This cycle, the primaries for the next presidential election have few relevant candidates. In fact, for all intents and purposes and, in spite of all the media-conjured noise, it only has two, no matter who else is already vying or who may yet enter the fray.
The expectation that it would be a woman’s turn next time began as soon as Barack Obama won the Democratic primary in 2008. While, I am quite sure, there are those who presaged some racial tensions as a result of what turned out to be an Obama presidency, no one could have predicted the Republican party would morph into the paternalistic, misogynistic, and racist party it now is. But that is hardly all that has happened and much of it, when one scratches below the surface, puts inevitability into question all over again, and from more than any one part of the electorate.
If the expectation was that Hillary Clinton would take the helm next time, most would not have predicted such a weak economic recovery or the problems that underlie the reasons for it. Those problems trace right back to Clinton administrations I and II, and a reassuringly large number of voters appear to be very well aware of it. What’s more, Clinton herself, in her big economic speech and since, will not entertain bringing back Glass-Steagall, while Bernie Sanders not only would bring it back, but would also break up the big banks. While, today, some of those economists have pivoted back to a pre-Great Recession kind of neoliberal view, the consensus among the nation’s top Liberal economists until recently has been that more stimulus, comprehensive jobs and infrastructure programs, should have been enacted, especially once it became clear the recovery was weak. Were it not for the GOP’s ability to obstruct, such measures surely would have changed the course of the recovery and saved us from a “lost generation” or the creation of a permanent underclass called the “precariat.**” But that wasn’t to be. Instead of more stimulus, more support for the states via direct Federal payments, jobs programs, we got forced austerity through the cessation of federal intervention. Tens of thousands of state and federal jobs were cut, never to be recreated. One must note that, traditionally, a large number of African Americans fill state and federal jobs. These losses are especially painful given the fact that African American unemployment was disproportionately high resulting from the recession, and it remains disproportionately high during this recovery.
Another factor that affects all those who joined the precariat is the social safety net which, under Bill Clinton, was reformed to push welfare recipients into jobs. The only problem with that now is that the jobs that existed then just aren’t there for skilled and unskilled workers, college educated or not. There is nothing to move into from welfare, except jobs that pay so little, you are still eligible for aid. After seven years of recession, those who’ve been receiving aid are being cut off. The economy just isn’t there and while the employment numbers put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics have shown improvement, we know that those are not what are considered “good jobs,” and the number of people who are underemployed or, due to low wages, have to work multiple jobs, is quite high. In addition, we do not know what really constitutes full employment, as is explained in this collection of posts on the topic.
When it comes to savings, a sizable number of Americans have none to speak of in terms of retirement money. Existing retirees struggle on meager pensions, with many performing odd jobs or working at least part time, as well as doubling and tripling up in their living arrangements.
The young, new and recent college graduates, are not finding the same promising jobs their parents did. All too many are barely eking out enough to pay back exorbitant student debt. All too many are living at home with mom, dad, grandma and grandpa. The outlook for their siblings in high school, for the moment, is about as bleak.
The last six years have not yielded any – significant or insignificant – economic policies to correct the course of our economy. As a result, we’ve been in a political standstill, waiting from election to election for change to come. Whether it is voter disenfranchisement or voter protest that was at play, 2014 turned both Houses of Congress red. If little legislation came out of a divided House before, nothing has come from a House united in obstruction.
Last, but not least, what is perhaps the most burning issue of our day, there is the carnage against African Americans all across our United States. Police brutality cases have been mounting since 2012 and, in spite of “national conversations,” there has been no let up. As of this writing, 768 American Citizens were killed by police, a disproportionately high number among them African American. We’ve seen protests around the nation’s major cities. FBI Director Comey gave a major speech on policing. President Obama has spoken out on a number of occasions, as have former Attorney General Holder and his successor. Without a national mandate, via legislation from Congress, at this time, there is little that can be done from Washington to reform the nation’s police in one fell swoop. While some cities have taken some measures, there is no response to the push for change from grassroots movements – not yet. This state of affairs cannot go on. We’ve not only reached critical mass, but we’ve also reached the point where empty promises no longer satisfy and the attitude with which a politician hears out grievances is as closely-watched as the reaction to them. Clinton’s reaction belied a set of values, probably that which she grew up learning, that is no longer acceptable in American politics.
Comparing Sanders and Clinton, from early adulthood to the present day informs as to what Clinton likes to call, “what is in someone’s heart.” While we can never know what people think in their hearts of heart, we can assess their actions over a lifetime. Sanders chose to join CORE and was active in Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement as a young student in the 1960’s while Clinton, still a highschooler smitten with Barry Goldwater, chose to be active in that movement through college, choosing to intern for a Republican. During Clinton’s political development years, Sanders was learning at the knees of civil rights greats and serving the community while Clinton was slowly “evolving” out of the most radical of Republican ideology and into its milder form: neoliberalism. Her indignant reaction to the accusations of BLM activists only shows us the mindset she’s been stuck in ever since. She’s still the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps Blue-Dog Democrat wrapped in the very thinnest of pseudo-progressive veneers.
Which brings us back around to the topic of this Democratic primary. It has been oddly shaping up like one of those Freaky Friday switched bodies movie plots. The kindly older heroine with all of the perceived desirable qualities is actually in the body of the character whose physical attributes are evocative of all the undesirable traits of a racist, paternalist society. But here we are… Bernie is more the old-school Black feminist to Hillary’s white neoliberal feminist. Bernie is the populist class egalitarian to Hillary’s classist white upper middle class champion, beginning with his complete freedom from allegiance to any moneyed interest, ending with a lifelong body of work on behalf of minorities and the working class.
Bernie’s economic policy prescriptions are precisely what all Liberal economists had been calling for over the last six years, to include tax, banking, trade and education reform. In deference to the economic disparities that affect the African American community, Senator Sanders has prescriptions specifically for the community, in addition to his overall economic policies. On matters of racial justice, Hillary Clinton not only has yet to match Bernie on paper, but she is nowhere close, philosophically, to where Bernie Sanders began as a young man in his twenties.
Clinton had the gall to tell Black Lives Matter it’s their job to come up with a plan for her to sell, as if civil rights and human rights are up for a vote, or the pleasure and whim of the public. If an attorney, and Clinton is one, can look a Black man in the eye and tell him “give me your best proposal for rules to save your life and then I’ll try to sell them,” then what in the world does that say about her basic knowledge and beliefs about civil and human rights? Then, when confronted, she was not keen on taking any responsibility for her share of her husband’s administrations’ policies which began mass-incarceration and over-policing, as well as social safety net policies that have only hurt the Black community. What does that say about whom she’d choose for the Supreme Court? What do all these philosophical things say about her commitment to Supreme Court decisions such as the Voting Rights Act and Affirmative Action? Her choices and level of vetting when deciding on a Supreme Court nominee? That’s a lot to dislike, by many groups of people in good times. But in bad times, and these are bad times, with a middle class that has shrunk quite a bit, a young generation with little to look forward to in terms of advancement along the same path as their parents, and rapidly changing demographics, Clinton’s way, so far, is no way to run a campaign. There are those who continue to point to past polling of her support among minorities, but that polling doesn’t account for what has been happening in blood-soaked neighborhoods around the country on a daily basis, or the awareness of BLM and its followers of the Clintons, both of them, and their responsibility for policies that opened the way for the development of the most pressing human rights crisis of our time.
In social media, white progressives are ardently supporting Bernie Sanders. Among different minorities, the support is there, but not quite as vocal. Among Blacks, the existing expression of support is understated, with diverging views continuing to headed off at the pass. Openly supporting Sanders still garners very swift and vocal rebukes, with some overt ostracism. One wonders, beyond the superficial issue of “looks,” whether the perhaps subconscious psychological bias against Sanders can be overcome, while, at the same time, wonderment over a community’s continuing affection for a power couple whose overall influence on Black lives has been very costly and hurtful in every aspect institutional bias can cost and hurt.
As the first ever Black president nears the end of his second term and we go through the primary process, there needs to be an examination not only of those potential candidates for what they offer in their political and social philosophies, but also the driving forces and common ground between grassroots organizations, as we all ponder the basis under which we will place our trust. The renewed brutality in the most recent years, ongoing today, have done much to rekindle old enmities and create new alliances, some sound and some not. We have the writing and speeches of giants to look to as we assess the present, and we must look to them for guidance:
In his little known but eerily relevant and extraordinary 1967 speech in Chicago, “The Three Evils of Society,” Martin Luther King spoke of the racial backlash of his time:
“The step backwards has a new name today, it is called the white backlash, but the white backlash is nothing new. It is the surfacing of old prejudices, hostilities and ambivalences that have always been there. It was caused neither by the cry of black power nor by the unfortunate recent wave of riots in our cities. The white backlash of today is rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation. This does not imply that all White Americans are racist, far from it. Many white people have, through a deep moral compulsion fought long and hard for racial justice nor does it mean that America has made no progress in her attempt to cure the body politic of the disease of racism or that the dogma of racism has been considerably modified in recent years. However for the good of America, it is necessary to refute the idea that the dominant ideology in our country, even today, is freedom and equality while racism is just an occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists. Racism can well be, that corrosive evil that will bring down the curtain on western civilization.”
“What is really at question is the American way of life. What is really at question is whether Americans already have an identity or are still sufficiently flexible to achieve one. This is a painfully complicated question, for what now appears to be the American identity is really a bewildering and sometimes demoralizing blend of nostalgia and opportunism. “
“That capital also belongs, however, to the slaves who created it for Europe and who created it here; and in that sense, the Jew must see that he is part of the history of Europe, and will always be so considered by the descendant of the slave. Always, that is, unless he himself is willing to prove that this judgment is inadequate and unjust. This is precisely what is demanded of all the other white men in this country, and the Jew will not find it easier than anybody else?”
We find ourselves, again, at a crossroads, with leaders who were old enough to, had it been their ideological and moral choice, participate in the previous civil rights movement. Just as in the first civil rights movement, we find ourselves, again, at a juncture in which there is progress amid polarization the likes we’ve not seen in a very long time, with a renewed backlash both from a shrinking slice of America’s population, and the police establishment. While those participating in the backlash have outlets through which to organize their hate-filled efforts, those who are not have no organized grassroots outlet by which they can join the new civil rights struggle. There is a successful model of cross-racial grassroots cooperation and activism in the Moral Monday movement. I hoped, when learning of its inception, that it would have grown into a nationwide organization by now. In the time remaining until the election, it seems to me, it would behoove all of us to work hard to create an outlet for what Baldwin called the relatively conscious to arrive at a commonly agreed plan of action and, together, turn it into a reality. I close this essay with James Baldwin’s final paragraph of the Fire Next Time:
“And here we are at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbably water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we–and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on or create, the consciousness of the others– do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
In whose heart do you see Noah’s rainbow?
See my column on media bias and Election 2016 on Alternet!
I have written a series of posts on the American Precariat. Click here to be taken to a search for all available materials.
- The essay can be freely accessed with a subscription or a sufficient number of remaining free monthly article readings for non-subscribers. The essay also appeared in Baldwin’s book, The Price of The Ticket: