By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.
Nine times out of ten, or ninety-nine times out of a hundred, electoral politics at the national level these days does more to disable democracy than to enhance it.
Sometimes, though, elections can be good for something. This may be one of those times.
Until recently, it seemed that the 2016 Presidential election, a factor in American politics since at least 2014, would, as usual, deflect democratic impulses into useless electoral pursuits – and, as if that weren’t bad enough, that it would do so in a boring, unedifying way: by pitting two pro-corporate, interventionist-minded, military-industrial complex friendly political families, the Clintons and the Bushes, against one another.
It seemed that the only redeeming feature of the impending spectacle would be that one or the other of those god-awful families would finally be done in.
But the gods took pity. Defying all expectations, the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders came from out of nowhere and changed everything.
Leave Trump aside for now. Even after losing to Ted Cruz in Iowa, he is still the man to beat in the GOP. But, for reasons I’ll go on to explain, he has already discharged his historical mission; his work is done.
Trump broke the Republican Party. But, even if he hadn’t, there would be no need to worry about the Republicans who are running for President in 2016. In Presidential elections these days, Republicans are irrelevant.
However, with media babblers going on endlessly about the horse race for the GOP nomination, those irrelevant Republicans are hard to ignore. I will therefore have more to say about the three leading Republican candidates, and Jeb Bush, presently. While they are all irrelevant, it can be instructive to comment on their respective situations.
That the time is past due for Democrats and “independents” to stop worrying about Republicans was clear before the Iowa caucuses, and it is no less clear now.
What was not clear until now is potentially as important. In Iowa it was demonstrated, beyond a reasonable doubt, that it is possible, here and now, to stave off a Clintonite Restoration – possible, that is, to free the country and the world from the thrall of neoliberal-neoconservative politics.
For anyone who cares about economic, racial and gender equality, and about restoring basic rights and liberties and establishing a just and humane social order – and for anyone who wants to diminish murder and mayhem and terrorism around the world, and to protect the earth and everything in it from the ravages of capitalist greed – getting the United States off the neoliberal-neoconservative track that it has been on since at least the late 1970s should be Priority Number One.
This means that the first order of business now is defeating Hillary Clinton. The larger goal of ridding the world of Clintonism, Clinton-style neoliberal-neoconservative politics, will require a protracted struggle lasting years, but sending Hillary packing, the sooner the better, is a good first step.
The Iowa caucuses proved what was only suspected before: that this is an eminently achievable goal. They also showed that the way to make it happen, the only way, is by helping Bernie Sanders win – in primary after primary, for as many times as it takes.
Sanders is not really a socialist, just an old fashioned liberal; and his views on foreign policy are more or less of a piece with those of conventional Democrats. But even in these areas, he is a whole lot better than Clinton, and as good as anyone else who could run for national office as a Democrat
On economic, environmental, and social policies, his views are not only better than Clinton’s; they are better than we Americans have any right to expect – after having wallowed for so long in the neoliberal-neoconservative miasma that the Clintons promote.
I can therefore live with Sanders’ politics; it is more than good enough. My problem with the candidate is instead that he is too nice, too gentlemanly, where the Clintons are concerned. It is his nature, I suppose; but I wish he would give in more to his inner Trump.
I concede, however, that I may be wrong. Having had to read about the Clintons and to see them in the news for so many years, I can no longer think about them dispassionately. This is why I sometimes find myself thinking that maybe Sanders’ way, though distasteful, is better; that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Then I remind myself that you can catch more flies still with manure.
In any case, even Sandersnistas who think that all the Clinton-bashing should come from the Right and be for the wrong reasons, can do more than just promote better ideas, the way their candidate does.
As kindly and gently (or not) as they please, they could expose the fatuousness of the media-driven idea that many well-meaning Democratic voters seem to have internalized: that while the heart says “Bernie,” the brain says “Hillary” – because, of the two of them, she is more seasoned by experience and more electable.
Seriously? Maybe, First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State count for more than Mayor, Congressman, and Senator (holding that office for many more years than Clinton did). But can anyone with a brain really believe that how well she did in those offices doesn’t have to be factored in?
As First Lady, Hillary’s most notable achievement was setting the cause of health care reform back a generation. She didn’t do it all by herself, but she contributed more than her share.
Then, after being parachuted into New York to run for the Senate in 2000, she did a thoroughly lackluster job. Her tenure is remembered mainly for her support of the Iraq War.
She didn’t do too well running against Barack Obama in 2008 either. But Obama seemed to feel that he needed her to establish his bona fides with the foreign policy establishment as a champion of the status quo, and he wanted to smooth over rumpled feathers in the Democratic Party. He therefore made her his Secretary of State.
What a remarkably bad choice! Hillary was the worst Secretary of State in living memory, worse even than her husband Bill’s choice picks: the hapless Warren G. Christopher and Madeleine (Mad Maddy) Albright.
Her cluelessness and incompetence were monumental. This point has been made countless times, and yet her defenders keep citing her Foggy Bottom days as a reason for supporting her. In Clinton-land, public relations is all.
To be sure, the chaos roiling the Middle East today is not all on her shoulders. George Bush’s Iraq War, which Hillary supported, is the root cause of much of what is still unfolding.
But the chaos in Libya since 2011 is largely on her, and she is to some extent culpable too for the horrors brought on by the Syrian civil war – the rise of the IS among them. She has had many helpers, including President Drone himself, but Hillary has done more than her share to keep the chaos mounting, and Islamist terrorism going strong.
She must therefore be credited too for helping to set the European refugee crisis in motion, ruining tens of thousands of lives, and putting the European Union itself in jeopardy.
Worse still, by engaging Russia, a major nuclear power, in the manner of a picador provoking a bull, she helped put American diplomacy on an especially reckless course. In a nuclear world, life on earth “as we know it,” as they say in Clintonese, is always in jeopardy; but, as Secretary of State, Hillary made the problem worse by many orders of magnitude.
There is more – in Latin America especially: Honduras, Haiti, Venezuela and so on. Those who praise her “pragmatism,” her ability to get good things done, are either deluded, duped or living in an alternate universe.
Even if Bernie wants to remain mum about all of this, surely his supporters can deftly draw attention to Hillary’s numerous failures. When it comes to diplomatic skills and foreign policy smarts, the Empress has no clothes. Point this out in a way that doesn’t get drowned out by media prattle, and anybody with a heart or a brain will draw the obvious conclusions.
It shouldn’t take much effort either to convince anybody with a brain that the electability issue is bogus too. There is an abundance of polling data that suggests that Sanders does as well or better than Clinton in one-on-one contests with any likely Republican candidate. Nevertheless, media pundits say otherwise, beclouding the brains of voters who prefer Bernie in their hearts with nefarious sophistries.
To the extent that there is any merit at all in the electability argument, it is because Hillary has the Democratic Party’s corporate paymasters and apparatchiks on her side. But however much the Party establishment wants to maintain a Clintonite status quo, they will be the ones who find themselves with nowhere else to go if and when the race for the White House comes down to a contest between Bernie and Trump or Cruz or Rubio or whichever other miscreant the Republicans finally settle upon.
Without putting too much of a kink in their civility, Sandersnistas could easily point this out. Bernie could too.
In short, those who do think that the brain says “Hillary” can easily be disabused of their illusions. But for this to happen, people whose hearts are in the right place and who see what’s what need to speak out — clearly and distinctly over the din of the media myth machine.
And when, in desperation, Clinton supporters who should know better say that Hillary has always been on the side of the angels, but that she got diverted or, alternatively, that she has turned over a new leaf, Sandersnistas who want to quash the heart versus brain nonsense once and for all could also easily point out – civilly, if they insist, otherwise in the spirit of the Donald – that if recent history has taught us anything about the Clintons, it is that they lie; that’s what they do.
If it suits her purpose, Hillary will fake left; she will even say that she too is a “progressive.” With her support limited mainly to the geezer class and, insofar as there is a difference, to women who think that electing a woman is not only the most important thing, but the only thing, she has few other options than to follow Bernie leftward – verbally. But if it should come to pass that Bernie drops out or is defeated, the pressure will be off; and only the lies will be left.
The heart versus the brain issue is not the only nonsense that needs to be cleared away; there are also illusions about Hillary and African Americans, Latinos and other persons of color.
Because the Clintons have been so visible for so long, and because they have spent years cultivating the leaders of minority communities, rank-and-file African Americans, Latinos and others are inclined to support Hillary or, at least, to think that she is on their side. Sanders is someone of whom they know little and care less.
How could they not? He represents a small, mostly white, mainly rural New England state; and, even now, national media ignore him as best they can.
But persons of color who fall as if by nature into the Clinton camp are making a big mistake – not just because Bernie really is and always has been with them, and not just with the notables among them, but also, more importantly, because neoliberalism harms brown and black people most.
Therefore, those who get it, as more and more do with each passing day, have a special responsibility.
If Sanders were a tad more Trump-like, he could dwell on Clinton’s ineptitude himself. But there is little he could do, beyond talking about his policies and his record, to show how much better than Clinton he would be for majority minority voters.
This is why black and Latino intellectuals have to step up to the plate. Many already have; but time is short and the need is urgent.
Somehow, the idea is out that the contest between Sanders and Clinton divides progressives. It doesn’t; it divides Democrats, very few of whom are progressive at all.
Even so, the idea that Hillary is someone progressives could reasonably support persists – not just in left-liberal publications like The Nation magazine, or among pro-Clinton “socialist feminists” in denial, but even in such bona fide left venues as “Democracy Now.”
And so it was that, on the morning before the Iowa caucuses, Amy Goodman aired a debate of sorts between a Sanders supporter, Ed Fallon, and Wayne Ford, the African American co-founder and co-chair of the Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum. A former Iowa state representative and local notable, Ford is a Clinton supporter whose example perspicuously illustrates the problem Sanders and his supporters face.
Ford went on about how the main reason that he is for Hillary is that she is “really concerned” about the criminal justice system as it affects black male youth. No doubt, she is; no doubt Bernie is too. Who, this side of Ted Cruz, is not?
But what does Ford think that a Clinton in the White House could do to reform police practices in Des Moines? Perhaps something that Obama and Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch never thought of, or something that arch-Clintonite Rahm Emanuel never got around to doing in Chicago? Gimme a break.
Maybe Ford never bothered to check out the Clintons’ record on incarceration and urban police practices in the nineties, when husband Bill was in the White House. Or maybe he, and others like him, need to follow their brains a little more assiduously.
So much mindless confusion, and so little time!
By the way, it was mentioned during that debate that the Clintons had lately had Ford over for a schmooze. Surprise, surprise.
Neoconservatism is an imperialist ideology with a Cold War tinge, and neoliberalism took hold thanks mainly to the exigencies of capitalist development in the final decades of the twentieth century. The structural factors behind both are still in place, but there is more popular opposition to both of those nefarious ideologies than in the past; neoliberalism, especially, is thoroughly unloved by ninety-nine percent of the population.
Why then is it so hard to shake free from it, even in formally democratic countries with free, fair and competitive elections? Lesser evil thinking is a large part of the reason.
Lesser evilism encourages a race to the bottom; but this isn’t its only shortcoming. Among other things, it is inherently myopic.
Consider the last time that a Clinton first ran for President. In 1992, the conventional wisdom in Democratic circles was that George H.W. Bush was worse than Hillary’s husband Bill. Perhaps he was in some respects, though in retrospect this is far from clear. But had Bush not Clinton, been President in 1994, it is doubtful that the Democrats would have lost control of the Congress as they did. All kinds of evil came from that. Who, then, was the lesser evil all things considered? The answer is far from clear.
The sad fact, though, is that it is all but impossible to disabuse people of the lesser evil idea. No matter how compelling the case against lesser evilism may be, when faced with a Clinton versus Cruz choice, what sane person would not succumb?
But with this election this time, this shouldn’t matter – because even if the Republican candidate is indisputably the greater evil, that Republican is not going to win. It won’t happen.
I say this because, unless the gods revert to their usual mischievousness and mess with us again, the Republicans will nominate either a Republican or Donald Trump, a fine showman who plays one on TV. Whichever way they go, their nominee will scare the bejesus out of the two-thirds of the electorate that is not mindlessly angry, God besotted, or insane.
Even if, as I suspect, Trump plays the vileness card only to work his marks, his express views on Hispanics, Muslims and on women make him a non-starter in the general election.
No matter that even as he flaunts his latest “populist” persona, piling on all the vileness he can muster, his positions on many issues – trade, education, military interventions abroad, infrastructure investment, tax breaks for banksters, hedge fund managers and others of their ilk, impunity for corporate criminals, and so on — are more progressive by far than Hillary’s or Obama’s.
No matter too that where Hillary would provoke Russia and otherwise destabilize the world order, risking annihilating nuclear war, Trump, for all his irascibility and off-the-wall ranting almost seems like a safer choice.
Ted Cruz is more vile than Trump by any conceivable measure. Moreover, it seems that only certifiable members of the God squad, and a few doctrinaire libertarians, can stomach the man at all.
It is said that if you ask people who have worked with Cruz why everyone takes an instant dislike to him, they will tell you that they do it — to save time.
Better Trump than Cruz, but you can bet the ranch that neither one of them could even come close to winning in November.
Since Iowa, conventional wisdom has it that the GOP establishment is falling in line behind Marco Rubio, the other gusano in the race. In an only slightly better possible world, he and Cruz would be met with “Viva Fidel” and “Viva Che” signs every time they set foot in public!
I doubt that the Rubio option will remain viable for long. For one thing, the candidate is an insubstantial twit, a laughing stock waiting to happen.
But maybe I am giving establishment Republicans too much credit; maybe their decision making is guided less by self-respect and rational self-interest than I think. Insubstantial twits can go far in the GOP; think, for example, of George W. Bush.
In any case, if, for want of a better alternative, Party bigwigs decide to bless Rubio’s candidacy and he then falters, his shortcomings will not be what mainly does him in.
A more important reason is that he got to where he now is he is by being a Jeb Bush protégé and then turning against his patron.
The Bushes, like less respectable crime families, demand respect; and, when they feel betrayed, they exact their pound of flesh. Witness the case of Saddam Hussein.
Since Jeb is a dunce, even worse than his brother, and since most Bush family fixers are getting too long in the tooth to be of much use, one might wonder what Jeb can do about Marco’s lèse-majesté. The short answer is – quite a bit.
Back when George W’s presidency was the only obvious mark against him, the good folks in what Bernie Sanders calls “the billionaire class,” along with quite a few of their millionaire friends, hurled money Bush’s way.
Their goal, apparently, was to elect one of their own, and to ward off the kind of situation that they are now facing. Bush still has a lot of that money, and he and his handlers seem intent on using it to bring Rubio down.
In Iowa, they paid big bucks for political advertisements attacking the renegade Rubio; Trump and Cruz and all the single-digit bozos still in the race got off scot-free. Some of those anti-Rubio advertisements were spot on good, by the way; Bush must have some skilled publicists in his employ. His former protégé can therefore expect to be supplied with memorable teachable moments from now to Convention Day. Jeb is motivated, and he has the means.
With Trump faltering in Iowa, Jeb’s ads didn’t do much harm to Rubio or good for Bush. Quite to the contrary, Rubio was the only candidate in the Republican fold who could actually spin the results in a way that bolstered his cause, notwithstanding his third place finish. He beat expectations that much!
However, there is another Bush family tradition that is now coming into play: that if at first, you don’t succeed, surge, surge again. That strategy didn’t work out too well in Iraq, but against such a feckless antagonist as Marco Rubio, it just might work in New Hampshire and South Carolina and in the primaries beyond.
Rubio also has more than Jeb’s animosity to worry about; there are also scandals that are sure to come to light if and when more media attention comes his way. There have already been damaging investigations into his personal finances; stay tuned for more!
Finally, there is another little problem with efforts to turn Rubio into the GOP establishment’s last best hope: that on “the issues,” there is little light between the positions Rubio endorses and those of his over the top rivals, Trump and Cruz.
Now that he has seen fit to pander to the Know Nothing nativists in the Republican base, this is even true of his formerly more decent (less indecent) views on immigration and citizenship.
Count on Democratic Party functionaries and their media flacks to do their best to keep lesser evil thinking alive. Theirs is a fool’s errand, however, because this time the greater evil has almost no chance of coming to pass.
This is why the main problem now is the Democratic Party, not the GOP. Republicans can still be counted on to be as bad as they ever were, or worse, in Congress and in State Houses, but they have made themselves irrelevant in Presidential elections.
This is bound to hurt them across the board – if not significantly in 2016, then in the years ahead.
Watch out, though, for the Debbie Wasserman Schultzes of the world and the Chuck Schumers and the Nancy Pelosis. They will do what they can to win the nomination for Hillary, but if they fail, as they might, they will do everything in their power to keep the Democratic Party on what the corporate media echo chamber calls its “pragmatic” course.
In much the way that leading Communists did their best to keep Stalinist politics going after Stalin was gone, the goal of most Democrats, if and when the Clintons are put out to pasture, will be to keep Clintonism alive.
They will fail eventually – because now, for the first time in decades, there is an alternative: the up-dated version of New Deal-Great Society liberalism that Bernie Sanders champions.
Not only is his “democratic socialism” better by far than Clintonite politics, it also less of a dead end.
The point of the New Deal was to save capitalism, not to move beyond it. But, in those brief periods when New Dealers were able to lead the Roosevelt administration on a more radical course than FDR and his closest associates envisioned, it became possible to see the New Deal moving society beyond capitalism’s horizons. Right or wrong, this was not an unreasonable view.
It is not unreasonable now to be similarly optimistic about what Sanders’ up-dated version of New Deal politics could lead to – if the forces that the Sanders campaign has mobilized keep “feeling the Bern,” with or without Bernie’s cooperation.
Defeating Clinton won’t be easy – not with the Democratic Party behind her. Smashing Clintonism will be harder still.
The Republican Party collapsed under the weight of its cultural contradictions; all it needed was a little Trumpian bluster to bring the structure down.
The Democratic Party’s foundations are more secure; it is likely to survive, in more or less its present form, for a long time to come. Just ridding it of its Clintonism could take years. But, for genuine progressives, nothing is more important.
Even if progress stalls – even if the Party’s grandees prevail and Clinton comes out on top – the world has already changed: its demise may still be far off, but Clintonism has been struck a blow from which it will never fully recover. Thank Trump and Sanders for that.
Thank the Donald for breaking the GOP – significantly, maybe fatally. It is as if History assigned him that task, and he discharged it well. Thanks to Trump, lesser evilism has lost its sting, making it possible for genuinely progressive politicians to put non-Clintonite politics back onto the mainstream agenda.
That has been Sanders’ goal all along.
He too has so far discharged his task well. He made himself a pole of attraction for people who are outraged at the status quo and determined to change it fundamentally for the better.
Twenty-first century New Dealers – call them “democratic socialists,” if you like – are now back in business thanks to him; and, with the national Republican Party a hollowed out shell of its former self, there is no organized political force in the United States capable of holding them back decisively enough for the genie to be forced back into the bottle.
This is why fear of Trump or Cruz or Rubio need no longer force progressives, real ones, to pull their punches, and why Democratic voters should be able finally to take Hillary Clinton’s measure without lesser evil thinking disabling their critical faculties.
When they do, they will find that her vaunted “pragmatism” is actually a cover for, what else, her Clintonism – for what we cannot rid ourselves of soon enough.
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).