Freedom and liberal democracy must return to States
Trinity’s honouring of Hillary Clinton taps into desire to turn tide on Trump
Hillary Clinton: won the popular vote in the American presidential election by three million votes but failed to carry the electoral college. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty
Liberal democracy and freedom are under assault in America to an extent not seen since the 1930s. Prof Timothy Snyder reminds us in his book, On Tyranny, that both fascism and communism “were responses to globalisation, to the real and perceived inequality it created, and the apparent helplessness of the democracies in addressing them”. Snyder believes “it could happen here” and that independent judges and journalists are our main defence against tyranny in America as President Donald Trump tramples on human rights and freedom supported by a Republican-controlled Congress.
Many of us in America spent the past year saddened and outraged by the American president’s collusion and cruelty, compounded by his lies and attacks on our media, judges and allies. Now there is a growing determination to fight for liberal democracy and to defend its institutions and values. We are moving beyond protest to organising at local level, registering voters and selecting talented candidates for coming elections at municipal, state and federal levels.
Many of us in America spent the past year saddened and outraged by the American president’s collusion and cruelty, compounded by his lies and attacks on our media, judges and allies
This is also a good time to honour the champions of liberal democracy which is why I applaud Trinity College for awarding an honorary degree to Hillary Clinton, a consistent champion of human rights around the world and of equal rights in Northern Ireland. Nearly two long years ago, Clinton won the popular vote in the American presidential election by three million votes but failed to carry the electoral college. Her loss was in part due to Russian manipulation of voters through social media and, as the recent inspector general’s report from the US department of justice confirms, to former FBI director James Comey twice breaking with protocols to disclose internal investigations of her emails. It is clear that Comey owes Clinton an apology for double standards in publicising her investigation but not that of Trump for potential Russian collusion.
Hillary’s policies in the 2016 presidential campaign enshrined the same values of liberal democracy as those espoused by Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal which helped keep America free from fascism. Speaking at the Democratic national convention in July 2016, she said, “If you believe that companies should share profits with their workers, not pad executive bonuses, join us. If you believe the minimum wage should be a living wage . . . and no one working full time should have to raise their children in poverty . . . join us. If you believe that every man, woman, and child in America has the right to affordable healthcare . . . join us.”
She promised “to make college tuition-free for the middle class and debt-free for all” a crucial contribution to social fairness when 44 million American Millennials and Gen Z’s are suffering under $1.5 trillion (yes trillion) in student debt.
I saw Hillary in Pittsburgh two days after that convention when she attracted large audiences with her message that something radical needed to be done for ordinary Americans. This was the same Hillary who had hung out with the Latina housekeepers in Las Vegas hotels at 1am during the primary against Bernie Sanders, the same Hillary who stood up for racial and sexual equality all her life.
And Hillary’s warnings about Trump were prescient: “He wants to divide us – from the rest of the world, and from each other. He’s taken the Republican Party a long way . . . from Morning in America to Midnight in America.”
America’s political and social woes stem largely from the productivity-pay gap. For 25 years from the late 1940s to the 1970s, the wages and benefits of workers rose in tandem with productivity. According to the Economic Policy Institute, this changed drastically in the 1970s; from 1973 to 2016 productivity rose by 73.7 per cent while hourly pay essentially stagnated, rising by 12 per cent. For example, when I was at the Heinz company in the late 1980s, low-skilled hourly workers earned $40 an hour in pay and benefits. Today such workers are lucky to earn $20 an hour, with direct-benefit pensions ended. The result is that the median savings account balance is $5,200, not enough to pay for a health emergency and totally inadequate in a society where the safety net has been ripped apart.
The system has become rigged in favour of capital at a time when workers have largely lost strike power due to labour competition from Asia and robotics.
This is not democratic capitalism, it is rogue capitalism where, as Warren Buffett famously complained, his secretary pays a higher percentage of her income in taxes than he does. Jack Bogle, founder of the $5 trillion index fund Vanguard likens Wall Street to a casino where the croupiers during the past decade “have raked in something like $565 billion each year from you and your fellow investors.” That’s half a trillion dollars that should instead have gone to the pension funds of teachers, nurses and other hard-working Americans.
Bogle believes that free market capitalism has failed, that “Adam Smith’s invisible hand in which pursuing our own self-interests leads to the good of society no longer works in an age of giant global corporations”.
Bogle believes free market capitalism has failed, that 'Adam Smith’s invisible hand...no longer works in an age of giant global corporations'
Who will fight for liberal democracy in America in 2018 and beyond? The good news is that this year thousands of young people have become active in Democratic party politics and labour unions at local and national level. One of them is Conor Lamb who was elected to the House of Representatives last March in a special election in a Pittsburgh district that Trump had won by 19 points. Lamb, a former marine whose uncle is honorary consul for Ireland, won by focusing the voters on his opponent’s record of undermining pensions and unions, not becoming distracted by wedge issues like race, abortion and gun laws.
The immediate goal of those who would protect liberal democracy in America is to win the House for Democrats in November, a tough task given Trump’s gift for promoting racist fears and divisions and the millions of dollars in dark money pumped into negative advertising and social media. A Democratic House would hold hearings on White House corruption and provide a platform for advocating progressive reforms.
As for the presidential election in 2020, in light of the fact that, nearly two years after the election, Trump’s tax legislation and failure to introduce an infrastructure plan or address low wages has made millions of Americans even poorer and angrier, a successful Democratic candidate for president in 2020 better look like he/she is going to restore the American dream of fair wages, security in retirement and affordable education and healthcare. And defend the institutions of freedom and liberal democracy.
Ted Smyth is a former Irish diplomat, business executive and a public affairs consultant based in New York City