In the years leading up to the 2008 financial crash, an influential section of the American political class became convinced that a major economic crisis was on its way.
Serious Washington players like Robert Rubin, who served as head of Bill Clinton’s National Economic Council from 1993 to 1995, Peter Orszag, another heavyweight Clintonite economist, and Larry Summers, Clinton’s Treasury Secretary between 1999 and 2001, all raised the alarm.
Gordon Brown’s first act after he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1997 was to grant the Bank of England operational independence.
The move was meant to signal a newfound pragmatism in Labour’s approach to the economy – no more reckless spending, no more excessive borrowing, no more outlandish leftwing demands for full employment. Instead, in stark contrast to the behaviour of previous Labour governments, the Blair-Brown administration would be a responsible steward of Britain’s national finances.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Western leaders made a series of lofty claims regarding the benefits of globalisation.
“The global economy is giving billions around the world the chance to work and live and raise their families with dignity,” Bill Clinton remarked during the final months of his presidency. “The problem is not [that] there’s too much of it,” Tony Blair told the Labour party conference in 2001. “On the contrary, there’s too little.” “I want globalisation’s children, the coming generation, to enjoy the vastly increased opportunities it brings,” Gordon Brown evangelised a few years later.
The night before last year’s US presidential election, on 7 November 2016, Bruce Springsteen performed at a rally for Hillary Clinton in downtown Philadelphia. He played three songs: ‘Thunder Road’, ‘Long Walk Home’, and ‘Dancing In The Dark’. But he broke-up his acoustic set by speaking, briefly, from what looks in the YouTube video like a teleprompter. “The choice tomorrow couldn’t be any clearer,” he said. “Hillary’s candidacy is based on intelligence, experience, preparation, and a vision of an America where everyone counts … This is a country where we will indeed be stronger together.”
I remember watching a live stream of that performance and feeling, for the first time since Clinton had secured the Democratic nomination in June, that the former Secretary of State might not actually win. You don’t have to credit Springsteen – as I do – with any kind of special prophetic insight into America’s national character to see that his muted enthusiasm for Clinton reflected a broader public unease. Polls showed that Clinton was the most unpopular presidential candidate in modern American history – except for Donald Trump. And, one way or the other, that grim dynamic cost her the race. In Philadelphia, Springsteen’s reluctant surrogacy for the Democratic nominee seemed, somehow, to foreshadow the result.
Donald Trump’s election as president ten months ago plunged liberal America into disarray. In addition to being at war with the White House, the Democrats are at war with each other. The right of the party blames the left for Hillary Clinton’s defeat in November, and the left levels the same charge against the right. Some liberals are convinced that Trump stole the presidency, because he failed to win the popular vote. Some have even bought into the daft conspiracy theory that Trump is a Russian plant, whose meteoric political rise over the past two years has been carefully stage-managed by the Kremlin.
Out of this confusion, not a lot of useful analysis has emerged. Despite the chaos that seems to permeate every layer of the Trump administration, progressive Americans remain divided and adrift. Trump’s healthcare bill – which, if implemented, would have stripped 24 million people of their medical insurance – failed this summer as a result of Republican, not Democratic, opposition. (The Democrats are in a minority in both Houses of Congress.) Meanwhile, Democratic commentators have been reduced to poring over every minor piece of Washington gossip for evidence of Trump’s looming resignation, impeachment, or arrest.
On a cold February morning two years ago, Gordon Brown held a press conference on the top floor of the Doubletree Hotel in Edinburgh. Framed by a bright, clear view of the capital’s skyline, with the castle fixed immutably in the distance, the former prime minister launched – once more – into the constitutional debate. Independence, he said, would mean breaking all ties to Britain. Scotland should lead the United Kingdom, not leave it. Only the Labour Party understands this country’s unique commitment to social justice.
And yet as Brown paced the stage, wagging his finger at reporters and thunderously regurgitating another stock defence of the devolutionary project, somewhere, on some primitive, subliminal level, he must have known that Scotland was no longer listening, and that in the very near future, regardless of what he said today or of how vigorously he said it, Labour would slip screaming into a broad, black Caledonian abyss.
In May 2015, Bernie Sanders, a 73 year old Senator from a small, rural state – Vermont – launched an unlikely bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Fourteen months later, he conceded defeat to Hillary Clinton. But not before he had chalked-up 13 million votes, 23 caucus and primary victories, and nearly 2000 pledged conference delegates, far exceeding both his own initial expectations and those of the Beltway press.
Sanders’ success in the Democratic primaries should have set alarm bells ringing at the top of the Democratic party. He was a political outsider with little support on Capitol Hill. He was adept at using social media to communicate simple messages to a mass audience. He was a critic of free trade. He spoke the language of economic populism. He charged the “donor class” with “rigging the system” against middle and low income Americans.