The Neoliberal Narcissism of Elite Democrats: Three Presidents and a Columnist
There’s nothing like the hypocritical narcissism of the elite neoliberal Democrat. It’s something to see. First he elegantly embraces and advance “free market” doctrine that distributes wealth and power upward while spreading misery amongst the populace and destroying the Earth. Then he wants to be accorded progressive and humanitarian points when you preen with concern over the predictable terrible social and/or environmental toll that neoliberal policy takes. In classic narcissistic fashion, the elite Democratic neoliberal dissociates from the pain he inflicts, wrapping himself in Teflon as he feigns disapproval with the outcomes of the agenda he helped take forward. It’s always those evil crazy Republicans’ fault, of course.
Thomas Friedman on the Threat of Plutocracy
Look, for example, at a recent column by New York Times opinion writer and world famous neoliberal champion and Iraq Invasion supporter Thomas Friedman. Titled “Why Nations Fail,” it provides a favorable review of a recent book bearing the same title by M.I.T. economist Daron Acemoglu and Harvard political scientist James A. Robinson. Friedman offers great approval for Acemoglu and Robinson’s argument that (in Friedman’s words) “Nations thrive when they develop ‘inclusive’ political and economic institutions, and they fail when those institutions become ‘extractive’ and concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of only a few.” While most of Friedman’s column focuses on the threat of national failure in China, it ends with an approving reference to Acemoglu’s fear that “our huge growth in economic inequality [inside the U.S.] is undermining the inclusiveness of America’s institutions, too. The real problem is that economic inequality, when it becomes this large, translates into political inequality.’ When one person can write a check to finance your whole campaign, how inclusive will you be as an elected official to listen to competing voice?” 
Nice. So Freidman expects us to forget that his bestselling books The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999) and The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century (2005) and his many columns and lucrative, corporate-funded talks over many years have been dedicated to spreading the vacuously vicious neoliberal doctrine of global capitalist “creative destruction” – all about the upward capitalist distribution of wealth and power. Friedman has consistently argued that planetary interconnectedness meant that “there is no alternative” (TINA) to corporate and financial globalization – the great destroyer of working classes, welfare programs, and domestic economies. (He has also honored the role of the imperial U.S. military in spreading and protecting the multinational corporate order.) Like his surname-sake Milton, Thomas Friedman has done more than his part to bring the United States to it current point as by far and away the most wealth-top-heavy and unequal industrialized nation in the industrialized world – a broken society and failed state wherein the top 1 percent owns more than a third of the nation’s wealth and a significantly larger share of its elected officials while more than 43 million Americans live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level and half the U.S. population is either officially poor or low income (living at less than half the poverty measure).
No wonder I did a double take when I noticed that Friedman’s “Why Nations Fail” column appeared on April First of this year. Is he trying, I wondered, to pull an April Fools on unsuspecting readers by claiming to oppose economic inequality?
Bill Clinton: “We’re All in This Together”
But let’s leave aside mere power-serving scribes and propagandists and look at some neoliberal narcissists who have actually held real power. Another good example of the syndrome diagnosed here (Democratic Party Neoliberal Narcissist Political Personality Disorder) is of course the uber-narcissist and former Democratic president Bill Clinton. Clinton’s latest book, titled “Back to Work” reminds Americans that “we’re all in this together” and bemoans the triumph of an egoistic, arch-capitalist ethos that says “you’re on your own.”
Nice. We are expected to throw his own richly capitalist, Wall Street-friendly history and record down Orwell’s “memory hole” along with Thomas Friedman’s service to the “extractive” few. Campaigning on the claim that he would restore “Hope” in America by “putting people first” over and above the big corporate interests and privileged few, Clinton quickly and decisively “put Wall Street in charge of national economic strategy” once he gained power. His actions reflected his own participation in the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Formed by business-oriented party elites to increase the party’s distance from labor, environmentalism, blacks, and Civil Rights, the DLC’s mission was to steer the Democratic Party closer to the corporate, imperial, southern, suburban, and racially accomodationist center. Its goal was to advance post-partisan corporate convergence between Democratic and Republican agendas at the elite level and to impose economically and racially regressive polices behind the cloak of “progressive” and “pragmatic,” “get-things done” realism.
Clinton's domestic agenda was first announced as a gigantic jobs-creation program coupled with a determined effort to guarantee health care for all. But, as Howard Zinn noted in an updated edition of his bestselling A People’s History of the United States, (originally published in 1980), Clinton quickly betrayed these declared campaign priorities by concentrating instead on reduction of the deficit, drastically increased under Reagan and George Bush the First. This emphasis "meant that there would be no bold programs of expenditures for universal health care, education, child care, housing, the environment, the arts, or job creation." Clinton's "small gestures" toward social justice did "not come close to what was needed in a nation where one-fourth of the children lived in poverty; where homeless people lived on the streets in every major city; where women could not look for work for lack of child care; where the air, the water were deteriorating dangerously." Clinton’s polices reflected his captivity to corporate and Wall Street interests that his key advisors, including former Goldman Sachs CEO Robert Rubin (Clinton’s Treasury Secretary) famously instructed him not to buck.
More than being merely inadequate to the needs of America's millions of truly disadvantaged citizens, the Clinton administration actually attacked the disproportionately non-white poor in numerous interrelated ways. Clinton signed a punitive neoliberal welfare "reform" bill that ended the federal government's guarantee of financial help to impoverished families with dependent children. By forcing poor families getting federal cash assistance (such families were mainly non-white single-parent units) to find employment without establishing concomitant government programs to create or directly provide livable wage jobs, Clinton flooded the nation's low- and poverty-wage and no-benefits job market with hundreds of thousands of defenseless new proletarians. He also scored points with the grinders of the poor by taking welfare benefits away from legal as well as illegal immigrants. It was all done in the name of "Personal Responsibility," "Work Opportunity," and "Reconciliation," to use the key Orwellian phrases of the Clinton-Gingrich welfare-elimination.
Meanwhile, Clinton increased economic insecurity in poor and working-class American communities by signing the investor rights North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) without requiring that it contain significant labor and environmental measures to protect American workers and consumers and livable ecology. NAFTA destroyed tens of thousands of American industrial jobs by tearing down long-established regulatory barriers to the free flow of capital and commodities across the U.S.-Mexican border.
Clinton claimed that "the era of big government is over." He was more than content, however, to sustain funding for the regressive, repressive, and militaristic "right hand of the state." His concern with balanced budgets did not extent to the prison- and military- industrial complexes. As Zinn observed, Clinton's federal government "continued to spend at least $250 billion a year to maintain the military machine" and thereby feed the coffers of the rich and powerful “defense” corporations that had long come to rely on the “Pentagon system” to feed investors bottom line. It was only the left hand of the state, the part that serves and poor and non-affluent majority, that Clinton targeted in his quest for deficit reduction.
Ironically (or fittingly) given its insistence on throwing poor people on to the mercies of the “free” labor market, where most Americans obtain (absurdly) health coverage, the Clinton administration ended without any serious effort to meaningfully deliver on its initial health insurance promises. It also failed to advance any meaningful initiative to protect the beleaguered rights of workers or to increase the woefully inadequate minimum wage. Revealingly described as “recognizably progressive” by Barack Obama in 2006, the Clinton presidency was an excellent case study in what the late and formerly radical political commentator Christopher Hitchens once called the “essence of American politics….the manipulation of populism by elitism.”
A recent front-page New York Times article details some of the terrible consequences of Clintons’ vicious “welfare reform.” The Times’ capable welfare reporter Jason DeParle notes that the nation’s family cash assistance program has been shockingly restricted in its capacity to respond to the drastic increase in poverty that followed the epic recession that began in 2007: “Even with $5 billion in new federal funds, caseloads rose just 15 percent from the lowest level in two generations. Compared with the 1990s peak, the national welfare rolls are still down by 68 percent. Just one in five poor children now receives cash aid, the lowest level in nearly 50 years [emphasis added].”
DeParle contrasts this harsh Dickensian reality with Clinton’s instant smug claims on the effectiveness of “welfare reform” and with the “image of success” that “welfare reform” has enjoyed across the narrow two-party U.S. political spectrum ever since: “‘The debate is over,’ President Clinton said a year after signing the law, which he often cites in casting himself as a centrist. ‘Welfare reform works.’”
DeParle could add that the latest recession, which has done so much to expose the viciousness of the bipartisan welfare “reform,” resulted at least in part from the de-regulation of high finance that the Clinton-Rubin administration undertook at the behest of Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and other elite Wall Street firms during the late 1990s. And that that financial deregulation was joined to the slashing of public family cash assistance in shared neoliberal fealty to the standard state-capitalist principle that market discipline is for the poor and governmental protection is for the poor.
(We won’t hear anything about this from the neo-Clintionian and neo-Carterian (see below) Barack Obama, who “spoke favorably of the [‘welfare reform’] program in his 2008 campaign – promoting his role as a state legislator and cutting Illinois welfare rolls.” Obama has understandably “said little about” the tragic fiasco that is “welfare reform” during his presidency. Poverty has skyrocketed to its highest recorded level without eliciting remotely adequate government assistance to its victims while his administration has provided record-setting taxpayer assistance to the very financial institutions that crashed the national and global economy. (More on Obama in a bit….)
Carterland: “Protecting Corporate Wealth and Power”
Before the Democratic corporatism of Bill Clinton, there was of courser the arguably more pivotal Jimmy Carter Presidency, a major Obama enthusiast who still speaks and writes in pious Christian terms of his hope for social justice. In his 2005 book Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, Carter bemoans the nation’s grotesque rich-poor divide, expressing his spiritual commitment to equality and arguing that The Lord’s Prayer is a call “for an end to political and economic and injustice in worldly regimes.” He clearly wants to be honored and remembered as a man of the people and God, not the worldly and wealthy Few.
Nice. Too bad about his presidency. Rising to power on the basis of his promise to recapture and reinvigorate a citizenry disillusioned by the Vietnam War, Watergate, deepening economic insecurity and growing awareness of environmental deterioration and social disarray, Carter made a populist pitch to American voters. He may have been a millionaire peanut grower, but he put himself forward as an ordinary, plain-speaking farmer moved by simple decency to give ordinary Americans a new sense of hope and change. Making a special appeal to those who saw themselves as besieged by the rich and the powerful, Carter made a heavily publicized speech to the legal profession in which he denounced the use of law to serve and protect the wealthy few. Carter promised to eliminate flagrant tax loopholes for corporations and the rich and proposed to raise the tax on capital gains and reduce rates on individuals. He also promised to introduce a major health care reform providing coverage for millions uninsured Americans. His personal campaign mission was to restore hope in Washington and America by shrinking the distance between the American people and American politics and the promise to roll back the power of special corporate interests was a key part of that promise.
Once he attained power, however, Carter “remained,” Zinn noted in A People’s History, “within the historic political boundaries of the American system, protecting corporate wealth and power, maintaining a huge military machine that drained the national wealth…” He appointed a strong militarist and nuclear power advocate as Secretary of Energy and made numerous other cabinet appointments calculated to win approval from of the upper reaches of the “business community.” His 1977 tax reform did little to help working class and poor people and the tax bill that Congress passed and Carter signed the following year “was perhaps the most regressive measure since the 1920s,” according to William Greider. According to renowned economist Robert Lekachman, the bulk of the 1978 tax measure’s “benefits accrue[d] to the affluent individuals and corporations.” Carter’s energy bill benefited oil companies more than consumers and the health reform measures he pledged never materialized. Reflecting his declared neoliberal desire to reduce the size of government and lesson its control over “the free market,” Carter supported business-backed legislation that concentrated corporate control and deepened economic insecurity for consumers and workers by deregulating airlines, trucking, natural gas, and banks. He made no effort to expand or renew the anti-poverty and social welfare initiatives of his Democratic Lyndon Johnson or to strengthen the American labor movement through aggressive enforcement of the National Labor Relations Act. Under Carter, federal funds that might have gone to inner-city schools and health and social services were diverted instead to an expanded military budget even as the press published numerous reports of wasteful “defense” spending and rampant corporate-Pentagon corruption.
By Greider’s account, “Carter’s aides, like Reagan’s, responded mainly to industry complaints, not broad principle.” In 1979, as Carter diverted money from social programs and contradicted his aim of shrinking government with giant, corporate-friendly Pentagon budgets, the Children’s Defense Fund reported that one in every seven American children lacked a known primary health care source and that one in every three children under seventeen had never seen a dentist.
As political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have recently noted, the rightward shift of American social and economic policy that produced the United States’ unmatched inequality in the developed world began not under the Republican presidency of Richard Nixon (1969-1974) or Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) but during the Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter. Playing off the title of liberal historian Rick Perlstein’s popular book Nixonland, Hacker and Pierson argue that it would be more helpful for us to think of ourselves as still living in the reactionary world that the Carter period made:
“If one wanted a book titled to capture the great [rightward] turning point in modern American political history, it would be more accurate, if less catchy, to call it Carterland. 1977 and 1978 marked the rapid demise of the liberal era and the emergence of something different. Tax reform: defeated. A new consumer protection agency: defeated…Health-care reform: defeated. A proposal to tie the minimum wage to the average manufacturing wage: defeated. An overhaul of outdated labor relations laws: successfully filibustered in the Senate, despite the presence of sixty-one Democrats and a Republican minority containing some genuine supporters of organized labor, not to mention far, far more moderates than in the GOP we know today.”
“It wasn’t just the string of defeats for liberal policy initiatives, stunning as those were. By 1978, at a time of unified Democratic control of the House, Senate, and White House, the precursors of the Reagan revolution were already visible. Congress passed a tax bill whose signature provision was a deep cut in the capital gains tax – a change that would largely benefit the wealthy. This followed hard on the heels of a decision to sharply raise payroll taxes, the most regressive federal levy. These two initiatives – fully a decade removed from the supposed turning point of Nixon’s rise – marked the beginning point of [a] pronounced [regressive] reversal in [U.S.] tax policy…”
“At the same time, Congress and the president embarked on a major shift in economic policy, embracing the argument that excessive regulation had become a serious curb on growth.”
Obamasawatomie: “There’s an Ever-Widening Chasm”
Then of course there’s Barack Obama, aptly described in 1996 (at the birth of his career in political office) as a “vacuous to repressive neoliberal” by the astute left political scientist and commentator Adolph Reed Jr. True to Hitchens’ maxim on U.S. politics, Obama has been striking a populist pose this campaign year, running as the president of ordinary working people and the 99 percent against those evil nasty 1-percenter Republicans, against the excessive concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, and (echoing his role model Clinton) against the notion that everyday and poor people are “on their own.” In a recent “fiery” speech before the annual luncheon of the Associated Press, the president lit into the Republican Party’s regressive plan for the county as outlined in House Majority Leader Paul Ryan’s GOP budget proposal and in the presidential campaign of the multibillionaire Mitt Romney. Obama decried the Republican vision of a society in which “a shrinking number of people do exceedingly well, while a growing number struggle to get by” and “there’s an ever-widening chasm between the ultra-rich and everybody else.” Against the Republicans’ claim “that when [by Obama’s paraphrase] the wealthy become even wealthier,…their success will automatically translate into more jobs and prosperity for everybody else,” Obama observed that “the income of the top 1 percent has grown by more than 275 percent…to more than $1.3 million a year” with no positive results for the rest of the country over the last three decades of trickle-down economics.
The president has been mouthing this sort of progressive-sounding rhetoric for some time now. Last December in a major address in Osawatomie, Kansas (chosen because it was where Theodore Roosevelt posed as a friend of the workingman against the plutocrats in a famous 1910 speech calling for a “Square Deal”), Obama said that “We’re still home to the world’s most innovative companies. But for most Americans,” Obama continued, “the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments -- wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren’t -- and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up.”
Nice. Too bad about his presidency. “Our black president” (as the progressive editor and commentator Matthew Rothschild mistakenly called Obama in October of 2010) has belonged to Wall Street and corporate America from the start. With its expansion of the monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down parasitic financial institutions, its passage of a health “reform” bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love (consistent with Rahm Emmanuel’s advice to the president: “ignore the progressives”), its cutting of an auto bailout deal that raided union pension funds and rewarded capital flight, its undermining of global carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen, its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its green-lighting of escalated strip mining and hazardous deepwater oil drilling, its disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies (remember the Employee Free Choice Act?), its freezing of federal wages and salaries, its appointment of a Deficit Reduction Commission “headed by avowed enemies of Social Security” (to quote left economist Michael Hudson), its cutting of a deficit reduction deal was that all about slashing social spending instead of raising taxes on the rich, its refusal to embrace the remarkable 2011 public worker rebellion against the epic union-busting efforts of Wisconsin’s hard right Governor Scott Walker, its role in coordinating the militarized police-state assault on Occupy Movements across the U.S. and much more terrible to mention, Obama’s “change” and “hope” presidency epitomized the power of what the radical critics Edward S. Herman and David Peterson have called the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money.” During the sleazy soap opera that was the reactionary, elite-manufactured “debt-ceiling crisis” last summer, it is worth recalling, the “progressive” Obama was ready to advance massive cuts in Medicate and Social Security that went beyond what the rightmost of the two dominant parties was seeking.
This is some recent background to keep in mind as Obama jaunts across the nation on an epic and record-setting pace of elite fundraising events (some costing nearly $80,000 a plate) while claiming to rely on grassroots $3-5 contributions and to be a friend of everyday people in their struggle against the 1 percent.
Along with plutocratic records of Carter and Clinton, Obama’s service to the rich and powerful should be kept firmly in mind if and when Mitt Romney ascends to national power – a very distinct possibility given the current state of economic and campaign finance affairs in the U.S. With a Republican in the White House, liberals and progressives fall into the standard trap of thinking that the only thing wrong with the country is that “those insane evil Republicans are in charge” and that the cure to the nation’s ills is to bring back a Democrat. The real history of the nation’s last four neoliberal-narcissist Democratic Presidents and of the Democratic Party across the long neoliberal era (the mid-1970s to the present) suggests something very different. It reminds us of the wisdom behind Zinn’s oft-repeated counsel that the most critical thing isn’t “who’s sitting in the White House” bur rather “who is sitting in – in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories….who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating” and of Noam Chomsky’s repeated counsel on serious politics:
“The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses.”
“Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, “That’s politics.” But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics...”
“The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its foundations include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, everyday, not just once every four years…”
“So in the election, sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome. “
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at email@example.com
 Thomas Friedman, “Why Nations Fail,” New York Times, April 1, 2012
 “For globalization to work,” Friedman wrote in The New York Times Magazine ion March 28, 1998, “
 Alexander Cockburn, “Presidential Elections,” 12, in Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair (on John F. Kerry), Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils (Petrolia, CA, and Oakland, CA: CounterPunch and AK Press, 2004). .
 Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (
 Christopher Hitchens, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (
 Jason DeParle “Welfare Limits Left Poor Adrift as Recession Hit,” New York Times, April 7, 2012.
 For an excellent progressive critique of neoliberal “Cintonomics,” see Robert Pollin, Contours of Decent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity (
 Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How
 Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice (January 16, 1996), reproduced in Reed, Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (
 Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at the Associated Press Luncheon,” Marriot Wardman Park,
 White House, “Remarks by the President on the Economy at
 Matthew Rothschild, “Rampant Xenophobia,” The Progressive, October 16, 2010, 8.
 See Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at
the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond,” Electric Politics,
July 22, 2009, available at http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2009/hp240709.html ; and
Need for Real Change at Home, Not Just in the
14, 2011) at http://www.zcommunications.org/america-sunelected-dictatorship-of-money-by-paul-street;
 F. Schouten, ”Obama Tops Recent Presidents in Fundraising Attendance,”
 See, for example, “Spike Lee Hosts President Obama Fundraiser, Tweets Photos & Commentary,” Huffington Post (January 20, 2012) at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/20/spike-lee-hosts-president-obama-fundraiser_n_1218479.html; Alex Marin, “$38,500 a Head Spike Lee Dinner for Barack Obama Contradicts President’s Fundraising Claims,” policymic (January 21, 2012) ar http://www.policymic.com/articles/3267/38-500-per-person-spike-lee-dinner-for-obama-contradicts-president-s-fundraising-claims
 Josh Vorhees, “Team Obama Calls Billion Dollar Campaign Rumors ‘Bulls**t,” The Slatest (December 29, 2011) at http://slatest.slate.com/posts/2011/12/29/obama_2012_jim_messina_says_billion_dollar_campaign_rumors_are_bullshit_.html
 “The Legacy of Howard Zinn,” Socialist Worker (November 2, 2010), read at http://socialistworker.org/blog/critical-reading/2010/11/02/legacy-howard-zinn.