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Lesser Evil Voting and Hillary Clinton’s War on the Poor

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French President Jacques Chirac was elected to his second term in office in 2002. In the first round of the election, French voters had an array of choices on their ballots, ranging from Greens to Communists to various right-wing parties to two competing Trotskyist groups that each received well over 4% of the vote. In the runoff, this narrowed down to a dismal choice between the hated conservative incumbent and Jean Marie Le-Pen of the neofascist National Front. Many French leftists announced their intention to wear rubber gloves to the polling places to vote for Chirac.

Here in America, leftists argue every four years about third parties and ‘lesser evil’ voting and ‘tactical voting’ and the rest. A victory for Bernie Sanders would dramatically change the face of that debate. With Bernie and Hillary tied in Iowa, Bernie likely to win big in New Hampshire, and Hillary likely to win even bigger in South Carolina, it’s too soon be sure what will happen, but as things stand, the odds favor Hillary. Even if superdelegates didn’t exist, Wall Street’s favored candidate beating a self-described socialist who looks like Doc Brown from Back to the Future would be the least surprising political development of all time.

Certainly, on the Republican side, it’s far too early to know who will emerge from the clown car this summer, his lips smeared with the blood of all the other clowns he had to eat to get out of the car. What we can be sure of is that if Hillary is the Democratic nominee, the great majority of good-hearted progressive people will feel duty-bound to vote for her to keep Cruz or Trump or Rubio or Pennywise or whoever out of the Oval Office. It’s both understandable and depressing, because this is how the system works. Republicans trade on their base’s fears about Muslims and gays and gun-confiscating liberals to corral them to vote against their economic interests, and Democrats trade on their base’s fear of abortion-banning conservatives to corral them to vote against their economic interests. Wall Street cashes in either way. So do military contractors.

I voted for Jill Stein in 2012, and I’ll do so again as a matter of course if Hillary is nominated in 2016. I’m cautiously optimistic that a non-trivial fraction of those currently Feeling the Bern may do the same, just as a spillover effect from Ron Paul’s liberatarian-ish Presidential campaign in 2012 seems to have contributed to the unprecedented million votes received by Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson in the 2012 general election. I would argue that breaking the stranglehold of the two-party ‘duopoly’ on American politics is clearly in the interests of working people—not to mention the interests of all the people in the third world who live in fear of American bombs. As OACW union leader Tony Mazzocchi was fond of saying, “The bosses have two parties. We need one of our own.”

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that I’m wrong about all of that. Let’s assume, as liberal pundits uniformly insist, that it would be dangerously irresponsible to even consider voting for anyone but Hillary Clinton in the general election. Even granting that premise, why not vote for her with rubber gloves and open eyes?

Instead of emulating the French, scolding liberal commentators constantly tell us that the differences between Hillary and Bernie shouldn’t be “exaggerated.” They tell us that Hillary is a flawed but basically progressive candidate who shouldn’t be “demonized.” After all, she’s spent her “entire life” advocating on behalf of “women and girls.”

As Doug Henwood has pointed out, most of what Clinton did “for women and girls” as Secretary of State was to do photo-ops with women around the world wearing colorful ethnic garb. Indeed, it’s revealing that, when you dig beyond bumper sticker slogans like “advocacy on behalf of women and girls,” Clinton supporters rarely want to discuss the particulars of her record. The candidate herself frequently talks up the sheer number of miles she traveled as if this alone added up to some sort of praiseworthy political accomplishment. The fact is that the policies she flew around the world supporting were a disaster for poor people around the world, and especially for poor women.

During the early years of the Obama administration, the Haitian government tried to raise the minimum wage there to all of 61 cents an hour, which works out to about five dollars a day. (The minimum wage before the proposed increase was 22 cents.) Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in 2011 show that the sweatshops supplying Hanes and Levi-Strauss made a huge stink, and got the State Department involved to lobby the Haitian government against their plan to go to all the way up to 61 cents an hour. The U.S. State Department has a fairly massive level of sway in the deliberations of the Haitian government, considering the United States’ long history of meddling, backing coups, and even invading the country when governments there displease Uncle Sam. Nor is this ancient history from the Cold War. U.S. Marines removed the democratically elected President of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 2004. So when the U.S. Embassy says jump, the Haitian government tends to ask how high. In this case, they ended up cutting the proposed minimum wage hike of 39 cents an hour all the way down to 9 cents. It might be worth thinking hard about the fact that the girls sewing your jeans have Hillary Clinton to thank for their current salary of 31 cents an hour next time a liberal scold tells you not to “demonize” Secretary Clinton.

Of course, Haitians are foreigners, and black foreigners at that, so maybe they don’t quite count. (After all, Hillary’s liberal supporters are willing to overlook that small matter of her support for the invasion of Iraq.) Perhaps, in evaluating her record, we should focus on her no-doubt glorious history of domestic progressivism.

Back in the mid-1980s, the Clintons and a lot of their friends founded something called the Democratic Leadership Council to move the Democratic Party back to “the center.” Throughout that decade, Ronald Reagan had led the Republicans in demonizing “welfare queens” allegedly ripping off vast sums from the hard-working taxpayers. The evidence for the claim that a non-trivial amount of money was being lost to welfare benefits being paid out to people who simply didn’t want to work was always pretty thin, but it hardly mattered. The racial subtext was powerful and it was thinly disguised, and Reagan’s skillful use of this rhetoric paid off in a big way for the GOP.

When the Democratic Leadership Council, which still claimed to be “socially progressive,” talked about moving “to the center” on economic issues, this is precisely the center they were talking about capturing. Bill Clinton made it explicit in 1992 with his campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.” Unlike quite a few of his other promises, he kept this one, signing away the end of federal welfare requirements in 1996. The impact of this “reform” on millions of desperate people was predictably grim, even for those who did manage to hold onto some kind of benefits so they could keep the heat on and make rent.

(Google “workfare” to see what this often looked like in practice. One of the options Google helpfully offers you when you type that word into the search engine is workfare is a form of slave labor.) With federal requirements abolished, the paltry funds made available for welfare were sent out as bloc grants to the states, where bloody-minded conservative state legislatures could have their way with the programs. In the years since “welfare reform” was passed, the percentage of Americans living in extreme poverty has greatly increased. As Ryan Cooper puts it, “Even after the worst economic crisis in 80 years, TANF has basically ceased to exist in much of the country. Eligibility requirements have gotten so onerous, and benefit levels so miserly, that many poor people haven’t even heard of the program, or think it was abolished.”

So, where was Hillary Clinton in all this? She was an enthusiastic supporter of her husband’s initiative, both in her role as an administration advisor and in her many public statements on the matter, including ones that she made after Bill’s Presidency ended and she was elected to the Senate. She called single mothers on benefits “deadbeats” and talked about them over and over again in the most offensively cliched terms, as people who knew nothing but “dependency” and had no inkling of the value of work. So, for example, using Ronald Reagan’s trademark rhetorical technique of a supposedly representative anecdote that sounds authoritative becomes it comes with a proper name, Clinton talked about a former welfare queen named Rhonda Costa. “Rhonda Costa’s daughter came home from school and announced, ‘Mommy, I’m tired of seeing you sitting around the house doing nothing.’ That’s the day Rhonda decided to get off welfare….”

Because it’s just that easy, right? These people are clearly on welfare because they don’t want to work, and any time they decide that they’d like a job, one will fall in their lap. It’s certainly not as if holes on resumes matter, or workfare requirements often prevent welfare recipients from being able to go to job interviews, or “structural unemployment” is a feature of market economies.

Matt Bruenig sums things up nicely:

For lifelong upper class pundits, these statements may not actually cause much feeling inside of them. But, as someone who actually grew up in and adjacent to the class of people being described here, I can tell you that these are really the height of anti-poor slurs. Under Clinton’s estimation, welfare beneficiaries are dignity-lacking dependent deadbeats who are such losers that even their own kids think they are trash. We don’t talk a lot about classism in the US (and frankly I don’t like the term), but that’s what this is. It is the class equivalent of calling women airhead bimbos.

Nor, of course, are the class and gender dimensions of all this entirely unrelated. Not so coincidentally, the picture of an allegedly typical welfare recipient you get from Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric on this—the “Rhonda Costa” of her anecdote—is a single mother.

As Bernie Sanders tried to keep the focus of this year’s Democratic debates on economics and his proposals to expand the welfare state, Hillary Clinton changed the subject as often as possible to guns. This is the one issue where the Secretary thought she had an opening to outflank Bernie Sanders on the “left,” on the grounds that Senator Sanders has sometimes been insufficiently enthusiastic about gun control.

It’s a complicated issue. On the one hand, the statistics about gun accidents, never mind gun crimes, are pretty grim. On the other hand, the fact that “stop and frisk” started as a program to go after illegal guns should make leftists who harbor concerns about police power and the carceral state think twice about bold new gun regulations are likely to play out. On a normal day, I’m not entirely sure what to think.

Today, after preparing to write this article by reviewing Secretary Clinton’s disgusting rhetoric about welfare mothers and reviewing the facts about workfare, benefit reductions, and the uptick in extreme poverty, I know exactly what to think. Guns should be confiscated from NRA members and redistributed to single mothers who have been kicked off of benefits. Lacking money from the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children program to help them keep the lights on and buy groceries for their kids, let’s give them the ability to procure groceries by other means.

Ben Burgis is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Underwood International College, Yonsei University.

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