‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’: The Economic Voodoo That Seduces Americans to Vote Against Their Own Interest

The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book Kill It to Save It: An Autopsy of Capitalism's Triumph over Democracy by Corey Dolgon (Policy Press, 2017):

It's the Political Economy, Stupid

“I give them all money and they do what I want. The system is broken … but I will make you rich.” (Donald Trump, Republican Presidential Debate, August 6, 2015)

“It is profitable to let the world go to hell.” (Jorgen Randers, The Limits to Growth)

“It’s the economy, stupid.” (James Carville, Bill Clinton’s Political Advisor in The War Room)

James Carville’s now-famous quote was never meant to expose his or Bill Clinton’s dour economic determinism. The true meaning of the phrase rests on the ambiguous pronoun. What is the “it” that is “the economy?” We know Carville’s campaign mantra (the one he spouted in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary The War Room): “Don’t complicate the simple.” But perhaps the opposite is true—“It’s the economy, stupid” simplifies something incredibly complicated and painfully raw. “It” represents a profoundly cynical sense of democracy and the structures and people that perversely control it. “It” stands for “what will convince the majority of poor, working- and middle-class Americans to vote for our candidates, despite the candidates themselves being bought and sold by wealthy oligarchs.” “It” suggests a system subsidized by private interests that benefit from a democracy more about performance than policy making. Perhaps “it” mollifies fears of economic instability, or conjures false hopes of prosperity, or feeds hungry voters who think things could get better if they support the right candidate, even though things could never really get much better under our current system. None of these “its” seems very inspiring. But Bill Clinton won—twice.

The Republican Party has—certainly since Reagan, and really since Hoover—been the party of corporate America. During this same period, the Democratic Party represented a slightly wider net of capitalist interests, but espoused a more inclusive, classically liberal (almost European) style of social welfare capitalism. Thus, Roosevelt’s attempt to create a welfare state to “save capitalism” from itself intensified a division within capital. On the one side were those who supported government as the primary source for creating and distributing a modicum of collective goods and services (such as education, health care, and housing). On the other side were those who would strip these subsidies and use government primarily to protect private profits and economic expansion by managing discontent at home and deploying military power to control foreign markets. But even most Republicans in the first half of the 20th century supported a sense of economic and social stability at home: public education trained good, mostly obedient workers, built community solidarity and patriotism, and assimilated immigrant labor; federal housing policies and subsidized consumer goods secured working- and middle-class families; bridges, roads, and highways promised a feeling of mobility and wind-in-your-hair freedom, as well as subsidizing the movement of commodities, workers, and profits.

But 1960s social movements upset what seemed like the great consensus after the Second World War. Civil Rights Movement activism challenged the white supremacy that had maintained a relatively obsequious poor, working-class white population in the South and union white workers in the North and Midwest. In fact, many New Deal reforms never reached non-white communities and persistent racial inequality had characterized the evolving welfare state. As Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Such political stability was shattered by sit-ins and Freedom Rides in the South, as well as urban rebellions and Black, Latino, and Native American Power movements elsewhere in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Vietnam’s successful anticolonial revolution (along with many similar upheavals in Africa, South and Central America, and—especially—the Middle East) ended the United States’ almost unrestricted ability to conquer and extract resources anywhere it wanted. Nixon’s demise and the ensuing oil crisis suggested that unbounded consumerism and the symbolic freedom of big cars and suburban homes might no longer assuage the ever frightened and declining white middle class. Uncertainty at home and abroad suggested that the group C. Wright Mills called “the power elite” had to develop new ideological, political, and economic systems to maintain and enhance their wealth and power. What would be termed “foreign competition” in the evolving “global economy” symbolized the need for a fresh approach to corporate hegemony and American exceptionalism in what would become a meaner and more polarized political landscape.

What has taken hold of our national psyche is a “kill it to save it” cultural and political framework, which replaced debates within capital about how much public good should be supported with a political discourse committed to dismantling any semblance of the public good. Reagan’s mythologies about unleashed and unburdened burly white guys competing in the rough-and-tumble world of global markets quickly devolved into the reality of most workers becoming weak, part-time, independent contractors. As temp agency ManpowerGroup rose to become one of America’s largest employers in the 1990s, more workers became itinerant hands taking whatever jobs they could find for the longest hours and the lowest wages allowed by law. By reducing taxes on the wealthy and outspending the Soviets into oblivion, Reagan restored a semblance of American domination over globalized production at the same time that he broke unions and reversed integration programs and gutted public education, health care, housing, and any environmental and financial regulation he could. He also allowed for the privatization of public lands and resources to the highest bidders, promising politics could deliver for the private sector that paid for his presidency.

To talk about the monetization of democracy in the wake of Citizens United would not shatter any illusions to the contrary—there are none anymore. Democracy—once the purview of patrician gentleman and liberal and conservative do-gooders—would eventually be usurped by experts, media pundits, and barely hidden large corporate interests. But now our government is almost completely owned and operated by blustery plutocrats. According to a recent series in The New York Times, 158 families and the companies they own dominated early 2016 campaign phases, donating over one quarter of all campaign money contributed to both parties through June 2015. In the 2012 elections, casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson alone gave close to US$150 million to Mitt Romney and other GOP candidates. The Koch brothers committed to spending almost US$1 billion on the 2016 elections. In the end, these billionaires simply elected one of their own, Donald Trump, cutting out the middleman. But to understand how we got here is crucial. And to observe “kill it to save it” policy making’s impact requires painting an accurate portrait of both capitalists’ triumph over democracy and its daily effect on people struggling to survive within a system that barely needs them anymore.

Political parties heavily leveraged by corporations once required some mainstream legitimacy and popular rituals of solidarity. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s watching Democratic and Republican conventions on television. They presented speeches, and entertainers, and lots of balloons—but they also included policy and platform debates. In 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) shook up Democratic politics forever and broke down white supremacists’ stranglehold over the “Solid South.” For both parties, the 1968 and 1972 conventions were sites of massive protests that promised the last vestiges of backroom powerbrokers and an end to the war in Vietnam. Since Reagan, however, these events have devolved into perverse beauty pageants and pundit spin fests. Major networks don’t even cover them and cable networks turn the selection process into reality TV. We have witnessed the full- fledged commodification of American democracy. In the end, Carville is just another carnival barker, and “it” just stands in for another sales slogan to convince us that the triumph of capitalism over democracy is good for us all—as Trump the icon both symbolizes and proclaims.

Reprinted with permission from Kill It to Save It: An Autopsy of Capitalism’s Triumph over Democracy by Corey Dolgon, published by Policy Press at the University of Bristol. © 2017 by Policy Press. All rights reserved.

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