By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.
I never thought I’d see the day, I don’t think anybody imagined it would happen, but, by late December, Bernie Sanders’ campaign had caught on to such an extent that corporate media and National Public Radio, corporate media’s fellow traveler, could no longer pretend that it wasn’t happening.
The manufacturers of conventional wisdom still favor Hillary, and still color their reporting accordingly. But they smell blood. If she fails to win the nomination again, or even comes close to failing, the spectacle could be as good for ratings as Donald Trump has been. Notwithstanding their devotion to maintaining the status quo, the temptation is too strong to resist.
Now that the word is finally getting out, Sanders is appealing to ever-larger swathes of the population – including African Americans and Latinos. By courting black and Hispanic leaders, the Clintons have been “feeling the pain” of those constituencies for as long as they have been serving corporate America.
Over the years, that nearly effortless strategy has worked well. This is why, barely a month ago, they were confident that they could count on black and Hispanic voters. They are not so confident anymore.
This sudden turn of events has been building for a while, though the Clintons and their advisors didn’t see it. Now it is driving them nuts, and causing them to lash out in strange ways.
The smart money is still on Hillary, of course; the system is stacked in her favor. But she is no longer the inevitable nominee. If she were, she would be the inevitable President too, because she would be running against Donald Trump or, worse, Ted Cruz, or some similarly risible and vile Republican that no sane voter would conceivably support. In 2016, sane voters still comprise a sizeable majority, and they are distributed in ways that give Democrats an advantage in the Electoral College.
When Hillary seemed inevitable, hardly anyone who didn’t think that breaking through “the glass ceiling” was priority Number One – and two, three, and four — was enthusiastic about her impending victories.
The mood everywhere, except among her diehard supporters – and on the far right, where the Clintons have always been despised for the wrong reasons — was face reality and buck up.
But now that Hillary’s inevitability is in doubt, her supporters find themselves needing arguments to justify their stance. Good ones are hard to find, especially when nearly all of her supporters agree that Bernie’s policies are more to their liking.
Even second wave feminists who actually like Hillary are on board with that. Why else would so many of them now be calling themselves “socialist feminists?”
One reason for liking the fact that Sanders was in the race, even when he seemed to have no chance at all of winning, was that his advocacy of what he calls “democratic socialism” might at least rehabilitate the word. Evidently, it already has.
Many Hillary supporters like Bernie more than their candidate, but they think that he is unelectable. This is hardly surprising: the conventional wisdom, to which many Democrats still subscribe, is that because he calls himself a “democratic socialist,” Sanders has no chance at all. But the conventional wisdom is wrong, and becoming more wrong with each passing day. Meanwhile, the flimsiness of the arguments favoring Hillary is becoming more apparent.
On the merits, the case for Hillary boils down to her résumé, her “pragmatism,” the idea that she is entitled to the office, and, of course, her gender.
Her résumé does look good: First Lady of Arkansas, then of the United States; Senator, Secretary of state. Bernie’s isn’t bad either: Mayor, Congressman, Senator. But surely what matters is how well the two of them did in their respective offices; not just what offices they held.
This consideration is relevant to the pragmatism argument too. When Hillary is said to be more “pragmatic” than Bernie, the idea, it seems, is that she is more practical, more able to get things done. The best, her defenders remind us, is the enemy of the good; and Hillary, unlike Bernie, be counted on not to set her sights too high. Therefore, they claim, she can accomplish more in the end.
That this argument is dubious, to say the least, should be evident to anyone who reflects, if only for a moment, on what Hillary has actually accomplished in all her years in “public service.” I will return to this point presently.
Meanwhile, the entitlement argument is so transparently wrong-headed that merely to state it is to refute it. Indeed, it is so plainly not compelling that it hardly ever is stated; only intimated. The idea is that after sticking it out with Bill for all those years, and then after losing to an upstart Senator from Illinois, Hillary has paid her dues. Therefore, the “argument” goes, it is her turn now.
In a more rational world, the glass ceiling argument would not seem much more compelling than that, despite all the brouhaha it elicits in the political universe we actually inhabit.
Because policies affecting women should matter more, even to those who accord the highest priority to feminist concerns, than a President’s (“socially constructed”) private parts, a candidate’s gender should not matter all that much. Sanders’ stance, over many years, has been consistently feminist; for example, on the issue of equal pay for equal work.
Clinton is for equal pay too; but, for her, on matters affecting women, as on everything else, opportunism trumps all. Back in her First Lady of Arkansas days, when the youthful liberalism that her defenders now boast of was still fresh, she was on the Board of Directors of (Arkansas based) Wal-Mart, one of the country’s most notorious violators of the equal pay principle. If, in that capacity, she did anything at all to change the corporate culture of that gigantesque, low wage schlock emporium, she has kept news of it to herself.
Even so, the glass ceiling argument resonates powerfully in some quarters. But apart from identity concerns that are of dubious relevance and, in any case, beyond anyone’s power to change, the only thing it has going for it is that it has a factual basis — unlike all the other arguments adduced in Hillary’s favor. If elected, she would indeed be America’s first woman President. None of the other pro-Hillary arguments have even that much going for them: they all on smoke and mirrors.
Take her résumé. Yes, she was Secretary of State for Obama’s first term. But she was probably the most inept Secretary of State in living memory. Think “Libya” or “Arab Spring” or “Syria,” and, if still not convinced, read Diana Johnstone’s book, Queen of Chaos. It takes talent and effort to mess up so much so thoroughly.
There is Hillary the liberal imperialist in the Middle East, the “humanitarian intervener”; and there is Hillary the neocon, doing mischief in Ukraine and the South China Sea, unnerving Russia and keeping those uppity Chinese in their place.
Can anyone really think that it is worth resuming Cold Wars and risking nuclear wars just so that someone with lady parts can sit in the Oval Office?
There is also the anti-whistleblower Hillary; on that count, she is even worse than President Drone himself. Ask Edward Snowden or any of her other victims whose revelations she found embarrassing.
And, yes, she has been working on thew health care issue for two and a half decades. The signal contribution of her efforts in the early nineties was to set the cause back a generation. She also set the stage for the ways that Obamacare further entrenches the power of private insurance companies, Big Pharma, and the for-profit health care industry.
What, then, has she accomplished? One of the most remarkable features of the political scene these days is that, on this question, the conventional wisdom could not be more wrong. The know-it-alls give Hillary an A; a fairer grade would be an F.
This puts the case for “pragmatism,” Hillary’s and everybody else’s, in perspective.
To philosophers, pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that began in the United States in the late nineteenth century and that remains influential to this day. C.S. Peirce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910), and John Dewey (1859-1952) were early and influential pragmatists. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, interest in pragmatism waned; in more recent decades, many notable philosophers rediscovered and took up pragmatist themes; above all, the idea that the way to clarify and understand a theoretical contention is to explore its practical consequences. In line with this general idea, pragmatists developed distinctive conceptions of truth, and related epistemological and ethical doctrines.
What “pragmatism” means in plain English – and therefore in the bloviations of media commentators and Hillary defenders – bears little connection to any of this, except in highly attenuated ways. However, in both cases, there is an emphasis on practicality; on doing, rather than merely theorizing.
This is why I cannot resist mentioning a quip of the late Sidney Morgenbesser’s about pragmatism – that applies as much to Hillary Clinton’s stump speeches as to Charles Peirce’s philosophical speculations.
Morgenbesser was a rare intelligence, some would say a force of nature; known, perhaps unfairly, less for his ideas than for his seemingly preternatural wit and apt commentaries on other philosophers’ work. Of pragmatism, he said, with complete acuity, that while it’s true in theory, in practice it just doesn’t work.
That’s the problem with Hillary’s pragmatism: it just doesn’t work. One would think that “progressive” politicians would get more done by not stirring the pot, by aiming always for the (barely) good enough, and that nothing good could come from rattling the cages of plutocrats and the simpletons they dupe into voting for their interests instead of their own. It’s only commonsense.
But, in the real world of politics, commonsense often fails — especially, these days, in the United States. This should be obvious; an abundance of evidence suggests that Hillary-style pragmatists finish last.
Even those who think, for example, that Barack Obama means well, or at least better than the facts on the ground suggest, but that Republican obstinacy blocked his good intentions at every turn, should agree that with a little more “audacity” (his word), he would have gotten more done.
I am not one of those who think that Obama’s intentions are generally laudable, but, to hear her talk, Hillary is; and so are her apologists, including the ones who call themselves socialist feminists.
Even so, you’d think that they wouldn’t be quite so eager to repeat the mistake that they, along with most liberals, made with Obama – at least not when there is someone they can vote for as a Democrat, someone who actually could win, who would not be as inclined to concede ninety percent at the get go, as Obama does and as Hillary surely would, and then, as negotiations proceed, to give up the other ten percent without a fight.
You’d think that they’d be more open to the idea that a little less “pragmatism” might be just what is called for right now; and that it would occur to them that if they really want to prioritize practical consequences, and if their goal really is to advance “progressive” outcomes, that the time is past due to scuttle Hillary’s way because it has proved itself a failure, time and again.
Hillary’s pragmatism doesn’t work in practice not just because she is not, as Obama claims, “smart as a whip” and a veritable policy wizard, but also because, like Obama and Democrats generally, she is useless for pressing her own case. The only thing Democrats do well is implement Republican programs; sometimes in face saving ways, sometimes not.
Paradoxical as it might seem, it might occur to them that Bernie Sanders’ more principled, less compromising way might just work better in practice than anything Hillary would be inclined to do.
This would certainly be the case if his campaign leads to a “political revolution,” another term Sanders has rehabilitated. It is not clear that he really means what those words
seem to say; after all, a political revolution would require bottom-up, democratic organizing; not top-down deployment of volunteer enthusiasts seeking votes.
But Sanders’ campaign could lead to that; win or lose, it could help bring it about. So far, though, there is no indication that what he has in mind is any more innovative or radical than what he has in mind by “democratic socialism.” Nevertheless, three cheers (or maybe two and a half) for getting those words in circulation. Who knows what good may come of it!
Bernie’s rise is causing the Queen of Chaos and her minions to strike back in ways that seem a little over the top. So much lèse-majesté from so many is making them a little crazy.
Their first instinct has been to escalate the same old same old: to harp on Hillary’s experience, her foreign policy savvy, even her health care reform expertise. In a more informed world, this would be laughable, and even in the actual world it would be useless if the Clintons didn’t have so many pundits and journalists doing the heavy lifting for them. The liberal wing of the chattering class has been serving the Clintons faithfully for years.
Even so, sometimes, the sheer preposterousness of what Clinton and her handlers are up to nevertheless shines through. Witness how in the January 17 South Carolina Democratic candidates debate, Hillary wrapped herself in the mantle of President Obama, and all but pledged her willingness to die to maintain Obamacare. Even mainstream commentators found this odd.
It was, after all, in the South Carolina primary in 2008 that Obama knocked the inevitability out of Hillary before; and it was in South Carolina that her better half had all kinds of bad things to say about the fellow who shellacked her. Memories are short in the media world, but not in Clinton-land, so why all the lovey-dovey now?
The answer is obvious: with her fortunes falling, and with all the high minded, fatuous chatter lately about Obama’s glorious “legacy,” it seemed that there might be some percentage in latching on to Obama’s (imaginary) aura. Like the Donald, a Clinton will do what a Clinton’s gotta do – anything for the (self-serving) cause.
The parallel with Trump is instructive.
Back in Bill’s day, people used to say that the Clintons gave opportunism a bad name. By being so much better at it, Trump might almost redeem the idea. Witness, for example, his repeated excoriations of New Hampshire’s “bedrock conservative” newspaper, The Union Leader.
Does Trump care about The Union Leader? Hardly, it’s not worth caring about. But going after it titillates the Trump sector of the Republican base, the old white guys (and the women who love them) who see through and therefore despise “bedrock conservatives” as much as they despise namby-pamby liberals. The result is that The Union Leader is taken down a notch or two, and New Hampshire and the world are better off for it.
In fairness to Clinton, it must be said that the more outrageous Trump is, the better he does. As he put it himself, he could shoot somebody and his supporters wouldn’t mind. Hillary, on the other hand, has to keep the namby-pambies on her side. She must therefore maintain a civil façade.
Given her priorities and her natural inclinations, this must be hard for her.
The Clintons used to dismiss everyone to their left – in other words, the majority of Democratic voters — with barely concealed contempt. Why not? With nowhere else to go, everyone to the left of Rahm Emanuel could be taken for granted, leaving Bill and Hillary’s Wall Street cronies and corporate paymasters in unfettered charge. This only began to change when Sanders started breathing down Hillary’s neck.
Even with her many apologists racking up overtime hours, she therefore now has to pretend that she cares – either that or she will have to contend with a “Socialists for Trump” movement in the months ahead.
I am being facetious, of course. But if, as I believe, the latest incarnation of the Donald as an anti-Muslim, anti-Hispanic racist with authoritarian tendencies and a retrograde view of the world is driven more by his mountebank nature and his determination to win than by his feelings or convictions — if its purpose is only to con his marks so that he can get what he wants (presumably, the GOP nomination, though even that is not clear) — a Socialists for Trump movement, directed against the Clintonized Democratic Party would not be a bad idea at all. As long as there was no chance that Trump might actually win, I could even see myself signing on.
What Democrat, after all, could have brought down the House of Bush and inflicted mortal – perhaps fatal — wounds on the Grand Old Party. Now he is going after Fox News! This doesn’t cancel out all the vileness, but still: for doing all this and more, it is hard not to cry out Viva Trump! Again, I am being facetious – sort of.
Trump’s vileness is Hillary’s greatest weapon. It helps her supporters reinvigorate lesser evil thinking in quarters where even the most obtuse liberals are finally beginning to realize how disabling lesser evil politics can be.
That Team Hillary would want to make their candidate seem the lesser evil – or not evil at all, just “pragmatic” – is not surprising. But for them to then go on to say that Sanders isn’t radical or idealistic enough, or that a vote for him is a vote for the bad old days, defies credulity.
Yet this is their line these days, and it looks like they may be sticking with it for a while longer, depending on which way the wind blows.
How else to explain Hillary’s recently discovered affection and respect for Obama and Obamacare? She has even gotten daughter Chelsea, the presumptive dauphine, in on the act. Chelsea was the stalking horse sent up to Connecticut, to Miss Porter’s School, alma mater of the former Jacqueline Bouvier, to tell the assembled young ladies there that, on the off chance that the inevitable doesn’t come to pass, Bernie is waiting in the wings – eager to scuttle Obamacare, leaving millions uninsured. When the cable news wallahs didn’t ridicule this argument to oblivion, Hillary took it up herself.
That Bernie isn’t radical enough goes without saying; the point has been made over and over, several times a day on this site alone. But for a Clinton to say it is grotesque.
Perhaps this is why Hillary prefers to use surrogates – not just to redbait Bernie, but also to claim that he isn’t red (in the pre-red/blue divide sense) enough. Consistency has never been a Clinton virtue.
The best kind of surrogate is somebody who is clever, who has access to corporate media, and who is not expressly connected with the Clintons at all. Enter, stage left, the vaunted Atlantic columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates.
In just the past week, he has pressed an anti-Bernie and therefore implicitly pro-Hillary case – he denies the implication — in two prominent venues: an op-ed in The New York Times and in his regular column in The Atlantic.
Coates is an ingenious writer, the kind that could be fun to engage with — or so it seems to me, but then I also like arguing with libertarians and theists and even Zionists, if they are not so fervent that they won’t acknowledge absurdities in the positions they defend.
Too bad, in Coates’ case, that his ingenious side is so blatantly disingenuous; especially when he faults Sanders for not enthusing over the idea that African Americans should be paid reparations for slavery, and for trading off “idealism” for practicality in other key instances as well.
Reparations? Not only is the idea a non-starter politically; it is not even clear what it would mean – in practice. It is relevant too that, except for occasional rumblings spread out over decades, there has never been a serious political movement promoting reparations for the sake of restorative justice, or black empowerment, or for any other plausible rationale.
It also goes without saying that the idea has probably never crossed Hillary Clinton’s mind.
If there ever was a time for reparations, it was a century and a half ago. It has been clear to almost everyone since then that racial oppression is better addressed in other ways, including those that involve diminishing economic inequality overall. This is Sanders’ position, but that isn’t good enough for Coates.
Of course, Clinton fares no better on this account but, according to Coates, it doesn’t matter because she is a pragmatic Democrat, not a socialist idealist. Huh? Clear away the obfuscations, and all that remains is the always-dubious pragmatism argument – as plain a non-starter as can be.
Coates makes an important substantive point too; one that others have been making for at least the last sixty or seventy years. It is instructive to revisit that point, even so, because it touches indirectly on issues that the Sanders versus Clinton contest has raised.
Since the late fifties, if not before, black intellectuals have argued that oppressions based on race and class, though interrelated, are logically and politically distinct, and therefore that efforts to end white supremacy and to establish full citizenship rights for persons of color require strategies different from those that address problems of economic inequality. By now, this lesson has been learned many times over.
Feminists have been making a similar point about feminist concerns for nearly as long. Now that “socialism” is no longer a forbidden word, the issues have become clouded, so it needs to be pointed out that socialist feminism is neither a kind of feminism nor a kind of socialism. Socialist feminists are socialists and feminists. The words denote a political orientation in which socialist and feminist concerns are coherently and constructively combined.
For similar reasons, it would make sense to talk about “socialist anti-racists.” Nobody does talk this way because, at least in the American case, the reality that expression describes has never been in doubt; socialists, including Communists, were always in the forefront of anti-racist struggles, and while socialist movements still thrived, anti-racist militants, African American ones especially, were more likely than not to identify with them.
Their socialism took many forms – from the Bernie Sanders (New Deal- Great Society liberalism) variety to the real deal.
Then, the country and the world took a neoliberal turn – to the detriment of socialism mainly, but also to efforts to improve the material condition of African Americans and other persons of color. They came to the cause late in the day, but the Clintons nevertheless played an important role in implementing this ruinous transformation.
Fortunately, efforts to improve the integration and social standing of a minority of African Americans and others, and to enhance their opportunities to flourish even in a neoliberal world, continued, as it were, on auto-pilot; the inertia established in better days being powerful enough to carry the project along.
Coates makes the point again about the irreducibility of race to class. It is not clear why he bothers; one would be hard put to find anyone who would disagree.
This is not to say that everyone thinks that all oppressions are created equal; that there are no structural or causal priorities that must be taken into account. That unfortunate understanding has indeed taken hold – in part because, with socialist (including Marxist) ideologies out of fashion, many people no longer know better. Nevertheless, the clearest minds still accord causal priority to classes and their struggles.
Maybe Coates does too. But in faulting Sanders for not taking race seriously enough, he conveys the opposite impression. In any case, Sanders is a politician running for President, not a political theorist or ideologue. Faulting him for endorsing, or failing to endorse, positions only political theorists or ideologues care about is, to say the least, wrong-headed.
Yet this is what Coates seems to be doing – very likely for Hillary Clinton’s sake.
Coates doesn’t address the underlying theoretical issues directly any more than Sanders does. One wouldn’t expect that from a columnist in the neoliberal Atlantic magazine, just as one shouldn’t expect it from a seasoned Senator running in Democratic Party caucuses and primaries.
What one can rightfully expect from someone in Sanders’ situation are policy prescriptions that would be likely, in one way or another, to make African Americans and other persons of color better off. On that score, the Senator is doing fine; better, without a doubt, than Hillary Clinton.
So, in the end, the case for Hillary comes down to gender. It isn’t much of a case at all, but as the going keeps getting tougher for her, expect her to play that card as often as she can.
Obama contributes to efforts to combat racism just by being there. Beyond that, his neoliberal policies and his accommodations to the demands of empire have almost certainly done more harm than good.
Hillary would be good for women in that way too – by the mere fact of being there. This highly defeasible point in her favor accounts for whatever plausibility the glass ceiling argument has, and therefore whatever plausibility the case for Hillary has.
Would she therefore, on balance, be better for women than Sanders would? Perhaps; it is impossible to say. But, in view of her indomitable opportunism, it is fair to be skeptical; and to point out, with apologies to that nasty old Clintonite, James Carville, that — it’s the policies, stupid.
What Clinton offers is sophistry, Coates-style or worse, and, like Obama, her new Best Friend Forever, illusions grounded in identity politics. If there is a chance to do better – then why not grab it!
Let’s stipulate: Bernie is not much better than Hillary on foreign and military affairs – matters Presidents affect most – and his “democratic socialism” amounts to little more than refurbished New Deal – Great Society liberalism. But at least, he is a straight shooter; a man of integrity whose heart is in the right place.
That this is not enough to turn the country around is clear, but it is also clear that the reasons why have little, if anything, to do with the shortcomings of his policy proposals on race or anything else (including foreign policy).
Only a mobilized and indignant citizenry taking charge of its own affairs – a real political revolution– can bring about fundamental change for the better. Can a Sanders victory, or even an honorable defeat, help with that? It is not impossible.
Because he is not a self-serving billionaire like Trump, and not “pragmatic” in the way that Clinton is, and because he is as unlikely as can be ever to want to garner corporate contributions to some Foundation he might someday decide to concoct, or to receive obscenely high speakers’ fees from plutocrats seeking favors, or to succumb to any of the other corruptions to which the Clintons, like most politicians, are susceptible, he is the only candidate in many years, perhaps in living memory, who, win or lose, has any prospect at all of igniting the kind of people-led, people-driven insurgency that America and the world desperately need.
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).