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Populism for Plutocrats

Democratic leaders still haven’t learned: you can’t fight the forces of oligarchy without naming the enemy.

BBC World Service / Flickr

Last week, the Democrats launched their drive toward the midterms by identifying a target even more moribund than themselves: the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign.

Sure, much of the substance of the new “Better Deal” agenda — whether on infrastructure, drug prices, or employer tax credits for job training — was standard Democratic fare, much of it already available at that fabled home of lost causes, unpopular names, and impossible loyalties, www.HillaryClinton.com/Issues.

And sure, in characteristic fashion, Democrats bungled the rollout, leaking an incorrect version of the new slogan that began with a neo-Clintonian nod to “Better Skills.” But once they got in front of the TV cameras, Democratic leaders did their best to make clear they’d conceived the new message in direct opposition to “Love Trumps Hate.”

“When you lose an election with someone who has, say, 40 percent popularity, you look in the mirror and say: ‘What did we do wrong?’” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer told reporters. “And the number one thing that we did wrong is we didn’t tell people what we stood for.”

So what do Democrats now claim to stand for? A synchronized trumpet blast of op-eds from Schumer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi announced the keywords that will mark the new regime. “Working people from the heartland to the cities,” wrote Pelosi, “are struggling in a rigged economy and a system stacked against them.” “Americans are clamoring for bold changes to our politics and our economy,” declared Schumer. “They feel, rightfully, that both systems are rigged against them.”

It’s worth remembering that just a year ago, these bland truisms — axioms acknowledged by a large majority of Americans — were considered fighting words within the Democratic establishment. While Bernie Sanders based his entire campaign on the idea that the ultra-rich had tilted the economy in their favor, Hillary Clinton wavered between co-opting Sanders’s vocabulary and defending Barack Obama’s record. Ultimately, for Clinton and her allies, the vital task at hand was safeguarding the gains of Obama’s presidency against irresponsible populists on the Left and bigoted demagogues on the Right.

With iron discipline, Democratic surrogates brandished statistics proving that the Obama recovery had been a hard-won success, after all. “Fifteen million jobs! Fifteen million jobs!” crowed Tim Kaine. “Economic anxiety” became an ironic punchline on liberal Twitter. And in her general election campaign, Clinton prioritized winning over moderate Republicans in the suburbs, rather than galvanizing working-class voters with populist appeals or battling Trump for disaffected voters in the Midwest.

Of course, today’s Democratic leaders were with her every step of the way. It was Schumer himself who infamously explained the terms of the Clinton trade offer: one “blue collar Democrat” for two Republican suburbanites, probably New York’s worst multiplayer deal since the Knicks acquired Eddy Curry.

In other words, last week’s “Better Deal” rollout didn’t just serve as a harsh repudiation of Hillary Clinton, as her loyalists rightly noted. It also opened the door for a larger review of the direction the entire Democratic Party has taken over the last several decades.

If “our politics and our economy” are rigged, who rigged them? Democrats, after all, have occupied the White House for sixteen of the last twenty-five years. From Bill Clinton’s serial deregulation of Wall Street to Obama’s decision to bail out predatory banks rather than victimized homeowners, elected Democrats have done their fair share to fashion the plutocratic order that now dominates the American economy.

On ABC’s “This Week,” Schumer spoke like a man who had just woken up from a decades-long bender, only to discover that his wife has left him, his children won’t speak to him, and his best friends have accidentally built an oligarchy. “How the heck did we let Exxon and Mobil merge? And that was Democrats.”

Disingenuous? Unquestionably. In Congress, Schumer and Pelosi joined Newt Gingrich and Sam Brownback to vote for Bill Clinton’s disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996, which paved the way for an unprecedented consolidation of corporate media power. (Bernie Sanders voted nay.)

Nevertheless, we should welcome this new rhetorical turn against the Clinton/Obama record — not for its sincerity or high principles, but because it reflects a minimal attempt to grapple with political reality. It’s impossible to imagine Schumer and Pelosi stealing Sanders’s applause lines without the wave of discontent unleashed across the 2016 campaign season. A Democrat who tries to talk like a socialist is an Obama liberal who has been mugged by reality.

But if “A Better Deal” is a blueprint to challenge the forces of plutocracy, it could use another draft. It includes lamentations about monopoly control over airlines, eyeglasses, and craft beer, but not a single mention of unions. (Without a much more comprehensive program to boost the power of workers, no combination of antitrust enforcement and infrastructure dollars — let alone job training programs — will level the playing field.)

Ultimately, “A Better Deal” is the latest, but surely not the last, in a series of Democratic efforts to bridge the emerging ideological divisions within the party. The first major attempt was the 2016 platform, loudly cited as “the most progressive” in party history, though reliably ignored in the actual campaign against Trump. Now Democrats have decided to incorporate rhetorical as well as policy half-measures.

Yet even as Schumer and Pelosi announce the dawn of a new Democratic populism, the weakness of their own language betrays them. Is it possible to fight plutocracy without identifying any actual plutocrats? Schumer rails vaguely against “elites and special interests,” while Pelosi, that past master of Democrat Voice, does him one better: “Special interests are given special treatment.”

Sanders took a fundamentally different approach. In his reckoning, the problem with the American economy wasn’t some shadowy cabal of interested parties, but the entire billionaire class — notable not for its secrecy or Specialness, but its highly public and dismayingly ordinary capacity to siphon up the wealth that should belong to all of us.

Here Schumer and Pelosi cannot follow. At the same time Democrats attempt to simulate the flavor of anti-plutocratic populism, actual plutocrats are playing an ever larger and more influential role within the party — a phenomenon that party leaders can barely be bothered to disguise.

Barack Obama famously handed the Oval Office over to one billionaire in order to go kitesurfing off a private island owned by another one. Chuck Schumer released his “Better Deal” op-ed only weeks after partying at the Hamptons with a coterie of billionaires.

For Democrats, Bad Billionaires like Trump or the Koch brothers represent an existential threat to democracy, but Good Billionaires are vital campaign allies (Michael Bloomberg, Warren Buffett, Mark Cuban), crucial donors and policy shapers (George Soros, Haim Saban), or even possible secretaries of labor (Howard Schultz).

And while Mark Zuckerberg’s real person impersonation tour 1.0 has drawn much speculation about a future presidential run, we don’t have to wait until 2020 to find Good Billionaires stepping up to the plate. In Illinois, J. B. Pritzker (net worth: $3.4 billion) has established himself as the frontrunner in the Democratic gubernatorial primary; in California, Tom Steyer ($1.6 billion), perhaps the single largest political donor on Wall Street, is mulling a Democratic run for the statehouse. In New Jersey, Goldman Sachs boss Phil Murphy, a mere centimillionaire, has already won the Democratic primary for governor; and in Florida, billionaire Stephen Bittel has crowned himself chair of the state Democratic party and, with admirable efficiency, already survived his first racism scandal.

Democrats aren’t addicted to billionaires simply because they need to fight fire with fire, matching the deplorable roster of Republican tycoons with their own curated crop of mega-donors. The sturdy support of celebrity Democratic billionaires, along with a host of less well-known heirs and finance kingpins, performs another critically important function — silently communicating the limits of any possible “populist” program.

With Buffett and Bill Gates on board, we can be sure that no matter the rhetoric, a carefully constrained and market-oriented regime of redistribution will be the only thing on the agenda — some tinkering with tax rates, perhaps, along with mild subsidies for “the most vulnerable.” An occasional trust may be busted, especially if it troubles the consumption habits of well-heeled Democrats. Reforms aimed at bolder egalitarian changes, however, will remain safely over the horizon. And Sanders-style class politics, which might lead to an even more radical reconfiguration of power relations within the economy, are off limits altogether.

The great lie of our national politics is that Americans don’t hate billionaires because they all want to become one. A recent survey, appropriately sponsored by Bloomberg News, found that 53 percent of Americans distrust billionaires, while only 31 percent admire them. Just 31 percent of Americans view corporate executives and Wall Street banks favorably, while 50 and 52 percent view them unfavorably.

According to the survey, billionaires and their most prominent appendages were thus even less well-liked than Donald Trump (41 percent favorable, 55 percent unfavorable), Hillary Clinton (39 to 58 percent), or Paul Ryan (34 to 48 percent). In national politics, only insurance companies (29 to 61 percent), drug companies (25 to 61 percent), and Steve Bannon (22 to 47 percent) fared worse.

Surely, a pollster asking for the favorability of “special interests” would find similar if not even more unanimous results. But a politics aimed only at elusive “elites,” or an economy that has somehow rigged itself, comes closer to platitude than populism. It may produce head nods, but it cannot generate the commitment evoked by naming a common enemy — and building solidarity by vowing to oppose that enemy in public.

What distinguished the Bernie Sanders campaign more than any other issue — including his support for free college or Medicare for All — was that he named his enemy. Among his other objectives, Sanders’s attacks on “the 1 percent” were an attempt to reorder American politics around class lines: not with a stale disquisition on stratification, but by tapping into Americans’ anti-billionaire sentiment, religiously excluded from mainstream politics by both parties but thrumming powerfully just below the surface.

This bold gambit was not enough to defeat Hillary Clinton in a closed Democratic primary, but it did make Sanders the most popular active politician in the United States. If Americans truly hate class politics, and all prefer to see themselves as future CEOs, why is our favorite political leader a disheveled old man who spends most of his time yelling about rich people?

America’s anti-billionaire majority is still out there, waiting to be awakened again. But before that happens, the deal is going to have to get a whole lot better.