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The End of Clintonism, Why the Center Does Not Hold, and A Call to the Politics of American Destiny

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by Josh Chernila

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

W. B. Yeats, 1865 – 1939
====================================
In 1984, Walter Mondale ran the last progressive campaign for the presidency. He was defeated in the worst electoral landslide in American history, handing Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign an unprecedented mandate and the conservative movement its most powerful emotional moment.

In the face of the failure of identity and liberal politics, Bill Clinton and his advisers made a deft and marked calculation: accept the economic policies of the right, but back them up with a liberal social agenda. As a result, Bill and the Democrats, who took the names “Third Way” and “Democratic Leadership Council”, fully abandoned any pretense of protecting the ECONOMIC interests of working families, banking instead that the mantra “Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal” could define a generation. It worked.

Bill Clinton was elected President of the United States two times, and while he made some strides in expanding acceptance of minorities and sexual orientations, his economic policies were decidedly conservative. He stripped away the wall between commercial and investment banking. He opened the way for massive media consolidation. He cut access to the social safety net and proclaimed “The end of Big Government.”

Bill Clinton’s national success as a President emptied out the ranks of genuine progressives, and left progressive politics foundering for a generation. Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton are all Democrats in the “Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal” vein. They sought to work across party lines to engage conservatives. They gave conservatives massive victories in everything from Judicial Reform, to Welfare Reform, to Health Care Reform.

A funny thing happened, however, as Democrats passed conservative landmark after conservative landmark: conservatives weren’t appeased. The best example of this is Obamacare. President Obama built his landmark legislation, which was designed to eliminate the worst excesses of the failing American health care system, on the most conservative plan he could find from a conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation.

It was an utterly centrist approach, one that protected the for-profit healthcare industry’s profits, while providing care for children, women, and the poor, critical from a public health standpoint.

Rather than accept the singular accomplishment of President Obama — that healthcare should be a right of Americans and that it could be done while protecting the for-profit healthcare industry’s profits — and rather than accepting landmark legislation that served the broad interests of all Americans, the conservative movement took the legislation as a great abomination. They labeled it fascism, socialism…you name it. They used it as a rallying cry to denounce what they claimed to be a murder industry and an attack on religious liberty. They shamelessly lied about everything they could, and terrified their people to rally against the President.

This led to the Tea Party revolution of 2010, which ensconced not only a strong Republican majority in the House and gutted the Democratic majority in the Senate, but more importantly turned control of governorships and state legislatures over to Republicans in a census year, thus allowing a nationwide Republican gerrymander that makes a Democratic House majority a near impossibility — potentially for decades to come.

It wasn’t reasonable. It wasn’t fair. Republicans and conservatives spread lies and disinformation and used the fear of the masses to overwhelm the Democrats’ reasoned approach to governance. Democratic technocrats saw the problems of the people and they gave them a solution. The conservative movement turned it into Armageddon and a call to rebellion.

A similar result followed from Bill Clinton’s embrace and modification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The agreement was created by Ronald Reagan and initialed (but not ratified) by George HW Bush. By championing the cause of international corporatist trade, Bill Clinton and the Democratic Centrists opened themselves up to impassioned attacks on the world “neoliberal” trade infrastructure and let themselves be blamed for the corporate takeover of American democracy. Like “free trade,” this corporate takeover was championed overwhelmingly by congressional Republicans, with limited support from only a few centrist Democrats.

Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, and Democrats need to understand that the era of Centrism has been, on the whole, a political disaster for our party. During the Obama years, over 1,000 (!) elected offices have been lost to Republicans nationwide, from school board to state legislatures to the White House. Now, we need to take a look at why Republicans are a party with passion and the Democrats are a party without direction.

The best example of this can be seen in a gotcha moment from the 2016 campaign. Donald Trump, when pushed on the question of whether women who seek abortions should be punished, answered directly to the heart of the conservative movement, “There has to be some punishment.” This, quote, in and of itself, is the quintessential embodiment of the moral worldview of conservatism: the strict father paradigm.

George Lakoff, in his seminal exploration of the Cognitive Science of Politics, Moral Politics, explains that there are two political worldviews struggling for ascendancy in America: The Strict Father vs. The Nurturing Parent. Per Wikipedia:

The strict father model of parenting is one which values strict discipline, particularly by the father, in parenting.

Ideas involved in this model include:

  • That children learn through reward and punishment, as in operant conditioning. Corporal punishment, such as spanking, is favored in this model relative to other models.
  • That children become more self-reliant and more self-disciplined by having strict parents.
  • That the parent, particularly the father, is meant to mete out rewards for good behavior as well as punish bad behavior.

——————–
The nurturant parent model is a parenting style which envisions a family model where children are expected to explore their surroundings, while being protected by their parents. This model believes that children inherently know what they need and should be allowed to explore their environment.

The parents are responsible for protecting their child during this exploration, including protecting their child from serious mistakes, by offering guidance. A child will be picked up if the child cries because the parent wants the child to feel safe and nurtured. If a child grows up believing that its needs will be met, it will be more confident when facing challenges.

  • Ideas involved in this model include:
  • True discipline is not a matter of strict obedience, but of respect and compassion.
  • The world is no more inherently hostile than it is inherently friendly; it merely commands respect.
  • Respect and compassion can only be taught by example.

——————
By abandoning the nurturant parent worldview for the strict parent worldview, Clintonism, in both domestic and trade policy, gave full sway in the American mental and emotional state to the Strict Father paradigm. Every time Democrats sided with punishment over treatment in criminal justice, for example, they built the emotional structures necessary for every American to side with Republicans. Every time they sided with international austerity economic trade, they encouraged America as a whole to punish the American working class in favor of the wealthy.

All the while, Republicans were building strict father arguments through their culture wars that demanded adherence to a highly hierarchical, and deeply resentful structure. Within the hierarchy of the strict father worldview, wealthy, white, Christian, American-born males reign supreme. Women are to be subservient to men. African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Asians, other religions and those without means have their place within the structures created by those wealthy, white, Christian men, but it is always subservient. And critically, anyone who does not adhere to the strict codes of conduct and status conferred by that worldview are to be punished.

Muslims are less. African Americans are less. Women are less, and they must take their rightful place as defined by the Strict Fathers — or punishment is to be applied. Thus, calls for Muslim’s to be identified and potentially exiled, calls for the “undocumented” to be deported forcefully, for women to lose reproductive rights (women who have sex out of wedlock are breaking the strict rules of the strict father and must be punished) — and on and on.

As Clintonian Centrism gives way to conservatism on economic policy, it reinforces it and allows itself to be blamed for the perceived excesses it enacts. When Bill Clinton and the Centrists abandoned progressive economics, they stopped fighting for the Nurturant Parent worldview.

The Nurturant Parent worldview is much different, and every policy follows from that difference. In the worldview of progressive policy, it is the role of parents and of government to protect each individual in society. It is also their role to provide individuals with all they require to identify their authentic path in life and to make it possible for each individual, group, organization and people to make their fullest contribution to the nation and mankind regardless of race, creed, sex or orientation. Each may find his way, that each may give all they are and fulfill a singular powerful destiny.

The great failing of Democratic Centrists is that they abandon the power of the individual to find their way to self determination.

It doesn’t matter whether you want to live your life as a mechanic or a politician, a farmer or a statistician, a soldier or a scholar; the Nurturant Parent worldview sets policy — economic and social, domestic, foreign, and trade — that helps support you in your own aspirations and your own destiny.

Our national destiny cannot and must not be determined by the will of one demagogue, such as Donald Trump, and the hatred his movement engenders. Our national destiny must be the aggregate determination of hundreds of millions of deeply fulfilled, secure, and authentically empowered individuals giving all they are to a system that helped them determine precisely what they want to be.

The politics of destiny constitute the future of the Democratic party, America and the world. The Trump years will be years of increasing authoritarianism, as the corporatism of Paul Ryan eliminates the private sector, and the theocracy of Mike Pence uses religiosity to enforce a deeply hierarchical political structure on every American.

The misery that Trump, Pence, Ryan et al. enforce will require increasing repression and pain in order to reinforce itself. Democrats must first realize that every Centrist capitulation only serves to reinforce the authoritarianism of the right. We must immediately embrace the Politics of Destiny to oppose the coming onslaught of conservative privatization and authoritarianism, and prepare powerful policy and above all else, communications strategies, so that we can rebuild the structures of freedom that conservatism stands now poised to overthrow.

  • I was with you until the use of Lakoff. (I tend to think the importance of the overarching narrative framework is overstated, even beyond what Lakoff would want.) But you don’t need to accept the framing argument to grasp your larger point – centrism has ceded ground to conservatism and, over and over again, that’s just emboldened conservatives to take more. Centrism, particularly the adoption of Heritage-friendly economic policies, has to end. Liberal Democrats need to stop worrying about being “reasonable.”

    • Yeah, I like Lakoff to a point, but I think he takes it way too far. Still, I think this is an excellent post by Josh; lots of excellent points that need to be made.

    • u_no_nothing_jon_sno

      Democrats need an orienting core to drive what we do and to determine our policies. How a powerful Progressivism of American Destiny translates into policy is the next step, and then how to relentelessly drive it through communications. stay tuned

  • David Dickinson

    For the sake of the couple of conservatives reading this, could you write shorter blogs with smaller words? For instance: White, bad. Male, bad. White male, very bad. Compromise, bad. Centrists, traitors. Radical left, good. Socialism, Nirvana.

    Just so I feel better after reading this diatribe, let’s repeat the best part, “During the Obama years, over 1,000 (!) elected offices have been lost to Republicans nationwide.” Again, if you have winning solutions then how did Democrats lose 1,000! elections. Hint: it wasn’t gerrymandering.

    And, only in liberallalalaland can one say with a straight face, “we can rebuild the structures of freedom that conservatism stands now poised to overthrow” ???? Are you seriously positing that the strong centralized government model of the Democrats is freedom enhancing, but the small government principles of conservatism are totalitarian? Stop taking the blue pills.

    • u_no_nothing_jon_sno

      How free can you be when you are hungry, or you can’t get an education, or you have no access to healthcare? How much can you pursue your true goals in life if you are stuck working multiple jobs to keep food on the table. Conservative freedom means freedom to make all the money you can without regard to who gets hurt. Progressive freedom means the freedom to pursue your goals and talents so you can make a genuine contribution to society in the way that is most fulfilling.

      In other words, stupid = bad, authentic = good. @david dickenson, thanks for playing, and for the extra rudeness, also greatly appreciated. Hope you enjoyed that.

      • David Dickinson

        “Most economic fallacies derive from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another.” -Milton Friedman
        That is a fundamental economic truth that almost all progressives don’t understand and which you just demonstrated.

        • u_no_nothing_jon_sno

          Milton Friedman’s greatest success was in bankrupting the west. You shouldn’t talk about things you are obviously ignorant of. Supply siders not only sold the power of the American Middle class, but also our Representational Government. Ask economists whether the supply side fiasco was anything more than a massive transfer of wealth to the upper classes. Much like Climate Change, those who aren’t paid by big money interests will agree 100%.

          • David Dickinson

            As I just said, a fundamental economic truth that almost all progressives don’t understand and which you just demonstrated (again, and again).
            The proof of its success is the great disparity between the standard of living in the USA and just about everywhere else in the world. “Poor” by our standards is rich by 50% of the world’s population.