Running on Vapors: Presidential Politics and the Neoliberal Moment

Sanford F. Schram
Bryn Mawr College

Both of the major political parties in the U.S. have now completed their 2012 presidential nomination conventions. Yet, it seems most ironic: the country is at a major turning point politically, yet neither party seems prepared to seize the opportunity to provide a credible vision for going forward to addresses the economic crisis that continues to wreak havoc on families all across the political spectrum and up and down the class structure. As a result, the ongoing political paralysis induced by hyperpolarization is likely to continue through the rest of the election campaign and after.  Why did the rhetoric from both conventions sound so old and hollow, especially in face of the challenges the country urgently needs to address?




The Republican convention formally endorsed Mitt Romney as its presidential candidate to end a primary season where Romney spent most of his time trying to placate an increasingly implacable base of ├╝ber-conservatives, including especially members of the Tea Party. A series of opponents took turns defeating him in primaries as the base persistently withheld its approval. By the time Romney arrived at the Republican convention in Tampa, he had done everything he could to remake himself as a “severe” conservative, including choosing Rep. Paul Ryan as his Vice Presidential candidate. Thus Romney was anointed acceptable if not a true believer. His convention speech was locked into re-citing a litany of extreme conservative positions on taxes, spending, regulation, welfare, health care, reproductive rights, immigration, race relations, trade, foreign policy, you name it. He mirrored his campaign stump speech, lacking specifics because he has no real serious plans for making these tired policy prescriptions work. Romney was still hoping he could run simply by saying he was not the current President who had failed to pull the country out of the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression.




The Democratic convention was an improvement. Yet, Obama did not really close the deal: his rhetoric was inspiring but will it be enough given that the economic crisis continues to leave so many people unemployed and growing numbers of families impoverished? There seemed to be something missing at the core of the Democratic convention, as if the party’s leaders dared not discuss some Pink Elephant in the middle of the Charlotte convention hall.





Why the silence? The conventions provide an answer: neither party is prepared to confront the structural changes in the economy that have been developing for over thirty years in the face of globalization. Both parties are mortgaged to philosophical ideas, political interests and portfolio investments that are either abetting this structural change (the Republicans) or incapable of offering an alternative to it (the Democrats).


Neoliberalism is the name for this structural change and the neoliberalization of the U.S. political economy has been a long time in coming, with economic downturns successively presenting opportunities to offload workers, outsource jobs, and restructure firms so that they can more efficiently and profitably, if also more heartlessly, participate in the global economy. For instance, in four of the five U.S. recessions since the recession of 1970, as the economy recovered, it came back with fewer jobs than before, a result most likely due to major corporations seizing the opportunity to restructure and move further into the global economy where first-world workers are an uncompetitive burden. This would not necessarily be fatal for sustaining an occupational structure enabling most workers to earn a decent living for themselves and their families. Yet, that would require systematic planning to move laid off workers into new jobs that paid decent wages. Instead, in the U.S. especially, but now increasingly elsewhere, the state’s role in responding to restructuring is insufficient to keep pace. Wages have been stagnant for most classes of workers for over thirty years, with manual skill workers seeing major diminutions in the real value of their pay. Precarity is pervasive—save for the elite at the very top of the class system.




The current presidential election, then, is at best implicitly about whether the state still has an obligation to the mass of working people who are being systematically marginalized by the intensification of restructuring. The U.S. may drift by default to what could be called a tiered society. At the top, there is a limited stratum of upper and upper middle class people ensconced in positions of corporate oversight and needed professional occupations. At the bottom is everyone else who is increasingly deemed undeserving of the state’s attention, in part because they failed to position themselves as successful participants for the globalizing economy and are as a result seen as a burden that a globally competitive corporate sector cannot and will not carry. At the extreme, those in poverty are cast aside as disposable populations to be monitored, surveilled, disciplined, and punished more than they are to be helped.




Neoliberalism is not simply an ideology that prizes market fundamentalism and a return to laissez-faire economics. That would be Plan A. Yet, Plan A has run afoul of Keynesian Economics and its insistence that only the state is big enough to counteract market failure. As a result, there remains a belief in the welfare state to counter the capriciousness of the market and the adversity it creates for those who get marginalized. The proponents of neoliberalism cannot just sweep the welfare state away and return to a system of laissez-faire economics (think the 19th Century and the age of the robber barons). Instead, the right must resort to Plan B: If you cannot eradicate the welfare state, marketize it. Remake welfare state programs to operate consonant with market principles in service of more efficiently buttressing the market itself. From education vouchers to medical insurance vouchers to private investments accounts in lieu of social security, from welfare-to-work programs grounded in incentivizing taking low-wage work to the penalties and rewards in reentry programs for ex-felons and same in drug treatment programs, the programs of the welfare state are increasingly run according to strict market logic to get clients to be more market-compliant actors themselves. The state increasingly contracts with for-profit providers who are incentivized to discipline their clients so that those clients themselves become more disciplined and docile, internalizing market logic so they will more willing accept the verdict of the globalizing market and take any low-wage jobs, if available, as their main source of economic salvation.




Neoliberalization is undoubtedly a failed project where vouchers do not cover the cost of market participation, for schools or health care, where incentives for work still lead to poverty-inuring low-wage and insecure employment, where social and economic policies allow market principles to undermine any sense of collective responsibility until we need to consider remediation before mounting social and economic problems created by those failed policies threaten the very fabric of our society.




Yet, the two nominating conventions ignored the Pink Elephant. One party hopes we won’t notice it is committed to realizing this dystopia for the 99 percent so as to create a utopia for its select class of financial backers, the 1 percent. The other party, not as indebted to the corporate class, does not dare express any but the mildest platitudes of opposition—for fear of falling even further behind in the competition for corporate donors.




Mobilizing against the neoliberal shift must of necessity come from outside the political parties. Yet the fact of the matter is that most people would rather not be political, not risk losing what they have, and not take their chances engaging in direct action. So when they do, we know something has happened to change the normal course of affairs. Once people come to see that there is less to lose by acting, they are ready to be mobilized. The historical record is clear that the only proven way to get real change is at those times when the people on the bottom rise up and say they are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore. The global economic meltdown since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 has created a crucible which makes mass mobilization possible, as witnessed by the Occupy Wall Street campaign in 2011, where those marginalized and left to the wayside by the intensification of the neoliberal economic restructuring in the wake of the Great Recession finally started to fight back. With sufficient mobilization, the neoliberalization of the welfare state will not stand.






Yet, it will take nothing less than a broad-based social movement, more sustained and robust than Occupy, to vanquish the Republicans supporters for supporting this structural shift, while beginning the process of holding the Democrats accountable for their timidity in opposing it.