Election 2016

For Clinton and Krugman, 'Hardheaded Realism' Amounts to Protecting the Interests of the Richest People in America

The demeaning attacks on Bernie Sanders speak volumes about Hillary Clinton's worldview.

Photo Credit: Collage by Adam Johnson

Here are three telling quotes about this year's election:

"In theory, there are a lot of things to like about [Sanders'] ideas. But in theory isn't enough. A president has to deal in reality.  I am not interested in ideas that sound good on paper but will never make it in real life." —Hillary Clinton, Jan. 21, 2016

"The point is that while idealism is fine and essential -- you have to dream of a better world -- it's not a virtue unless it goes along with hardheaded realism about the means that might achieve your ends. ... Sorry, but there's nothing noble about seeing your values defeated because you preferred happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends. Don't let idealism veer into destructive self-indulgence. —Paul Krugman, NYT, Jan. 22, 2016

"In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes..... [We] believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America's claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened." —Gilens and Page

Team Hillary (which includes economist/columnist Paul Krugman) is worried about major defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire. Their counter-attack is clear—Bernie is all pie in the sky, he isn't facing up to the realities of Washington. And as Krugman puts it, Sanders and his supporters are letting "idealism veer into destructive self-indulgence."

But these demeaning attacks say much more about Clinton than they do about Sanders. In effect Clinton is admitting (as is Krugman) that we have to accept American plutocracy as a given that, at best, can be modified around the edges. Neither Clinton nor Krugman believe a progressive populist uprising (that Sanders is calling for and counting on) could possibly modify our elite-driven system. After all, if such a movement is possible, Hillary is likely to lose. Therefore it must be declared impossible, off the table, unrealistic and so on.

Clearly Clinton and Krugman accept that elite rule not only shapes our current sense of reality, it is our permanent reality.

Krugman should know that what remains of our democracy needs to be pressured from below. His Princeton colleague, Martin Gilens, along with Benjamin Page of Northwestern University, have co-authored a study that shows that the average American currently has no independent impact on public policy. They reviewed 1,779 congressional bills over the last decade and found that, "When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy." 

Therefore, unless you already are an economic elite, you have no ("near zero") influence over government policy, which is the textbook definition of a plutocracy.

How do we influence such a system?

By banging away from the outside; by forming mass movements with mass demonstrations and insurgency campaigns like the one Sanders is running. He is absolutely correct to assert that we need a "political revolution" to modify and end rule by the "billionaire class." 

In fact, there is no other way. All the careful policy crafting and intellectual arguments are no match for dominance of the super-rich over politics. The ties that bind Washington, Wall Street and corporate elites will not break, let alone bend, unless faced with a severe popular uprising. Occupy Wall Street did more to put runaway inequality on the political map than did either Clinton or Obama.

Hillary, however, is betting that she can win over voters by claiming she's the practical one, not the ineffectual dreamer—that she can get things done.  But she, along with the median voter, has no chance of influencing policy unless we are mobilized to pressure the political system from the outside as well. She's been an insider for so long she would rather talk quietly with her many elite contacts than threaten them with a mass mobilization. And let's face it: she is one of them. Yes, more liberal, but still a part of those elite structures.

For example, it's nearly impossible to imagine Hillary calling for a million people to march on Washington or Wall Street to demand the breakup of big banks and a financial speculation tax to pay for free higher education. This would be the case even if she had not taken $2 million in speaking fees from Wall Street firms. In short, she is asking us to let her be our representative among the plutocrats where she can make things happen "in real life."

Krugman knows better than to argue that great politicians are the key to great changes. But sometimes economists can be a little tone-deaf to social history. It was the massive labor upheaval of the 1930s coupled with countless mobilizations of the unemployed that created the space for the New Deal. It was a decades-long militant civil rights movement combined with strong labor support that pushed LBJ into his civil rights stands. It was the upheavals of the 1960s that led to passage of environmental, consumer and health and safety legislation. And it will indeed take a Sanders-inspired political revolution to budge our entrenched plutocrats.

Clinton (and Krugman) are also making an enormous tactical error. The more they stress pragmatism and acceptance of elite political control, the more they clear the field for Bernie Sanders. People already sense what Gilens and Page have so carefully researched—that America's basic political and economic structures are rigged against them. They want to send a message: We are tired of our crummy wages, our porous benefits, our lousy infrastructure, our crumbling schools and runaway inequality. Sanders expresses what they already feel to be true.

Moreover, it's factually incorrect to say that Sanders appeals to our hearts while Clinton appeals to our heads. Sanders' supporters are using their heads. The only way to change the system is to challenge it. Nothing short of a political revolution stands any chance of success. That's "hardheaded realism" of the first order.

If Sanders continues to gain support it's precisely because voters understand that the choice is clear—accept the reality of plutocracy and beg for crumbs, or fight to tear it down.

Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute, is currently working with unions and community organizations to build the educational infrastructure for a new anti-Wall Street movement. His new book Runaway Inequality: An Activist’s Guide to Economic Justice serves as a text for this campaign. All proceeds go to support these educational efforts.

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