First published on ZNet (June 19, 2014).
Misleading as the right-wing US Republican noise and politics machine might be, there is more than a kernel of truth in that machine’s notion of Democratic Party’s politicos as a bunch of manipulative, fake-populist elitists. Sometimes those corporate politicos drop the Machiavellian ball and give away their game with revealing gaffes.
Bruce Braley Denounces “A Farmer From Iowa”
A case in point comes from Iowa, where a mid-term election campaign is heating up for the US Senate seat being left open by the departure of longstanding Senator Tom Harken (D-IA). Much to the amazement and chagrin of “liberal” MSNBC talk show host Chris Matthews, the Republican candidate and state senator Joni Ernst is leading the Democratic candidate and current US Congressman Bruce Braley (D-IA) in the latest statewide poll on the upcoming election.
Ernst raised establishment eyebrows and moved to the front of the pack of the candidates for the Republican Senate primary in Iowa with a television advertisement boasting that her experience growing up on an Iowa farm “castrating hogs” would help her “cut government pork” (slash government expenditure) in Washington. She’s been endorsed by right-wing icons Sara Palin and Michelle Bachman and boasts of her strong backing from the National Rifle Association.
For mainstream Democrats like Matthews, the “pig castrator” Jon Ernst is a “Teapublican wack job” who does not deserve to be taken seriously as a candidate for the upper chamber of the US Congress. A staunch defender of corporatist “Obamacare,” the softer-spoken three-term Congressman Braley stands closer to the center of the spectrum in Iowa, a state won by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Still, there should be nothing mysterious about the fact that Braley is running behind Ernst. With all due respect for the notoriety Ernst obtained with her provocative campaign ad and the backing of Palin, Braley has himself largely to blame. Last January 23rd, at a political fundraiser with trial lawyers in Texas, Braley had this to say about Iowa’s long-term US Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA):
“If you help me win this race, you may have someone with your background, your experience, your voice…on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Or you might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Because if Democrats lose the majority, Chuck Grassley will be the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
This comment was caught on video and went online last March.
Now, bearing in mind that Braley wants to be the next US Senator from the farm state of Iowa, read the second sentence in that quote a second time. Braley didn’t just criticize Grassley for being a farmer without a law school background. Speaking to fellow lawyers in another state about their national interests in Washington, he called Grassley “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” Where is Braley from? And how did he think that comment was going to play out in the famously agriculture state in which he is running for the US Senate? The Congressman clearly wasn’t speaking with his Machiavellian – or Hitchensian (see below) – thinking cap on.
Braley has made requisite apologies to Grassley and to Iowa farmers. Still, it’s not going to be easy for him to put the occupationally and geographically elitist genie his remark revealed back in the campaign bottle. Jodi Ernst, the Iowa GOP, and the well-funded Republican machine certainly aren’t going to let him and Iowa’s many rural and small-town voters forget his statement in Texas, that’s for sure.
Chris Matthews and his elite MSDNC colleagues in New York City can roll their eyes all they want about “crazy Joni Ernst,” but thanks in no small part to Braley’s comment, the “hog-castrator” has a real shot at stealing the Democrats’ longtime Harken seat – something that could cost the dismal dollar Dems their majority in the US Senate.
“Dead Broke” Clintons: “It Was Not Easy”
A second example has to do with the next US presidential election. Two weeks ago, ABC News scored a high-profile interview with the all-but-formerly-declared Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. In a remarkable part of the interview, ABC’s Diane Sawyer quizzed Clinton on how she expected ordinary working and middle class American voters to identify with a hyper-affluent couple like the Clintons, who’ve received more than $100 million for speaking engagements since leaving the White House. Clinton told Sawyer with a straight face that she and her husband, former US president Bill Clinton, left the White House down and out – in debt and having to “struggle” and “work…really hard” to get back on their feet:
SAWYER: You’ve made five million making speeches? The president’s made more than a hundred million dollars?
CLINTON: Well, you have no reason to remember, but we came out of the White House not only dead broke but in debt. We had no money when we got there, and we struggled to piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea’s education. You know, it was not easy. Bill has worked really hard and it’s been amazing to me. He’s worked very hard. First of all, we had to pay off all our debts. You know, you had to make double the money because of, obviously, taxes, and then pay off the debts and get us houses and take care of family members.
It’s hard not to treat Hillary’s story of post-presidential penury and her related tale of subsequent pulled-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps recovery with anything but dripping populist contempt. It is technically true that the Clinton’s left the presidency in debt. But, according to veteran political commentator John Dickerson, “the Clintons [in late 2000] were not unlike the couple with the winning Powerball ticket: broke at the moment but with the promise of significant riches ahead.” Before they left the White House, Bill and Hillary bought a $2 million home in upstate New York and a $3 million home in Washington DC. Hillary had already signed an $8 million book deal for her memoir Living History. By the end of 2001, the couple’s assets had soared to $30 million and their income exceeded $15 million, both far beyond their remaining debt of $5 million. By 2004 they were worth $50 million. Since leaving the White House, moreover, Bill Clinton has been paid almost $16 million in pension and benefits by the federal government.
Monetizing “Public Service”
The Clintons’ economic recovery had nothing to do with the Lottery – or with the kind of low-paid “hard work” that ordinary, Powerball-buying working-class Americans are commonly forced into by job loss and debt. Bill and Hillary hardly climbed from “dead broke” to super-wealthy status by putting in long night hours at the local Walmart and driving school buses and repairing city streets during the day. Their ascendancy into the upper reaches of the 1% had nothing to do with the American Dream of hard and honest labor leading to upward mobility.
No, they joined the long and lucrative conga line of former officeholders who have “monetized” their many years in “government service.” They cashed in royally on their “experience in public service,” mainly through “public speaking and headlining big events.” Hillary has received $200,000 and above for speaking to such hard-working entities as Goldman Sachs and techno-barons of Silicon Valley. She got a mind-boggling $450,000 for a speech at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) last November. As Nick Sorrentino noted on AgainstCronyCapitalism.org:
“We’ve heard of people getting outrageous speaking fees before. Ms. Clinton and her husband have made a small industry of it. But ask yourself why a group would pay half a million dollars to hear someone speak for 45 minutes? There’s something to be said for having a real headliner at a gathering. But a half-million dollars? No, there is more to it than draw. The bet is that the check from the CME won’t be forgotten in the event Ms. Clinton becomes president. Commodities traders know how to hedge their positions.”
Fittingly enough, the chief beneficiaries of Bill Clinton’s “public service” were the “private” financial elite, whom profited from key Clinton policies, including the investor rights North American Free Trade Agreement and the repeal of crucial financial regulations whose elimination helped create the economic collapse of 2007-2009.
The Essence of American Politics
I doubt that Hillary Clinton’s “dead broke” remarks will hurt her in 2016 to anything like the same degree that Braley’s “farmer from Iowa” comment will damage his chances this Fall. Hillary’s insult to working people is much more diffuse and indirect and it comes much further out from the election date. But these and other differences aside, both comments are emblematic of the deeply embedded elitism that pervades the corporate-captive Democratic Party as well the radically regressive GOP. Privileged candidates and office-holders in both of the two dominant Big Business-financed political organizations (both well to the right of the United States’ working class majority on numerous key issues) want ordinary Americans to think they understand and feel the pain of the non-affluent Many.
But they don’t. They are with and, often enough, from the Few. Their pretense of empathy for the struggling citizenry is a deceptive game, consistent with the formerly Left Christopher Hitchens’ onetime accurate description of “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism” (emphasis added). As Hitchens explained in his book on the Clintons No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (Verso, 1999):
“that elite is most successful which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently ‘elitist.’ It’s no great distance from Huey Long’s robust cry of ‘Every man a king’ to the insipid ‘inclusiveness’ of [Bill Clinton’s slogan] ‘Putting People First,’ but the smarter elite managers have learned in the interlude that solid, measurable pledges have to be distinguished by a ‘reserve’ tag that earmarks them for the bankrollers and backers.” 
A perfect example of that “reserve tag” is Obama and the Democrats’ so-called Affordable Health Care Act. Designed by the Republican Heritage Foundation, it preserves the unchallenged profit-making and price- and rate-gouging power of the nation’s leading insurance and drug companies in cold defiance of public opinion. The single-payer model long favored by most Americans was banned from serious consideration in White House “reform” deliberations, consistent with then White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel’s advice to the president: “ignore the progressives.”
Real differences notwithstanding (it would be impossible to sell the two-party duopoly to the populace were there no differences at all between the two parties), the Democrats and the Republicans are “two wings of the same bird of prey” (Upton Sinclair, 1904 ) beholden to the same unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, white supremacy, patriarchy, state repression, eco-cide, and general state-capitalist institutional psychopathy. That shared captivity is no small part of why the incredibly unpopular and vicious GOP is still very much in play in US politics. Revealing gaffes like Bruce Braley’s last January and Hillary Clinton’s this June only help the Republicans play their own dark version of the populism-manipulating game.
Paul Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014, http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810)
1. Ken Shepherd, “MSNBC’s Matthews Can’t Believe ‘Pig Castrator’ Joni Ernst Leading in New Poll,” NewsBusters (June 9, 2014), http://newsbusters.org/blogs/ken-shepherd/2014/06/09/msnbcs-matthews-snarks-pig-castrator-joni-ernst-leading-polls
2. Jennifer Jacobs, “Sarah Palin Lends Star Power to Joni Ernst in Iowa,” Des Moines Register (May 8, 2014), http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/elections/2014/04/27/sarah-palin-joni-ernst-iowa/8311707/
3. Jaime Fuller, “Iowa Dem Senate Hopeful Dismisses Grassley,” Washington Post, March 25, 2014http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2014/03/25/iowa-dem-senate-hopeful-dismisses-grassley-as-farmer-from-iowa-who-never-went-to-law-school/. See also
4. Liz Kreutz, “Hillary Clinton Defends High Dollar Speaking Fees,” ABC News (June 9, 2014), http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/hillary-clinton-defends-high-dollar-speaking-fees/story?id=24052962. Full interview at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/06/10/hillary-clintons-interview-with-diane-sawyer-annotated-video/
5. John Dickerson, “Does Hillary Clinton Feel Your Pain?” Slate (June 2014), http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2014/06/hillary_clinton_s_dead_broke_gaffe_clinton_s_diane_sawyer_interview_could.html; Phillip Bump, “The Clintons Say They Left White House in Debt, Wait, What?” The Washington Post, The Fix (June 9, 2014), http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/06/09/the-clintons-left-the-white-house-in-debt-wait-what/
6. Bump, “The Clintons.”
7. Mark Leibovich, This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral in America’s Gilded Capital (New York: Penguin, 2013), 40. Leibovich’s book is chock full of examples.
8. Dickerson, “Does Hillary Clinton Feel Your Pain?”
9. Kreutz, “Hillary Clinton Defends.”
10. Nick Sorrentino, “Hillary Clinton Reaps $450,000 Fee for Speech at Chicago Mercantile Exchange,” Against Crony Capitalism (November 26, 2013), ttp://www.againstcronycapitalism.org/2013/11/hillary-clinton-reaps-450000-fee-for-speech-at-chicago-mercantile-exchange-meeting/
11. Some useful sources here are Robert Pollin, Contours of Descent: US Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity (New York: Verso, 2003), 3-75; Charles H. Ferguson, Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America (New York: Crown, 2012), 17, 39-40, 44-47, 52, 57, 166, 185, 248, 252, 281, 299-300, 308.
12. Christopher Hitchens, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (New York: Verso, 2000), 17-18.
13. Upton Sinclair, The Appeal to Reason, No. 459, September 17, 1904, 1, reproduced in Gene DeGruson, ed., The Lost First Edition of Sinclair’s “The Jungle” (Atlanta: Peachtree Press, 1988), illustration L. “The people [are] allowed to choose between their candidates,” Sinclair noted, “and both of them [are] controlled, and all their nominations [are] dictated by, the same [money] power.”
14. For interesting and instructive reflections on both of the dominant US political parties and the state-capitalist US government as engaged in “psychopathic behavior” towards the US populace, see Rob Kall, “Chomsky Talks About Psychopaths and Sociopaths,” OpEdnews.com (February 15, 2014), http://www.opednews.com/articles/Chomsky-Talks-about-Psych-by-Rob-Kall-Corporations_Health-Mental-Sociopath-Narcissism_Narcissism_Psychopath-140215-378.html.