The results in the Iowa Caucuses, with Bernie Sanders virtually tied with Hillary Clinton in the Democratic race, and Donald Trump in second behind Ted Cruz on the Republican side, show the two candidates who have bedeviled the party establishments are more than paper tigers. Trump is still favored to win the GOP nomination, which no one thought possible six months ago, and Sanders is proving a much more stubborn obstacle to Hillary Clinton’s coronation than initially believed.
Their success is symptomatic of a breakdown in the elite-led consensus. Trump and Sanders are threats to the American-led project of capitalist globalization. How did this happen?
Unfettered capitalism is failing the more than 100 million Americans in poverty or on the cusp of it. About 73 percent of Americans have $1,000 or less in savings, indicating how many more are a paycheck away from poverty if a crisis strikes. At the top end, the wealthy have more allegiance to where their assets are parked than where they live. Rich Americans have little loyalty to the nation beyond extracting profit. It’s the culmination of four decades of class warfare by the rich, better known as neoliberalism.
The class divide has created openings in the 2016 election for the left and right to rally support, each in their own way, against the U.S. establishment. Trump’s nativism, xenophobia, and racism are foremost a political danger for globalization. He may blast Wall Street and military adventures, but by focusing anger against China and downward against Muslims and undocumented immigrants Trump is likely to alienate key foreign allies. Sanders, while in essence a capitalist, is an economic threat. He directs anger upward against the 1% by advocating redistribution through universal healthcare, free higher education, paid family leave, and massive tax increases on the wealthy. Both criticize the pay-to-play campaign finance system that has resulted in less than 200 families having more influence over elections than the rest of U.S. households combined.
Trump is better positioned to ascend to office as he is likely to dominate the first four primary contests--Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina--which will give him a clear path to the nomination.
Sanders is the greater existential threat but less likely to snag the nomination because Hillary Clinton has the machine, connections, and money to win a slugfest along with a united front of capitalists behind her. If Sanders won the Democratic nomination, there aren’t numbers big enough to count how much money the rich would spend to defeat him in the general election.
But Sanders and Trump--despite his demagoguery--have exposed both parties as hollow. The Democratic and Republican Parties and establishment candidates are in a bind because they are utterly dependent on Wall Street, rendering them unable to offer meaningful solutions to the social crises resulting from a rigged economic and political system.
Clinton’s strategy thus far is to don the mantle of Obama and position herself as the seasoned hand uniquely able to guide the United States in a perilous world. Tying herself to a popular two-term incumbent is a no-brainer, but Clinton comes across as a stay-the-course candidate willing to say anything to get elected. She plays both sides, basking in the pre-9/11 glow of Bill Clinton’s presidency while claiming she rejects his signature policies like NAFTA, more police and prisons, financial deregulation, treating undocumented immigrants harsher, and gutting welfare.
For struggling Americans, however, staying the course is a prescription for more suffering and marginalization. Sanders addresses dire working-class conditions with his redistributive policies, though his base is disproportionately educated white liberals. He has a vision, passion, and an infectious call for a “political revolution.” Lacking that, Clinton falls back on establishment credentials, which is why she has been unable to dispatch him. It spells trouble for her in November because she has to steer between the visceral hatred the right has for her and the disgust many progressives have with Clintonian cynicism. Her billion-dollar campaign will buy a lot of political muscle, but she lacks a compelling narrative that presidential campaigns must have to win.
Republicans suffer from the same politics-as-usual disease. Unable to compete with the three-ring circus of ego, boorishness, and money that is Donald Trump, his opponents one-up each other in ghoulish Reagan-worship, poor-bashing and war-mongering. After decades of calls for more tax cuts, attacks on reproductive rights, and wars, more of the same appeals to few working-class whites. Trump, in articulating a populist white nationalism, has found that violating Republican orthodoxy works to his benefit. He speaks favorably of unions, opposes trade pacts, and wants to impose import tariffs and deport all undocumented workers. He has criticized the “war on terror” for wasting trillions of dollars that could have spent reviving the U.S. economy. Not even Sanders will go that far, whose socialism ends at the U.S. borders. Trump’s main appeal is scapegoating, which is attracting some union members, but evidence indicates his economic policies would hurt workers who do flock to him.
Sanders and Trump have catalyzed a breakdown in national politics unprecedented in the modern era. They both successfully attack the neoliberal consensus of free trade and corporate welfare in diametrically opposed terms of redistribution on the left and exclusion on the right. This goes beyond an internal party crisis posed by someone like Ted Cruz. Republicans despise Cruz because he has bypassed their power networks, not because he is a fundamental threat to the party’s existence.
Nonetheless, the deep state, the constellation of corporate, state, ideological, and political power, is resilient enough to adjust to either a Trump or Sanders presidency. Some Republicans say they can live with Trump, because he is “pragmatic.” Trump could work with a right-wing Congress to pass discriminatory laws and tax cuts for the wealthiest while it could block much of his agenda like tariffs that would spell economic ruin. But unable to fulfill promises of mass deportations and barring all Muslims, a Trump presidency could encourage organized violence. He could harm relations with countries from Latin America to the Middle East to East Asia, damaging U.S. might and the economy, initiating another cycle of nativist frenzy.
If Sanders won Congress would be in permanent gridlock. Democrats would dilute his policies beyond recognition as their price of support, and Republicans would form an iron wall of opposition as the corporate media screeched incessantly about a socialist takeover. Financial markets have no love for either candidate, but they might crater with a Sanders victory, setting off a new recession. Sanders’ control of the federal bureaucracy and executive orders would allow him to make some not insignificant changes, and the capitalist opposition would probably inspire more organizing on the left and among labor, but the much better organized right would benefit too, including extremists militias and white supremacist groups.
Clinton is still favored to emerge victorious in November, and the Republicans are likely to unite behind Marco Rubio to stop Trump. Both parties leadership will try to adapt to the particulars but they are indifferent to the widespread suffering and certainly have no plan to stop it. Whatever happens this election support among Americans for capitalist globalization will continue to dwindle, increasing the likelihood for a day of reckoning for decades of class warfare. The question is whether it will be the poor who pays the price or the rich.