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The Difference a Year Makes: a Reason to Hope?

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At the dawn of 2015 and then for the next five or six months, it seemed all but certain that, by now, America’s two most noxious political families, the Clintons and the Bushes, would be fighting it out with one another – to see which would, at last, fade from the scene, and which would soldier on nefariously for another four or eight years.

Either way, banksters, corporate moguls and other malevolent capitalists would benefit egregiously, the fossil fuel and defense industries would prosper, and the material wellbeing of nearly everyone else would decline.

Still, there would be reasons to care about the outcome. Nominations to the Supreme Court and other federal benches are at stake, along with appointments of officials who serve at the President’s pleasure.   On matters such as these, sensible people would assume correctly that Hillary Clinton would be better (less bad) than Jeb Bush. This is why the expectation a year ago was that, by now, liberals would be back in full-fledged lesser evil mode.

What a dreary prospect!

Diminishing the gloom somewhat, there was also the expectation that Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders would get into the act. The hope was that, if they did, notions of a better politics might remain alive for at least a little while before lesser evil thinking took hold.

Warren didn’t run, as she said she wouldn’t, but Sanders has taken up the cause and is doing remarkably well, notwithstanding the fact that corporate media ignore him and his campaign as best they can.

A year ago, nobody expected this; the expectation instead was that, by now, any and all progressive stirrings mediated through the Democratic Party would be over; and that the Warren or Sanders campaigns, if they materialized at all, would turn out to have been flashes in the pan, functioning only to keep better-world-is-possible voters on board for the inevitable Democratic candidate.

That prediction is likely to be born out still, though we have so far been spared – because, by pushing an anti-austerity line, Sanders has struck a chord.

He is doing so well, in fact, that it now looks like he could actually stop the Hillary juggernaut in its tracks, if only he would go after her and the dead center of the Democratic Party; and if corporate media would do its job by reporting on his campaign with even a tenth of the air time and print space they lavish on Donald Trump’s.

It would help too, for mobilizing even more popular support than he already has, if his views on foreign policy were half as sensible as his views on social programs and economic affairs.

That isn’t going to happen; Sanders is not about to take the military-industrial-national security state complex on. But he could still take the Democratic Party on, and maybe defeat its Clintonite core. Don’t count on it, though; don’t even count on him trying.

Expect instead that, we will soon have heard the last of his “democratic socialism,” and that, looking back, it will indeed seem that all the enthusiasm he has generated only served, as predicted, to delay the inevitable.

Still, we must be grateful to Bernie Sanders, if only for making the electoral circus, up to this point, less dreadful than it would otherwise have been. He is still at it too; still keeping despair at bay.

Indeed, he is now all that is keeping liberals from falling lock stock and barrel into the Hillary camp.

Once he goes away or is sent packing by the likes of Debbie WTF Schultz, arguing with liberals about Hillary will become a fool’s errand. In comparison to whichever toady the Republicans nominate, she will be the undisputed lesser evil; and, while the case against lesser evil voting is solid, the lesser evil demon is all but impossible to defeat.

Meanwhile, it turned out that, on the Republican side, the expectations a year ago were overly optimistic. Back then, it seemed that there was still a chance that a later day Sarah Palin or Christine (“I am not a witch”) O’Donnell – someone ludicrous, but in a not too mean spirited way — would show up on the scene, making the spectacle more enjoyable to observe.

This too would be a diversion – a comical one, to counter the more edifying diversion hoped for on the Democratic side. But anything that could get the mind off a Clinton versus Bush faceoff, even if only for a short while, would be welcome.

And so it was that, a year ago, the broad contours of the 2016 election seemed already etched in stone: the election would end with a Clinton victory or, in the very unlikely event that Hillary’s campaign would crash too late for some other Clintonite Democrat to take up the cause, that George W’s little brother would be the one to blight the future of the planet.

This now seems like ancient history – the Before Trump (BT) era. Nobody anticipated that.

And nobody expected that the campaign of Poppy Bush’s second son would collapse under the weight of the candidate’s own raging mediocrity and memories of his older brother’s world-destroying malfeasance.

Once the BT era was over, Jeb didn’t stand a chance; he could hardly survive Trump’s withering scorn. But that was not the decisive factor. He did himself in.

Needless to say, the future still seems bleak; same as it ever was. Among other things, it is even clearer now than it used to be that our woebegone planet will again have a Clinton in its future.

But, as 2016 dawns, there are intimations of changes ahead. Not all of them need be as awful as good people nowadays suppose.

A Clinton victory will be a disaster; this is clear as can be. It is even clearer, liberals assume, that a Trump victory would be a greater disaster still. Perhaps it would.

But there is no need to worry on this account because, even if somehow there isn’t a President Clinton, there won’t be a President Trump. Americans, two thirds of them anyway, would never hear of it.

I could be wrong, of course; as George W. would say, I could be “misunderestimating,” the stupidity and mean-spiritedness of the American people. But even if I am wrong, it is a good bet that a President Trump would bear hardly any resemblance to the candidate Trump whose over the top loathsomeness is putting so many good people into a tizzy.

Were Trump per impossibile to win in November, he could and very likely would tell the racists, nativists and Islamophobes he has been courting to go play in traffic. He is only giving them the time of day now because he needs them to gain the trophy he is currently seeking, the Republican nomination for President. To that end, he will say whatever he thinks he must.

In this electoral season, the Donald could care less about the non-electoral consequences of what he says and does. He wants to be the nominee, and he hates to lose – period, full stop.

The moral is not: “don’t worry, be happy.” There is plenty to worry about. But there are also reasons to think that great changes are afoot. Some of them – not least, the demise of the Republican Party – will be welcome indeed.

How wonderfully ironic it would be if Trump’s machinations help bring this about.

***

The word now is that Marco Rubio is the only establishment candidate who can still defeat the Donald; that he is, so to speak, the new Jeb Bush. Having been Jeb’s protégé, this is deliciously ironic as well.

It is also absurd; Rubio’s politics are as god awful as any of his rivals’, and each day brings news of his seediness and corruption. Nevertheless, faute de mieux, he is becoming the golden boy of the respectable Right. How pathetic is that!

Rubio is not the only rightwing anti-Castro Cuban in the race; there is also Ted Cruz. For the GOP establishment, Trump is a menace who merits condemnation, but Cruz is somehow alright.

This is worse than pathetic; it is insane. An impartial observer, comparing Trump’s and Cruz’s rants for evidence of “fascistic” inclinations, could easily come to the conclusion that Cruz is, by far, the worst of the two.

Indeed, were someone to make an honest effort to factor out Trump’s opportunistic posturing, and to infer his views based on what he said and did before he hit upon the (so far) successful strategy of pandering to the basest of the Republican base, it just might turn out that not only is Trump the most progressive Republican in the running, but also that, in key respects, he stands to the left of most Democrats, including the Clintons.

Stephen Colbert famously compared Trump to his character on the old “Colbert Report,” but with the difference that the Donald has ten billion dollars. There is much truth in this.

On the other hand, Cruz’s “fascist pig” credentials are beyond reproach, notwithstanding his libertarian pretensions or, for that matter, his Taliban-like professions of (in this case, evangelical Christian) godliness.

The GOP has long been the Cosa Nostra of the miscreants who comprise what Bernie Sanders calls “the billionaire class,” and the favored party of the merely prosperous bourgeoisie.

Not long ago, it also had deep routes in many parts of the country, drawing ordinary, decent people into its broad tent. Because family traditions die hard, many of them are still there. In his immortally maudlin Checkers speech, Richard Nixon was on to something when he spoke of his wife’s “good Republican cloth coat.”

Moreover, Republicans and Democrats used to be fixed at more or less the same place on the political spectrum. Hard as it is to believe nowadays, the Republicans were often better on issues like gun control, women’s rights, and abortion.

And yet, in 2016, they can do no better than Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz!

Trump cannot take all the credit for the miserable state of today’s GOP; the Party’s decline and fall has been a long time coming.

Nevertheless, Trump’s role in this latest, probably irreversible, possibly terminal, stage in the GOP’s decline has been decisive. Whether or not by design, his candidacy is destroying the Republican Party — “as we know it,” and as the world has known it for nearly a century and a half.

Trump is egomaniacal enough that this just might be his goal. It must surely tempt him to think that he could be remembered as the other bookend of a story that began with Abraham Lincoln.

He is also shrewd enough, and a good enough showman, to pull it off – with help from those ten billion dollars.

But even if he really is of one mind with his marks and isn’t just playing them for the suckers they are, the fact remains: that the Republican Party at the national level is now, thanks to Trump, a complete and total mess. Even The Washington Post, always the last to know, has declared as much.

The Party’s billionaire backers and establishment stalwarts might just as well throw in the towel and let the Clintons be the ones to service them; this is how it will turn out in the end anyway.

***

That the Clintons have remained, as Bill would say, “viable in the system,” after all the harm that they have done – and that, barring a miracle, Hillary will be the next President of the United States – is pathetic too.

In Queen of Chaos (2015), Diana Johnstone carefully explains why. She focuses on issues pertaining to war and peace. Another book could be written on Hillary’s role, and her husband’s, in putting the neoliberal social and trade policies that Americans associate with Ronald Reagan into practice.

The Clintons’ neoliberalism has probably never been heartfelt, but, as Democrats, they were able to neutralize the opposition and to bring potential opponents along. This is what their corporate paymasters demanded, and Hillary and Bill have always done their best to deliver for them.

In this respect, they are of a piece with other center-left politicians around the world. All of them support retrograde policies that the people they purport to represent abhor.

This is a problem that seems to lack a electoral solutions. As has been demonstrated repeatedly in country after country, elections these days change nothing – except at the margins. There is now even a name for this phenomenon; it is called the “democracy deficit.”

Part of the problem is, and always has been, that in capitalist societies, capitalists have ways of getting their way.

But where governing institutions are at least formally democratic, and where there are free and fair elections, it should still be possible for democratic majorities to defend against the predations of economic elites, and to use the state to advance the interests of ordinary people.

However, the more national sovereignty is compromised, the harder this becomes. This is one reason why democracy deficits have lately become so pervasive.

Extra-national bureaucracies, like the ones installed by the EU in Brussels, make it harder than it would otherwise be for popular forces to prevail – because they are unaccountable to democratic constituencies. International trade agreements can have similar effects.

And, as everyone following events in Greece and elsewhere in the European south came to realize in 2015, countries that are not able to control their own currencies and fiscal policies are more than usually disabled from responding positively to the interests and demands of their citizens.

To be sure, it is also possible in principle to use international institutions to advance democratic objectives. Before the financial meltdown eight years ago, it was widely believed that the EU was doing fairly well in that regard; that it had figured out ways to square the circle. Nobody thinks so anymore.

In any case, an even more debilitating problem is that, with globalization and the increasingly important role of financial institutions in capitalist economies, states are less able than they used to be to counter the ability of capitalists, operating at a global level, to get what they want and to benefit at everybody else’s expense.

The problem is not just that the financial sector, being “too big to fail,” is out of control. It is that global financial institutions are in nearly total control of state policies and institutions that affect their bottom lines.

It is hardly news, except to American politicians and pundits, that talk of “American exceptionalism” is pernicious and silly. Nevertheless, it is the case that in its ability to withstand the onslaught of global capital, there truly is something exceptional about the United States.

Because many of the world’s largest financial institutions are American owned and run, and because the U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency, the American state can rein in capitalists’ power more effectively than other states can.   National sovereignty is compromised everywhere, but less in the United States than anywhere else.

In Greece, the bona fide leftists of Syriza found that, however much they might have wanted a more robust socialism than the “democratic socialism” (actually, New Deal-Great Society liberalism) that Bernie Sanders talks about, they had no choice but to ask, in effect: what would Hillary do? – and then to do precisely that.

This is how it is these days, in diminishing degrees, all over the world. The Clintons didn’t think of it, and they don’t believe in it – but this is the world they helped fashion.   They are a symptom, and also a cause, of the troubles that confront us.

Still, despite all that Bill Clinton did to implement the Reagan agenda during the eight years of his presidency, the United States remains uniquely able to resist the debilitating stranglehold global financial institutions hold over other national economies.

This is why, building on the popular support he has already garnered, a President Sanders likely could do for the United States what Syriza could not do for Greece; he could end, or at least alleviate, some of the more dire consequences of neoliberal austerity politics, and spur economic growth in ways that benefit the vast majority of Americans.

Our billionaires need not worry, however; there will be no President Sanders – not because Hillary is invincible, but because, when the time comes, he will fold his campaign into hers.

Therefore nothing much will change after the 2016 election results are tabulated — except that, from that point on, even President Drone, milquetoast reformer and Deporter-in-Chief, 24/7 surveiller of all that moves, and scourge of whistleblowers everywhere, will actually start to look good.

Don’t blame Bernie too much for that. The sad truth is that even if he had it in him to copy Trump’s “fuck you, establishment toadies” attitude, and even if he were less of an imperialist toady himself, he would not be able to do much to get America off its neoliberal-neoconservative (Reaganite-Clintonite) track.

Only a mobilized, democratic public can do that.

It was clear a year ago that this election would divert energies away from efforts to make anything like that happen. That prediction has so far been born out, and there is no reason to expect that this is about to change.

The Greens are trying, as they always do, to make the best of this bad situation. They will run on a more progressive platform than Sanders, and their likely candidate, Jill Stein, will do her best, as she did in 2012, to promote Green New Deal policies at home and sanity abroad. Some good could come of this, but her electoral campaign is not the solution; it is not even the beginning of a solution.

America’s democracy deficit may not be quite as structurally ingrained as in other countries, but, even so, to overcome it, Americans need to escape the thrall of electoral illusions — until such time as victories that have already been won in other sites of struggle can be validated at the ballot box (or its electronic equivalents).

This too was predictable a year ago.

What was not predictable then, back in the BT era, was how profoundly disruptive the Trump factor could be. Indeed, last January, it looked like the Donald probably wouldn’t even throw his hat into the ring; and that, if he did, he’d be just another buffoon, in the Palin-O’Donnell tradition.

However now, thanks to him, it is looking like there will be cracks aplenty in America’s stultifying duopoly party system when the dust from this appalling election season finally clears. All kinds of popular initiatives will then have space to emerge.

The Clintons will not be going away any time soon; this is even clearer now than it was a year ago. But it is less clear now than then that this means that there is nothing to do but retreat into private pursuits, abandoning all hope for a politics capable of addressing real world problems, and constructing a better future than the one before us now.

Notwithstanding the virtual certainty that a full-fledged Clintonite Restoration is in the offing, Trump’s shrewdness, his egoism, and his refusal to tow the establishment line — or even to stay within the bounds of propriety – make the prospects for the 2016 electoral season seem a tad less bleak than they seemed a year ago, no matter what happens from this point on.

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).

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