The new progressivism

Towards midnight, the thousands crammed into the Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia broke out the flags. Thousands of stars and stripes: hand-held paper ones; large cloth ones flowing in the hot night air. Chelsea Clinton came out in a red dress, to introduce her mother Hillary, who came out in a white pantsuit. At the end, Bill would join them in a blue suit. When Hillary’s comprehensive but unexciting speech had finished, the entire crowd turned over handheld placards – red, white or blue – and the auditorium became a giant flag as red, white and blue balloons came down.

For three days, the Democratic Convention had been a celebration of sectional, intersectional and identity politics. Long on gender, race, LGBT and disability, short on social and economic class, there’d been a lot of pluribus, not a lot of unum – save via the medium of Hillary herself, set up as a counter-cult of personality to Trump. But on Thursday that was swept away – or synthesised more exactly – with a theme of ‘unity’ and ‘forward together’. However, that unity was sanctified not with the notion of a collective social movement, but through support of a military state, projecting power across the globe. On the final night we heard fighting words from Hillary about keeping the world safe, from a general heavily involved in the Afghanistan war – from Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son had been killed on active duty in Iraq, and who unforgettably challenged Donald Trump to ‘read the Constitution’. ‘Here, I will lend you my copy,’ Khizr Khan said, pulling the document from his pocket.

The Khans’ appearance consecrated the fusion – diversity was unity projected as progressive power across the globe by force of arms. When the few hundred resistant Bernie supporters set up counter chants, they were drowned out with orchestrated chants of ‘U-S-A’.

Over at Crikey, I’ve got a fuller documentation of the event, but the gist is this. The Democrats have taken advantage of the bizarre and contradictory effect of Donald Trump on the inherited ‘Reaganite’ position of the Republicans – laissez faire capitalism at home, imperial state power projected abroad, undergirded by traditional and religious values – to steal patriotism from them, and fuse it with socially progressive values (and thanks to the Bernie insurgency, some left economic measures). This move, which essentially reconstructs the Democratic Party, is worth a brief analysis.

From 1912 and the victory of Woodrow Wilson, through the New Deal, to the bitter internal struggle of 1968, the Democratic Party was one of unquestioned liberal imperialism. American power was projected across the globe, often argued as a liberal measure to advance a liberal global order, and a statist progressivism was instituted at home – initially on class grounds, and then, through civil rights measures from the 1940s on, with a race component. With the Vietnam war, and the failure of ‘the best and brightest’ to run a successful war, that liberal imperialism fell apart.

From 1968 through to Obama’s election, the Democrats were diffident and divided on projecting power abroad – unwilling to own it, or abandon it, challenged by its internal left, lacking a coherent strategy. In that vacuum, the Republicans quieted or expelled their remnant isolationists, and rejected Eisenhower’s relatively cautious use of military power. As statist liberalism collapsed in the recession-wracked 1970s, Reagan and the people around him put together a new doctrine: military power abroad, plus a red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism at home became the fused expression of American exceptionalism. Each expressed the other in terms of the other. It was an immensely powerful doctrine, and its representative in this election was Ted Cruz, promising free trade, huge deficit reduction, a re-enlarged military and mass bombing of ISIS-controlled territory. But Cruz’s failure shows just how discredited Reaganism had become by the end of Bush’s second term, with the twin failure of Iraq and the 2008 crash.

That vacuum gave Donald Trump the chance to advance a hybrid and contradictory policy – protectionist and statist (protecting social security for example), but also committed to tax cuts and trickle down, as well as being isolationist and ‘massive retaliationist’ – ‘let’s not get involved in foreign wars’, but ‘let’s take ISIS out’ at the same time. His repeated praise for strongmen leaders such as Putin and Saddam Hussein destroyed the Reaganite narrative of advancing democratic and republican values abroad. The Republicans jumped from Reaganism, but they didn’t jump to any stable position. Their position became further muddied by the release of the DNC emails by Wikileaks, a move which has actually assisted the Democrats – since it gave the suggestion, correct or otherwise, that Russia was meddling in the US election. With Trump praising Putin, much of his business financing now coming from Russia, and his chief advisor Paul Manafort having extensive pro-Russian links in the Ukraine, Trump emerged from the convention fortnight looking like a shady character.

The Democrats swooped. Their convention was an endless rollcall of intersectional interests, together with a military version of each. When the military themes, and notions of competence, strength and determination were brought forward, the two themes were fused. Democratic America was the unity that emerged from diversity, and that unified diversity was protected by a strong military in a world of dictators. This is something different from the ‘cruise missile liberalism’ that a few renegade leftists engaged in during the post September 11 period. It is not a movement that is keen on large-scale foreign wars. But it is demonstrably not disturbed by the smart-war formula that Obama developed, after his earlier enthusiasms for multilateralism failed – extra-national globalism via drone warfare. For the ‘New Progressivism’ – a term intended as descriptive not prescriptive; that is, not an endorsement – the diverse US fields a diverse military, which protects the gains of diversity in an increasingly hostile world. The old ‘New Left’ equation between racism abroad and racism at home – between Vietnam and, say, the policing of Los Angeles – is by and large gone, limited to a remnant left section of youth, coalescing in the Bernie movement, Black Lives Matter and the like.

This new formulation, the ‘New Progressivism’ has come together by happenstance – if Ted Cruz had been the surprise nominee, I do not think the Democrats could have done it – but once done, will be hard to undo. The Republicans would find it difficult to snatch back military patriotism, and their policies are now such a contradictory grab-bag that they will find it difficult to advance any consistent line at all. The Democrats, win or lose, can weather the insurgency from an anti-war, anti-imperialist left within – and construct it as healthy debate – and either advance it as a policy from the White House, or assail the Trump presidency for its failures, with an eye to 2020.

This is a tentative hypothesis, and possibly somewhat influenced by immersion in the rhetorical extravaganza of the Convention itself – but I suspect that this is a political reconstruction of substantial power and longevity, provided that events on a vast scale do not disrupt at a world historical level. It is certainly a new Democratic party – one which, with a new content, rejoins it to its Wilsonian/FDR liberal imperialist roots – and a decisive exit from the last period of the 60s social revolution, which brought late twentieth century US politics into being.


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Image: PBS NewsHour/Flickr

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

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  1. Solid thesis Guy. I think Hillary’s individual politics are important in this consensus of interventionists both neo-con and liberal. It’s depressing to think that Obama is probably as good it gets in the near future. My mate Sun-Ha Hong has written that these wings are united by terrible neo-con ideas and liberals fetishization of data-driven modelling of security analysts.

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