructure and education, but its core element was Perot’s adamant insistence on protecting American manufacturing jobs from outsourcing to nations with lower wages, weak workers’ rights and labor movements, and nonexistent environmental regulations. Yet despite his errors, which were seized on by a political press eager to declare him unelectable, Perot still drew in 18.9 percent of the vote on Election Day, a figure no third-party candidate had surpassed since 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt won 27.4 percent running as a Progressive.
Like Roosevelt, Perot was possessed of a firm belief that the federal state should be empowered to mediate between capital and labor at home and promote economic nationalism abroad. Yet American circumstances had altered over eighty years: the nascent industrial titan of 1912, backed by unparalleled economies of scale, found itself in 1992 saddled with an aging manufacturing sector and struggling to maintain market share against its more efficient Japanese and German vassals. After the ’70s, when the tremendous expenses of the Vietnam War, two successive oil shocks, and a global crisis of industrial overproduction drove the rate of economic growth and the return on capital investment down to minimally profitable levels, firms in the First World were eager to relocate industrial enterprises to the Third, where poverty and low wages permitted greater profit margins. Outsourcing would also corrode the bargaining power of organized industrial labor in the developed world: even in a post-Soviet era, unions in the democratic West remained potential strongholds of resistance to capital. A labor movement already beleaguered by a business counteroffensive in the ’80s—its opening salvo Reagan’s mass firing of striking air traffic controllers in 1981—could be dealt a crippling, possibly fatal blow in the ’90s by trade agreements such as NAFTA, which not only facilitated the outsourcing of American industry but also, almost as importantly, referred adjudication of corporate trade violations to international bureaucratic tribunals beyond the reach of democratic accountability.
But under liberal democracy the trade agreements first had to be approved by an elected legislature and elected executive before becoming law. As President Clinton, picking up where Bush left off, prepared to push NAFTA through Congress, Perot became the center of a resistance to the treaty which included Pat Buchanan, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader, and above all organized labor. The outcome was uncertain, and both Perot and the President worked to compel House members to commit to their respective sides; Clinton believed, for a time, that he would lose. He could not afford to confront Perot directly again. To do so would concede equality to a figure whom he had already bested in a national election. Given the circumstances, congressional surrogates were clearly unsuitable. There could be only one solution: on the night of November 9th, 1993, eight days prior to the treaty’s submission to a vote in the House of Representatives, Perot and Vice President Al Gore debated one another on television, with Larry King moderating for CNN. The debate was extensive: not including commercials, it ran for seventy-five minutes and the transcript runs to over 15,000 words.
Perot had come prepared. He dismantled Gore’s more specious assertions about NAFTA: when Gore predicted a drastically higher volume of trade under NAFTA, Perot exposed Gore’s figures as illusions stemming from creative accounting. He predicted that the Mexican population, relatively impoverished, would be incapable of purchasing American industrial products in quantities large enough to spur job growth in American factories. Perot proposed, as an alternative, a new trade deal that would impose a penalty on the Mexican state—a “social tariff”—until it raised worker wages, reformed its labor laws, and respected the rights of its citizens. “We can only do business with a country that gives its people a decent standard of living and respects human rights. Because we are all humans—every human life is precious. . . . If you don’t treat your workers fairly and if you don’t treat your people fairly, history teaches us that that produces stress that will take maybe a century to cure.” American corporations which relocated manufacturing to Mexico would be barred from shipping their goods back to the United States.
In spite of Gore’s smug demeanor and relentless interruptions, Perot maintained an even, though naturally increasingly vexed, tone; when Gore attempted to shift the topic, Perot retained his focus; when Gore cast aspersions on his motives, Perot parried them without excessive difficulty, albeit only by exposing himself as a traitor to his class.1 It is difficult, reading the transcript of the NAFTA debate, not to come to certain conclusions: it was by far the most substantive televised debate on economic policy in American history, and the majority of the substance came from Perot, who by that token was the clear victor of the debate.
Yet the gloating and unanimous response on the part of the political media was precisely the opposite: Gore had triumphed, absolutely. His churlishness was taken as a mark of tactical genius, while Perot’s displeasure was played up as a sign of mental incompetence: William Safire, in the New York Times, cheerfully compared the debate to a bullfight, with the Texan in the role of the hapless, goaded beast; Dana Carvey mocked Perot’s requests to be allowed to finish his sentences on Saturday Night Live. A week later, NAFTA passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 234 to 200; Senate approval soon followed, and President Clinton signed the treaty into law in early December. If, as stated by an unsigned New Republic editorial from October, “it may not be too great a flight of rhetoric to say that, at this crossroads of post-war [i.e. post–cold war] history. . . . Ross Perot represents the cause of evil,” one could rest in the knowledge that evil had been vanquished.
A year later, in the 1994 midterm elections, the Democratic Party lost control of the House of Representatives for the first time in over forty years; since 1994 the Democrats have controlled the House for two Congressional terms out of a total of eleven.
It was customary for the political press of the period to attribute the enormous Republican successes of 1994—a gain of fifty-four seats in the House and eight seats in the Senate—to the strategic genius of Newt Gingrich. The problem with this assertion has become glaringly evident since then: Newt Gingrich is not a genius. The likelier explanation lies elsewhere. Though historically, the party of the incumbent President almost always lost seats in midterm elections, this trend was exacerbated by President Clinton’s uncoordinated and consequently failed pursuit of healthcare reform, the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones against the President, and, of course, the President’s passage of NAFTA. With low support from unions, whose rights, numbers, and wages were already being subjected to steady erosion, Democrats in the 1994 midterms found themselves at a serious disadvantage when facing the amply financed, highly motivated Republican coalition of evangelical culture warriors and petty capitalists, the former incensed at Clinton’s numerous sex scandals, the latter at the attempt to increase the scale of government with his healthcare act. Gingrich had been bound to hit a single: it took multiple errors from the President to transform it into a home run.
If the history of American voting rights has been, on the whole, a progressive narrative where the franchise has gradually been extended to all adult citizens, the history of American voter turnout can fairly be described as catnip for capitalists and depressives. The first presidential election between two coherent national parties under universal free adult male suffrage took place in 1840: over 80 percent of men eligible to vote did so. For the next sixty years, turnout held steady, hovering in the range of 75 percent, peaking in the all-important elections of 1860 and 1876. Yet the years after the 1900 election witnessed a precipitous decline: by 1924, less than half of the electorate (48.9 percent) turned out. Turnout in the 20th and 21st centuries has waxed and waned in the range of 55 percent: for Barack Obama’s momentous election in 2008 it was 57.1 percent, the highest since the 1960s. Midterm turnout has fared even worse: the most recent midterm elections in 2014 were decided by a mere 36.4 percent of the electorate, the lowest figure in over seventy years.
The original fall in turnout at the dawn of the 20th century is generally ascribed to the late-19th-century demise of the Populist Party, a third party comprised primarily of small farmers from the Great Plains and the South whose attempts to counteract the monopoly power of East Coast banks and railroads foundered due to the party’s failures to make common cause with the Northern industrial working class and transcend anti-black racism in the South. The party was absorbed into a Democratic Party dominated by corrupt urban machines in the North and racist large landholders in the South; having found their economic interests to be unrepresentable, most Populist voters lapsed into silence. If the period of Democratic dominance dating from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson is characterized by a partial recovery in turnout coincident with the empowerment of organized industrial labor and its absorption into the Democratic electoral coalition, the fall in turnout after the ’70s corresponds with the demise of the New Deal/Cold War consensus, organized industrial labor’s disempowerment, and the dealignment of its priorities from those of Democratic Party elites, all of which culminated in the Clinton-era passage of NAFTA and permanent normal trade relations with China.
Southern Democrats had once siphoned off Populist voters with appeals to anti-black racism; Republicans, aligned with white Southern bigots after Nixon, began dismantling union solidarity in an identical manner. Populist efforts at outreach to industrial labor, already tenuous due to ethnic and religious divides, had been further hindered by their lack of access to the urban newspapers owned by capitalist press barons which dominated political discourse at the 20th century’s beginning; similarly, organized industrial labor’s efforts to mobilize the rest of the working class to defend manufacturing jobs from outsourcing were splintered by racism (black factory employees had been the first to face layoffs in the ’80s) and hampered by a blockade imposed by the capitalist-owned and operated television networks which dominated political discourse at the end of the 20th century. The turnout for Bill Clinton’s 1996 election was 49.0 percent, about the same as 1924’s all-time low, and low largely due to the same cause: their interests disrespected by both parties, much, if not most of the American working class—a class, not coincidentally, where women and non-whites were disproportionately well-represented relative to the general population—had been pushed to drop out of electoral politics.
Nor did the opposition to unfettered free trade find support from the print publications which dictated acceptable political taste. Throughout the ’90s calls for elected officials to promote economic justice at home, like calls for elected officials to exercise military restraint abroad, were breezily and ruthlessly dismissed by an opinion-making caste profoundly corrupted by its proximity to power. Among columnists the influential center lay somewhere in between the serpentine prattle of the sinister David Brooks and Thomas Friedman’s snow-blind paeans while, among periodicals, the center of influence remained the New Republic, a steroidal little magazine whose lust for power was matched only by its hatred of the working class. The New Yorker stopped publishing a handful of short stories about the lives of poorer whites. Instead it started publishing a few short stories about the lives of people of color who were, like the characters in most of the short stories the New Yorker published, white and upper middle-class.
Francis Fukuyama, in his own seminal upper-middle-class fiction, had prophesied that, at the end of history, under capitalist democracy, all human beings would successfully satisfy their innate desire for personal recognition, and the decades since the publication of his thesis have proven him correct. All that remains is to finish his thought, to crudely utter what he, tastefully, left implicit: if all human beings are fairly represented under capitalist democracy, then the working classes are excluded from the definition of humanity.
Relatively clear lines of causality run from the events of 1992 and 1993 to the present. Having essentially traded Democratic control of Congress for NAFTA passage, Clinton found himself impeached by a culture-warrior-loaded Republican Congress—not for accepting bribes from agents of the People’s Republic of China in the form of campaign finance, but for lechery. One month after the passage of permanent normal trade relations with China, Al Gore, Clinton’s NAFTA czar, lost the 2000 election to the second George Bush—in part due to the Bush organization’s skullduggery in Florida, but also because Gore ran a lackluster campaign and because Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader, representing anti–free trade interests left unvoiced by Bush or Gore, were on the butterfly ballot in Florida. With complete support from the gatekeepers of respectable opinion, the second George Bush incompetently invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq: coupled with his neglect of domestic infrastructure and his tacit promotion of real estate speculation on an enormous scale leading directly to a correspondingly enormous financial disaster, Bush effectively destroyed American global hegemony and the legitimacy of neoliberalism for the conceivable future.
Bush’s Democratic successor has contented himself with repairing, as best he can, Bush’s destruction. Though Barack Obama is less venal and temperamentally cooler than Clinton, his presidency nonetheless is deeply tied to his predecessor’s and in many instances uncannily mirrors that of Clinton, ideologically and in terms of personnel. Clinton-era functionaries have been well-represented among Obama’s inaugural White House staff: Rahm Emanuel, Lawrence Summers, and Hillary Clinton herself, among many others. Both presidents have promised much to working-class voters, only to ignore their needs once in office. Clinton passed NAFTA and let lobbyists, whether foreign or domestic, run rampant; Obama refused to prosecute the bankers most responsible for the financial crash, bailed out their banks all but unconditionally, and neglected to break up the banks down to a safe scale or even to regulate them stringently, all the while leaving Clinton’s trade deals, which Obama had pledged to renegotiate during his election campaign, fully intact; much as Bill Clinton failed to amend the “right-to-work” provisions in Taft-Hartley, Obama has failed to carry out his campaign promise to support the Employee Free Choice Act which would have greatly facilitated union organizing.
Both Clinton and Obama have expended their initial political momentum in a push to pass a healthcare act which, leaving the interests of the medical-industrial complex intact, has been essentially inefficient and a matter of low popular enthusiasm. Having failed to energize a base large enough to counter the Koch-financed movement conservative machine, their party has been decimated in the first midterm election after each has come to power, in both cases losing control of the House of Representatives for the remaining six years of the presidency, during which the President’s freedom of maneuver, domestically, has been drastically curtailed. Abroad, Clinton and Obama have been satisfied to execute inhabitants of the Third World at a safe distance while keeping American ground troops out of combat. Compared to the Bush recessions which enabled their election, the domestic economy has improved under both Clinton and Obama: in each case, wages have remained stagnant as ever, but unemployment has not been especially high. Demonized by the right, both Democratic Presidents have been nonetheless generally viewed positively, and each would have been very likely to win election to a third term were such a thing permitted. But it is not, and the party hierarchy’s choice for each President’s successor has rested on one of his former subordinates, in both cases a system-minded, minimally charismatic wonk beholden to the interests of the party’s capitalist donors. Consequently, both Clinton and Obama’s anointed replacements have been challenged in the primaries by a Senator from a small Northeastern state who has campaigned, in whole or in part, to restore economic justice to the party’s policy agenda.
There the similarities end. While Bill Bradley dropped out of the primary race in 2000 after losing the first twenty primaries to Al Gore, Bernie Sanders, so far, has won eleven out of twenty-nine states over Hillary Clinton in 2016. No intra-party realignment has taken place since 2000. Sanders’s core constituencies are identical to Bradley’s: the working class, upper-middle-class mugwumps, and youth. But the disasters of the Bush administration and the inadequacies of Obama’s efforts at reform and recovery have hardened the resolve of these constituencies politically and the fragility of the economy, coupled with the persistence of income inequality, has increased their demographic weight.
Sanders’ rhetoric of “political revolution” signals to them that he is a candidate who clearly understands that democracy conducted along neoliberal lines was fatally injured in the 2008 crash. Talk of socialism is no longer taboo; systemic change, in one form or another, is imminent. The Vermont senator is reactivating sectors of the Democratic base captivated by Obama’s campaign only to be demobilized and disappointed by Obama’s record in office: within and without the party, Sanders can win over voters that Clinton, with her irrevocably tainted record of collusion with corporate interests and support from neoliberal intellectuals, never could. The narrative being presented, all but unanimously, by the professional political press is exactly wrong. It is Sanders, not Clinton, who has a higher electoral ceiling. Even if one sets the Sanders-dominated youth vote aside, the older left-tending working-class voters depressed by NAFTA and subsequent Clinton-backed trade agreements—all of which Sanders vehemently opposed—significantly outnumber the only Democratic bloc bitterly opposed to a Sanders nomination: the contented upper-middle class of which the professional political press is part, and whose interests it amplifies, albeit with diminishing effect. The assertion from the commentariat that Sanders is unviable in the general election can be reduced to the proposition that said commentariat, and the ever-shrinking proportion of voters who take its word as authoritative, would hate to vote for him—no less, but also no more.
Like Perot, who he resembles temperamentally, Sanders is wagering that he can win a rigged game; unlike the Texan businessman, however, the Senator has some experience in the matter of winning elections. His relative restraint with regards to his primary opponent should not necessarily be taken as a sign of weakness or naivete, nor should it be taken as a permanent fact: if he continues to perform above expectations, the condescension aimed at him from above will reach such a pitch as to justify counter-attacking, and he will need fresh charges to level then. His core constituencies are all familiar with condescension and ingratitude from those “higher up” (whether in terms of class or age): the best way to rally their full support will not be baring his throat but biting back, sharply and without hesitation. If he wishes to take the Presidency as well as the Democratic nomination, the “Bern” America is meant to feel will have to be as slow and controlled as it is strong.
Sanders is not the only presidential contender in this election to successfully challenge the consensus on the absolute virtues of free trade established during the ’90s, but he is the only one to do so with any measure of respect for human life. The cloud of unknowing emerging from Donald Trump’s campaign speeches is charged with Trump’s acute awareness of the potential power to be gained from attacking the trade agreements which, in conjunction with advances in automation, have depleted American manufacturing (12.1 million jobs in 1993 prior to NAFTA, 8.7 million today) and all but eliminated the blue-collar middle-class established during the postwar boom. Contrary to first impressions, Trump’s capacity for lies is not without its limit. He will waffle on foreign policy, equivocate on healthcare, and even tack away from racism on rare occasions, but he hammers home the theme of economic injustice between nations unrelentingly: whether it is China, Japan, or Mexico, foreign nations are “killing” America on trade, and Trump promises to renegotiate the relevant unfair trade accords even as he actively opposes the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement that would effectively extend NAFTA to much of the Pacific Rim. Trump was born in 1946, and it is clear that his movement is animated by nostalgia for the first years of the cold war when white supremacy flourished domestically, the American military dominated two-thirds of the planet, American factories accounted for fully half of global manufacturing output, and white American workers were as amply compensated financially as they were symbolically.
This fantasy of imperial restoration can never be realized, but its substance, and the willfully uncouth manner with which Trump delivers it, provides him with access to a pool of working-class voters none of his Republican competitors, beholden to their capitalist donors, can readily access. If, armed with this significant, perhaps decisive leverage, Trump bullies his way to the Republican nomination without provoking an open split between himself and the party hierarchy, the celebrity will be a formidable opponent—particularly against Clinton, whose credibility as an advocate of trade policies friendly to the working class is nonexistent, and largely irreparable.
Regardless of the outcome of this election, regardless of the outcome of the coming decades, one thing already seems certain. The hegemony of the professional political commentariat, along with that of the neoliberalism it espoused, has been broken forever. Events have irreparably discredited its core ideologues: like Clinton, their preferred candidate, they have spent the past eight years sheltered behind Obama’s image of integrity while they attempt to recover their arrogance and influence. They cannot succeed, nor should they: with the obvious exceptions, no conciliation and no respect can be offered to the pundits of the two generations preceding the millennials. After the demise of American industry enabled by the trade agreements they supported, the apocalyptically dismal results of the foreign invasions they gleefully sanctioned, and the financial collapse that their expertise completely failed to predict, their credibility is beyond resuscitation. All that remains to them is the aura of authority and prestige that clings to the names of their places of employment, and that vestigial aura is rapidly fading.
Not only has their consensus been discredited; more importantly, their means of enforcing that consensus has been disabled. The monopoly they once held over print and television during the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s has been broken by the internet, which has revealed the representative aspect of acceptable political opinion during those decades as an illusion. “The American people,” it turns out on social media, are more unabashedly racist and more amenable to government action to remedy economic inequality than the editorial staffs of America’s publications of record could have imagined: with so many schools of thought wavering in the digital sea, neoliberalism, stripped of undue privileges, stands exposed as one flawed doctrine amid countless others, its appeal strictly limited to the upper economic quintile of the population which alone has benefited from its policies.
Politically, the internet permits constituencies that have long been marginalized by soft censorship from corporate-owned mass media to bypass mediation and rapidly congregate on their own terms; in a parallel fashion, the acceleration of financial transfers it facilitates enables the preferred candidates of those constituencies to be financed with tremendously greater ease than in years past. Barack Obama was the first to fuel a victorious Presidential campaign primarily with crowd-sourced online contributions; even if Trump and Sanders fail to win the Presidency this year, he will not be the last. In this as in much else, Ross Perot, with his 1992 prediction of “digital town halls,” and Jerry Brown, who only accepted smaller, non-corporate campaign contributions, stand vindicated as their once-triumphant opponents lie discredited. It is no small irony that the clade of intellectuals who fervently blessed corporate outsourcing to impoverished nations in the ’90s should now find itself outcompeted, in terms of ideology and influence, by millions of digital scriveners who, if paid at all, are paid a fraction of their supposed superiors’ salaries: given the general vulgarization of content/tone promoted by the internet, one may now go so far as to call such a spectacle fucking hysterical.
Of course, vulgarity in political discourse is hardly an innovation of the internet. The television era was as much of a spawning pool for racist language as Twitter or Facebook. The President Bushes won their elections by pandering to anti-black racism, the elder winning in 1988 in no small part thanks to ads tying Willie Horton to Michael Dukakis, the younger effectively eliminating John McCain from the 2000 Republican primaries by insinuating to South Carolinian voters that McCain had fathered a black child. The Clintons, for their part, fared no better. In 1992 Bill Clinton covered his right flank by executing a lobotomized black convict and equating the black activist Sistah Souljah to Ku Klux Klan leader and Louisiana state representative David Duke; in 1996 Hillary Clinton invoked the specter of black teen “superpredators” in order to argue for the passage of the administration’s harshly punitive crime bill; in 2008 both Clintons indulged in contemptuous, race-based estimations of Barack Obama’s presidential prospects once Obama proved himself to be a formidable primary opponent. Print publications of the period could be, if anything, worse. Trolls on social media will never discover a gambit remotely as scandalous as that of the New Republic, chief periodical of the nation’s capital, certifying The Bell Curve, a book of racist pseudo-science, by publishing extracts from it in 1994.
Defenses of the Peretz/Wieseltier New Republic have typically explained away its toxicity and dishonesty as incidental, not essential: if the political main dishes were, at times, undercooked, they were still nutritious, and in any case the literary dessert was rich. But after the collapses of the banks, and with them the Washington Consensus for which the magazine had strenuously advocated, it’s more accurate in retrospect to take fraud as the norm and integrity as the exception. Ruth Shalit’s plagiarism, Stephen Glass’s fabrications, Lee Siegel playing himself, Scott Thomas Beauchamp’s fabrications: these scandals were the natural outgrowths of a climate where febrile mendacity and provocatively phrased complacency ran literally unchecked. (It should also be said that most of the book reviews haven’t aged well.) The magazine which prided itself, above all else, on puncturing inflated reputations successfully fabricated for itself the most overinflated reputation of all in the process, one yet to be completely popped: as the fortunes of alternatives to neoliberalism rise, there will be no shortage of highly placed TNR alumni primed to deliver smug lectures on the movement’s supposed impropriety and impossibility. Recent months have already witnessed former TNR editor and current Washington Post editorialist Charles Lane waving away concerns about TPP by mocking the president of the United Steelworkers of America’s warnings of unemployment, despair, and death among the working class as “hyperbolic, demagogic nonsense” and former TNR senior editor and current New York political columnist Jonathan Chait dismissing Sanders’s narrative as “a comforting fable” and “a hoary political fantasy” with the same somnambulant certitude with which he welcomed the prospect of a Trump presidency and equated Trump’s violence-inspiring rhetoric to the discourse of “political correctness.” Wieseltier’s stentorian vacuities on Middle Eastern affairs and the purpose of criticism continue to be honored, or at least given a wide berth, at the Atlantic, where he serves as contributing editor. The question that should then be raised is why such writers, whose opinions have been so flagrantly erroneous in the past and who have barely, if at all, acknowledged how wrong they were—why should they be trusted to be right about the present, let alone the future?
They will say that at least they were right about the cold war. With their typical mixture of snideness and callous severity, they will warn of the dangers socialism poses to liberty, about the futility of unselfish dreams. They will do everything they can to revive, within the minds of their audience, the hollow zeitgeist of the ’90s, when their condescension had the power to censure and their serial fabrications passed for truth. But the past is not static, and new events transform perspectives of the old. Consciously or not, every generation creates a future by arriving at a new version of history. Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the United States has experienced a quarter-century of expertly counseled domestic and foreign disasters that have made it abundantly clear that if the ignorance and dismissal of working-class opinions on peace, wages, and trade continues, the USSR will not be the only superpower to collapse under pressure from unchecked military spending, an unwinnable war against Saudi-rooted Islamic extremists, and an absence of legitimacy bred by rampant corruption (ideological and real alike) among its elite.
“When I’m in a room with corporate America, the first thing they say is, ‘Perot, why don’t you keep your mouth shut. You could with your resources make more money than anybody else.’ Here is the NAFTA game. Buy US manufacturing companies cheap right after NAFTA passes that are labor intensive that make good products that have marginal profits, close the factories in the US, move the factories to Mexico, take advantage of the cheap labor, run your profits through the roof, sell the company stock at a profit, go get another one.” ↩