No, Voting for Trump Won’t Accelerate Progressive Change

Yves Smith (aka Susan Webber), a management consultant and principal at Aurora Advisors, writes at Politico that the “highly educated, high-income, finance-literate readers of my website, Naked Capitalism, don’t just overwhelmingly favor Bernie Sanders. They also say “Hell no!” to Hillary Clinton to the degree that many say they would even vote for Donald Trump over her.”

They (9 out of 10 Smith friends polled) developed their “conclusions” from “careful study of her record and her policy proposals,” and believe the Clintons represent a policy status quo of “crushing inequality, and an economy that is literally killing off the less fortunate.” And they think “the most powerful move they can take to foster change is to withhold their support.”

This is because Barack Obama, the Clintons, and the Democratic Party generally supports a neoliberal regime and has intentionally slow-rolled or blocked progressive reform initiatives:

“By contrast, the Democratic Party in the Clinton and Obama administrations has consistently embraced and implemented policies that strip workers of economic and legal rights to benefit investors and the elite professionals that serve them. Over time, the “neoliberal” economic order—which sees only good, never bad, in the relentless untrammeling of capital and the deregulation of markets—has created an unacceptable level of economic insecurity and distress for those outside the 1 percent and the elite professionals who serve them.”

As a result of these policies:

“The…U.S. economy is becoming lethal to the less fortunate, according to the New York Times, which reported this week that U.S. death rates have risen for the first time in a decade. The increase in death rates among less educated whites since 2001 is roughly the size of the AIDS epidemic.”

This has caused Progressives to leave the Democratic Party:

“The Clinton and Obama administrations presided over the worst losses in congressional and state races in modern history in 1994, 2010 and 2012. And voter preferences were clear. Under Obama, it was the Blue Dog, Third Way Democrats who were turfed out, while candidates with strong stances on economic justice kept their seats.”

After this Smith cites a litany of policy complaints and…interesting…claims.  For example:

“Bill Clinton made a deal with Newt Gingrich to privatize Social Security, but Monica Lewinsky derailed his plans.”

“Obama promised a minimum wage increase to $9.50 an hour and failed to act in the first four years of his presidency.”

“Obamacare took single payer off the table, instead rearranging the current costly, clumsy system while guaranteeing profits for health insurers and Big Pharma.”

Yadda Yadda questions of competence, corruption, and something about the Clinton’s drinking French bourbon (may have misread…was quite a slog to get to that part).  Read the whole thing if you will, but tl;dr: All Smith’s Progressive pals and readers will vote for Trump or stay home because HRC is a neoliberal corporate and financial industry shill who will screw “workers and other ordinary citizens” to protect her pals in the One Percent.

I’m not sure what to say about some of her specific points.  To the extent the Lewinsky news ended a bipartisan Social Security reform plan, it strikes me that the news would weaken the President and permit Gingrich to secure a more conservative agreement.  Obama eventually took the only action he could in the face of GOP Congresses: required defense contractors to pay a minimum $10.10 wage.  And single payer was never on the table, so Obama put together the most progressive regulation of the US health care industry.  And that’s what it is: health care industry regulation.

In any event, Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns and Money gave it his treatment, and I don’t imagine I could improve on that.  Instead, I’d like to make a more general point about political change that Ms. Smith’s readers need to hear: it comes from the bottom, not the top.  Smith thinks that “Presidents have enormous bully pulpits. They can move the Overton window if they choose to.”  I doubt this is true.  While Presidents have a huge platform to speak – and certainly have a key role in agenda-setting – it’s not clear how much Presidential rhetoric actually changes the accepted social understandings that US society relies upon.

The range of politically possible government policy action – the Overton Window – depends on shared social understandings about “what right looks like” (as my old First Sergeant might have put it).  These understandings include norms about the nature of property, labor and citizenship, the definition and importance of discrimination, and the role of religion and government in society, among others.  Presidents have powerful voices, and they can, to be sure, influence debate.  But they don’t so much influence changes in these shared understandings through bully pulpit rhetoric – rather, they set agendas by paying attention to the broader policy discussion.  When they see broader normative acceptance of homosexuality, they begin to bring related issues – marriage, discrimination – onto the agenda for action.

In the world of norm entrepreneurs, Presidents recognize the approach of a tipping point in normative change, and respond when the point has tipped.  Good ones do this extremely well, and people love those Presidents because they get the policy they demand.  But Presidents don’t push normative change through that tipping point.  This happens through broader rhetoric and discourse – popular TV and movies, talk radio, political pundit shows, newspaper opinion columns, water cooler and coffee shop chats…and on and on.  Social interaction and discourse across the social, political, economic, news, and entertainment space drives normative change.  Politicians don’t shift the Overton Window – they figure out where popular discourse has placed it and support policies that fit in their own interest: achieving and holding political power.  This is, after all, where the votes are.

This means that Naked Capitalism readers, and anyone else who wants to move US politics and social discourse to the left, should worry less about whether Hillary Clinton wins the Presidency – progressives could face worse electoral outcomes (*cough* President Trump *cough*).  Progressive social change does not depend on an ultra-liberal Sanders regime moving Overton Windows through the bully pulpit.  It relies on local activists working through a variety of social institutions, including but not limited to political parties.  The good news is that social change has happened: claims that we best organize society around free markets and religious institutions have lost power in social discourse about what “right” American society looks like.  Those taking their place associate capitalism with economic insecurity and religious institutions with discrimination and sexual abuse.

This shift in discourse has created a polarized electorate because many Americans aggressively oppose this shift.  They want to shout down opponents of discrimination, runaway capitalism, xenophobia, and military intervention, but others shame them when they do.  Trump gives voice to their frustration more openly than they dare.  Reactionaries like him because he gives social change the finger.  They know it’s coming and they can’t stop it – but they want to go down with a leader who rages openly against it as they do.  And until it does, they have some measure of political power and can limit the range of options available to progressive leaders.  This means liberals just have to work for and accept incremental change and push US society to the left as quickly as possible.

This is hard work that takes place under the radar at the grassroots level.  It’s not about electing Presidents who move Overton Windows.  It’s about engaging neighbors, identifying and swaying those open to progress as well as likeminded liberals, and motivating both to participate in the political process rhetorically and at the voting booth.  This certainly includes complaining about how liberals exercise power, but should not include abandoning liberal/progressive institutions in favor of destroying the system.  Liberals should not give blind loyalty, but should not blindly exit, either.  They should add their voice to the liberal movement, which includes neoliberals, in a way that advances the progressive project.

Your mileage may vary about the best strategy for accomplishing this, but I’m pretty sure voting for Donald Trump or enabling his election through indifference won’t get it done.  It won’t do anything to normalize discussions about how and whether to change the rules governing American capitalism.  It won’t do anything to clear the way for living wages, force police departments to identify and punish misconduct, protect LGBT rights from religious liberty claims, protect social safety nets from privatization or elimination, or end our interventionist foreign policy.

Progressive activists should work to capture the liberal governing apparatus rather than abandon it in a quixotic attempt to shake up the entire system.  Don’t withhold support – use it to demand more progressive policy.  Since Sanders started his run, this has worked – Clinton’s rhetoric and policy preferences reflect a reaction to these demands.  Hillary Clinton is not working to convince Democrats that they should support certain policies – she’s writing her policy proposals to reflect Democratic coalition wants and needs.

I certainly agree that a Trump Presidency might damage the country enough to help advance the progressive cause more quickly.  But like the G. W. Bush regime, which arguably did the same thing, it would hurt millions of “workers and other ordinary citizens” in the process.  Smith’s “highly educated and high-income” friends would weather the resulting storm.  Others will not, and protecting them matters.  This is why liberal leaders like Smith should forsake the less emotionally satisfying #NeverHillary approach and work to reform the system and influence the Democratic Party from within.  This reformation is underway and since 2008 successfully shifted the median possible policy framework on a wide range of issues to the left.  Let’s not end that leftward movement by electing a proto-fascist.  It simply makes no sense.

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