The Transatlantic Left Moment: The Rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and the Unraveling of the Washington-Westminster Neoliberal Center

Bernie Sanders-Jeremy Corbyn

One of the most remarkable transatlantic political developments this year has been the surprising rise of two unabashedly left-wing insurgent—initially longshot—campaigns that have upset the establishment sensibilities of the Washington-Westminster neoliberal center: Bernie Sanders‘s campaign in the Democratic presidential primary and Jeremy Corbyn‘s race in the Labour Party leadership election.

The reactions by the neoliberal centrist grandees in the Democratic and Labour parties toward the emergence of Sanders and Corbyn have included, among others, not-too subtle, modern-day form of soft red-baiting, and demeaning insults and over-the-top rhetoric. And in some instances the reactions have veered ingloriously into the territory of strident paroxysms, in particular in Corbyn’s case, with, among other things, outright anti-democratic maneuvering and chilling warnings about an intra-party putsch(Should Sanders be on the verge of capturing the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, his campaign would do well to wisely study the British establishment’s all-out assault against Corbyn and be ready to counter similar undermining torrents of attacks that may await the senator should the neoliberal Beltway centrist insider class become severely rattled by the political threat posed by a left-wing insurgent within reach of leading a major party.)

In light of all this, what explains the reactions toward the insurgent campaigns of Sanders and Corbyn by the neoliberal array of centrist Democratic and Labour grand party poohbahs? One word: Fear.

Specifically, they fear that their Democratic and Labour centrist theory of progressive change has lost its legitimate hold, credibility, and political luster among the vast swath of supporters in each party as the political landscape has shifted to the left, among the grassroots base, in a seismic fashion in revulsion to the many decades of unprincipled triangulation and the domination of carefully scripted politics of style over profound, progressive substance. And that such lost only does more to publicly reinforce what many astute party activists and outside progressive critics of the Democratic and Labour establishment have long known: the ideological exhaustion, failure, and ideological bankruptcy of third way neoliberal centrism that has gripped both center-left parties for more than two decades.

* * * 

During the 1980s, in the aftermath of successive defeats by Democrats and Labour to, respectively, Reaganism and Thatcherism, the centrists in each party argued—with the force of seeming credibility that arises after losing landslide elections—that the electoral shellackings were caused by one critical thing. Specifically, each party supposedly veered too unfashionable left during the decade of conservatism.

Now, in the Democratic Party, the form of this argument specifically posited that the party’s landslide defeat in the 1984 presidential election, under the helm of former Vice-President Walter Mondale (viewed by party centrists, at that time, as the paragon of out-dated Hubert Humphrey-style liberalism), resulted from the party’s self-defeating attachment to interest group liberalism and its alleged anti-business predilections. While, similarly, the Labour version of this critique went something like this: the reason for its landslide defeat by Thatcher in the 1983 general election was because the party embraced an “unelectable” left-wing manifesto (famously derided, at that time, as the longest suicide note in history) pushed jointly by the supposedly feckless leadership of Michael Foot, who coddled Labour’s hard leftists, and those, within the party leadership, content in standing resolutely with the party’s old constituencies (i.e., the working class and the trade union movement) at the expense of targeting “Middle England” and its so-called “aspirational” sensibilities. (Never mind that Foot actually came out of Labour’s long-standing soft left tradition centered around Tribune magazine that took a determined, implacable stand against hard leftism, especially entryist tactics by Trotskyists, that was indistinguishable from the anti-radical old Labour revisionist Right. And never mind that elements, within Labour leadership, for years actually supported several policies that were inimical to the interests of trade unionists as well as embracing the proto-Thatcherite turn to monetarism under the last pre-Blair Labour government under the premiership of James Callaghan during the late 1970s.)

In essence, according to centrist neoliberals in both parties, the bane of the Democratic and Labour parties’ electoral woes, during the 1980s, encompassed the old, unfashionable gospel of traditional Keynesian New Deal-Fair Deal-Great Society liberalism (progressive liberalism) and Fabian social democracy that failed to speak to the conservative mood of the 1980s and the changing rightward drift of the voting public. (In 1989, public intellectuals associated with Democratic centrism of the Progressive Policy Institute [interestingly, the Blairite pressure group, continuing the centrist knack for appropriating progressive branding, calls itself Progress], went so far as to even label—with marginalizing rhetoric—party adherents to traditional liberalism as “liberal fundamentalists.”) Essentially, the thinking that emerged during the 1980s and early 1990s among many centrists in both parties was that the only sensible conclusion that could be soundly drawn from all of this was the following: for Democrats and Labour to be electable they must hew to the “sensible center” and resist any and all attempts to veer toward the “unelectable” left.

And it was from these aforementioned arguments that sought to explain the Democratic and Labour electoral traumas of the 1980s at the hands of conservatives that provided the intellectual foundation for the theory of progressive change propounded by neoliberal centrists in both parties. According to party centrists, because the Democratic and Labour parties were electorally marginalized after subsequent defeats to conservatives during 1980s (that included landslide losses), the only alternative for the center-left parties was for them to regain the “center.” (In other words, tacking toward the political right since, for all practical purposes, conservatism during the 1980s helped shift, in a rightward direction, the political center in the U.S. and U.K.).

Without moving to the center—so argued by centrists (that required modifying the parties’ values away from their own supposedly unelectable progressive values and policies)—both center-left parties would continue to suffer electoral defeats and thus be marginalized in the political landscape. And, as such, the failure to electorally achieve victory would prevent each party from attaining power. Without power, according to the centrist argument, both the Democratic and Labour parties would be in no position to enact the necessary progressive changes that were (1) required to counter the political right and undo the damaging achievements of successive conservative governments, and (2) demanded by the parties’ grassroots to critically sustain continued support for, and interest in, the parties by their supporters.

In essence, the implicit thrust behind the centrist theory of progressive change is this: achieving political power—a critical threshold that must be first met—would inexorably take care of political principles. For without power, any focus on principles would be nothing more than a pointless exercise of political impotency. The enactment of principles, through policies, is only achievable if a party possesses the levers of power to act. And to possess the levers of power requires winning elections.

In light of this, Democratic and Labour centrists offered their parties’ more progressive base of grassroots supporters the following proposition: We, like you, want to achieve the sort of progressive change that is at the core of our party’s values. But to do so requires that our party achieves power. And we cannot achieve power so long as our party is perceived, beyond the party base, as ‘unelectable’ as the public has shifted to the right. As such, we must moderate—if not downplay—our party’s core progressive values in order to win. Although we realize that many party supporters think that this approach goes against what our party stands for, in the end, the rewarding trade-off is this—power. Once we achieve power, then we can advance our shared progressive principles through governance that leads to concrete legislation.

Sadly, for many decades, far too many among Democratic and Labour progressive supporters accepted the proposition outlined above—and acquiesced, albeit with discontented grumblings, to both parties moving more and more to the right after each election during the 1990s and early 2000s. (To be fair, such acquiescence is understandable, especially for those progressive partisans of the Democratic and Labour parties who were old enough to have lived through the political traumas of consecutive defeats at the hands of, respectively, Reaganism and Thatcherism during the 1980s.)

More disconcertingly is the fact that as the centrist proposition gained tremendous currency among the parties’ leadership class and, to a certain degree, an electorally traumatized grassroots base of each party, what started out initially, in its early manifestation, as a strategic debate over electorally strategy, later morphed into a substantive debate over the parties’ identities. Specifically, what should each party stand for? It was in this milieu that emerged the rise of organized neoliberal centrism that has, till this day, come to dominate both parties: the New Democrats who arose during the mid-1980s under the auspices of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) (superseding, in a more rightward direction, even those on the right-edge of technocratic liberalism of the early ’80s—American-style neoliberals, i.e., “Atari Democrats“) and the emergence of New Labour during the early 1990s led by the Blair-Brown-Mandelson wing of so-called “modernizers” in Labour.

Now, the most damning aspect in all of this is that the fundamental premises (i.e., the electoral lessons of the 1980s gleaned by party centrists), used to discredit progressive liberalism in the Democratic Party and social democracy in Labour, suffer from one critical defect: they are both historically problematic. Specifically, the premises are misreadings of the actual electoral histories of the 1980s in the U.S. and U.K.

In 1984, Walter Mondale, despite his political pedigree steeped in the political tradition of Hubert Humphrey-style Midwestern lunch pail liberalism, actually ran on a technocratic, mildly center-right economic program. As astutely pointed out in The American Prospect by Jeff Faux, the founder of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), Mondale ran on an budgetary program that accepted Reaganism:

In 1984 the New York Times headlined: “Democrats’ Platform Shows a Shift from Liberal Positions of 1976 and 1980.” The press lauded Walter Mondale’s acceptance speech for its break with the past. “Look at our platform,” said Mondale. “There are no defense cuts that weaken our security, no business taxes that weaken our economy. No laundry lists that raid our Treasury.”

Now, across the Atlantic, the conventional wisdom, accepted as gospel by Labour centrists to explain their party’s electoral drubbing during the 1983 election, fares no better either. As perceptively pointed out by Craig Murray, human rights activist and former British Ambassador, the “Falklands War factor” had much to do with contributing to Thatcher’s 1983 victory:

Michael Foot consistently led Margaret Thatcher in opinion polls – by a wide margin – until the Falklands War. He was defeated in a victory election by the most appalling and intensive wave of popular war jingoism and militarism. . . .  It was the most unedifying political climate imaginable. . . . Few serious commentators at the time doubted that Thatcher might have been defeated were it not for the Falklands War.

Moreover, in terms of Labour, one should also add the vote-splitting effect of the Social Democratic Party (SDP)—a then-new third party comprised of leading social-democratic centrists who bolted from Labour in 1981 under the auspices of the Limehouse Declaration—on Britain’s anti-Tory center-left vote during the 1983 election. Also, there are even some who would go so far as to argue, quite persuasively, that the SDP’s vote-splitting effect was the crucial factor in tilting the ’83 elections to Margaret Thatcher. Either way, the joint debilitating impact of the Falklands War and the SDP-Liberal Alliance‘s vote-splitting effect—rather than, squarely, Labour’s much-maligned election manifesto (one that was “timid compared with the 1974 manifesto, which put Labour in government,” as noted by the former Joint Secretary of the Labour Representation Committee, Andrew Fisher)—seriously undermined Labour’s chances to defeat Thatcher at the ballot box.

As such in light of all this, the aforementioned premises peddled by centrists lack persuasive explanatory power in understanding what happened, electorally, to the Democratic and Labour parties during the age of Reagan and Thatcher. As a result, this glaring problem calls into question the centrist theory of progressive change. If the Democrats’ and Labour’s losses, during the 1980s, resulted more from outside factors than anything related to each party’s supposed “leftist drift” during that decade, then tacking rightward to the center-right, particularly on economic policy, would have no decisive impact, alone, on the likelihood of center-left parties achieving power. Thus, the supposed intra-party tension, among Democrats and Labour, between the politics of power and the politics of principles is nothing more than an illusory choice.

* * * 

Now, even if one assumes that the basic premises in explaining the Democratic and Labour electoral traumas of the 1980s are essentially correct (which, again, they clearly are not)—the bases of which have been used to give persuasive heft to the centrist theory of progressive change—such theory, on its own merit, suffers a defect as glaringly problematic as its bases. A center-left party tacking to the right, to achieve electoral success to obtain power, does not make it more likely that progressive change will occur. Why? Because moving toward the right—and, by extension, failing to challenge the conservative framework that defines the limits of political debate—does nothing more than to further legitimize conservatism in the electoral landscape even if the center-left party gains power by vanquishing the right at the ballot box. By legitimizing right-wing politics, a center-left party who moves rightward simply reinforces the further entrenchment of conservatism as the unquestioned, default political center and thus pushes the Overton Window further to the right with the effect of severely circumscribing the ability of progressives, once in power, to pursue even mildly center-left policies, let alone those that are robustly left-wing.

Furthermore, moving rightward to capture the highly elusive, free-floating political middle in order to win (and thus achieve power) is, from a pragmatic standpoint, a dubious proposition for the center-left. Why should voters pull the lever for center-right Democratic or Labour candidates when they could just vote for the real deal, i.e., conservatives with the more stalwart commitment to right-wing policies? (Or, as George Monbiot recently wrote in The Guardian: “Why vote for the echo when you can vote for the shout?”) And, even more problematic, why should each party’s own voters bother to show up and vote when their own respective party apes the opposition’s political and policy positions that do nothing more than make these political supporters dispirited and unmotivated to vote on election day (as had happened during the 2010 mid-terms for the Democratsor to push them into the camp of third parties, even right-wing ones (as what occurred recently for Labour in last May’s British premiership election)?

* * * 

In light of all this, this is why the rise of Sanders and Corbyn is one of the most important developments to come out of the 2015 political season. Sanders and Corbyn are not only tapping into the deep, passionate and engaged energy of robust resurgent progressivism that’s resonating among large sections of the electorate disaffected by the prevailing Washington-Westminster neoliberal consensus, but these candidates are doing it by refuting, head-on, the centrist theory of progressive change in an unabashed fashion. In essence, what these candidates are offering to the public is a bold progressive alternative that’s attempting to shift the national political dialogue leftward by campaigning unequivocally on the left with clear left-wing messages and policies of which the American and British electorates have not seen since the days when Democratic and Labour politicians actually believed in the progressive liberal and social-democratic values of their parties. The neoliberal centrist days, inside the center-left parties, of downplaying progressive values and embracing the me-too (lite) politics of mimicking the right (i.e., compassionate neoliberalism) are clearly waning.

And more importantly, the receptivity to embracing the neoliberal centrist theory of progressive change has decisively lost its enduring hold among the party grassroots base, as Democratic and Labour supporters, in large numbers, are not only rejecting such politics but are doing something critically about it: they’re politically mobilizing in a progressive fashion. Specifically, they’re organizing to create sustainable progressive movements in the U.K. and U.S. that will exist beyond the conclusion of each campaign for Corbyn and Sanders, irrespective of what happens to the electoral fortunes of these two men, respectively, in 2015 and 2016. The voters of this sizable, engaged progressive electorate, in each country, are rejecting en masse the politically exhausted and bankrupt ideology of neoliberal centrism that’s been prevalent among center-left parties. In contrast, Sanders and Corbyn are the sharp antitheses to the decades-old centrist politics (and its concomitant theory of progressive change): theirs is the politics of principles over vacuity, substance over style, policies over personalities, values over triangulation, and, more importantly, robust progressivism over compassionate neoliberalism. The spin politics of poll-driven policies and triangulating accommodation has clearly run it course, while the signpost politics of conviction is clearly in the ascendency.

Now, although the final outcomes of the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns are yet to be decided—though both show tremendous possibilities and promise—what is certain is that, as a result of their political emergence this summer, politics going forward will not be the same. Politics as usual (i.e., party centrism’s slavish accommodation with the right) will not cut it anymore among supporters of America’s and Britain’s main center-left parties.

What Sanders and Corbyn have tapped into is the growing, building momentum of a resurgent political left. It is a left-wing resurgence that arose in the wake of global neoliberalism’s greatest meltdown in 2008, and the subsequent age of austerity and, many would argue, the unmet progressive potential of the Obama presidency. It is also a resurgent left that manifested itself during the past several years that included the popular, organized movements against anti-labor attacks by the GOP in Wisconsin, the upsurge of Occupy activism against rampant inequality and the 1% economy, and the meteoric rise of the progressive Warren-wing inside the Democratic Party. Though the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns cannot claim credit for being the sources behind the groundswell renaissance of the progressive left in both their parties, what they can deservedly take credit for is providing political vehicles, through their candidacies, that give voice to such energy and channeling it in a constructive democratic fashion: through engaged electoral politics. And because of this, for people in America and the British Isles who believe in a principled and thoughtful politics of compassion and inclusion, progressive reform and social justice, the political cultures in both countries are all better for it.


(Photo: Photographs of Bernie Sanders [left] and Jeremy Corbyn [right]. Sanders photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License. Corbyn photo by on Flickr licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. Both photos used in the post cropped by the post’s author.)

Why Liberalism-as-Snark’s Condescending Sneers Toward Trump Supporters are Woefully Misplaced

Donald Trump (DonkeyHotey)One of the most troubling aspects with some online elements that pass for liberalism or progressivism these days is an attitudinal condescension, at best, or mocking contempt, as worst, toward some supporters of Donald Trump, in particular his working class devotees. (Which also, unfortunately, exposes an off-putting, often times unconscious classicism from some liberals.) It is a tendency this article calls “liberalism-as-snark.”

Now, by and large the progressive critique against Trump has been thoughtfully on point. However, there is, from time to time, a level of condescending smugness toward some of Trump’s followers that generalizes them as nothing more than being a bunch of ignorant yahoos based on some selected polls and focus group studies. (Which are merely snapshots that don’t necessarily capture the totality and nuance of the grievances from Trump supporters.) 

Jodi Dean, a professor in the political science department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, percipiently points out the level of condescension by some liberals toward Trump’s working class followers:

Liberals enjoy their outrage. Here Trump confirms for them their rightness in despising the Republican base, itself only seldom anything other than their own disgust with the working class. As they use Trump as a catalyst for their own good feeling, liberals repeat his practices of contempt in another register. Not only is he a candidate they can enjoy hating but he enables them to extend their hate to all the non-millionaires supporting Trump: they really must be idiots.

Now, the sort of liberal contempt that’s being critiqued here is not those pertaining to the (justifiable) righteous indignation from progressives against the crude, anti-immigrant nativism, xenophobia, racism, misogyny, and hyper-demeaning (over-the-top) political bombast expressed by some of Trump’s most impassioned followers. (All of which are fair and reasonable game.)

What is being critiquing here, though, is the sort of liberal ire toward Trump’s followers (in particular the white working class) that makes the following argument: these folks are a bunch of unsophisticated rubes under the spell of “false consciousness” who are voting against their economic interest by supporting a Republican billionaire. However, when one looks deeply at the myriad of reasons for the attraction by a significant number of Americans toward some of Trump’s messages, it is quite otherwise.

In a piece penned by one of the most astute observers of American politics, The Washington Post‘s Dave Weigel, he did an admirable yeoman’s job by actually interviewing Trump supporters, especially working-class denizens, in the Midwest entitled,Why Donald Trump makes sense to many voters—even some Democrats.”

When one gets past the “anti-political correct” messaging, from Trump, that appeals to some of his supporters, what stands out—as Weigel’s article glaringly highlights—is actually an appeal to economic populism. Specifically, it is an economic populism centered around two areas. First, a sharp critique of unfettered neoliberal globalism. Second, an embrace of a pro-manufacturing, “get tough” economic nationalism (that some defenders, of what has been characterized as a neoliberal racket, would dismissively label as “protectionism”) that unites lunch pail liberal Democrats and Clyde Prestowitz-style Reaganites (anti-free trade, pro-fair trade) who both support a robust and smart national industrial policy, i.e., refashioning the American economy away from “making money off of money” (finance capital) to “building things” (export-driven industrial manufacturing). In other words, a policy that is the secret behind Germany’s global economic success. (The Atlantic famously noted a conversation between the heads of state of Germany and Great Britain that highlights how important manufacturing is to the former: “German Chancellor Angela Merkel once was asked by then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair what the secret was of her country’s impressive success. She famously replied, ‘Mr. Blair, we still make things.’ In Germany, manufacturing still dominates finance, not the other way around, as Germany has continued to emphasize manufacturing and exports over the financial industry.” [Italics in original.])

Now, what does this article, here, mean by its assertion regarding the views of some Americans toward economic populism as it relates to their gravitation toward Trump’s message? Well, the basis of the aforementioned point revolves around the unequivocal specificity to what exactly frustrates these Trump followers, especially those from the working class (some of them Democrats), in the Midwest as communicated to Weigel.

In an interview conducted by Weigel, he highlights a conversation with a 65-year-old man walking to a union local, in Flint, established out of the famed “sit-down strike” of the 1930s, UAW Local 598 office:

[Gerald] Woodruff, a sometimes Republican, was impressed by Trump. “I watched the debate,” he said. “Fox singled him out in that opening question. They said they asked hard questions of all the candidates, but they went after him because he’s touching a nerve. If Republicans can capitalize on that, they’ll do pretty good.”

What nerve was he touching, exactly?

“I think it’s wrong for an American business to move their business out of the United States to keep from paying taxes, but keep us as a marketplace,” Woodruff answered. (Emphasis added.)

Now, if an individual read the quote, above, he or she would be forgiven to have reasonably mistaken it for words uttered by any progressive economists, like Joseph Stiglitz, giving a full-throttled, impassioned critique against corporate tax avoidance. (An act that takes the advantage of American markets but avoids the reach of U.S. tax collectors that entails, among other things, moving factories abroad.)

Moreover, Weigel interviews two other individuals drawn to Trump’s campaign whose words sound if they were uttered by progressive populists (emphases added):

“I remember my dad in the late 1970s,” said Holly Gaul, 58. “He was a journeyman electrician. With the things at the time that were going on with GM, he knew his profession was going to be gone. And it was.”

There were jobs, sure, but not the kind people could live on. “Women my age are taking the McDonald’s jobs that the high school kids used to get,” Gaul said. “I’ve been waiting for a stronger president, somebody that I could look up to and respect again. He could stand up to those other countries. It’s wrong when they can build furniture in China and ship it here cheaper than it costs us to build it here.” 

“Back when our economy took a dump, I had to go to Afghanistan,” said Bob Parsons, 51. “I had to work there as a product relations manager, just to build our retirement back up. There were no jobs in Michigan to be had. They’re not fair to what’s coming over, as far as the trade goes. For example, 100,000 cars come over here; 5,000 go over there. I like what he says: If they don’t let us send them there, we don’t take their stuff.” 

Essentially, one of the major political thrusts that’s drawing some Americans to Trump’s campaign is his “get tough” approach to U.S. trade deals overseas. Other than Senator Bernie Sanders, Trump—whatever liberals may think of his core politics (which is justifiably repugnant, to progressives, on so many levels)—is one of the few candidates, in either party, who’s not slavishly accepting the narrative of neoliberal globalism as an economic boon for the many. (Like trade unionists, consumer groups, and the economic populist left, Trump has even come out against President Obama’s neoliberal disaster that is, essentially, the “NAFTA on Steroids”, i.e., the Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP].)

(The article, here, should note that while there are much that progressive populists can agree with, in regard to some of Trump’s critiques against unfettered neoliberal globalism, in particular so-called free trade agreements in general [particularly the TPP], it is not the piece’s intention to downplay those aspects of his critiques that some have pointed out as worrisome to say the least. Specifically, those aspects that involve, among others, crude levels of national chauvinism—including nativist ire and not-too-subtle xenophobia directed against undocumented immigrants coming into the U.S. as a result, in part, from their economic displacement arising out of neoliberal globalism itself.)

Now, granted the thrust of Trump’s aforementioned critiques is not as thoroughly developed as those posited by progressive economists critical of untrammeled neoliberal globalism and the regime of so-called free trade agreements. However, it is still a critique: a meaningful one in light of the fact that both Chamber of Commerce Republican conservatives and third way Democratic centrists—who both wield significant influence in each of their respective parties—are still wedded slavishly to the neoliberal free trade consensus of the establishment business, media, and political class in the U.S. Far too many Republicans and Democrats fail to question the consensus because they are unable—or have simply refused—to realize the deep human costs of neoliberalism über alles. How can our elected officials begin to solve this problem when they see no problem to begin with?

In sharp contrast, significant segments of the electorate, in their gut, viscerally understand the human costs arising out of the regime of neoliberal free trade fundamentalism as their lived experiences—whether because they themselves or people they know have lost their jobs when the factories they worked at shuttered before moving abroad to more favorable, low-wage economic climates of Southeast Asia and Central America. These free trade deals have all too clearly shown working Americans the abject failures of an insatiable neoliberalism that seeks to commodify and discard everything in its path in its narrow, amoral pursuit of shareholder maximization.

Why is this point important? Because as these quotes, highlighted by Weigel, show is that some of Trump’s supporters—or, at least, those drawn to parts of his message—display motivations that are rational, economic self-interested ones.

As such, one cannot simply argue that the support for Trump is entirely based on some alleged “false consciousness” of people supporting a billionaire candidate who’s altogether completely inimical to their economic interests. At the end of the day, they’re making a rational choice in regard to their interests that’s no different than pro-environmentalists supporting anti-Keystone Pipeline progressive Democrats or social conservatives supporting pro-life right-wing Republicans.

And here’s the kicker—these supporters of Trump, especially working-class devotees, believe he’ll represent their economic concerns, in particular on issues of free trade and the economic dislocating effects of untrammeled neoliberal globalism. Why? Because he is a billionaire (not in spite of it).

Continuing with Weigel’s piece, his interviews highlight the point above:

[Bob] Parsons’s wife, Brenda, who’d been nodding her head, interjected to explain why she trusted Trump.

“He’s a businessman,” she said. “Being a businessman, he knows the ways around. I don’t think he’d go to Congress and ask. I think he’d just do it.”

Bob Parsons explained that Trump could ignore lobbyists. It was lobbyists, hungry to sell out America for a buck, who weakened the trade deals, he said.

In other words, since Trump is a billionaire himself, he will be immune—in the eyes of some of his supporters—to the corrupting influence of America’s affluent donor class and its army of K Street lobbyists that heavily skew economic and public policy choices toward a strong pro-corporate and pro-wealthy bias (as the latest scholarly studies have demonstrated). The implicit logic behind their expectations is that because he is part of the affluent donor class, Trump, more than anyone else in this primary election cycle, acutely understands how the system is rigged and where the trapped doors lie, and thus can be more effective in navigating through the maze of Washington drenched with special interest money.

Essentially, the above logic, is similar to the rationale behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s appointment of Wall St. swashbuckler, Joseph P. Kennedy, to head the then-newly established New Deal regulatory agency overseeing finance, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). (Who better to guard the henhouse than the fox who was once engaged in the activities the agency, overseeing finance, is now sworn to regulate.) A better historical precedence was the public credibility-driven gravitas accorded to two New York scions of inherited wealth, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR, in their forceful campaigns against, respectively, the “malefactors of great wealth” and the “economic of royalists.”

Although one can make a reasonable case that these supporters’ expectations that Trump will avoid the powerful influence of America’s donor class and K Street lobbyists are thoroughly misplaced, what cannot be denied is that many of them acknowledge the salient dangers posed by the “donor-ocracy” that pervades the Beltway. In other words, like liberals and progressives, these Trump supporters have astutely diagnosed the cancer to our small-d democratic process that impacts public policy choices: the scourge of money in politics—and, on a deeper-level, the asymmetry of power relations in our polity between the powerful and ordinary citizenry that prioritizes the interests of the former at the expense of the latter.

The clarity of such diagnosis is emphatically highlighted, quite saliently, by one Trump supporter who wrote to The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf in explaining that person’s support for Trump. The individual wrote:

[Trump] has brought to life the silent majority, who have quietly fumed about the corruption that runs rampant in our government. Our government merrily believes they have pulled the wool over our eyes to the atrocities they routinely commit. Trump has taken these atrocities Mainstream! He daily reminds all the crooked politicians that they have been bought and paid for! The People knew it before, but Trump is reminding us that it is NOT acceptable! It is NOT wrong that Trump has given money to these people to do his bidding, it IS WRONG that these people took his money and DID his bidding! We get that Trump gave them money for a few little building permits––but what do the Koch Bros, George Soros and especially the drug and insurance companies need to give them money for? (Caps in original, boldface added.)

Regarding the stranglehold of the donor class over America’s system of government—and the resulting scourge of pay-to-play politics—a significant number of Trump followers get it as the above quote emphatically shows. They, like liberals and progressives, see this rot of money in politics that makes our democracy seem nothing more than a sham bought and sold to the highest bidder. As such, to those on the left and center-left who mock Trump’s followers, perhaps that they should get off their self-righteous hobby-horses and, perhaps, maybe do something more constructive—say, joining up with Trump devotees in organizing a movement to get money out of politics.

Additionally, what should be a warning to all Democratic aspirants to the Oval Office, this primary season, is that there’s another potent dynamic that’s fueling Trump’s confounding lead in the polls. It is a dynamic that former White House counselor and contributing writer at Salon, Bill Curry, points out in his recent post:

A key issue in this race is the integrity, accountability and efficiency of government. Republicans talk more and more about it, Democrats hardly at all. In case you didn’t notice, the fallen state of politics and government is what Trump talks about most; that he does so vividly and bluntly is a big part of what some must consider his charm.

Unpacking what Curry highlights in his article is something that isn’t as easily polled: the deep public hunger for an effective government that not only can diagnose, correctly, the concerns and issues that matter most to the electorate, but also possesses the firm will for robust action to meaningful fix the array of problems that the voters are worried about. As such, when one gets past the meaningless sloganeering, a key issue that concerns a vast number of Americans isn’t necessarily over the size of government (“big government” vs. “small government”) but rather which side is government on—and, relatedly, whether government has the firm will to effectively act to fix the vast problems that plague voters’ minds.

For Democrats running in the presidential primary season—belonging to the historic party of government activism—the aforementioned dynamic that Curry highlights should, again, be of tremendous concern to them. If they are to garner a winning majority in the fall 2016 elections, they need to craft policies that show not only do they understand the issues that very much concern Americans, but they must forcefully show that they have the will to actually do something about it.

Mere lofty campaign rhetoric, elaborate political manifestos, and technocratic hedging will not simply cut it anymore in today’s volatile political environment. It is a volatility marked by palatable sense of frustration, among Americans, who view their system of government as broken, in a near-irredeemable fashion, and bought off by elite special interests in which the great public challenges of our time are met with bumbling incompetence, cold indifference, or (more) broken promises from our elected leaders.

As such, this explains, in part, the energy behind the deep level of impassioned support for Trump during this year’s Republican presidential primary season. For Trump’s supporters, they view him as nothing less than a decisive “man of action” who will get things done, without concern for polite protocol or for the demands from the establishment class, within or outside of the GOP. Because Trump is perceived, among his followers, as a no-nonsense, no fuss, can-do businessman—who gets down to brass tacks—the problems that concern them, in their eyes, have a better chance of actually being fixed under a Trump presidency than by any other GOP aspirant to the Oval Office.

Now, this energy is similarly playing itself out on the Democratic side where Bernie Sanders, this summer, has caught off guard much of the commentariat, with his surprisingly strong traction among Democrats in this year’s primary season. When people unpack the specifics of the head-to-head poll numbers between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, what they discover is a commanding advantage that the Vermont senator has over the former secretary of state on the issue of honesty that serves to only highlight the weak numbers of Clinton on the issue of trustworthiness. The writer, H.A. Goodman, highlights this finding in the Huffington Post:

Honesty and a genuine value system are the primary reasons Bernie Sanders is gaining in the polls and the primary reason people of all backgrounds will choose him over Clinton or any GOP nominee in 2016. These traits are the reasons polls are ever-changing, since there’s no poll that asks, “What’s in the heart of your future president?” Since adherence to principle is a novelty in this day and age, Bernie Sanders reminds voters of an ideal. It’s this ideal that will enable Sanders to surge past Clinton and towards the Democratic nomination. It will also help him win the White House, since Bush and other Republicans must still answer tough questions about Iraq, Wall Street, and income inequality.

In light of this, why should honesty and a genuine value system be crucial factors behind the Sanders surge? As suggested in the Huffington Post post above, it’s because in an age where the electorate is accustomed to political U-turns and politicians shamelessly pandering to them with empty promises that are never are kept, honesty and a genuine value system do matter.

Moreover, the American public hungers for conviction politicians who say what they mean, and mean what they say. As such, in today’s volatile political environment, voters have a short patience for pols with a penchant for an elasticity of political principles where promises are easily up for cheap discarding.

(A perfect example of this occurred during the last contested Democratic primary cycle, in 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama made a memorable promise to American workers that he would renegotiate NAFTA. Well, after almost a full two-terms in the Oval Office, President Obama has yet to renegotiate the trade deal despite his rhetoric in 2008. In fact, he announced, way back in 2009, that he had no plans to reopen NAFTA talks at all. Moreover, to add insult to injury to the millions of labor supporters of the President, he is currently pushing hard for Congress to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The stunning lack of follow-through by this Democratic president is quite a vivid understatement.)

Now, with that said, the issues of honesty and principles are also much deeper than just character. What they also go to is the issue, again, of “action.” If a politician says what he or she means, and means what he or she says, there’s more of a likelihood that he or she will act on commitments and policy proposals introduced during a campaign.

Among voters in the Democratic primary, just like among Trump followers in the GOP race, the issue of “action” is central, if not more so. After witnessing, Democratic candidates for president, at each electoral cycle for the past 40 years or so (beginning with Jimmy Carter), campaign on the populist left, yet govern on the technocratic center-right (in particular, on economic issues), many grassroots liberal Democrats are at their breaking point right now: call it the “pandering fatigue syndrome over the trail of broken progressive promises.” In other words, to channel the spirit to Fannie Lou Hamer‘s most memorable words, they’re “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Thus, this frustration felt by a significant number of progressive Democrats explains the energy behind the Sanders insurgency—and the steady rise of his poll numbers in the Democratic primary campaign this summer.

Among Democrats right now (in particular, progressives) there’s a stirring appetite for a certain kind of substantive politics. It is a politics that actually does something—and stands for something—after years of ultimately barren politics that either luxuriated itself in soaring, yet empty rhetoric or engaged in safe, triangulating contrivances that lacked the clarity of vision, the force of courage, the firmness of conviction, and the energy of moral purpose.

In essence, for a significant number of Democratic voters there is a hunger, out there, for not only a politics that means something, but one that will actually do something to fix the array of challenges facing America. For many Democrats, the critical issue more than ever, during 2015 and the presidential election cycle next year, is not just whether a candidate will be a bold advocate for robust progressive policies but also whether he or she will be a fighter, with the will to act, that will fight until such policies are enacted. The calculated politics of capitulating centrism is over. And the moment of populist “action liberalism” has arrived.

As such, this is why liberals and progressives, more than anyone else, should understand the animating drive galvanizing Trump supporters. To Trump’s adoring legions of followers he represents one thing more than anything else: he’s a man of action, a doer, a person with the will to get things done.

However liberals and progressives may disagree with Trump on a whole range of issues—such as, glaringly, the issue of immigration reform and the treatment of undocumented immigrants—they should, again, more than anyone else, understand his appeal while still reject the reactionary aspects of Trumpism.

After many decades of having to endure a cheapened, capitulating politics of centrist third way triangulation and cold, technocratic neoliberalism—where Democratic politicians campaigned on the left of “Putting People First,” but governed on the right by slavishly embracing neoliberal free trade deals that “put people last”—progressives and liberals should understand the potent hunger, among a significant number of those on the political right, who embrace Trump and see him as a tribune for their concerns who will “get things done” and “fight for them.”

Yes, Trump embodies much of everything that is inimical to progressive values. However, his presence in the political arena, is a sharp reminder to liberals in what they long for: a fighting progressive with a clarity of principles and a creed of bold action that advances liberalism by rejecting the empty politics of capitulation. For many of these frustrated liberals they have already found that progressive: Bernie Sanders.


(Image: Caricature of Donald Trump by DonkeyHotey on Flickr licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 Generic License. From DonkeyHotey: “The source image for this caricature is a Creative Commons licensed images from Gage Skidmore’s flickr photostream and smilygrl’s flickr photostream.”)

Of Political Values and Vision: An Introduction to The American Liberal Review and Its Mission

The American Liberal Review (Logo)

The American Liberal Review’s mission is to promote a political worldview steeped in the inspiring tradition of reform and achievement: progressive liberalism. (Sometimes known, in some circles, as a broadly inclusive democratic left-liberalism, or in Europe, as social liberalism.) It is a worldview that arose out of a public philosophy of enlightened reform and social progress that animated three significant, reform-oriented political epochs of great historical importance: American Progressivism at the turn of the last century, British New Liberalism of the Edwardian era, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism of the 1930s.

Progressive liberalism is a reformist political tradition and public philosophy that maintains a fidelity to the foundational liberal creed of liberty (with an expansive understanding of the idea). While, at the same time, it never loses sight of the fact that to stay relevant it must evolve and adapt its means (with a degree of intelligent, pragmatic flexibility), over time, to new sets of opportunities and challenges. This adaptability gives full meaning to progressive liberalism’s timeless ends that keeps faith to its original credo of meaningful human freedom and emancipation, and enlightened, social progress.

The liberal credo’s pragmatic flexibility is evidenced, famously, by its historical transformation away from classical liberalism, with its support of laissez-faire competition and a relatively more jaundiced view of the state, toward social reform-minded modern liberalism. This modern liberalism arose, during the turn of the last century, from the American Progressive and British New Liberal movements that sought to modernize the liberal creed to meet the challenges of early 20th-century industrial capitalism with the rise of large-scale corporations and powerful monopolies, increased social strife and economic immiseration of workers, and the emerging political capture of democratic institutions by narrow, private economic special interests against the commonweal. Both these movements—along with the political heir of American Progressivism, New Deal liberalism—helped lay the foundations of a resilient political project of reform and social progress that came to beneficial fruition during the postwar era of the last century: a time known as the “Great Compression” (or the “Golden Age of Capitalism”). This era witnessed unrivaled, historic economic and social gains of broad-based prosperity, ever-rising economic growth (fueled by Keynesian demand-side economics), robust social investments in public goods (that contributed to stark reductions of economic inequality), and the stirring rise of emancipatory social (grassroots) movements organized by marginalized groups in society.

Now, this project of modern progressive liberalism embraced, among other things, the following: (1) Keynesian-style managed capitalism (demand-centric, socially minded and rule-bound mixed economies of public goods and private initiatives-private enterprises); (2) universal-based social investments that gave rise to cradle-to-grave social safety nets; (3) a robust embrace of the role of positive government (as the repository of both the national will and public interest) as the democratic tool of public action to meet the demands that arise from the national interest; and (4) a concern to inclusively open political and social spaces for marginalized groups in society.
All of which highlights the pragmatic nature of progressive liberalism to deftly balance two compelling values: the maximization of individual freedom in its fullest sense (comprised of both positive and negative liberty) and social responsibility that’s attuned to the public needs of the commonweal that arise from the demands of a modern pluralist society. This balance implicitly recognizes the social dimension of liberty—and the inherent danger to freedom, broadly understood, posed by a constellation of undemocratic institutions; concentrated power wielded by narrow, elite special interests; and unaccountable forces of both public and private power (e.g., an imperial presidency, unrestrained corporate power, tyrannical majorities or minorities, etc.) that all can threaten the political, economic, and civil well-being of society.

As such, the recognition of progressive liberalism’s adroit balancing act of a fidelity to values and ends, and the pragmatic flexibility of means to realize timeless goals is at the heart of what it means to be a progressive liberal. In light of this, it is no wonder that the late postwar public intellectual and liberal historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., once described the American liberal creed as the following:

“Liberalism in America has been a party of social progress rather than of intellectual doctrine, committed to ends rather than to methods. When a laissez-faire policy seemed best calculated to achieve the liberal objective of equality of opportunity for all—as it did in the time of Jefferson—liberals believed, in the Jeffersonian phrase, that that government is best which governs least. But, when the growing complexity of industrial conditions required increasing government intervention in order to assure more equal opportunities, the liberal tradition, faithful to the goal rather than to the dogma, altered its view of the state.”

Hence, from its early roots nearly 130 years ago to today, progressive liberalism (or democratic left-liberalism) continues to stand for the following main (foundational) values: liberty, community, fraternity, universality, and equality (both political equality and a vibrant economic equality of opportunity-treatment). In essence, it emphasizes several key elements as critical for the advancement of progressive liberalism: (1) visionary, bold reform; (2) a democratic accountable populism; (3) economic justice and security; (4) progressive internationalism; (5) engaged, participatory civic citizenship and democratic, deliberative reason; (6) egalitarian freedom and fairness; and (7) the sensible balance that constrains both the tyranny of the majority (by protecting individual autonomy and individual rights to cultivate an ethos of healthy individualism and self-expression) and the tyranny of the minority (by promoting universalist communitarian values expressing the will of the common good and national interest)—the constraints of which, in tandem, give full meaning to both negative freedom (freedom from harm) and positive freedom (freedom to develop).

Now, in a broader historical and presence sense, the public philosophy of progressive liberalism arises out of popular struggles, at home and abroad, for engaged democracy full of vitality and a participatory economy that incorporate a myriad of democratic liberal values and reformist currents. These currents encompass seven historical and present movements. First, the American Populists politics of anti-special interest (i.e., moneyed interests) agrarian democracy of the late 19th century. Second, the Progressive Era‘s focus on a dispassionate politics of anti-sectionalism and professionalized social reforms. Third, the global labor movement’s enduring appeal to grassroots economic justice through democratic trade unionism (that provides a collective, organized voice for workers). Fourth, the expansive reform-oriented liberty and freedom of British New Liberalism (i.e., social liberalism) of the Edwardian period. Fifth, the bold, experimental spirit of innovative, pragmatic, and social justice politics under FDR’s New Deal. Sixth, the qualitative liberalism of JFK’s New Frontier and LBJ’s Great Societyand their pro-reform presidencies that sought to improve the quality of life in an age marked by prosperity and social change. Seventh, the modern, practical and moral insights of the foundational values of egalitarian solidarity, community, cooperation, sustainability, and universality that have animated the democratic, popular-based left-wing reform traditions of contemporary green and social-democratic movements around the world.

As such, it is modern liberalism’s aforementioned progressive precepts, along with its inspiring achievements in social reform, which inspire The American Liberal Review’s mission. It is a mission that encompasses the following values: (1) the political ethos of engaged citizenship, civic republicanism, and deliberative democracy; (2) fairness, justice, and robust universal-oriented egalitarian solidarity in formulating political, social and economic citizenship; and (3) open, free and inclusive societies.

Now these values are the bases that inform the outlook of The American Liberal Review in its advocacy for eight vital components that are critical for the vibrant health of progressive democracy. Those components are the following: (1) democratic, inclusive pluralism; (2) dispassionate debate and reason in the affairs of public deliberation, policy-making, and governance; (3) fair, sustainable global trade and commerce; (4) democratic trade unionism; (5) transparent and accountable participatory democracy that empowers the citizenry to take an active role in the political affairs of society; (6) a bottom-up, participatory social market (with an emphasis on economic democracy) that’s accountable to the public in a manner oriented beyond shareholders to include stakeholders; (7) bold, visionary, creative, transformative, and practical-minded social reform guided by John Deweys notions of principled pragmatism that responds to the demands of democracy without ideological dogmatism; and (8) a foreign affairs vision that combines the best features of progressive pragmatism and multilateral liberal internationalism tempered by anti-hubristic instincts of Niebuhrian realism and restraint.

Fundamentally, The American Liberal Review is an online journal that seeks to promote progressive-oriented liberal ideas and political values which, throughout progressive liberalism’s rich history of achievement and reform, have animated social reformers and public intellectuals, as well as politicians and activists alike. It is a liberalism inspired by the great American tradition of progressive ideas, activism, and politics of the following: John Dewey, Herbert David Croly, Louis Brandeis, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert (“Fighting Bob”) La Follette, Thorstein Veblen, Henry Demarest Lloyd, Jane Addams, Randolph Bourne, George Norris, Franklin D. Roosevelt and New Deal liberalism, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frances Perkins, Thurman Arnold, Leon H. Keyserling and integrative liberalismReinhold Niebuhr, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Reuther and his vision of social trade unionism, Henry Steele Commager and his inspiring legacy as an engaged liberal scholar-activist at the forefront of both civil rights and civil liberties, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his moral call for social redemption that arose out of integrationist, prophetic liberalism, Allard Lowenstein, John F. Kennedy and the idealism of the New Frontier, Robert F. Kennedy and his appeal to unite marginalized working-class and poor communities of all racesEdward M. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and the domestic liberalism of the Great Society, Hubert HumphreyJohn Rawls, William Julius Wilson, Arnold Kaufman and his notion of participatory democracy, Ralph Yarborough and his populist Southern “people’s” lunch pale liberalism, John Patrick Diggins, Paul Douglas (the accomplished academic-turned-crusading liberal of the U.S. Senate, i.e., the Sen. Warren of the mid-20th century), Albert O. Hirschman, Bella Abzug, Richard Rorty, Cesar Chavez, Phillip BurtonBetty Friedan, Robert Kuttner, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, E. J. Dionne, Van Jones, Robert Reich, Bayard Rustin, Cornel West, Bill Moyers, and Elizabeth Warren.

And because of its cosmopolitan and broad-minded orientation, progressive American liberalism is also intellectually indebted to, and politically animated by, the profound philosophical insights of global liberals today and throughout history such as the following: John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hill GreenLord Robert Skidelsky, Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse (who, in 1911, published the seminal tome, Liberalism, that distilled the social liberal/New Liberal/progressive liberal creed), John Atkinson HobsonJohn Maynard Keynes, Karl Polanyi, Sir William Beveridge, Amartya Sen, Bertrand Russell, David Lloyd George, Lester B. Pearson, and Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

In closing, The American Liberal Review seeks to carry the torch of modern American liberalism’s history of progressive achievement and social reform forward in the 21st century to renew a much-needed spirit of enlightened, humanitarian progress and social justice. And, in the process, the progressive website hopes to play a constructive part in contributing to the ongoing project by American liberals to renew a bold, creative liberalism that is full of political confidence, substantive vitality, and a dynamic moral vision.

(Photo info/credit: President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, U.S. Attorney General Robert Francis Kennedy, and U.S. Senator Edward Moore Kennedy outside the Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C. [August 28, 1963]. Photo by
 Cecil Stoughton (1920-2008), White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and MuseumImage cropped by The American Liberal Review. Copyright status: Public domain.)