Hillary, Bernie, and the Democrats’ Conservative Shadow

Hillary and Bernie: Who's the real Democrat here? It's a perennial question regardless of who's runnnig for the donkeys.

Hillary and Bernie: Who’s the real Democrat here? It’s a perennial question regardless of who’s running for the donkeys.

It’s tough being a Democrat. Every election cycle, donkey club members must go through the excruciating process of endless spinal implementation surgeries just to muster enough backbone to mouth the liberal platitudes that ostensibly constitute the foundations of America’s only major “progressive” political party. But let’s be honest: it’s hard being a liberal when the foamy-mouthed wingnuts are nipping at your tucked-back tail and the empathy-starved financial sector is flooding your coffers with Federal Reserve chicken feed.

The perpetual question-asking about what it means to be a liberal is once again in full swing amidst of the early primary campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The major issue at hand is just how much punishment the next potential Democratic president ought to reign down — Sodom and Gomorrah-like — on that craven nest of Sherif of Nottinghams known as the American Financial Sector.

Hillary Clinton is flush with finance sector campaign bribes donations and the name recognition that comes from being a former Secretary of State — not to mention eight-years in the White House with a certain Arkansas Bubba — and she’s still the punditocracy’s presumed frontrunner. But her candidacy has re-opened an old rift within liberal circles over what it means to actually govern like a liberal. Much to the dismay of Lefties, Clinton has already stated that she will not reinstate the 1933 Glass-Steagall Banking Act, the Depression-era law that separated commercial banks from investment banks that her husband repealed in 1999 when he signed the conservative-backed Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. This stance makes sense given that she embodies the so-called pro-free-market, anti-Big Government, regulation-shredding “New Democrat” that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s in response to conservative cultural and electoral dominance.

By contrast, the Doc Brown-maned Bernie Sanders seems to exhibit the much-needed, old-school liberal heft that many progressives feel the Democrats should openly embrace in order to, you know, actually stand for something and differentiate themselves from a Trump-trumpeting Republican Party. Sanders’ time in Vermont politics proved successful across the political spectrum, he says that he won’t accept money from billionaires, and he unabashedly touts himself as a Democratic-Socialist who makes no bones about the fact that America could learn a thing-or-two from the policies that have made the Scandinavian nations into prosperous (if by no means perfect) modern societies. Moreover, Sanders has vowed to restore the Glass-Steagall Act, a position that puts him in direct opposition to Wall Street fluffers like Clinton.

It’s unlikely, however, that Bernie Sanders will win the Democratic nomination. This has less to do with his policies, which have boosted him in polls of Democratic voters, and more to do with the sheer clout that New Democrats still exercise over their party, particularly on issues like financial sector reform. Moreover, the New Democrats have history on their side.

As much as the early conflict between Clinton and her party’s left-leaning elements demonstrates a long-running rift between liberal and centrist Democrats, the division over Glass-Steagall also highlights the pernicious influence that conservative ideology has historically exerted over liberal policy-making. Indeed, long-standing and interconnected racial, cultural, and economic constraints have always hampered populist legislation in America. From the Civil War era, to the New Deal, to the emergence of the New Right in the 1970s, the presence of reactionary politics has driven the Democratic Party’s historic tendency to quiver like a warm Jello mold in the presence of deeply entrenched power structures. And race has always been at the heart of these reactionary movements.

FDR signs the Glass-Steagall Banking Act into law in 1933 while pro-segregationist Democrats Carter Glass (with his hand on Roosevelt's shoulder) and Henry Steagall (at FDR's left), look on.

FDR signs the Glass-Steagall Banking Act into law in 1933 while pro-segregationist Democrats Carter Glass (with his hand on Roosevelt’s shoulder) and Henry Steagall (at FDR’s left), look on.

Even Bernie Sanders — left-wing Grand Puba that he is — has faced harsh criticism from Black Lives Matter activists who accuse him of being just another white liberal who doesn’t give a fig about black issues. The Black Lives Matter folks know damn well that even liberals have historically given black people the shaft (seriously, no pun intended there). This is because in American politics, there is no separating race from class: the two ideas have always lived in a symbiotic relationship. Thus, conservative movements in different eras have invoked white fears of “the other” (usually African-Americans) to thwart a good many multi-racial, class-based populist coalitions.

As far back as the Civil War era, for example, the Democratic Party — once in part a coalition of Jacksonian farmers and urban mechanics — found itself beholden to the so-called “Slave Power.”

For example, Stephen F. Hale, an Alabama Democrat charged with convincing Kentucky to join the southern Confederacy in 1860, employed a classic conservative scare-tactic when he warned that Abraham Lincoln’s election portended racial equality. “What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate…associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality…?” Hale asked. His assertion that racial equality threatened both “slave-holder” and “non-slave-holder” alike was intentional: because race proved a stronger bond than class, the majority of white southerners who did not directly own slaves could nonetheless feel confident in fighting the slaveholders’ war to preserve their honky hierarchy over enslaved blacks. In 1862, the pro-secessionist southern journalist J.D.B.De Bow further highlighted the Confederacy’s reactionary bona-fides when he wrote that, “we are not revolutionists — we are resisting revolution. We are upholding the true doctrines of the Federal Constitution. We are conservative.”

Over seventy years after Confederate defeat, conservative elements within the South still managed to influence FDR’s New Deal, the collection of policies that came to define modern liberalism. During the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration accommodated populist legislation to meet the demands of ardently racist, pro-segregationist southern Democrats who supported key New Deal-era legislation such as Social Security and the 1933 Glass-Steagall Banking Act on the condition that such reforms not disturb the South’s entrenched racial hierarchy.

Virginia Senator Carter Glass and Alabama Representative Henry Steagall — the two congressional southerners who gave the Banking Act its name — were both fire-breathing segregationists. Like so many other southern backers of New Deal legislation, Glass and Steagall were often economically populist but culturally conservative. They supported FDR’s reforms on the condition that key programs such as Social Security exclude agricultural and domestic laborers, the vast majority of whom were black. Cultural conservatives exerted enormous influence over populist New Deal legislation, so much so that, as historian Ira Katznelson writes, “[n]o noteworthy lawmaking the New Deal accomplished could have passed without their consent. Reciprocally, almost every initiative of significance conformed to their wishes.”[4]

In the 1970s, as the post-war boom evaporated, conservatives once again exerted a profound influence on liberal policy by seizing on the economic insecurities of the white working and lower-middle classes — the heart of the old New Deal coalition — to forge a new, culturally conservative coalition known as the “Silent Majority.” This development was a major factor in the rise of the New Right, and it continues to shape the trajectory of American liberalism to this day. In the midst of stagflation, racial unrest, and minority rights’ movements, Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon and his weasel pit of advisors concocted a “blue-collar strategy” designed to appeal to workers who voted Democrat on pocketbook issues but whose cultural conservatism, Nixon wagered, was strong enough to lure them into the Republican fold. Nixon advisor Kevin Phillips claimed that mastering American politics meant understanding “who hated who,” and the 1970s provided the perfect conditions for making the politics of resentment trump bread-and-butter concerns.

During this era, new occupational opportunities for women and blacks opened up, only to face the cold reality of what historian Jefferson Cowie calls “heightened competition for dwindling opportunity.” The economy of the 70s, defined by deindustrialization, globalization, and the increasing power of the GOP-backed business class, could not support traditionally privileged white workers, let alone minority groups who demanded a fairer share of the economic pie.[5] Recognizing an opportunity to pounce, Nixon and his crew touted the Republican Party as the political refuge for aggrieved working-class whites looking to strike back against both blacks and an unruly, left-wing white counterculture. With the aid of Democrats, these groups threatened not only white jobs; they also threatened to upend — in the words of Nixon advisor Pat Buchanan — “‘traditional American values and beliefs.’”[6] The “Silent Majority” rewarded Nixon’s efforts by giving him a landslide victory in the 1972 election.

Richard Nixon, the man who made political hay out of Democratic voters' latent conservatism.

Richard Nixon: The strategies he used to court angry white folks were downright Nixonian.

Just as conservative influence shaped progressive policy during the Civil War-era and the New Deal, the rise of the New Right not only destroyed the old New Deal coalition, but it also profoundly affected the ostensibly liberal Democratic Party, which became more conservative in an effort to match Republican electoral successes. Contrary to popular belief, the deregulatory fervor that defined the Reagan era actually began under Jimmy Carter, who loosened up regulatory rules on the energy and transportation industries, among others.

Moreover, the 1980s and 1990s saw the emergence of the centrist “New Democrats,” who appealed to conservative white voters by vowing to end their party’s alleged pandering to “lazy” (read: black) welfare recipients and who courted the business and financial sectors for campaign dollars. Thus, New Democrat Bill Clinton enacted extensive welfare reform and repealed the Glass-Steagall Act with the help of a Republican goon-squad led by Phil Gramm and Jim Leach. Even Barack Obama, in some ways a reformist president, nonetheless filled his administration with financial sector insiders like Citigroup executive Michael Froman and New Democrats like Hillary Clinton.

The long arch of U.S. history shows how conservatives have succeeded in directly shaping progressive policy. Much of their success has stemmed from the deep connection between race and class in America, and the frequent reactionary tendencies this connection has engendered in white voters and politicians. However, the past need not always define the future. America today is a vastly different place than it was in previous eras. The ongoing shift in American racial and cultural demographics means that liberals should feel more confident in promoting truly populist messages and legislation because the American electorate is no longer overwhelmingly white and conservative. So while I’m not saying to go out and vote for Bernie, I am saying that folks like Bernie exist, and you ought to pay attention.

[4] Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York; W.W. Norton, 2013), 16.

[5] Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York: New Press, 2010), 239-241.

[6] Ibid, 161.

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