Hillary Clinton’s nomination was contested by young liberals who rejected her marriage of corporatism and imperialism. But instead of appealing to the disenfranchised Bernie Sanders voters, she’s courting neoconservatives and crony capitalists.
Is American liberalism losing its soul?
Every four years, the left has said you should vote for them because the GOP are a bunch of racists, misogynists, and religious fundamentalists—and they maintained this message even when Republicans nominated relatively center-right candidates. If for years the GOP accused every Democratic candidate of being a new George McGovern, the Democrats argued that every Republican was the new George Wallace. Yet beyond social liberalism, the Democratic Party hasn’t offered much to the left recently. Hillary’s hawkish foreign policy and crony capitalism don’t have many supporters in the base of the party, but she gets a pass by using the Democrats’ old trick—telling people that Republicans are worse.
The fact that a socialist in his 70s was able to be a real challenger to the Clinton establishment shows that third-way liberalism doesn’t sell like in the old days. While some describe Sanders as an unreconstructed New Deal Democrat, for a lot of his life he was an independent and third-party guy. His ideals were closer to the romantic vision of the socialist revolution than to the incremental reforms that liberals always promise.
But this is hardly a new dynamic. In 2000, Democratic Party apparatchiks accused Ralph Nader of everything, and then they blamed him for the defeat of Al Gore. To this day there is a lot of hate among liberals for Nader. It is ironic that one of iconic figures of liberal reform has been portrayed by the liberal media as an egotistical maniac. But Nader didn’t fit the elite liberal narrative even before he ran for president, and he realized that the Democratic Party—much like the Republican Party—had been captured by the hawkish, corporatist donor class. The only differences were on some social issues.
Nader would had been attacked as much as Sanders if he had run as a Democrat—and maybe more because he dared to challenge them on foreign policy. But if Gore had won, we might have seen the ascension of his vice president, Joe Lieberman, the only liberal who could be considered more hawkish than Clinton.
Barack Obama’s rise in 2008 promised a new direction for liberalism. He was to the left of the Democratic Leadership Council that once promoted Bill Clinton. Despite the fact that he wasn’t as left-wing as some imagined, he managed to produce some reforms that were popular among the liberal base, though these were mostly social rather than economic. Obama’s foreign policy, while not neoconservative, was still militant. Can liberalism offer something better to America? Clinton’s biggest asset is that she’s not Donald Trump.
As correctly pointed out by Green Party candidate Jill Stein, we live in an era of the politics of fear. Democrats make us fear Republicans—and Republicans make us fear Democrats. The two-party system has maintained liberalism as one of the central ideologies of American politics, but with electoral reform coming through popular initiatives, there is a need for liberalism to offer something. Socialism is offering the young supporters of Sanders something to believe, while the liberalism of the Clintons is rigid and mechanical and has nothing in common with the idealism of George McGovern.
Win or lose this November, the main task of the Democratic Party is to recover the soul of liberalism. Whether or not they can remains to be seen.