The US presidential primary campaign has brought into sharp relief social shifts that have transformed the political landscape and confused ideological allegiances. These shifts reflect a changed consciousness among voters about politically engineered wealth inequality. That voters across the country flatly reject the neoliberal policies that pass for conventional wisdom among both Reaganite Republicans and Clintonite Democrats is a much more important story than calculations of possible delegate counts at national conventions.
These shifts have fractured the Republican social coalition built under Nixon and Reagan between business and social conservatives. In states where Republicans gained majority control in 2010 as a result of the Tea Party vote, legislatures have been moving to restrict social freedoms embraced in the rest of the country. In North Carolina, the state rushed through a bill in the dead of night to prevent local towns creating ordinances protecting the rights of transgender people to use the bathrooms of their choice, and also removed general protections against discrimination on religious and racial grounds. In Georgia, on the other hand, the governor vetoed a similar bill because of pressure from big business groups.
Washington Post correspondent Dana Milbank explains: “Corporate America is traditionally conservative, reluctant to react to social controversy and divisive issues. But as public sentiment shifts dramatically on gay rights and as pro-equality millennials become a large bloc of consumers, business is shedding its reticence. … When the Georgia legislature took up legislation giving religious groups the right to deny services to gay people, corporations by the dozen voiced their objections. Disney and Netflix said they would stop filming in Georgia, and the NFL said the bill would jeopardize Atlanta’s hopes of hosting the Super Bowl.”
By moving further to the right on social issues, a third of the Republican electorate has isolated the pro-business elite, who have now lost control of their party’s apparatus. While the party leadership consistently lowered taxes on the super-rich and its legislators and lobbyists achieved affluence, it delivered nothing but job losses and uncertainty to their working-class white voters. This is what Donald Trump was able to exploit in his demagogic anti-immigrant appeals to the Republican base. According to the Pew Research Center, between 2008 and 2012 “more lower-income and less-educated white voters shifted their allegiance to Republicans. These voters had fled the Democratic Party and were angry at Mr. Obama, whom they believed did not have their interests at heart. But not all of them were deeply conservative; many did not think about politics in ideological terms at all … For many blue-collar Republicans, anger against Mr. Obama now extended to their own party’s leadership, whom they viewed as not only failing to stand up to Mr. Obama, but also as colluding with him to make their lives worse.”
At the same time, the international role of the US has blown back into its political life. Glenn Greenwald argues that when Trump advocates waterboarding for terrorists he is merely stripping away the pretense over what the US has actually done. Tom Engelhardt reflects that while Washington seems unable to function effectively, the so-called war against terror has transformed the public acceptance of domestic surveillance and authoritarian rule to the extent that it has created “something like a new system in the midst of our much-described polarized and paralyzed politics. The national security state doesn’t seem faintly paralyzed or polarized to me. Nor does the Pentagon. … In this ‘election’ season, many remain shocked that a leading candidate for the presidency is a demagogue with a visible authoritarian side and what looks like an autocratic bent. All such labels are pinned on Donald Trump, but the new American system that’s been emerging from its chrysalis in these years already has just those tendencies. … a Trumpian world-in-formation has paved the way for him.”
On the Democratic side, the strong showing of the Sanders campaign has brought new social layers into political activism, in opposition to the party establishment and union bureaucracies. The overwhelming and enthusiastic support he has received from millennial youth has a huge significance, according to University of Massachusetts professor Richard Wolff. It means that “a fundamental shift in American politics is underway,” he says. “The fact that he has done as well as he has done, getting an excess of 40 percent or even closer to half the votes in so many states and winning as many states as he has is an unspeakable change in American politics and will have enormous ramifications for the future.”
He has also energized rank and file trade unionists to buck their leaders’ reflexive support for the candidate most favored by the party establishment. A group calling themselves “Labor for Bernie,” formed last June, have succeeded in helping Sanders win the endorsements of more than 80 union locals and four national unions, including the postal workers, communications workers, and nurses’ unions. Labor Notes reports: “The Food and Commercial Workers came out for Clinton in January. But a month later, Northern California UFCW Local 5, whose 28,000 members work in grocery and food processing, endorsed Sanders. The executive board vote was 30 to 2, according to Mike Henneberry, the local’s director of communications and politics. He said the local hasn’t gotten any pushback from the International. ‘For us, it was not a very difficult decision,’ he said. ‘Compare an individual who’s been supporting workers since he was mayor of Burlington with someone who’s been on the board of Walmart’.”
Similarly, although the leadership of the SEIU service employees’ union have endorsed Hillary Clinton, the largest public sector union in New Hampshire came out for Sanders. Clinton only supports a minimum wage of $12 while the union is campaigning for $15. “I never thought I would see involvement like there was when Obama ran,” said SEIU Local 1984 vice president Ken Roos. “But people were stopping me in the hall at work, or even in the street—they would say, ‘Bernie’s the man, we gotta go for Bernie.”
The political class is swinging behind Clinton to suppress this movement from below. Sanders’ victories, however large, are ignored by the media, or explained away as only appealing to liberals in predominantly white states. When Sanders won over 70 percent of the primary vote in Washington and Hawaii, and 82 percent in Alaska, CNN described the states as “largely white and rural.” However, a third of Alaska’s population is nonwhite, 15 percent being indigenous Americans, while Hawaii has never had a white majority. The huge turnout for caucuses in Washington state also brought in many nonwhite voters. Sanders press secretary Erika Andiola told Democracy Now: “Bernie’s supporters are very, very pumped up. You know, they’re very excited about going out to caucus. And it’s a lot of young people, it’s a lot of new voters. … [In Yakima county in Washington state] about 45 percent to 50 percent of the community there is Latino—very diverse county. Bernie had a rally there. We had 7,000 people turn out. We ended up winning the county by 75 percent or 76 percent.”
Regardless of who wins the nomination for the Democrats or the Republicans, these social changes and the new anti-plutocratic consciousness among voters of both parties will shape the outcome of the presidential election in November. That will pit the popular result against the entrenched deep party and state systems that Obama was unable to budge and which voters across the spectrum are rejecting.