A dream far bigger than Bernie Sanders’ executive ambitions died in sunny Philadelphia last week.
The scenes from the floor of the Democratic National Convention were striking, as progressive America’s septuagenarian darling was forced to publicly outface his own supporters, his calls for a rally to the Clintonite banner met with a chorus of hisses and despondent cries of his name. In effect, the Senator from Vermont has lost control of the movement he himself has led for over a year.
After all the turmoil of this election season, a cycle that has come to dwarf 2008’s upset on virtually every level. Hillary’s nomination seemed a postscript, an anti-climax; Clinton is, after all, a rather dry, almost bureaucratic phenomenon, lacking to her name anything like the popular program that rendered Sanders an unlikely contender.
Amid the bluster and the shenanigans, it is all too easy to forget that all three candidates represent modes of discourse that are fundamentally conservative, if unmistakably distinctive in both form and content. Clinton is, beyond a shade of a doubt, Wall Street’s horse in the race, a safe inheritor of the Obama legacy. If she carries the race in November, her victory will be attributable to America’s yearning for a semblance of normalcy, something other than the doomy frothing of Donald Trump. One senses, however, that this would be a battle against the tides of an age – whether the former Secretary of State knows it or not, ‘normal’ is over.
The American middle class is in terminal decline, its constituents tumbling gradually into a state of perennial precarity; such is the great cliché of this election. Sanders pushes the line with a zeal that puts his Democratic rival to shame, winning over the liberal studentry, those whom crave the relative social security of their parents’ generation, at the expense of America’s most disenfranchised peoples, the inner-city ethnic workers whom have never felt an affinity with their suburban, mostly white counterparts.
Trump appeals to similar sentiments and interests, though he is a radically different creature, virulent, nihilistic and self-righteously demagogic. His supporters tend to be older and more conventionally ‘blue collar’, concentrated in the old Rust Belt; they are staunchly conservative without obvious exception, and gravitate towards anti-immigrant populism as a means of expressing their disaffection.
Neither firebrand (and only Trump now stands) looks particularly well-disposed to combat this atrophy, not least because it is already in its advanced stages – the well-paid industrial jobs, those upon which the middle class was founded, left with American industry when it went abroad. Trump entertains the puerile (and abjectly dangerous) notion that the U.S. might yet redeem itself with the inauguration of a protectionist state, but Sanders’ proposals for sweeping welfare reforms are also frequently unfeasible. Such policy prescriptions fail to account for the lack of genuine investment by American capital (the ‘billionaire class’) in such a venture. That his campaign is forced to recall historical circumstances when such was the case only underscores this fact; a ‘second New Deal’ is not imminent.
There is a terrible momentum at the heart of the Trump cultus, oft-forgotten in the face of his general buffoonery. It is all too easy to dismiss Trump as a mere spectacle, indicative of an infantilism now endemic among a certain section of Americans, but his very existence hints at something far worse – that the American system itself has degenerated into sarcastic delirium, with actual political controversies playing a polarising, albeit incidental role within what is an essentially superficial, almost apolitical process.
Trump embodies what appears to be a permanent tendency towards a more formally oligarchic governance, with the commons encouraged to renounce long-established political rights in exchange for a pretence of security. What else could lie at the heart of Trump’s elitist posturing concerning his negotiating credentials, or his endorsement at the RNC by Peter Thiel, a tech mogul with an explicitly antidemocratic agenda?
There can be no doubt: the dystopic future haunting Joe Blow and his family, in which the middle class is compelled to trade in its liberty and its prosperity for the betterment of a ravenous elite, is already upon America. For a glimpse at the result of this grand social unmaking, one should look no further than the insurrection that has come to engulf the urban ghettos each summer, as irate, mostly jobless black youth take on militarised, increasingly unaccountable police units in pitched, bloody frenzies. Just over a decade ago, Ferguson, Missouri was proud to call itself a middle class enclave. The rest, they say, is history.