Did we slay the old king? Have the Democrats consolidated political hegemony in the United States? In a recent essay, “Homeland” (New Left Review May-June 2013), Perry Anderson lays out the key economic, social, cultural and political determinants of American politics. The most interesting part of the article lies in the information and implications it provides in relation to the potential construction of a new Democratic era.
Anderson notes that the one Democratic hegemony of the past hundred years was achieved by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR’s presidency (1932-1945) ended the economic model based on the gold standard, high tariffs, low taxes and early forms of mass production. The new version that the Democrats brought in was characterized by higher taxation, deposit insurance, banking regulation, corporate concentration, the expansion of consumer demand, less discomfort with deficits, and most importantly, because of World War II, a massive increase in state spending. Public expenditure increased from 19 per cent to 47 per cent of GDP within two years in the 1940s. This new framework inspired technological innovation and erased unemployment, setting the foundation for American global supremacy and Democratic reign till the 1970s.
FDR’s presidency implemented the first decisive shift of the past hundred years while Ronald Reagan’s implemented the second. FDR won 42 states with 57.4 per cent of the vote in 1932 and 46 states with 60.8 per cent of the vote in 1936. Reagan won 44 states with 50.8 per cent of the vote in 1980 and 49 states with 58.8 per cent of the vote in 1984. Reagan, via the deregulation of markets, de-unionization of labour, and tax cuts, went back in time to the economic paradigm that had preceded the 1930s. These neoliberal policies were complemented by an ideology that was nationalist, individualist and burnished with religious faith, and this ideology had broad appeal across the country.
Does the Obama era embody a definitive defeat of Reaganism, making it the third turning point of the past century? Obama’s Democrats do represent a cultural break from the Republicans, a break that resonates with an electorate that has shifted in sociology. The size of the non-white electorate has doubled since 1992 and the Democrats have always won a majority of votes among African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans — with Hispanic-Americans being the most rapidly growing constituency of colour. More significantly, since the 1980s more women have voted than men in presidential elections, and women generally favour the Democrats: in 2008, 10 million more women than men cast a ballot. In addition, there is the counterintuitive truth that the politics of identity appear to have replaced the politics of class: in 2008, a majority of white voters earning less than $50,000 a year voted for McCain, while a majority earning over $200,000 a years voted for Obama. In 2012, eight of the 10 richest counties in the USA voted for Obama. President Obama has advanced a cultural-economic framework that appeals to a diversity of young people and wealthy professionals.
There is also the question of fundraising. In the mid-1970s the cost of successfully unseating a Congressional incumbent was about $100,000. In 2002 the price averaged $1.5 million. The total cost of a presidential run was $300 million in the 1980s and 1990s and $400 million in 2000. In 2004, the amount more than doubled to $850 million, with Bush and Kerry each spending over $400 million. In 2008 the numbers jumped again, with Obama raising $800 million to McCain’s $400 million, and in 2012 Obama and Romney each raised an almost inconceivable $1.6 billion. Generally the Democrats have raised money from the entertainment industry, trial lawyers, labour unions and Silicon Valley. The party has now added grassroots money from the web, as well as substantial donations from the health-care, real estate and banking industries. Their Republican opponents no longer possess what was once their most crucial comparative advantage: a larger hoard of gold.
So do Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 represent turning points? In comparison to FDR and Reagan, Obama won only 28 states with 52.9 per cent of the vote in 2008 and 26 states with 51.1 per cent of the vote in 2012. His economic policies do not represent a break from the neoliberal ones of the Republicans in general: Anderson points out that Obama’s platform has been comprised of Mitt Romney’s health-care bill, Newt Gingrich’s environmental policies, John McCain’s deficit-financed payroll tax cuts, George W. Bush’s bailout of failing banks and corporations, and a mixture of Bush and Clinton income tax rates. The effects of the health-care bill are important, but the overall package is hardly what might have been expected from a President who promised us an audacious Camelot.
A mixture of identity politics, commitment to preserving America’s economic status quo and a few significant social benefits has provided Obama with two victories. The same combination, despite continued economic depredation, should be enough for Hilary Clinton to become the next leader of the nation whose two political parties remain the world’s most prominent shield-bearers of a sclerotic yet still triumphant neoliberalism.
Thomas Ponniah is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin America Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.
Photo: Kurtis Garbutt/flickr