New York Times columnist David Brooks discussed the rise of Jeremy Corbyn on the Left in the Labour Party in the United Kingdom and Bernie Sanders on the Left in the United States, along with Donald Trump and Ben Carson on the Right. He argues that none of these people could conceivably win a national election. He therefore concludes that their support must stem from a psychological problem, which he identifies as “expressive individualism.”
This is an interesting view. Of course, Brooks’ assessment of who is electable may not be right. For example, the Democrats have often nominated centrist figures, such as Michael Dukakis, because they were ostensibly more electable than their more progressive alternatives. While we can’t know the counterfactual, there is little logic in picking a candidate whose views you do not share because they are electable, when in fact they are not.
But the more important question ignored in Brooks’ analysis is how people are supposed to respond when the party they have supported consistently pursues policies at odds with fundamental principles of their core constituencies. In the case of the Labour Party in the UK, and the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in the United States, the wealthy have received the overwhelming majority of the benefits of economic growth.
This has been due to policies that have favored the financial sector and trade deals that have disadvantaged ordinary workers to benefit major corporate interests. In both countries, there was no effort to prosecute bankers who had violated the law during the housing bubble years. The Clinton administration pushed to remove constraints on the financial sector, even while leaving its government guarantees in place. President Obama has opposed a financial transactions tax in the United States, which would take tens of billions annually out of the pockets of the financial industry. His administration has also worked actively to block the introduction of such a tax in Europe.
He has also pushed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would increase the cost of prescription drugs for the countries in the agreement. It is also likely to worsen the US trade deficit in manufactured goods, since more foreign earnings would be diverted to be paying for drugs and other patent-protected products. Of course, the Clinton administration explicitly pushed for the over-valued dollar that is the origin of the large US trade deficits.
It is impressive to see Brooks argue that trying to turn the Democratic Party toward an agenda that supports workers rather than the rich is a psychological problem.
A version of this post originally appeared on the Center for Economic Policy Research’s blog Beat the Press.