Bernie Sanders’ four Super Tuesday victories, his wins in Kansas and Nebraska, and his desire to remain in the race until the convention, whether he would arrive there as victor or runner-up, is causing consternation in the Clinton ranks. Bill Clinton is taking to the stump in a bid to discredit Sanders, and his comments about higher education in the United States tell us something not only about the Clintons’ dangerous misreading of the social contract, but also about how they think that history works.
Clinton, following in the steps of his wife who argued that tuition free public universities amounted to the middle class subsidizing Donald Trump’s children, claimed that Sanders’ plan for subsidizing public higher education (but not Clinton’s) would lead to higher tuition and amounted to an unfair subsidy for the wealthy. Instead of creating truly public institutions, Clinton argued, we need to subsidize the private sector and tinker around the edges of public universities that are experiencing a de facto privatization process. The basic dishonesty of the claim is clear when we consider that in the tax structure Sanders would create, it is the Donald Trumps of the world whose outsized wealth would subsidize the middle class, rather than the other way around. But there is more than that.
Clinton is a member of the “Third Way” leaders across the Anglo-American world who came to power in the 1990s. This generation of leaders, the most famous other member of which was Tony Blair, were intent on learning lessons from the rise to power of economic fundamentalists in the 1970s and ‘80s. Those fundamentalists--Reagan and Thatcher among them--had attacked the rights of workers to organize, had savaged the social welfare system, had distributed wealth upwards, and had undermined the basic foundations of the social contract between generations.
The lesson that Clinton and Blair chose to learn was that the changes to the social contract wrought on our society by the fundamentalists (today represented by Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, the entire Republican Party, and a wing of the Democratic Party) were permanent. They decided that there was no point in looking back to the period before their rise to power, and that they had to live with and tinker with the hand they had been dealt by history.
In their minds, there was an arc to history, away from Keynesian economics, away from robust public institutions, and away from a political economy dominated by the interests of the working majority. There were no human hands in these changes, just the force of history. As standardbearers of progressive parties (once-socialist parties, in the case of Britain’s Blair), they had to tame the “radicals” within their ranks who looked to the past for inspiration, because they otherwise risked electoral defeat when faced with the “new reality” of the more unequal and unjust society the fundamentalists had created.
Under their leadership, political parties that had once fought fiercely for the rights of workers and for the existence of a welfare state decided that the best they could do was to tinker, and to continue dismantling the work of the welfare state and replace it with public-private hybrids, or to embrace privatization altogether.
This is a peculiar reading of how historical change occurs. Let us take the example of public higher education. For Americans of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s generation, public higher education was tuition free across many states, including at the best public university system in the world--the University of California. That changed when Governors like Ronald Reagan saw in disgruntled students an opportunity to attack public institutions. It happened as a generation of voters that had benefited from the investment of their parents in public institutions decided that they were not interested in making the same investments for the generations that came after them. It came as one of the two major political parties in the United States, the GOP, was captured by fundamentalists who decided to make “public” and “government” bad words, and used a massive political and propaganda program to open the way to new forms of economic and political exploitation, preying on people’s fears rather than seeking to address their needs and ambitions.
For Clinton and Blair and other “Third Way” acolytes, they could either ride or be buried by the “forces” of history that propelled us relentlessly away from strong, public, democratic institutions and processes towards exploitative, private, unequal politics and institutions. Reality of course is that change occurs when individuals and interests think and say and do specific things.
If we--as an aggregate of individuals and interests--decide to continue down the path the fundamentalists charted from the late-1970s onwards, we can do so through our thoughts and words and actions. But if we want to use our thoughts and words and actions to create new conditions and to revisit the terms of the social contract that Clinton’s generation violated when they kicked away the ladder they had climbed to success, we can do so. There are no “rules” to history that say that there is no path toward fairer, stronger public institutions. There are only roadblocks, in the form of ideologues like Trump, Rubio and Cruz, cynics like the Clintons, and interests like the massive banks and corporations.
So when the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton deploy dishonest, cynical rhetoric to make people afraid of creating the same kind of system that earlier generations benefited from, not only are they re-writing history and being very dishonest while they are about it. They are also denying agency to our state, our society, and to the individual voters that comprise it. In a way, this is the condescending argument behind the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party that have shown so little understanding of the frustration and ambition of our country’s left and of the public at large.