To read the 2020 election results, it may be useful to specify the four fundamental elements of us politics in the contemporary period. First and most importantly, the two political parties are constituted by coalitions of rent-seeking groups, both at the top—the big donors, higher-level elected representatives and party officials—and, to a certain extent, at mass level. With stagnant secular-growth rates, the party struggle in the us has become to a large extent a zero-sum redistributive conflict, which explains the extreme severity with which it is carried out. This structural condition shapes a further feature: the personalization, or charismatic inflection, of political leadership, underpinned by the presidential system. If this can be traced back to Reagan, or jfk, it was institutionalized by the Obama White House and has been heightened under Trump.
The third component, which exists in contradictory synthesis with the second, is a contrast of political logics—programmatic ideologies, aiming to mobilize a range of class fractions and interest groups—which cannot be reduced to the two parties, although it overlaps with them. We might call them multicultural neoliberalism, on the one hand, and macho-national neomercantilism on the other. The fourth component, closely related to the third, is the contrast between two rival geo-political logics: globalized liberalism versus America First. What follows, then, is an attempt to provide an initial sounding of the deep fractures or fault-lines that structure us politics.
Historically, party politics in the us rested on competing hegemonic claims. Ruling-class coalitions constructed mass bases by arguing that their particular interests could satisfy the material needs of at least a fraction of direct producers. Thus, from 1865 to the 1920s, Republicans ministered to the needs of heavy industry, which constituted the basis of mass employment and rising wages for the working class of the Northeast. From the 1930s until 1980 the Democrats were able to play this role, on the basis of a coalition of capital-intensive industries able to make limited but real concessions to the militant working class of the period.footnote1 These patterns operated across long historical cycles, in which the political logic of one or other party was able to set the national agenda, even as the White House might alternate. But with the onset of the long downturn, a profound mutation in the material basis of us party politics took place from around 1980. Political power, rather than investment and accumulation, began to play an increasingly direct role in securing rates of return for capital.footnote2 Adapting Weber’s concept of Roman ‘imperialist capitalism’, this could perhaps be termed ‘political capitalism’: a form of profit-oriented activity in which returns are largely the result of the direct use of political power.footnote3
In the intervening decades—through the relocation of manufacturing, the financial bubbles and jobless recoveries of the 1990s and early 2000s—us politics continued to play out on the consolidated ground of neoliberalism: the belief that market coordination would automatically lead to a desirable allocation of investment and thereby economic growth. Neoliberalism in this sense entered a profound crisis in 2008. In the bailouts that followed, the state’s crucial role in the transfer of surplus became apparent. A chasm had opened up between profitability and investment: while profits staged a recovery from 2010, rates of accumulation remained low, as David Kotz has shown.footnote4 Andrew Smithers makes a similar point, showing that fixed tangible investment as a percentage of operating cash flow has declined by 20 percentage points since 2000, while—in a perfect inversion of this collapse—cash distributed to shareholders through dividend payouts or stock buy-backs has ballooned from 25 to 45 per cent of operating cash flow.footnote5
To grasp how this economic transformation—slowing growth, more rapacious upward transfer of wealth—affected the political system, it is worth looking at the class coalitions the two parties mobilized, both at elite level—the big donors—and at mass level, the voters. At the very top, both parties are beholden to the fire sector—finance, insurance and real estate. Below that, the two coalitions are distinct. The Republicans have solid support from ‘dirty’ manufacturing, the extractive industries, big retail, food services and large-scale family firms. The Democrats, in contrast, have strong support from the high-tech giants of Silicon Valley, the education, information, arts and entertainment sectors, and elite professionals: media and university intellectuals, lawyers, engineers and other proponents of the use of science to guide public policy.footnote6 Among the ruling classes, the Democrats probably have much broader support than the Republicans. Thus Biden apparently got more campaign cash than Trump from almost every major industry, with the one exception being oil and gas interests.footnote7
The elite segments of these party coalitions demand different forms of redistribution. Finance has, of course, benefitted massively from the monetary policies pursued since 2008 (and before), as has corporate America from cheap loans. The huge high-tech and entertainment companies that support the Democratic Party are interested in the protection of ‘intellectual property rights’, while the extractive industries that back the Republicans are more interested in getting access to public lands and being allowed to despoil them as they wish. However, only a few niche sectors—tech, electric vehicles, fracking—are concerned with creating profits through investment in cost-cutting technologies to expand global market share. Neither of these capitalist-class coalitions is proposing a project of renewed accumulation.
However, this turn towards rent seeking is also a mass phenomenon, rooted in the us occupational structure. As Table 1 shows, almost 40 per cent of the us population is employed in professions or in management of one sort or another. Fewer than a quarter work as manual labour. Analysed by industry or branch of economic activity (Table 2), the largest single sector of employment in the us is education, health care and social assistance, which employs nearly a quarter of the workforce, while those in manufacturing, construction and agriculture make up less than a fifth. Strikingly, fire alone employs almost 10 million people: over 6 per cent of the economically active population.