Will the majority of Americans be better off in 2020 than they were in 2016, and will they live in a more democratic society less oriented toward police-state methods at home and military solutions to political crises abroad? These are key questions that go beyond the obfuscation of distraction issues which the corporate media inculcates into peoples’ heads on a daily basis regarding what matters in elections. Regardless of who sits in the Oval Office, by 2020 the small percentage of millionaires and billionaires will have amassed more wealth under a fiscal policy that transfers income from the bottom up. The mainstream media rarely addresses this issue because it identifies the ‘national interest’ with the wealthy elites.
For a large percentage of the working class and middle class, everything from housing to college education is not affordable amid a widening gap between the few billionaires who buy influence through campaign contributions and the masses whose living standards have been declining in the last four decades. Presidential/congressional elections have made no difference in improving living standards. On the contrary history of nearly half a century shows just the opposite, a key issue that the media ignores because its role is to co-opt the masses into the two major political parties.
The media has been working feverishly to convince citizens that democracy is equated with elections when in reality this is an illusion as Mark Twain pointed out during the Gilded Age. When George W. Bush was president, VIACOM, parent company of CBS, wanted more tax breaks and it made sure that its news coverage reflected favorably on the Republican administration, with only minor deviations. VIACOM realized like all other corporate media companies that unless it refrained from criticizing Bush’s foreign policy, it would not secure the tax breaks. Therefore, CBS news coverage was shaped not by the manner that the US conducted Middle East policy and the facts on the ground ranging from sweetheart contracts to corporations linked to the Vice President and defense contractors, but in accordance with VIACOM’s desire to reduce its tax bill.
Besides covering scandals and controversy of personal lives of the candidates and their top advisors, the media focuses on cultural and social issues that are important but have nothing to do with living standards. Largely because the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has openly employed racist, xenophobic and misogynist rhetoric, media focus on ethnicity, race and gender became core campaign issues to the deliberate neglect of larger all-inclusive social justice issues that concern all working class and middle class voters. Because the mainstream media identifies first and foremost with Wall Street of which it is a part as much as the presidential contenders and candidates on the ‘down ballot’ on both parties, it rarely covers socioeconomic inequality that has been growing since the Reagan presidency.
This is not to say that there are no differences between the Republican and Democrat candidates simply because the media chooses to focus on certain issues. However, the vast majority of the people know that the Democrat Party is not that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Keynesian New Deal reformist who modified the political economy during the Great Depression to accommodate the declining middle class and withering working class. The Democratic Party of Bill Clinton is neoliberal responsible for the massive concentration of capital and continued downward socioeconomic mobility in America.
People know that their lives and those of their children are not likely to experience upward social mobility regardless of the election outcome in November 2016. Although both political parties promise the moon, people know the American Dream is a remote possibility. For this reason a segment of the voters is angry and lined behind the self-proclaimed political Messiah Trump while others see salvation by the first woman president who represents Obama-style continuity if nothing else. Deep down, they know neither will do anything to change the prospect for the majority to achieve the elusive dream. Despite election enthusiasm for about half of the voters and apathy for the other half, according to public opinion polls, many know that the election will not result in any institutional change as was the case during the New Deal. The election outcome will make little difference if any in terms of slowing down the continued decline of the American middle class, as it will make little difference in the aggressive military-solution-oriented foreign policy that only adds hundreds of billions to the public debt. Nevertheless, there are those who are moved by political or religious ideology who see the election in terms of choice between good and evil.
Populist Republicans – social/cultural conservatives with an anti-globalism tendency - want Trump whose religious and spiritual orientation may not be any stronger than that of his secular humanist Democrat opponent, but who promises to deliver America into greatness away from the social/cultural evils of the Obama era; an era characterized by a perception that there has been greater support for gays, women, illegal immigrants, and minorities at the expense of angry white males mostly without a college education. There are those on the liberal camp who believe that a commitment to the superficialities of political correctness and advocating transgender bathroom use is somehow equated with the broader core issue of social justice that impacts the material lives of the vast majority.
The US will face major challenges not just in the next four years, but in the next decade largely because its public debt at $19 trillion in 2016 will likely increase much faster than GDP at just under $18 trillion, especially if Trump wins and carries out the massive tax cut to the wealthy and corporations. If the dollar was not a reserve currency and used as a means exchange in many commodities including global energy trade, its value would not be at current levels and Americans would not be enjoying living standards at current levels. Now that the Chinese currency is part of the reserve currency basket with the blessing of the IMF, the dollar’s decline is inevitable in the next growth cycle of the Chinese economy.
While many political, economic and social scientists are concerned about the impact of the global power shifts in the status of the US and its middle class living standards, they generally relegate blame for the inevitable downturn to:
1. China’s unfair competitive advantage in the world;
2. Russia’s Tsarist imperial designs on the regional balance of power;
3. The war on terror;
4. The entitlement programs and the cost of labor and its destabilizing impact on airlines, tourism, etc.;
5. The absence of a fiscal structure that transfers even greater income from the bottom 90% of the population and shifts it to the top 10% and within that group mostly to the top 1%.
Neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton is addressing the challenges facing the American middle class and workers with viable policy solutions because they are both committed to the ruinous neoliberal model of economic development. They both know that the global power shift will not change no matter which of them wins the election, living standards will not improve, and American decline is inevitable because both will pursue neoliberal policies combined with costly defense buildup that only adds to the public debt burden. While rhetoric about safeguarding the interests of the “nation” as top priority is at the core of the political campaigns, social justice is totally absent because America’s elites are not interested in it, as Senator Bernie Sanders repeatedly noted.
Well paid pundits with allegiance to one side or the other and the corporate media have helped to define the election agenda that centers around keeping the exact same global military structure and the domestic fiscal, mo and labor policies that account for what these same pundits label the “resentment election of 2016”. In short, there is no choice for the voters other than to cast a ballot to maintain the institutional structure that has been accountable for the decline of the American middle class since the early 1980s. One reason both candidates have unfavorable ratings around 60% and one reason that voters are looking to smaller parties or simply refusing to participate is because they know that elections do not make any difference in improving their lives or their children.
Symbolism of the Presidency and Party Platforms
Mark Twain’s quote “If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it,” may sound like a clever one-liner from the Gilded Age, but it goes to the heart of the appearance of democracy as a system of popular sovereignty – will of the people and the social contract - behind which rests a small socioeconomic elite determining policy designed to maintain its privileged position in society. The ceremonial exercise of voting for candidates that the two political parties have nominated and which are committed to perpetuate an institutional structure serving the elites affords the illusion of freedom of choice when in fact the result is predetermined.
Contrary to liberal arguments that the great assault on democracy emanates solely from conservatives, corporate cash is and has been bipartisan when we follow the money trail. It is hardly a secret that the political economy shaping the social structure obviates voting as an effective means to secure a government responsive to the welfare of all people. Election results matter only on socio-cultural issues rather than socioeconomic ones. Symbolically, however, the occupant of the White House makes a difference because historically Americans view the person as ‘the leader of the Free World’.
Clinton Symbolism: There is no denying that the Clinton candidacy carries symbolism because she could become the first female president, just as there was great symbolism with Obama as the first black president. A closer look at the standard of living and unemployment among blacks combined with institutionalized racism as manifested in the criminal justice system and police shootings of black youth reveals that the Obama presidency made no difference except as a symbol of pride and precedent. Obama was just as neoliberal in his policies as his predecessor. Obama’s record of interventionism and military operations in the Middle East and North Africa was not as reckless as that of George W. Bush, but American covert and overt militarism in the Middle East and North Africa with continued operations in Iraq, Afghanistan/Pakistan are hardly the promise of a pacifist president the world expected in 2008. Why would Clinton be much better in that respect, considering she was part of that administration?
Have women heads of state around the world made much institutional difference for women, minorities, and workers? There are those who feel that merely the symbolism is enough and they ask for nothing more. Trump makes the symbolism even more striking considering his chauvinist, xenophobic, misogynist and neo-Fascist tendencies both in rhetoric and style. Trump as a right-wing populist reflecting a segment of the American public from blue-collar white men to billionaires makes Clinton appear progressive when in fact she is far from it, as the primary season against Bernie Sanders and her record clearly prove. In essence, policy differences between the symbolic woman president and Trump the “would be political Messiah” will not be significant because the elites have common interests and always prevail. Besides, no matter the symbolism of the person in the Oval Office, the US has divided government with Congress exercising immense power over key issues.
Trump symbolism: This flamboyant egocentric billionaire with some underlying psychotic tendencies fits the theory of the political Messiah coming to the rescue of the masses. Reflecting a segment of society beyond the anti-political correctness angry white working class male, Trump is the carrier of the Republican Party’s populist wing that includes angry white men suffering downward pressure in living standards, evangelicals, Tea Party remnants, gun advocates, abortion opponents, economic nationalists, isolationists opposed to globalization, and above all who aspire to be billionaires like him and vote their aspirations instead of their interests.
This would be political Messiah promising to make America great again, going back to the right wing era of Reagan, the president who delivered the savings and loan crisis and Iran-Contra scandal, is ready to take power and lead like a fearless Barbarian warrior prepared for confrontation, instead of a politically-correct Democrat or Rockefeller Republican seeking consensus. How does he plan to do this considering Congress has such broad powers and the US is so thoroughly integrated into the world economy is a mystery. This is one reason that the symbolism he would bring to the White House sufficiently scares a number of banks and corporations that they argue his mere presence would precipitate instability that markets fear.
The symbolism of a Trump victory would encourage various white hate groups like White Lives Matter, Alt-Right, and many others that include prominent think tanks providing financing for some of these groups. This would mean that police forces across the country would be emboldened to shoot first at unarmed black youth and ask questions later, thus the police-state methods immersed in racism will intensify because the Justice Department would not be investigating as it has in some case under Obama. More broadly, the symbolism of a Trump presidency would be a triumph for chauvinism, xenophobia and a return to the good old days before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
1. Right wing populism - Ideologically, Trump allied himself with the populist wing of the Republican Party that has elements of racism, xenophobia, sexism, chauvinism and anti-pluralistic tendencies antithetical to a modern diverse and open society. This is as much a reflection of the ideological orientation guided by think tanks and media outlets funded by right wing billionaires as it is of the religious right continuing to assert itself as it has since the Reagan era. The popular base rejected Rockefeller Republicans like Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush and many others. Trump realized that the popular base had moved to the right, embracing social conservatism with elements of militarism, economic nationalism and isolationism combined with unilateral militarism. The symbolism of a bully billionaire riding like a cowboy ready to take on hostile Indians appeals to a segment of citizens who believe that projection of strength is a valuable trait in a president rather than intelligence articulated in polite political correctness.
2. Economic Nationalism – Build a wall along the US-Mexico border and force the Mexicans to pay for it has been the populist slogan that encapsulates Trump’s panacea for solving America’s economic and social problems. Even if the US could build a thousand walls along the border with Mexico and Canada, the inevitability of its economic decline is a certainty, along with the downward socioeconomic mobility of the waning middle class. A thousand border walls do not change the reality that Trump adamantly opposes raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour in the next five years, and revising the fiscal structure that has multinational corporations like General Electric paying no taxes and also receiving federal subsidies through the Export-Import Bank. Because Trump has to distract the Republican popular base from the real causes for their economic misery, he resorts to xenophobia that has deep roots in American history and it is currently a trend throughout the Western World.
While retaining a commitment to neoliberal policies and huge tax reductions for the wealthiest Americans and corporations, Trump would be willing to challenge companies interested in relocating abroad to remain at home or face punitive taxes – at least this was the rhetoric intended to secure more working class votes. Whereas Clinton is more open to globalization under neoliberal policies, he views integration as an impediment to national sovereignty and national capitalism.
The fiscal policy announcement he made officially intended to keep companies at home, but it would entail a massive rise in the US public debt, and at the same time it would transfer income from the bottom tiers of the taxpayer to the top five percent. Furthermore, it would then have serious implications in social programs, including public education and health care that would have to be cut to fund tax breaks to the rich and the defense budget and devoted to more corporate subsidies.
3. Militarism and Unilateralism – The proposals to strengthen defense, while pursuing greater unilateralism in foreign affairs and asking allies to pay more for their own defense is hardly new in the American political arena. Trump simply took advantage of the unpopular wars in Iraq and Pakistan/Afghanistan, which cost the US perhaps as much as $4.5 trillion once the Homeland Security component is added, to argue that America will not be paying for the defense of NATO and ASEAN allies that have the means to pay for their own defense. At the same time, his campaign has recklessly argued in favor of mass military campaigns to smash terrorism, as though it is a concentrated conventional force, ignoring that previous presidents made the same promises and delivered no results.
Regardless of the rhetoric, he would be highly unlikely to touch the military alliances of the US if elected to office because his advisors would convince him of the implications that includes losing the dominant voice in such alliances. Moreover, the US enjoys the privilege of recommending defense budget allocations for alliance members, although they do not always abide by Washington’s recommendations. Like Reagan administration Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger who argued in favor of the ‘nuclear option’ only to find himself castigated by NATO allies in 1982, Trump is deemed sufficiently arrogant and reckless to consider seriously the nuclear option. While he is not so psychotic as to be running around the White House asking people for the nuclear code, he could conceivably see the need for small tactical nuclear weapons against a rogue state like North Korea, which could in fact mean total war. This is an unlikely scenario, but who can afford to take that chance with an egomaniac?
Ideologically, Clinton will be a policy consensus builder in order to be effective but that is hardly a stretch because ‘Rockefeller Republicans’ may only differ with her on gun control, woman’s right to choose, immigration policy, race politics, modest judicial reform to address institutionalized racism in the criminal justice system, and privacy issues. While she is far less ideological in 2016 than she was in 1992 when she was first lady, she remains within Democrat Party perimeters of paying lip service to everything one would expect of a middle-of-the road liberal since the Kennedy administration. The diverse popular base of the party is pulling her to the left, but the hundreds of millions she has received from the elites are pulling her to the right from where she will govern if elected.
Clinton has not rejected globalization any more than neoliberalism that has accounted for the decline of the American middle class, and she does not go out of her way to sing its praises. To address the problem of globalization and neoliberal policies, she has proposed a policy mix that includes:
1. Spending $275 billion for infrastructural development over the next five years;
2. Eliminating college tuition for families making less than $125,000 a year for in-state students only;
3. Keeping Obamacare with some modifications;
4. Equal pay for women;
5. No new middle class income tax, but said nothing about indirect taxes and raise gradually the federal minimum wage that Republicans oppose as ‘too costly’ for businesses. She and Trump agree that ‘bad trade deals’ must not go through, but she is an advocate of globalization under neoliberal policies.
Trump has decried China’s unfair competitiveness and both he and Clinton are against Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP). However, Trump is more like Putin and Xi Jinping than Clinton. She would press harder on human rights issues for example and domestic reforms that they regard as intervention in their domestic affairs and violation of their national sovereignty.
The promise of politicians that they will restore the vanishing American Dream is in itself an acknowledgment that it is fading at the very least if not totally gone for most people as socioeconomic statistics indicate in any country whose middle class has been weakening since the late 1970s. History has passed by both Trump and Clinton. Trump envisions an America of the 1980s when he was making money during the Reagan era. Clinton envisions an America of the 1990s when her husband was in the White House employing neoliberal policies that led to more billionaires and millionaires and the continued decline of the middle class.
Regardless of who is the new president and regardless of the composition of congress, will the American Dream for all people be realized or are the politicians blatantly and knowingly lying to the voters and distracting them with issues ranging from terrorism to transgender bathroom facilities? There are millions who have accepted Republican Party nominee Donald Trump’s slogan “make America great again”, acknowledging that the country is not great in terms of middle class and working class living standards. Although this is a nebulous slogan as vacuous as much of the candidate’s inane and divisive political rhetoric, presumably it refers to America in the early Cold War when it enjoyed unrivaled global economic, political and military hegemony and the dollar was if only it spends more on defense and pursues economic nationalism.