Ideology: Mobilizing the Popular Base under Neoliberalism
In his acceptance speech for president, Joe Biden framed the election in moral terms, stating: “I will be an ally of the light, not the darkness.” He then went on to ask voters to judge him and Trump not by rhetorical promises, but their deeds. Both Trump and Biden have a public record of policy decisions they have supported, making it easy for the informed voter to judge them accordingly. However, many voters make decisions on the basis of many factors, from ideological and political commitment to cultural conditioning based on social class; from self-interest to desperation and hopelessness with political realities; from the need to satisfy an emotional craving and aspirations to a lack of good choices on the ballot.
Those in the US and around the world hoping for a Biden win in 2020 may very well accept the candidate’s moralist slogan of “light vs. darkness”; a slogan with religious undertones to the faithful, or superhero appeal for younger voters. It is not surprising that candidates for president deliberately make grand universal pronouncements as a means of mobilizing popular support, regardless of the lack of realism in such pronouncements. For establishment Democrats, the US presidential election is a choice is as clear as light vs darkness. For progressive Democrats, it is a case of the lesser evil presenting itself as light for the sake of preventing the neo-Fascist darkness which Trump and the Republicans represents.
Surely to be disappointed, those who expect Biden to reverse Trump’s neoliberal domestic policies, and put an end to US militarism and overt/covert foreign interventions abroad may find themselves seeking an alternative to the establishment Democrats and Republicans by 2024. Judging him by his own record, as he has asked voters to do, Biden will not reverse neoliberalism or US imperialism. He will manage the state with some regulatory safeguards and a social safety net domestically, while pursuing global economic and military hegemony, as did Obama who recently decried the withering of American democracy under Trump.
Reflecting the power of Wall Street, neoliberal goals and global imperial ambitions will remain the same under Biden as they were under Trump. However, there will be an attempt at bipartisan consensus in Biden’s approach, combined with a more rational tone, civility and dialogue instead of governance by intimidation. This is in contrast to the chaotic, disruptive, often illegal and destructive course under Trump whose goal was and remains to privatize every possible public entity from social security to the post office, and wherever possible dish out government contracts to private firms to carry out work that the government bureaucracy could carry out more efficiently and at a lower cost to taxpayers. Biden’s administration will revert to more technocratic cabinet secretaries who will not be appointed to undermine their departments from within and invite chaos in the name of adopting a more orthodox pro-business model.
Partly because Biden has a record of supporting neoliberal policies and rejecting New Deal-type policies that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party favors, he focuses on the moral dimension of politics and personality issues, instead of structural problems. In his acceptance speech at the DNC convention, he noted that “This campaign isn’t just about winning votes. It’s about winning the heart and, yes, the soul of America….Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy.”
Making some references to income inequality, the Democratic presidential contender did not mention specific policy positions where the two wings of the party are divided about how to address the issue. “My economic plan is all about jobs, dignity, respect and community,” he stated, rhetoric often heard from Republican politicians. Embarrassed by Trump and a circle of indicted criminals, establishment Democrats, Rockefeller Republicans, and even some Reagan Republicans embrace Biden’s focus on making America moral again. These same status quo supporters categorically reject class-based New Deal policy specifics that the progressive wing of the party emphasizes. While progressive Democrats point to the twelve billionaires worth $1 trillion, in a nation of $20 trillion GDP as the core of what is wrong with the neoliberal political economy, establishment Democrats and the assortment of conservatives backing Biden want modest policy adjustments but mostly changes in personalities instead of the system.
Biden has reluctantly embraced some progressive policies, especially considering the growing income gap and rising poverty amid the pandemic. However, he remains ideologically and politically committed to the pluralistic bourgeois society that Trump undermined institutionally using ‘executive power’. Like Obama, Biden will pursue corporate welfare policies aimed at sectors that reflect the party platform – renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. He will also maintain a firm commitment to environmental protection at home and globally by backing the Paris Agreement of 2015. Pursuing such policies is a reflection of continuing the Clinton-Obama legacy and embracing the party’s pluralist middle class popular base, but these measures do not address downward socioeconomic mobility.
Trump appeals to an assortment of traditional conservatives and cultural right wingers that include some of the richest Americans, former Tea Party faithful, evangelicals, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and white supremacists making up the populist base of the Republican Party. Skeptical of bourgeois democracy, its pluralist bourgeois institutions rooted in identity politics, and viewing the state as the enemy except in the domain of national security and police, Trump’s heterogeneous right wing popular base is held together by the party power base that wealthy donors keep well-funded. Inflaming the “cultural wars” has resulted in a more deadly use of fire toward blacks by the police who are a reflection of an institutionalized quasi-police state. In response, an emboldened minority community backed by white liberals reflects a divided America incapable of unifying at the grassroots level against the elites responsible for fomenting division.
To address such division in society, Biden appeals to establishment Democrats eager to restore the status quo ante – “return to normalcy” as he put it. This refers to pluralist neoliberalism before Trump’s introduction of overt authoritarian neoliberalism, which is a nativist form of neo-Fascism with characteristics rooted in American apartheid culture and the doctrine of Exceptionalism, an outgrowth of Manifest Destiny to justify imperialism. Accepting Biden as the lesser of two evils, some Rockefeller and Reagan Republicans, and independents are backing the Democratic Party because they are embarrassed by a president who has no qualms legitimizing a historically conservative party into a movement not far from a Fascist Party of the interwar era. Because the conservative defectors would never back Senator Sanders as candidate for president, it is clear they preservation of the status quo in a Biden presidency that would presumably make America moral again instead of leading it toward Fascism.
Even before Trump, the Republican Party had embraced elements typically found in Fascist movements of interwar Europe. Institutional and cultural racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, all of which conceal disdain for democracy as expressed in systematic voter suppression are part of the eclectic Republican Party ideology and practice. Trump has unmasked institutional and cultural traits of American society associated with an apartheid authoritarian society, traits always present but barely concealed behind politically correct rhetoric and institutions hiding behind under the cloak of official legitimacy. Moralist rhetoric and personality traits aside, the Biden camp is not so far from the conservativism of the 1950s, as a recent Bloomberg News article noted; an indication of how reactionaries have prevailed in both parties during the era of neoliberalism since Reagan was elected.
Citizens choose between two established neoliberal parties well-funded by wealthy individuals, corporations and super-PACs. Although bourgeois legitimacy rests in the voting process, candidates for president are selected by the party bosses beholden to large donors when it comes to conducting policy that will not deviate from neoliberal perimeters. Grand pronouncements such as “Make America Great Again”, or “light vs. darkness” are devoid of any purpose other than mobilizing the respective party’s voter base. Although the socially criminal ruthlessness of Republican authoritarianism will not take society farther down the road of Fascism, if Democrats win in November, America will not be delivered into the light nor made any more moral under Biden than it was made great under Trump.
Wall Street, the State and Labor
A recent Bloomberg News article noted that Biden’s most likely governing model will be similar to that of Eisenhower during the decade of conformity amid the Cold War. A return to normalcy is indeed going back decades to a Republican era when there was bipartisan consensus with foreign policy as the catalyst. Such is the “light” that Biden offers. This is an improvement to the utterly corrupt, criminal, authoritarian bigoted government of the last four years with characteristics of Third World dictatorships. Because Trump has such a rich soiled character reflected in corrupt and illegal activities of his family and circle of associates, it is difficult to separate policy intertwined with the president’s quest to augment the family and friends’ fortunes. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, the commoditization of public policy under Trump has been socially criminal, exposing not only corruption but incompetence.
Neoliberal lines of demarcation become blurred between the pluralist establishment Democrats that Biden calls ‘light’ and the authoritarian neoliberal Republicans who hypocritically embrace religion and the flag but have an allegiance only to wealth and power at any cost, even if it violates the law. As historical record makes clear, Wall Street donates to both political parties. Lobbyists work as closely with Republicans as they do with Democrats, often for the same corporations. In the current election, 57.7% corporate CEO’s donate to Republicans, while 18.6% donate to Democrats. Wall Street has no problem with either candidate. No matter who is elected, policies favoring Wall Street will continue as they have under previous presidents.
Progressive Democrats in the House and Senate will continue to press Biden for greater regulatory regime that Trump undermined. They will demand a fiscal policy not so heavily tilted in favor of the wealthiest one percent of the population; they will demand horizontal not vertical growth policies favoring capital concentration; restoration of social welfare programs, ranging from school lunch and food stamps to child care support that were trimmed under Obama and gutted under Trump; and a labor policy protecting trade unions weakened under Obama and assaulted under Trump. The polarizing socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic provide political cover for Biden to accept some progressive positions, simply because most Americans demand them amid a rising level of downward socioeconomic mobility.
For their part, establishment Democrats and Biden Republicans will press for a “bipartisan consensus”. They will resist the party’s progressive wing on any policy, just as they did during the primary in undercutting Sanders from within the DNC. Specifically, Biden has pledged to raise taxes of the richest 1% of Americans by $4 trillion in the next ten years. However, Trump gave the wealthy and corporations tax cuts of $1.5 trillion in the “2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act”; a massive income transfer that only ballooned the public debt and proved to be anything but a “Jobs Act”.
Despite his rhetorical appeal to blue-collar workers fearful that their children will never see the American Dream, Biden’s labor policy will be as it was under Clinton and Obama who were not hostile to labor. Nevertheless, it was under Obama that the trade union died a slow death. Government permitted the growth of ‘independent contractors’ who have no health care or retirement benefits, their wages are often below minimum wage, and there are no safety regulations protecting them. Although Trump more closely approximates the corporate Fascist state of big business-government relationship (Palazzo Vidoni Pact between Mussolini and Italian industrialists, 1926), with the former determining policy on trade, labor and regulatory regime, Biden will not abandon corporatism any more than Obama. Wall Street wants the state’s active role to contain labor amid ever rising capital concentration to distract the public’s focus from the real enemy of the working class, while corporate welfare continues uninterrupted.
Corporate lobbyists are practically writing policy on neoliberal model perimeters for Congress and the president’s cabinet secretaries to carry out. For example, the corporate welfare scheme of the drug companies is typical of welfare capitalism crippling society. While companies like Johnson and Johnson, Gilead Sciences, Moderna Therapeutics, etc. have guaranteed sales contracts, they also receive research and development grants from the government. They engage in price gouging of the same consumers despite the government providing a corporate welfare subsidy. Fearing the erosion of corporate subsidies and drug regulation, these companies run advertisements against universal health care and drug price regulations, not just against Democrats, but Trump as well.
Interestingly, while Trump has been saying publicly that he will not stand for drug companies charging so much, privately, he has been giving them all sorts of subsidies and guaranteed government contracts. With the exception of a few progressive Democrats, the rest have been supporting corporate welfare policy as much as Republicans. When Senator Sanders spoke out about this issue during the primary, the vitriolic attacks were worse from establishment Democrats, including Biden, than from Republicans who used New Deal-advocate Sanders in order to label the Democratic Party as “Socialist”, if not ‘Communist’ out to destroy the American way of life.
Beyond the pitfalls of the decadent corporate welfare state, the neoliberal political economy’s parasitic ‘financialization of the economy’ (measuring the wealth of the nation on the basis of speculative markets instead of the real economy) takes precedence over the productive sectors. It has created a structural crisis manifested in the economic contraction of 2008-2011, as well as the current crisis that the pandemic exposed. Neither the moralist “light vs darkness” camp of Biden, nor Trump’s “Make America Great Again” camp will alter the neoliberal institutional course, let alone social contract after 2020. In the first six months of the pandemic, monetary policy, even when coordinated by central banks around the world, was unable to lift the “real economy” out of the crisis. This is because the root causes rest with the parasitic neoliberal model that gives precedence to ‘financialization’ over productivity. The worst aspect of all this is that neoliberal politicians, business leaders, the corporate media, academics whose institutions are beholden to corporate donors for endowments, and billionaire-financed think tanks believe that the solution to the problem is not to abandon the neoliberal model, but to change personalities, modify its management strategy, and have more of it or a another version, no matter the devastating consequences to society.
In the domain of foreign affairs, Biden is in his element because of his experience in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. However, a closer examination of the “light vs. dark” choice makes it clear that the foreign policy is as cloudy as fiscal policy, trade policy, corporate welfare, and labor policy. Molded by the Cold War and the politics of America’s quest to remain the world’s superpower against enemies and friends alike obstructing its path, Biden reverts to a four decades-long record as militarist/interventionist Cold War Democrat. Rejecting Republican unilateralism, he prefers the model of a “liberal international order” of multilateral relations, with the US at the helm of NATO, SEATO and OAS and with the goal of containing China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela.
Confrontational public rhetoric against traditional allies like Germany as a way to force them to buy natural gas from the US instead of Russia will not be part of a Biden administration. Like Obama, Biden will return to the historic US-Russian confrontation, although it will be with closer consultation of NATO allies, probably without trying to force them to sign more contract with US defense companies. The cartoonish cult of personality will not be present in a Biden foreign policy as it has been in Trump. Whether it comes to dealing with Russia, China, North Korea, Turkey or any other nation, Biden will be in close consultation with the foreign policy establishment. Nor will foreign policy be tied to personal fortunes of the president and his inner circle. Trying to cash in with every foreign policy move, from Trump hotels, to consulting firms, raising money for a wall along the US-Mexico border to keep out migrants south of the Rio Grande as merely another fraudulent and money laundering scheme will not be a part of a Biden administration. Foreign policy to advance American corporate interests will be the main goal, and it may or may not include high-pressure tactics of sanctions against strong competitors like the Huawei Corporation among other multinational Chinese-based companies.
The eroding global economic status of the US in the world forced Trump economic nationalists into the position of a confrontational policy toward friend and foe alike, combined with a blanket rejection of multilateral foreign policy and international organizations that the US had established to further its global hegemony. Ironically, when no ally was enthusiastic about US sanctions intended to provide an economic or geopolitical advantage to the US, the Trump White House resorted to punitive sanctions against the principals and third party players that swept along allies and enemies alike. Biden would probably not consider such a crude use of American power, but he is fully expected to use America’s leverage to strengthen US-based multinational corporations against foreign competition.
Biden will revert to the postwar bipartisan goal of a “liberal international order”, emphasizing negotiations to establish economic and political rules about common ground and disagreements between nations. Like Trump, Biden’s goal to restore the US as the preeminent power – “put it back at the head of the table”, as he said – is a challenging proposition when considering the obvious shift in the core of the world economy from the US to East and South Asia.
Despite the reality of a multipolar world with China as the preeminent economic power (an economy of $27 trillion in PPP terms vs. the US at $21 trillion), and despite China’s public debt at 48% of GDP vs the US at 110% of GDP before the pandemic, it is highly unlikely that Biden will radically deviate from Trump’s strong defense policy by cutting the Pentagon’s budget under the current level of $700 billion. Although Biden will make changes where defense priorities rest, the military-industrial complex has nothing to worry about. More problematic areas will be where the Democrats permit US defense contractors to sell weapons. Biden may not be as friendly toward Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Brazil, and the Philippines, among other smaller nations in Central Asia and Africa.
Trump critics argue that the salient element in the US lapsing to a “second-rate” power is the result of Trump’s unilateralism and aggressive tactics toward allies while placating authoritarian leaders. To reverse that course, Biden will strive to achieve a multilateral consensus with traditional allies, dropping Trump’s “America First” doctrine so offensive to all countries. But is it accurate to argue that Trump’s foreign policy sank the US into “second-power status”, or are there structural dynamics responsible for America’s decline during China’s simultaneous rise in the last two decades of American neoliberalism and costly military interventions? Is it realistic to assume that reverting to pre-Trump multilateralism would magically sink China from its current status while lifting the US back to its 1980s and 1990s status? Even the EU has come to the conclusion that the world power structure has changed permanently because of China, and governments make foreign adjustments accordingly, even within the old Cold War institutions.
Recognizing China is the world’s preeminent economic power, Biden will coordinate with European and Asian allies to create a coalition of containing China on all fronts, especially technology. There is a false assumption that because Biden will pursue multilateralism he will refrain from overt or covert military intervention. Obama was committed to multilateralism and the liberal international order, but had no problem continuing the US military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, while launching new ones, covert and overt, in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Ukraine, and Arab Spring revolts.
A closer look at the foreign policy/intelligence/defense advisory groups in the Biden camp provides a clear picture that this Cold Warrior has not accepted the reality of the present world power structure that is vastly different now than it was when he started his political career four decades ago. Renouncing Trump’s “America First” policy and trying to capture the glory of America’s past is a highly costly nostalgic dream, hardly a realistic foreign policy goal based on what the US can actually afford without continued downward socioeconomic mobility which leads to political polarization. The irony is that the parasitic defense/intelligence budget, higher than the budgets of the next top ten countries combined, undermines the economy which cries out for a new structural direction, if the US is to keep a viable middle class vital to bourgeois democracy.
The root causes of US power erosion are not in unfair competition from China, or military challenges from Russia, or what it deems as rogue states like Iran, Syria, North Korea and Venezuela. The problems rests in its foreign and domestic policies. Instead of addressing social and economic problems at home, Trump used the leverage of the military to impose sanctions and secure better trade deals, while castigating multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organization and the World Bank.
Adopting a unilateral foreign policy, the Trump administration is acknowledging that multilateral institutions are no longer furthering US interests, but Chinese. No matter how much the US has tried to blame China, Russia and even allies for its own decline, the problems are homegrown in the political economy of neoliberalism and militarism. Biden has the choice to return to Cold War policies of the past that have contributed to US decline, or he can fix a broken system by abandoning the anachronistic Cold War worldview and the neoliberal/militarist model. This would mean accepting the flawed neoliberal model and limitations of Pax Americana, something he will never do. Instead of focusing on building the civilian economy on a model that does not marginalize the majority of its population and does not squander taxpayer money on militarism as leverage for global market share, Biden will look to failed strategies the past for America’s future.
In his speech at the Democratic convention in August 2020, president Obama stressed that democracy was on the line with the upcoming election. If we judge by Obama’s version of “democracy”, not on rhetoric but domestic and foreign policies he pursued during his eight years in office, we can conclude that he was referring to neoliberal/militarist policies under a pluralist regime with a modicum of social welfare policies to prevent the masses from abandoning the party. Trump followed Obama because of unfulfilled Democratic Party promises, resulting in further sociopolitical polarization of America, with the populist neoliberal Republican Party openly embracing policies that even some Reagan Republican view as authoritarian, if not Fascist. The failures of the pluralist neoliberal regime to deliver on the promise of upward socioeconomic mobility while pursuing policies that created a wider poor-rich gap exacerbated right wing populism. Yet, Biden with the backing of Obama and establishment Democrats and Rockefeller Republicans want to return to the failed model that drove people to elect Trump whose lies millions of voters believe.
As much as people do not wish to accept it, Trump is a reflection of the American political and socioecomic elites whose interests his policies serve. Not only institutional support from Wall Street, but from various religious groups, think tanks, universities, and a segment of the media have been behind Trump’s Republicans, as has a segment of the disgruntled public sickened with the hypocrisy of bourgeois liberal politics that serves the same elites, some well hidden behind the mask of pluralism. Biden is also a reflection of the American political and socioeconomic elites, although his popular base is in the urban educated middle class, suburban women, segments of the labor movement, many government employees and the private service sector, and above all the minority community.
The struggle of the political class, both Republican and Democrat, is to mobilize the popular base, promising the American Dream when in fact there is only a small slice of the dream, which either can deliver to the middle class and workers. Living standards have been declining steadily in the last four decades while America’s billionaires own more than 80% of the wealth. During the pandemic 38 million people lost their jobs, while billionaires increased their wealth by $434 billion. Although Democrats do not want America to become a Fascist nation and they do not inflame “culture wars” like Republicans, under both Republicans and Democrats there has been no improvement in the socioeconomic or political status of minorities any more than the working class as a whole.
Downward social mobility, which started around the end of the Vietnam War, could possibly slow down, but not reversed under Biden’s ‘forces of lightness’. Under Trump, downward social mobility will accelerate, as the combination of corporate welfare, monetary inflation and a fiscal policy burdening the bottom two-thirds of tax payers will bring society to a deep economic, political and social crisis. The US is unlikely to recapture the glory of the first three decades after WWII when it was the preeminent global economic power at the core of the world economy. That role is now permanently stationed in East and South Asia. Rather than resorting, as Trump has, to ineffective sanctions that backfire, tariff wars, containment strategies and using the military as leverage, Biden will try negotiated strategies on issue-specific differences, combined with multilateral bloc-trading pressure that would actually be more effective for capitalists whose interests transcend national boundaries, thus engendering some stability in the capitalist world order rooted in greater integration.
Many people are so tired of authoritarian politics in a presumably bourgeois democracy; so exasperated of race, ethnic, and gender hatred and divisions; so sickened of official and corporate corruption and criminal conduct, as indicated by those already indicted; so tired of ridicule by the rest of the world to the degree most Americans are embarrassed, rather than proud that they simply want Trump and the Republican machine out of office. Most people realize this is hardly a choice of “lightness and dark”, because this is not a super-hero movie, but the reality of downward trends in living standards, unaffordable health care, higher education, rent, utilities, and life’s basic necessities.
It is criminal by any criteria for a leader of a nation to undermine the health and welfare of its own citizens during a pandemic so that corporate profits are not impacted in the short term. Even under these conditions, opinion polls indicate that roughly 40-47% of voters still back Trump for president, an openly authoritarian and inept leader who cannot keep track of his own lies and who has surrounded his administration with individuals openly hostile to democracy and prone to corruption. While Trump’s prospects do not look promising for him in November, favorability polls numbers in the 40s indicate how far to the right the electorate has drifted in embracing an authoritarian militarist/police state where police officers shooting unarmed black men is symbolic a diehard apartheid society.
Meanwhile, Wall Street keeps rising and it has nothing to worry about Biden who has repeatedly assured billionaires and millionaires that he will not harm their interests. Voters’ choice is between Trump’s neoliberal rightwing unilateralist populist catering to big capital with no commitment to the social safety net, and Biden the neoliberal multilateralist pluralist catering to big capital with modicum commitment to the social safety net. On specific policy issues, including abortion, slightly higher taxes for the top one percent, leniency and tolerance toward minorities, immigrants, alternative lifestyle groups, liberal judicial appointments, and commitment to the environment, Biden will strike a course Obama was following.
As far as substantive changes, like raising living standards for the working class and middle class, Biden will not do much more than Obama. Nor will the US do away with the corporate welfare state and restore the social welfare state. Given the two party system choices, both parties are rooted in the neoliberal/militarist political economy. Democrats manage it differently, realizing the benefit of maintaining a social safety net. Republicans assume doing away with it as much as possible and transferring mora capital to the top one percent of income earners. Beyond the common goals under different strategies on how to achieve them domestically and in foreign affairs, the election of 2020 is whether the US wants to erase any pretense of a bourgeois democracy and openly embrace authoritarianism already an integral part of the institutions and culture.
Jon V. Kofas, Ph.D. – Retired university professor of history – author of ten academic books and two dozens scholarly articles. Specializing in International Political economy, Kofas has taught courses and written on US diplomatic history, and the roles of the World Bank and IMF in the world.