By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.
Hillary Clinton’s political soul mates — neoliberal, neoconservative Democrats, Clintonites — come in many shapes and sizes. The ones at the top of the heap differ too on the extent to which they say silly things.
Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, at one end of the spectrum, weigh every word.
Obama is timorous by nature, but he is also African American and prudent; he was reminded of this early on.
Obama had not been in office for more than a few months when, in response to a reporter’s question about a story that was then in the news, he said that a Cambridge Massachusetts cop named James Crowley acted “stupidly” when he arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr.
That remark caused him grief. He has been hyper-cautious ever since.
Gates was apprehended on his own front porch, trying to open his own front door, while Crowley was investigating reports of a break-in in the area. When he approached Gates, words were exchanged. Gates was angry; his refusal to cower landed him in jail.
The media attention lavished on Gates’ arrest led to the famous “beer summit” on the White House lawn.
Everybody knows that even the stupidest cop on the force would have treated a white man in similar circumstances with more deference. But what everybody knows doesn’t matter. White skin privilege runs so deep that even a black President has to watch his words.
Obama was right, of course, about the stupidity of the police. Fortunately for Gates, stupidity was all it was. Thanks to Black Lives Matter and the ubiquity of cell phone cameras, those of us who benefit from white skin privilege now know that it could have been a lot worse.
When worse does happen to African Americans, Latinos, and other persons of color, hardly anyone in authority or in the media bothers to notice, except when outraged citizens leave them no choice. It was different with Gates because he was, and is, a Cambridge grandee, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
This didn’t keep a cop from lumping him into the same, presumed guilty, category as, say, Trayvon Martin. Maybe, to his credit, that cop was unimpressed by Harvard; more likely, he didn’t know whom he was dealing with. In any case, he must have been surprised when it became clear what the ramifications of his actions would be; after all, he only did what comes naturally to police.
Racism made what happened to Gates possible, but intellectual and class snobbery is what brought the incident to national attention. In the end, though, racism trumps snobbery. Because it does, Obama stuck his neck out too far; or at least he and his enemies thought he did.
Ever since, the censor in his head has scrutinized his every word.
Bill Clinton scrutinizes every word too, but for different reasons – notwithstanding Toni Morrison’s howler about how he was America’s first black President.
Clinton is cautious in order not to get caught or, if caught, to squirm his way out of trouble. No, he did not “have sex” with that woman; and, yes, it all depends on what “is” is. He didn’t earn the name “Slick Willy” for nothing.
To hear Hillary’s better half talk, one might think that the purpose of speech is less to communicate information than to attract attention (the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral), garner fees (the fatter and juicier the better), and prevail in inevitable legal proceedings.
The man knows just what he can get away with, and how to walk the line without quite crossing it. Yale Law School taught him well.
At the other end of the spectrum, Joe Biden can be counted on for an endless supply of idiotic gaffes. His demeanor, at public appearances, can be solemn as an undertaker’s, but the man is as daft as they come. This is why nobody bothers to parse his words; he stopped making sense a long time ago, and everybody knows it.
Poor guy: he has wanted to be President for as long as anyone can remember, but he could never break through the glass ceiling his own silliness encased him under.
For most practical political purposes, Hillary and Bill are one and the same. But Law School failed in her case; maybe she missed the day in class when they teach lawyers how to talk.
Or maybe she took a correspondence course at the Biden Academy instead. Like its founder, she sure says the darndest things.
It doesn’t show on her quite as much as it does on the man whom an entire generation knew as “Plagiarism Joe” because people see what they want to see, and they think, as Obama put it, that Hillary is “smart as a whip.”
Notwithstanding an abundance of evidence to the contrary, they also think that she is a genius at getting things done. This is, to put mildly, a crock. Her publicists are worth every cent they charge and then some; they have done their job well.
Hillary let loose with a choice example, almost worthy of Biden himself, during the one-on-one debate with Bernie Sanders last Thursday night in New Hampshire.
Feigning a hissy fit over Sanders’ “insinuations” that Wall Street money has corrupted her and that she is part of “the establishment,” she said that this could not possibly be true because she is trying to be the first woman President in American history, and there is nothing “establishment” about that.
Reason not her rationale. Don’t question either why she would call attention to Henry Kissinger’s praise of her administrative skills at the State Department, or why her handlers would unleash Madeleine Albright to speak up for her foreign policy savvy.
Albright’s tenure at State was nearly as deplorable as Hillary’s. She will be remembered mainly for saying that causing some half million premature deaths in Iraq through the sanctions that she and Bill Clinton imposed on innocent people there was “worth it.”
Now she has come out with another gem: that “there is a special place in Hell” for women who don’t support Hillary. More likely, there is a special place for Secretaries of State.
There should be a special place for Gloria Steinem too. Campaigning for Hillary, she said that young women go for Bernie because “that’s where the boys are.” She apologized later, but this was vintage Steinem: her specialty is using her (non-socialist) feminist cred to defend Clintonites against the Left. This is what she did when Ralph Nader ran for President against Al Gore a decade and a half ago, and it is what she is doing now.
Hillary insists, of course, that she is not corrupt. Her argument: nobody has ever shown that she voted one way or another in the Senate, or made any decision as Secretary of State, because of a campaign contribution or any other expression of Wall Street or corporate largesse.
Well, duh! Even the retrograde Supreme Court Justices who inflicted their Citizens United ruling upon us don’t think that the First Amendment protects outright bribery; even, for them, “free speech” doesn’t go quite that far.
American politicians abhor actionable quid pro quos. Therefore, they are seldom bribed in the technical, legal sense. They are bought and paid for in subtler ways.
In economics lingo, those who curry favors from public officials in order to increase their share of existing wealth (as distinct from generating new wealth) are called “rent seekers.” The United States is overrun with rent seekers – many of them call themselves “libertarians;” others, like Donald Trump, are more honest.
They all pay dearly to shape legislation in ways favorable to themselves, and to get legislators to help them deal with regulators and others who can aid or hinder their affairs.
To these ends, they buy what they call “access.” In the first Republican candidates’ debate, Trump explained the process well.
This American way of corruption is what allows Big Pharma, for example, to fleece the public by charging Americans higher prices than they charge people in countries where governments regulate prices. Bernie Sanders pointed this out during last Thursday night’s debate.
It is also how the military-industrial-national security state complex enriches itself at the taxpayer’s expense. If only Bernie would bring that up too as the primary season unfolds!
This is unlikely because Sanders is close to the mainstream of the Democratic Party on such matters, but perhaps he could be persuaded if his supporters insist vehemently enough. Clinton won’t say a word about it – not if she can help it.
Neither of them are likely to point out that corruption American-style also explains why the American government — Congress especially, but the executive branch too — steadfastly supports the Israeli government’s efforts to ethnically cleanse Palestine of Palestinians, and otherwise to do what it wants to them and to the peoples of Lebanon and other nearby countries. The more that Americans come to appreciate the dangerousness and injustice of what America has been doing in Israel-Palestine for the past half century or more, the more resolute the bought and paid fors in Congress become.
So is Hillary corrupt or is she right when she all but claims that those who say that she is – and those who, like Sanders, tiptoe around the issue – are part of a vast leftwing conspiracy, the other side of that “vast rightwing conspiracy” that she takes credit for standing up against? The question answers itself.
In any case, nothing that Hillary has come up with lately is more off-the-wall than her Sanders-induced professions of “progressivism,” and the more-progressive-than-thou line that she has lately been brandishing.
Seriously! She says that she, not Sanders, is the true progressive in the race for the Democratic nomination.
“Progressive” has many connotations in American politics. The word can refer, for example, to the Progressive Movement of the early twentieth century and to the reforms associated with it. From the McCarthy days on, the word has also been used as a euphemism for “Communist” or “close to Communist.” Hillary’s self-declared progressivism has little to do with any of this.
For the past half-century or so, “progressive” has also meant, more or less what “liberal” used to mean in the New Deal – Fair Deal – Great Society era. Why the switch? Because “liberal” had become a dirty word in some circles thanks to the Vietnam War, a war that Cold War anti-Communist liberals started and maintained.
When Hillary says that she is a “progressive,” does she mean, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that she is, at heart, an old-fashioned, New Deal liberal?
Arguably, she is a decent enough social liberal, though her reliability, even on that, depends on which way the wind is blowing. As for the rest of it, gimme a break!
That she is pretending to be what she plainly is not shows how much effect the Sanders campaign has already had. Sanders put “socialism” back on the agenda, “political revolution too. Now even Clintonites — neoliberal neocons — call themselves “progressives.” Thank Bernie for that.
It hardly matters, at this point, that what Sanders means by those words is less than what others meant by them in the past, or that his understandings are less radical than the present situation demands. The reemergence of the old words is important in its own right.
It signals that the political imagination is alive, after all; that a decades long eclipse is finally coming to an end.
Hillary and the Clintonite posses her campaign has unleashed are sending out at least two, not entirely consistent, messages.
One is that that Hillary is more progressive than Bernie because by being “pragmatic,” she can make more “progress” happen.
Apart from the studied vagueness of just what Clintonites think “progress” involves, there is an obvious problem with this argument: there is no evidence that Hillary is good at getting things done. What she is good at is blundering along.
Then there are the Clintonites who think that Hillary’s progressivism, whatever its shortcomings, is good enough; and that she deserves to win over Sanders because she has paid her dues and because she is a woman. This, it seems, is the view of milquetoast liberal legislators like Al Franken, Tammy Baldwin, and New Hampshire’s very own Jeanne Shaheen.
Lately, Team Clinton has been invoking the name and memory of Paul Wellstone too in support of this contention. Why not; he is not around to gainsay them.
I, and many others, have debunked those arguments many times over on this site and in many other venues. This is not the place to do it again.
But there is a further point that does bear mention on the eve of the New Hampshire primary: that the self-declared progressives who argue for Hillary on the grounds that it is her turn now to be President, or that the most important thing now is that a woman be elected, seldom, if ever, do anything to advance progress themselves – except in easy and anodyne ways. What they do instead is what Gloria Steinem does: use their (undeserved) progressive credentials to maintain the status quo.
Evidently, they too studied at Joe Biden’s feet. Do they really expect to convince anybody that Hillary is the better progressive? This is a pissing contest that she cannot possibly win; not because, as the Donald might point out, she pees sitting down, but because, there is not a progressive bone in Hillary’s body.
This is why the first order of business today, literally today, is to make sure, again with apologies to the Donald, that Hillary gets schlonged.
If it is indeed progress, not austerity and war, that the good women and men of New Hampshire want, they have a golden opportunity today to help make it happen.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).