Politico recently published its obituary of the Clinton dynasty—The Death of Clintonism by Todd S. Purdum. It’s a fitting end to an era of Democratic politics—he points out that the party has moved to the left of the one Bill Clinton inherited in the early 90’s.
But Purdum seems to primarily frame Clintonism in a cultural context—describing Bill as the last of an old breed of southern Blue Dog Democrats. He explains how Bill’s folksy charm and harder line on crime rescued the party after Michael Dukakis was painted as soft on crime (Dukakis was infamously targeted with the incendiary Willie Horton ad).
Purdum suggests that Hillary couldn’t fully embody Clintonism, because much of its appeal lied in the Big Dawg himself:
…a huge part of Clintonism was always Bill Clinton himself, and his singular ability to speak to both the most elite audiences and the most everyday ones in ways that could move each, with a unique combination of the Ozarks and Oxford that has rarely if ever been seen in contemporary American politics. Hillary Clinton’s best efforts to retail a retooled version of Clintonism in 2008 crumbled in the face of Obama’s promise of hope and change.
Hillary admitted she lacked the political skill of her husband. But this ignores why Clintonism is no longer relevant—Clintonism isn’t just a style of campaigning or rhetoric. Bill Clinton developed a certain approach to economics within the Democratic Party—one that can even be found in Obama’s presidency.
What is At the Core of Clintonism?
The term neoliberalism is something many Hillary supporters heard from zealous Bernie supporters throughout the primary. Like establishment and oligarchy, it became a dirty word among the resurgent left.
But neoliberalism wasn’t always looked at with disdain, at one point it was the edgy new economic philosophy embraced by a certain type of Democrat. These young Democrats considered themselves pragmatic and business friendly.
In 1982 journalist Randall Rothenberg had a cover story for Esquire, The Neoliberal Club. A number of names were included—Bill Bradley, Gary Hart, Richard Gephardt, Michael Dukakis, and a young Arkansas politician named Bill Clinton.
In all caps, the article opened with:
BLEEDING HEARTS NEED NOT APPLY. NEOLIBERALS ARE COOL PRAGMATISTS WHO BELIEVE IN ECONOMIC ISSUES FIRST, SOCIAL PROGRAMS SECOND. THEY STRESS TECHNOLOGY, NATIONAL SERVICE, BETTER DEFENSE, AND THE ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT. WILL THE NATION BUY THEIR AGENDA?
These neoliberal Democrats distanced themselves from the economic populism of the New Deal era. The Vietnam War was a breaking point, as many of the politicians who supported the war were New Deal Democrats. By the late 70’s, the ambitious programs (and regulation) of the New Deal were considered outmoded by politicians in both parties.
Carter began deregulation of finance, but Reagan took it to extreme levels. He eliminated the New Deal anti-monopoly framework, reversing the most important of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies with little opposition.
It’s shortly after this very conservative era that Bill Clinton becomes president. The political climate of this time is often lost to many of his current critics. Bill Clinton repositioned his party for electoral success, and he was the first Democrat to win two consecutive terms since Roosevelt.
The reason he was able to do this is because he was part of that neoliberal club. His political approach was to move his party toward the center on issues like welfare and financial deregulation. Clintonism was essentially institutionalized neoliberalism.Clintonism was essentially institutionalized democratic neoliberalism.Click To Tweet
But to say that neoliberal Democrats were Republican-Lite would be a simplification. They may have agreed with Reagan Republicans on the financial sector and free market, but strongly disagreed with them on the environment, social issues, foreign policy, and tax policy. This is why Clinton’s presidency saw some modest gains on this front.
Reagan often used the metaphor of the “three-legged stool” to represent his philosophy of conservatism. The three legs of conservatism were fiscal, social, and national defense. It could be said that the neoliberal Democrats adapted the fiscal and national defense legs of the stool, and went their own way on social issues. This focus on social issues (often taking the form of identity politics) is an essential part of the Democratic Party to this day.
Though Bill Clinton raised marginal tax rates on the wealthy, he was responsible for concentrating much power within corporations—passing NAFTA, repealing Glass-Steagall, and welcoming China to world trade. His presidency was defined by economic success—the median family income increased by $6,000, with the lowest inflation rate since the 1960’s. 22 million jobs were created, and 7 million people came out of poverty.
Despite this short-term success, the long-term success of Bill Clinton’s neoliberal policies is debatable. The global banking crisis was a result of a financial sector that gained power for forty years, with very little regulation. Much of this concentration of power occurred during the Clinton presidency.
Nonetheless, Bill Clinton’s approach brought the Democratic Party out of the political wilderness. His brand of politics was also called third way, a synthesis of right and left-wing politics. He was also accused of triangulation—a strategic ploy where a politician adopts the policies of their opponent in order to neutralize them. These were all weapons Bill wielded, and they came to define Democratic politics for some time to come.Bill Clinton—despite his faults—brought Democrats out of the political wilderness.Click To Tweet
Have Obama and Hillary Inherited Bill’s Neoliberalism?
Could Barack Obama be considered a neoliberal? Would Hillary Clinton have continued her husband’s neoliberal policies? This is a question that has come up often, since both Obama and Hillary are left of Bill Clinton.
The left-wing magazine Dissent recently published The End of Progressive Neoliberalism by Nancy Fraser. Progressive Neoliberalism may seem like an oxymoronic term. After all, at the core of neoliberalism is a laissez-faire economic approach more associated with conservative and libertarian politics.
Fraser describes it:
In its U.S. form, progressive neoliberalism is an alliance of mainstream currents of new social movements (feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights), on the one side, and high-end “symbolic” and service-based business sectors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood), on the other.
As stated earlier, the neoliberal Democrats borrowed from Reagan’s economic and foreign policy, but went their own way on social issues. The progressive neoliberalism of the Obama era was even more unapolegetically left concerning social issues.
But by combining neoliberal economics with these issues, Democrats did social progressivism a huge disservice. Now the worker in the Rust Belt saw that the party that passed NAFTA was also the one pushing an anti-racist, anti-sexist message. The result was a complete rejection of the cosmopolitan liberalism that defined the new Democratic Party.
This is a sad development, because American society has seen significant gains in social equality for women, LGBTQ, and people of color. The social progress of the Obama era has been a positive development. That such gains are associated with a party that has sidelined its commitment to economic equality is tragic. A more skeptical leftist argument is that the Democratic Party has used its egalitarian identity politics as a smokescreen for regressive economic policies.
President Barack Obama embodies this paradox. He’s not only the first black president, but on social issues he’s markedly left to any of his Democratic predecessors. Years of right-wing propaganda turned liberal into a dirty word. But Obama fully embraces the term as it’s currently defined in politics. Like much of his base, Obama shares an openness to social movements, diversity, and multiculturalism.
But on the economic front Obama has in many ways continued Clinton’s legacy. He came into power with a clear mandate to rein in Wall Street and restructure the financial sector. Instead he filled his administration with Wall Street insiders. His Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was a former head of Goldman Sachs. And then he was followed by Timothy Geithner, who actually served in the Clinton White House.
What resulted was a huge government bailout for Wall Street, usually put at $700 billion (the real price is estimated to be double that). Most economists maintain that this bailout was necessary, that Obama stopped the Great Recession from becoming another Great Depression. But the Obama administration learned the hard lesson of the Roosevelt era—and one that neoliberal economists deny—money at the top doesn’t trickle down, it just leaves the bottom economically depressed.
Whether Obama fully embraces neoliberalism is up for debate. Despite the right absurdly attacking him as a big government leftist, the closest he’s come to actual socialism is corporate bailouts.
His most ambitious legislation—the Affordable Care Act—is neolberal in its implementation. Instead of shooting for Medicare for All, ACA sought a middle way by transferring public, tax-generated avenues to the private health insurance industry. The result has been mixed. People with pre-existing conditions can now easily buy health insurance, and the uninsured rate has fallen to record levels. But there have been issues with cost control and underinsurance. Like many neoliberal policies, it has benefits for big business and mixed results for the non-rich.
Unlike deep southerner Bill, Obama is himself the sort of cosmopolitan liberal that typically votes Demcorat. Like many cosmopolitans, he expresses a certain tech-utopianism—he holds to the Silicon Valley ideal that life gets better as technology makes us healthier, smarter, and more productive. As the Guest Editor of a recent issue of WIRED Magazine, he said “Now is the greatest time to be alive.”
But Obama is also sensitive to the disruptive effects of technology and globalism. In a post-election article in the New Yorker, he explains:
The prescription that some offer, which is stop trade, reduce global integration, I don’t think is going to work, If that’s not going to work, then we’re going to have to redesign the social compact in some fairly fundamental ways over the next twenty years. And I know how to build a bridge to that new social compact. It begins with all the things we’ve talked about in the past—early-childhood education, continuous learning, job training, a basic social safety net, expanding the earned-income tax credit, investments in infrastructure—which, by definition, aren’t shipped overseas.
This vision is much closer to the ambitious agenda of a Roosevelt or Lyndon B. Johnson. And to be fair, Obama could have come closer to realizing it—but it wasn’t long before he had to deal with the most obstructionist congress in history. This untapped potential will always remain a tragic aspect of his presidency.
The question that will always remain is what path would Hillary have taken. There’s little in Hillary’s policy proposals or record that suggests that she would have deviated from the ‘third way’ of neoliberalism. She ran as the continuation of Obama’s legacy, and chances are she would have been much closer to his approach than her husbands—a socially progressive, economically moderate liberal.
The Path Forward
Hillary Clinton’s loss puts the Democratic Party at a strange crossroads. The surprising primary campaign of Bernie Sanders proved that a new generation is ready for a more transformative brand of politics. And the success of Trump in the Rust Belt revealed a working class that feels increasingly marginalized—both culturally and economically.
The growing consensus is that Clintonism is dead and that the Clintons are over. This is tacit admission that neoliberalism now has little relevance to the Democratic Party, and that it will develop in another direction. What direction remains to be seen.
The problem is that much of the Democratic establishment—unions, state parties, think tanks, etc.—are filled with Clinton loyalists. And no doubt many share the political philosophy that has guided the Democrats since the days of Bill Clinton.
That’s where we come in—those who vote, protest, write, and think about politics from the left side. We can have an effect on the development of the Democratic Party. Though many on the left remain skeptical of systemic change in Democratic institutions, it would be a mistake to ignore this enormous opportunity.
And while convincing our more moderate friends (as I once was) that the party needs a fundamental shift, it’s also important to recognize the role Clintonian neoliberalism once served—to allow the Democratic Party to reemerge during a much more conservative era. But now its far outlived its usefulness, and is detrimental to economic progress. Now we pose the question: What do we build in its place?Clintonian neoliberalism is dead. The question that remains: What will we build in its place?Click To Tweet