Chapter 3: The conditions leading up to 2016
To understand why Sanders was more favored among the broad electorate in 2016 than both Clinton and Trump, first we must accurately understand the conditions in the U.S. leading up to the 2016 elections.
Many, if not most of you readers, have felt these conditions yourselves. I don’t have to explain everything that happened, or everything that people were feeling. But this chapter will be a broad analysis of the circumstances and conditions; it will serve as a reminder for some, a clarification for others — and for some readers, it could be an unfamiliar, yet undeniable, account of the modern state of the nation.
The Neoliberal Era
Beginning in the late 1970s, a series of pro-business forces converged and collaborated, sometimes loosely and by coincidence (to preserve their own interests), but often directly and deliberately, to address the political and cultural revolution of the 1960s. As Noam Chomsky describes, this sort of pro-business coalition would be reflected by, and catalyzed by, documents such as the “Powell Memorandum,” which declared that the business community was “under attack” by democratic forces. This growing democratic power — the power of “the people” and “the masses” — must be countered, subdued, and overcome.
In the United States, the Ronald Reagan administration would first and foremost serve as a puppet executive for corporate interests. Though an illusion was constructed and maintained that this was not the case, corporate America made an increasing effort to infiltrate the U.S. government, and they succeeded. Ronald Reagan’s presidency was a gift to corporate America and an attack on working America.
It is not as if the U.S. business community suddenly in the 1980’s had complete control of U.S. government and U.S. democracy. But major steps were taken to quickly establish a growing corporate control over the U.S. political system.
Assisted by Chicago-school “free market” academics, most prominently Milton Friedman, the ideological fuel was supplied for the Reagan administration to propagandize the public on the evils of “big government intervention” in the economy. This propaganda, and the growing support for it, ultimately allowed for sweeping corporate tax cuts, cutting of government programs, and elimination of worker rights.
The “neoliberal” era may have begun around the 1970s, and cemented by the Reagan administration, but its foundation in the U.S. would only be threatened much later — in 2008, with the “great recession” (and Occupy Wall Street in response) — and then, was shaken even more strongly in 2016, with the Bernie Sanders campaign and his declared “political revolution.”
But we’ll get to that later. Ronald Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush (1988 – 1992), would carry on the neoliberal mission. The first Bush administration continued the gutting of the public good, and a transfer of wealth and power to private interests and the top <1%.
Bill Clinton followed. Despite Bill heralding from the “opposite” political party, he essentially continued “Reaganomics” from 1992 through 2000. As Chris Hedges has noted, Bill Clinton “made the Democrats Republicans, and the Republicans insane.” Historian Thomas Frank narrates this shift in his book, “Listen, Liberal!”
Bill Clinton gutted regulations in the financial sector. He supported and signed legislation that would lead to an exponential increase in mass incarceration, just as many predicted it would. He further eroded the social safety net, under the conservative rationale of “work ethic,” “no hand-outs,” and that the route to prosperity relies on each individual pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.
Clinton signed NAFTA, a “free trade” agreement that widened inequality and would devastate the American working population, particularly in manufacturing and the service industry. He also did little to change the course of the Bush-era tax cuts, and as recently as 2016 said that the corporate tax rate should be cut.
To sum up the U.S. presidential administration from 1980 to 2000:
Then came George W. Bush in 2000, lasting until 2008. Bush Jr. was the return of Reagan, as much or more than anyone else — and predictably, defunded social programs while continuing to cut taxes on the wealthy and major corporations.
George W. Bush’s narrative would continue the familiar neoliberal propaganda, that the government is bad and should stay out of our lives. Instead, we should empower big business, free markets, and “free trade.” And, of course, if war is a crisis worth exploiting, we should do it. At the very least, it’s good for business.
Of course, it was not a single person, president George W. Bush (or any other president) who is responsible for all this. The president works with an administration, a cabinet, a congress, a supreme court — and all the wealthy groups and individuals who pull their strings.
Enter Barack Obama: a man who emerged at just the right time to promise hope and change to this neoliberal order. Obama inspired a grassroots campaign and promised to “change the system.” He made lots of promises — not just on “what” he would do — but that the system itself needed a fundamental, sweeping change. And Obama claimed he was just the right one for the job.
He sure was convincing. Obama won the election in 2008, becoming the first black president in U.S. history. This was certainly an accomplishment of its own, and it was indeed an important barrier that was broken – a sign that we would, or at least could, continue to make social progress in the United States.
Yet as Cornell West and others have described with clarity — and from the political left, not the right-wing — Obama ended up doing virtually the same as those who came before. And just like before, the outcome was often the opposite of what was promised.
Obama bailed out Wall Street instead of Main Street. He solidified the tax cuts. Obama pushed the U.S. more deeply into war around the globe — advised by Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.
Obama’s administration even failed to secure a “public option” on healthcare — which he promised to do — despite having a strong Congressional majority for two years. “Obama Repeatedly Touted Public Option Before Refusing To Push For It In The Final Hours,” titles the previously-sourced article.
Despite the still-popular narrative that Obama was simply obstructed by Republicans, and that’s why he couldn’t accomplish much of anything (even with a Democratic Congress), Noam Chomsky notes that Obama did not do much when he had the chance.
Sure, the Republicans fought to obstruct Obama and the Democrats. But Obama and the Democrats did not seem to fight back, and the reasons why are important. Perhaps most significant is that whoever propped up Barack Obama and the Democratic Party were the same or similar folk who propped up the previous “neoliberal” administrations. It was corporate America and other super-wealthy individuals.
These “donors” were, in a big way, the real power. They made the politicians’ campaigns possible, and knew that because of this, they would be answered to. They had the leverage.
In 2008, when Obama would be elected, the wealthy and powerful still had a great amount of control over Obama and the Democratic Party as a whole. There is so much evidence of this, and one big example is a simple review of Obama’s cabinet. From the Secretary of Defense to the U.N. Ambassador, from the White House Chief of Staff to the Treasury Secretary, Obama’s cabinet was virtually hand-picked by corporate America.
Obama shattered a racial barrier, but in the end, did not help black America or working-class America. He did not change the system. For those who watched closely, and even for many who didn’t, Obama just continued what was already in motion.
We could argue endlessly about Obama’s true intentions. But no matter what Barack Obama the man truly wanted and believed in his heart, the reality is that his “hope and change” would never come to pass. In fact, despite the heroism Obama still commands among a portion of the liberal base, the trend of the U.S. economy and society under Obama’s administration would be downward, not forward.
Though the Obama administration claimed economic recovery after the great recession, later analyses would show that the “recovery” was only for the rich, and especially the super-rich. The very top sector of American society got wealthier, more comfortable, and more powerful. Everyone else stayed the same, or felt a decline. Those at the “bottom,” just like for the past forty years, felt most of the decline.
And from climate change to war, economic security and home-ownership, he certainly did not change the system…
The truth is that Obama, too, was a neoliberal. Despite his cool demeanor, his polite compromise, and his persuasive rhetoric — Obama was yet a further continuation of the fundamentally conservative, corporate-friendly Reagan administration.
One documentary out of the wake of the 2008 great recession, Inside Job, narrates this decades-long “corporate takeover” of government. As can be seen clearly in previous graphs, the neoliberal era continued all the way from Reagan through the end of the Obama years. Despite Obama’s liberal heroics, and “populist” rhetoric, a transfer of wealth from bottom to top hit its most extreme in the years of the Obama-led Democratic Party.
We begin to see what Noam Chomsky meant when he said that there is essentially one political party in the United States, “the business party,” that pushes varieties on the same policies — which most Americans oppose.
Another academic study showed that what most American citizens want in policy, well, it doesn’t matter. They won’t get what they want.
In the neoliberal era, especially, if anyone aside from corporate lobbyists are to get what they want out of government, it would be the already-wealthy, and to a lesser extent, the “professional class” or top quintile.
Of course the public, even if not acutely aware of this study, would feel over the course of decades what the study examined and described. Things are getting worse, and largely because government is not working for “the people.”
Chomsky’s recent documentary “Requiem for the American Dream” (2015) also details this long decline of American quality of life, as well as the underlying ideology and mechanisms to the decline.
This was just a quick summary of the neoliberal era, which in separate reports, will be explored more in-depth. In this context it is merely important to understand, generally, that a large and growing portion of the U.S. public was feeling “fleeced” leading up to the 2016 election. To deny this is to deny reality; to live in a bubble that will only grow lonelier.
The United States citizens were feeling betrayed. They had no longer believed in existing government to solve problems. They no longer believed the political “establishment,” whose lies were beginning to fade and dissolve before their very own eyes.
Sure, some people — still in 2015 and 2016 — would trust the “establishment” Democrats, the Republicans, and the mainstream media. But many Americans, if not most of them, no longer did.
This is the backdrop of the 2016 election.
2015 – 2016
Many issues were on the line in 2016. Inequality, poverty, healthcare, student debt, worker’s rights, climate change — these major issues, and so many more, were very important to the majority of the American people. And it would be important in the 2016 election to have a national candidate that is good on these issues. This would give that candidate a major advantage among the electorate.
But there was something that was underlying all these issues, and it may have been perceived as the biggest problem of all. Corruption.
The reason these problems exist, the electorate was beginning to understand — and the reasons we are not solving these problems, as the public was feeling — is that the system is corrupt. The public had caught on, rightly, that the existing government was not under their control.
What the problems are, exactly — and who should be blamed, exactly — is another matter where the public would diverge, which is seen most clearly in the contrast between Trump and Sanders, and their base of support. But at least the majority of the electorate could agree on one thing: the system is rigged, and something big has got to give.
The candidate who could present a clear, positive vision — and the candidate who could convince the public that, not only were they not corrupt, but could (and would) reign in the corruption — this would be the candidate favored most by the U.S. electorate.
Despite these conditions, most pundits did not believe Trump could beat Clinton. He was too rash and ridiculous. He had no political experience. He is a “B-list” reality TV star — who ran for president for the fun of it.
He wouldn’t even beat the other Republicans for the nominee. It was laughable that he could, and would, beat Hillary Clinton.
A few, however, did predict not only that Donald Trump could win — but probably would win — if Hillary Clinton became the nominee. Early in the primary elections, Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs predicted that “Unless the Democrats run Sanders, a Trump nomination means a Trump presidency.” Though surely assisted by general election poll data, Robinson also looked at Clinton’s particular vulnerabilities against Trump, and the rising tide of anti-establishment hunger for a “populist” candidate.
Others predicted along similar lines. Keith Ellison did not quite predict that it would happen, but said that it could happen — that “stranger things have happened.” He was immediately laughed at by all the present pundits.
Kyle Kulinski, around the same time as Nathan J. Robinson, predicted that the margins were too close for comfort, and Trump could certainly win. Kulinski echoed what the evidence strongly showed: Bernie would be better than Hillary against Trump.
Kyle, too, said that at the time “people laughed at me for saying this.”
Michael Moore, after touring the country and mingling with the electorate, lamented in a July 2016 blog post that Trump not only could beat Hillary Clinton, but he will win. Trump would turn out the key voters who wanted change; Clinton would not. Moore’s prediction was largely ignored and laughed at, like the others.
Then there was this guy:
Although a few of these predictions occurred after the Democratic primary had concluded, the Sanders campaign and his supporters repeatedly warned through the primary — citing evidence like what was shown in the previous chapters — that Trump could beat Clinton. And Sanders was, in fact, more “electable” against Trump (or any other Republican).
The evidence was strong, and it was there all along.
Unfortunately, as reported by Emma Vigeland of the The Young Turks, “Hillary Clinton’s bad poll numbers seem to be no problem for the mainstream media.” It didn’t seem to matter very much to the Clinton campaign, either, nor did it seem to matter to the die-hard Clinton supporters, who would typically insist that “defeating Trump” was their greatest priority.
The Clinton supporters who made this claim either weren’t as worried about Trump becoming president as they cared about Hillary Clinton specifically becoming the Democratic nominee — or, they were ignorant of the circumstances, and the vast majority of evidence, which showed that Sanders was a much safer bet for a general election.
Or perhaps, at least sometimes, it was both an ignorance and stubbornness.