Corporate Clintonism triggered Trumpery, still corrodes democratic leverage

Have entrenched Democratic leadership truly understood they don’t need grasping, billionaire PAC money – or that Clintonesque stench still pollutes the party brand?

Image Credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times

By “Clintonism,” I mean the strategic sell-out to big banks, Wall Street and international corporations initiated by Bill in 1992, re-enforced by Obama and Hillary, and sustained to this day by the Pelosi-Schumer leadership. When three Republican, 1980’s White House wins terrorized the one-time “party of the people,” imitation became the highest form of flattery. Early on, after shooting their wad on health care, Dems abandoned serious progressive reforms, rolled over and reduced safety nets, then failed to handcuff rampant capitalism, outsourcing or growing income inequality.

Thus did loser Democrats embrace comparable big business donors they held responsible for Reagan era wins. That meant problematic triangulation on welfare “reform,” repealing Glass-Steagall banking restraints and pushing NAFTA as a “job creator.” That worked out well. These assaults on increasingly alienated, small-town, white working- and middle-class voters, deflected for a while by Obama’s brilliant, populist-sounding campaigns, exploded when millions stayed home in 2016 – leaving the suckered minority to Trump’s phony, anti-status quo trickery.

Democrats thus pulled off this triple whammy: they betrayed historic, liberal values, they offended their struggling base, and they ended up losing statehouses and Congresses and White Houses. Good show! Crowning dreadful campaigns in 2000 and 2016, Dems were skunked twice because smarter Republicans parlayed the Electoral College (with fewer popular votes). And when Obama showed his true colors, bailing out big banks in ’08, not middle- and working class mortgage losers, the Dem base staggered – and independents fled while Tea Partiers partied. The grievous 2010 midterm, virtually conceded in advance, guaranteed today’s gruesome House gerrymandering. Gosh, what a surprise scads of independents and Democrats gagged on Hillary, despite her immensely superior resume, thus allowing a travesty of a president to slither in.

Multiple ironies, Ouch!

Need I point out the double irony? Trump’s demagogic, billionaire-friendly “populism” piles on, continuing to lock out the 80% from sharing decades of productivity gains. In short, a disastrous, 25 year Democratic betrayal of heartland workers not only made Trumpery viable but disempowered its own secular, coastal, liberal base. When Dems stopped trusting the people, lo and behold, once-loyal leftists stopped trusting the party. Abandoned, much truer populism erupted into phony, intolerant, right-wing non-populism.

Republicans don’t dominate because their policies are wise, workable or defensible (au contraire), but because they appear less hypocritical. Do they hide their racist, fascist tendencies or voter suppression, fan club for predatory capitalism, contempt for climate change, even slavish loyalty to the moneyed, corporate class? Thus we can quibble whether tainted Hillary lost for not being genuine and having no strong progressive agenda  – or that lucky timing allowed a snake charmer to lie himself into office.

Certainly, the Trump train wreck represents the predictable, anti-democratic endpoint of rightwing demagoguery, dishing out white tribalism, tax giveaways, deregulation, voter suppression and extremist judges. More about style than content, Trump popularized reactionary ideology with sneering, juvenile putdowns, cheerleader for violence, and contempt for law, dissent, history and Constitutional restraints.

Winners on the sideline

Yet, would Bernie, even the “bluer collar” Biden or Sherrod Brown, not have trumped Trump, if only without the sleazy Wall Street/corporate patina the Clintons cultivated (and made them rich)? Bill Clinton’s 1992 nomination was less about his zero Washington experience, or chronic scandals (as sexually explicit as Trump’s), than his corporate fundraising talents. Did not his superior campaigning reflect corporate donors (and media support) whose interests then impacted his presidency? Compare what Bernie proved: corral millions of $27 average donors and there’s cash aplenty. That giant suckering sound, enabled by like-minded Democratic leaders, spawned what I call Clintonism. Too bad we had to wait for Bernie to show how benighted (and wrongheaded) were corporate-driven Dems – reinforced this month by glorious, grassroots Dem House winners.

Indeed, the 2018 election proved that centrist and progressive Democrats – talking about expanded, even universal health care, job retraining, infrastructure and battling corruption – drew more than enough midterm voters (in fact, a record plurality over the GOP House votes). Because Hilary could not escape her own past, nor match Obama’s style and charm, her dismal campaign never came close to his totals, with less minority, female, and white support.

Looming 2020

And now we ask: what has changed? Are there toughened, unstained veterans, other than Bernie or senators Brown or Warren, who can talk straight to non-coastal liberals? Are there enough savvy, inspiring, national candidates with conviction and genuineness to overcome whatever right-wing lackey shows up (and I remain skeptical Trump lasts that long)? Have entrenched party leaders truly understood they don’t need grasping, billionaire PAC money – or that Clintonesque stench still pollutes the Democratic brand? If nothing else, Hillary (Never Again!) proves that Republican-lite and playing it safe won’t wash when your constituency knows better and demands progressive, systemic reform, especially on funding, voting, and transparency. Capitalism – along with political parties and the Electoral College – are badly broken and band-aids cure no deep infections.

The Democratic resurgence needs more than anti-Trump onslaughts, whatever the multitude of his botched blessings. What stands between Democratic dominance, state and national, must be a paradigm shift that rejects Clintonism. We need a New Progressive Era, and that means strict scrutiny of irresponsible capitalism, not acquiesce or dependence on its loaded, much too costly treasure. Predatory capitalism does not serve the majority and more than ever needs strict scrutiny to reign in excesses. Like it or not, only a new wave of Democrats have a chance to save us from ourselves – and a few hundred, self-interested billionaires, here and abroad, with far too much power.


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For over a decade, Robert S. Becker's independent, rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, history, implications, messaging and frameworks. He has been published widely, aside from Nation of Change and RSN, with extensive credits from OpEdNews (as senior editor), Alternet, Salon, Truthdig, Smirking Chimp, Dandelion Salad, Beyond Chron, and the SF Chronicle. Educated at Rutgers College, N.J. (B.A. English) and U.C. Berkeley (Ph.D. English), Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, then U. Chicago) for business, founding SOTA Industries, a top American high end audio company he ran from '80 to '92. From '92-02, he was an anti-gravel mining activist while doing marketing, business and writing consulting. Since then, he seeks out insight, even wit in the shadows, without ideology or righteousness across the current mayhem of American politics.