Trump is attacking the established order from the right while Bernie is attacking it from the left. Democracy is in danger!
So goes the mainstream media message as the cameras pan to scuffles between Trump and Sanders supporters. Increasingly the campaigns are portrayed as a threat to basic American institutions and values. Meanwhile, these polarities are used to reinforce the notion that Hillary Clinton is the rational alternative to these extremists.
Columnist Paul Krugman, for example, promotes the pairing of Sanders and Trump when he writes:
"And yes, we're starting to see hints from that [Sanders] movement of the ugliness that has long been standard operating procedure on the right: bitter personal attacks on anyone who questions the campaign's premises, an increasing amount of demagogy from the campaign itself."
It is true that many Trump and Sanders supporters indeed are vociferously rebelling against the established economic and political order. But Trump himself, like Hillary Clinton, supports the basic tenants of the neo-liberalism that has dominated American politics since the late 1970s. They are part of the same established order.
Bernie is not.
The False Promises of Neo-liberalism
Starting in the late 1970s both political parties adopted similar economic theories popularized by University of Chicago economist Milton Freedman. He argued that the economy would prosper only if severe cuts were made in taxes, regulations and government social programs.
This theory was first tested in Chile after the American-led coup against Salvador Allende. After mixed results, it was brought home to New York City during the 1975 fiscal crisis. At that point debt was privileged over the well-being of the city. Cutbacks in social services became the order of the day. Social interventions like the 1960s War on Poverty were off the table.
Deregulation of industry and finance began during the Carter administration and then accelerated during the Reagan and Clinton administrations. The Democrats joined hands with Reagan to dramatically reduce tax cuts on the wealthy. And they embarked on a forty-year campaign to successfully compete for Wall Street campaign contributions. Along the way nearly every Wall Street government regulation was removed or weakened until the 2007 financial crash.
Similarly, more than enough Democrats joined with Republicans to pass ambitious trade bills that put American workers in direct competition with low-wage labor throughout the world. Millions of middle class industrial jobs soon vanished and the wage race to the bottom commenced.
Both parties also agreed to cutback government jobs. "The era of big government is over," declared President Clinton. President Obama too has cut government jobs in the name of fiscal prudence. Today, no politician dares to say, for example, that government employment should be increased in heavily depressed areas to lower youth unemployment.
In the name of economic efficiency and growth, neo-liberalism led quickly to runaway inequality. Compared to the average worker, the remuneration of the top 100 CEOs jumped form $45 to $1 in 1970 to a whopping $844 to $1 in 2014.
On foreign affairs, both parties supported, and continue to support, the projection of American might to secure global corporate interests. The "Washington Consensus" was pushed onto the developing world to make sure struggling countries, first and foremost, repaid their debts to U.S. financial interests while reducing badly needed services to its own citizens. Military intervention to enhance and preserve U.S power, continued unabated. Note how few Democrats opposed the ginned up war in Iraq.
While the two parties overlapped heavily to deepen neoliberal economic polices, they kept their identities through social issues -- abortion, gay marriage, guns, and voter rights.
Today, neo-liberalism has become a mind-set, the natural order of things, the conventional wisdom: Government bad. Private sector good. Rising inequality? Get a piece off the top if you can.
Trump --the Xenophobic Neoliberal
For all his bluster about trade, immigration, failed wars and political corruption, Trump still operates within the neoliberal framework. He wants to cuts taxes on corporations. He thinks workers' wages are too high. He opposes the rise in the minimum wage. Yes, he wants better trade deals, but for whom? He is threatening to raise tariffs on companies, like the Carrier Corporation, that are moving abroad. But will he really support workers over the interests of corporate investors? The jury is out.
And he has made crystal clear with his comments on health care, that his plan will increase the role of the private insurance industry.
While he rightfully argues that the Iraq war destabilized the entire Middle East, he shows every intention of continuing our interventionist posture. He wants to unleash the military from "political correctness" so that it can go after ISIS more forcefully. That will require more than just water-boarding. It will mean putting boots on the ground. Projecting U.S. power is likely to be key to his macho self-image. He wants a "military so strong no one will mess with us."
Clinton -- the Neoliberal Hawk
While Hillary comes from the more liberal wing of the neoliberal establishment, she does not break with its basic philosophy. She also believes in corporate tax cuts -- tax cuts to encourage them to bring jobs to the U.S. She calls them "incentives." She wants corporations to invest more in depressed neighborhoods. More incentives. She wants more investment in clean energy. Still more incentives.
Right in line with neo-liberalism, she vigorously opposes key reforms that Wall Street also abhors -- No new Glass-Steagall. No financial speculation tax. No break-ups of big banks. But it's ok to take millions in speaking fees and campaign donations.
She also makes no mention of increased spending on government programs to reduce poverty. She doesn't want free higher education at public colleges and universities and she doesn't want a $15 an hour minimum wage. She doesn't want Medicare for All. And she makes no mention about increasing inner city public jobs even though such jobs have historically allowed African-Americans to enter the middle-class. Clearly, for Hillary, the days of big government are still over.
Hillary Clinton may be even more of an interventionist than Trump. She has little difficulty in using American might to topple governments, and then using more U.S. resources to cope with the ensuing instability. Iraq, Libya, Syria.
As we find out more about her role in Libya we can see her mind grappling with power politics. According to Ellen Hall, a careful reading of Hillary's emails shows that her aim was not humanitarian. Regime change was about stopping the Libyan effort to develop a new pan-African currency and economic union that threatened international banking: "[V]iolent intervention was not chiefly about the security of the people. It was about the security of global banking, money and oil."
Bernie: The neoliberal wrecking machine
Unlike Trump and Clinton, Sanders entirely rejects the neoliberal model. Instead of tax cuts and "incentives" he want to increase taxes on the superrich. He wants a financial speculation tax to pay for free higher education at public colleges and universities. He wants to put his foot hard on the neck of Wall Street with a new Glass Steagall and by breaking up the biggest banks. He wants Medicare for All, instead of continued reliance on private insurance companies. And he wants America to stop with regime change and coups.
Bernie is the antithesis of the neoliberal order. That's why the press will try to pair him up with Trump and propagate the left-right threat to democratic civility.
So while Trump rails against the media, they give him more and more coverage. But when it comes to Bernie, quiet is better unless they can make him look like an extremist, or someone who will tax everyone into the ground or someone who is misleading young people with unrealistic proposals.
While the media floods the airwaves with polls, they rarely mention the string of polls that show Bernie with enormous leads over Trump.
Taking on the neoliberal order doesn't come easy. Let's hope the American people have the staying power to remove its yoke.
Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute in New York is working with unions, worker centers and community organization to build a national economics educational campaign. His latest book, Runaway Inequality: An Activist's Guide to Economic Justice (Oct 2015), is a text for that effort. All proceeds go to support this educational campaign. (Please like the Runaway Inequality page on Facebook.)