01 August 2016

On Chait on Stein

Jonathan Chait's article Jill Stein's Plan To Stop Trump By Electing Him is making the rounds all over my feed, so I guess I have to take a minute to talk about why it is terrible.

There are a host of things that I think disqualify Jill Stein as a standard-bearer for the American left. I hope that in the years to come, Stein will not be one of the visible leaders of left criticism of the Democratic Party, not least because the quote at the heart of this piece demonstrates how she does not know how to speak well to people who are not already in her lefty bubble.

But this piece is reading her in bad faith.*

What does Stein mean when she says “the answer to neofascism is stopping neoliberalism”? Her answer is sloppy, but it is not “gibberish”, and it is easy to understand if you've been paying any attention at all to leftist readings of the Trump phenomenon. That understanding hinges on getting what leftists have taken in recent years to calling “neoliberalism”.

Unhappily, too many folks have asked that word to do too much work, so it's been stretched almost out of usefulness as a precise term of art. It originally meant a school of economics and governance pioneered by the Thatcher administration in the UK, whose American manifestation was Reagan's policy program.

As leftists like Stein use it today, “neoliberalism” means the whole economic policy consensus that has reigned across both parties through the Clinton-Bush-Obama era:

  • Federal Reserve policy willing to lift unemployment in order to prevent inflation
  • Globalist economics that favors not just trade in goods and services but mobility of capital across international boundaries
  • Weak regulation
  • Private provisioning of social insurance as much as possible (401ks over Social Security, private health insurance over single payer, student loans over publicly-funded education, et cetera)

The strength and weakness of this analysis is that it elides the policy divisions between the Democrats and the Republicans and looks at what they have had in common for the last three decades plus.

As lefties tell the tale, neoliberalism has given us the current economic environment and trajectory affecting citizens' lives. Rising economic inequality. Stagnating or falling wages for most Americans, especially the working class who have suffered from the erosion of the manufacturing sector. Economic precarity. Weak public services. Et cetera.

In this reading, it is these consequences of “neoliberalism” that have discredited mainstream politics and policy, shaking Americans' sense that our institutions serve their interests. Disgust at neoliberalism and its fruits (married to perennial racism and authoritarianism) are the reason why Trump's quasi-fascist rhetoric has appealed to enough voters to net him the Republican nomination and make a plausible run at the Presidency.

So to Stein, neoliberal Clinton defeating Trump in November addresses the immediate threat of Trump's quasi-fascism, but will make the conditions that produced that quasi-fascist sentiment even worse. In order to defeat the impulse that Trump represents, we need to defeat the political ideology that produces the economic conditions that produce the hunger that Trump addresses. Thus to defeat Trump's quasi-fascism in the long run, we must defeat neoliberalism.

So no, Stein does not mean that defeating Clinton at the polls in November is the best way to stop fascism in the US; she means that defeating the neoliberal consensus that Clinton represents is the best way to stop fascism in the US. If Chait had been actually listening to the left, he would have known that and would not have written this bullshit article.

* I'd say the article was being willfully obtuse, but I've read a lot of Jonathan Chait, and I believe that his bafflement is as sincere as it is stupid. He can be very sharp on the political mechanics of the mainstream Democratic Party, and he's a good critic of the movement conservatism that has been the main animating force of the GOP since Reagan, but that is the limit of his range. Talking about radicals — whether it's Ta-Nehisi Coates or Trump supporters or Jill Stein — he just cannot bring himself to take them seriously enough to understand where they are coming from. And when it comes to the American left in particular, Chait is the poster child for the lefty critique that influential mainstream liberals hate the hard left, and would rather disdain leftists than win against conservatives if forced to make the choice.