As the primaries shuffle their way across the republic toward the D-Day of Super Tuesday, it may be worth recalling the political soil from which Democratic contestant Hillary Clinton emerged. Not when she was a Goldwater conservative. Not when she was a governor’s wife in Little Rock. Not when she arrived in the Senate or in Barack Obama’s Cabinet. But rather when she rode her husband’s quisling charm into the Oval Office. She frequently seconded Bill’s opinions and—like any good spouse in a political marriage—campaigned on his behalf. That was the key moment when the Democratic Party finally secured its special place in hell, nestled inside the devil’s pantheon of world-historical sellouts.
But before it can climb atop its fiery plinth, it must die. Now, as a party of the people, the Democratic Party is already interred. But it has found new life as a party of the one percent. And looking at it now, one has to wonder—has it ever been healthier? That depends on whether Hillary can connive her way into office and secure the black flag of neoliberalism for the party. You know, that banner her husband hoisted over the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the misty dawn of our demise?
Nowhere Else To Go
The reason we breathe the political air we do has everything to do with the presidency of Bill Clinton. He was the corporate revolutionary that brought the Democratic Party back from the irrelevance of Mondale and Dukakis. After 12 years of Republican elitism masquerading as supply-side wisdom, Clinton’s genius was to simply become a Republican in Democratic cloth, guiding the party of labor into the cigar-scented embrace of big capital. He adopted the neoliberal strategies of the Reagan era, recasting them in the counterfeit clothing of progressive populism.
Rather than challenge the power of money in politics, he embraced it. His strategy of triangulation proved the perfect model for unlocking conservative streams of wealth and simultaneously putting the conservative party on their heels. Imagine a simple triangle. On the bottom left is a liberal opinion. On the bottom right is a conservative opinion. At the apex of the triangle—well, that is your policy. Smack in-between the progressive left and the conservative right. That meant, in practice, moving right on key issues. In response, the Republicans have carved out a new homestead along the frontier of anti-government extremism. No surprise, really. After all, here was some Arkansas arriviste pilfering their positions and passing them off as his own. Clinton lifted their ideas, pimped out his platform to their donors, and somehow convinced his base not to burn down the Democratic Party. How else could they react?
In the end, this Janus-faced Machiavelli had it both ways. On one hand, he maintained a rhetoric of empathy for the poor, the blue-collar worker, the paycheck-to-paycheck laborer, and never hesitated to express his sympathies on his whistle-stop tours. Tears crept into the crow-footed corners of faces in the crowd. He felt our pain. On the other hand—or with the other hand—he palmed check after check from large corporate interests, assuring them, in deed if not word, that his rhetoric was little more than a ruse to retain the progressive vote.
In office, Clinton pursued Republican objectives. He launched a prison-building empire, gutted welfare, deregulated the financial markets, produced astonishing tax breaks for the rich, passed a trade bill that destroyed American jobs and wrecked Mexican agribusiness, and decided there was no good reason to maintain a wall between the unscrupulous capitalist investor and unwitting depositor. After all, as the Nineties refrain went, banks can police themselves. All the while, of course, he continued to peddle his sincerest sympathies to Main Street.
America hasn’t been the same since. Not least because the very deregulatory policies Clinton approved gutted the global economy in 2008. From an electoral perspective, the Democrats need only shade slightly left of the Republican insurgents to appear like even-keeled moderates and win the liberal vote. This is the platform and plan of Hillary Clinton, too. Another neoliberal corporate presidency. Obviously the Clintons think their strategy can still prevail. After all, as Bill Clinton gleefully said of disillusioned progressives he knew would eventually return to the fold, “They have nowhere else to go.”
This is also why today vulgar populists like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz prey upon the thinly veiled prejudices of their nervous congregations. They tell terrible tales around the nightly campfire, conjuring spine-chilling scenarios that read like passages from the Book of Revelation. Those fears were nicely approximated by writer Rian Malan who, in Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums, described the fear of Afrikaners in South Africa’s Cape Town after the notorious Pass Laws were dismantled in the mid-Eighties:
“…it was if a distant dam had broken, allowing a mass of desperate and hopeful humanity to come flooding over the mountains and spread out across the Cape Flats. They came at the rate of eighty, ninety families a day, and built homes with their bare hands, using wooden poles, tin sheeting, bits and pieces of trash rescued from landfills and plastic garbage bags to keep out the rain. Within two years, the sand dunes had vanished under an enormous sea of shacks and shanties, as densely packed as a mediaeval city, and populated by fantastic characters—bootleggers, gangsters, prophets, Rastafarians, gun dealers and marijuana czars, plus almost a million ordinary working people.”
This is the apocalypse that has schemers like Cruz and Trump promising a new separation wall along our southern border—to the furious applause of jittery nativists. It’s why rightwing nationalists are setting up encampments across Europe. Anti-immigration is de rigueur, and the right predictably uses immigrants as scapegoats for the crimes of their party.
A Special Place In History?
Against this backdrop of bi-partisan desolation, the Democrats’ first-woman-in-the-white-house narrative rings hollow, especially so coming from a Clinton. Because some Millennial women are stumping for Sanders, she had to unearth veteran supplicant Madeleine Albright to rehearse her bona fides. Albright promptly condemned to hell women that didn’t help each other, i.e., elect Mrs. Clinton. But would Hillary really be a boon for her gender? Boomer women seem to think so, but should it be any truer for women than for African-Americans? Did black people prosper under Barack Obama? The great unifier presided over the worst economic period for African-Americans in recent history. Thanks to predatory lending, mortgage fraud, and other innovative forms of white-collar crime, black people lost half their net worth from the Great Recession. After the social advances of recent decades—endlessly enumerated in the corporate media—black people still on average have a handful of pennies for every crisp dollar in the calf-skinned wallet of a white man. (A 2014 PEW study had the average white household worth almost $142,000 and the average black household worth $11,000, the worst inequality between the two in a quarter century. Not to mention blacks have a higher poverty rate, higher unemployment, lower workforce participation, and plenty more.)
In 2008 some 95 percent of voting African-Americans cast votes for Barack Obama. One of them was Cornel West. His support had given Obama a patina of black progressivism that let the Illinois Senator affect a more appealing image before his base. Once in office, he gave nothing back. West ended up anointing Obama as Wall Street’s “black mascot.” Harsh but richly deserved. There’s one photo of the two that is particularly compelling. In it West reaches across a swarm of Obama sycophants to clutch the President’s hand. In West’s face one might read a poignant mix of honest enthusiasm, a kind of brittle anxiety, and the idolatrous glow of the duped. Holding West’s outstretched hand, Obama maintains his cool, but turns his head as though admonishing the too-hopeful West not to make “the perfect the enemy of the good.” In like manner, one can almost hear Hillary’s own shrill falsetto brushing aside Bernie Sanders’ naïve idealism and reminding the world that she’s “a progressive who gets things done.”
Getting Things Done
But gets what done, exactly? Positive change for women? Stable free-market democracies across the Arab world? To find out, one can consult Hillary’s record as Secretary of State, recently tabulated by Diana Johnston in her excellent Queen of Chaos. Then ask yourself, was Hillary a good Secretary of State for women? Are women better off in the now-dismembered Libya? Are they better off in the bloody steppes of Syria? In the amputated statelets of Iraq? The former senator had a hand in all of these cataclysmic injustices visited on poorly defended populations. Imagine the fury of powerless brown-skinned Arab mothers watching this gloating child of white privilege rehearse her moral certainties on the international news.
Moreover, Hillary has shown little understanding that her work as Secretary of State was a catastrophe for the Middle East. Her public statements seem to be a combination of mendacity, compartmentalization, and ignorance. For instance, she implied the Obama administration lacked an “organizing principle.” She knows very well it has an organizing principle, based on the neoconservative roadmap crafted by Paul Wolfowitz and others back in Bill Clinton’s heyday. But this was nothing more than political expediency. (Destabilized by the Sanders campaign, she now sees the Obama era as a crutch rather than a liability.) Clinton also said not intervening earlier in Syria led to the rise of ISIS. It may be possible she believes this, having fully absorbed the appropriate talking points for a secretary of state of an aggressive expansionist empire. But reality is the exact opposite—our intervention produced the expansion of ISIS power and the broader calamity of the proxy conflict.
Johnston also provides a succinct description of the neoliberal program that Hillary fronts across the domestic and international arena, as did her beloved Bill:
“…a world tied together by the universal penetration of financial markets in every sector of each national economy, thus allowing international capital to shape production, trade, and services via their own investment choices. This has radical political implications. In their efforts to attract mobile capital, nation-states are expected to lower dissuasive taxes and provide widened investment possibilities by privatization even of the most vital national activities, such as education and basic utilities. This leaves the national government without resources to ensure public welfare, to develop industry and farming, to redistribute wealth through public services. The gap between rich and poor widens radically.”
Hillary and her clan of faux progressives represent an isthmus of privilege in a proletarian sea. If she wins, Hillary will doubtless confirm a few piteous maxims about the human race: any color, creed, or gender is capable of being as cruel as any other and, in the end, greed is our greatest vice.
Celebrated author Ta Nihisi Coates, who penned the insightful Between the World and Me and now graphs for The Atlantic, gets to the heart of the problem in a recent essay on Hillary. He points out what real radicalism is, in contrast to Clinton’s “evasion.”
“So ‘divisive’ was Abraham Lincoln’s embrace of abolition that it got him shot in the head. So ‘divisive’ was Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of civil rights that it fractured the Democratic Party. So ‘divisive’ was Ulysses S. Grant’s defense of black civil rights and war upon the Klan, that American historians spent the better part of a century destroying his reputation. So ‘divisive’ was Martin Luther King Jr. that his own government bugged him, harassed him, and demonized him until he was dead.”
Risk is not a term in the Clinton clan’s tiresome lexicon of accommodation and aggrandizement. Hillary would rather sit on her isthmus, sipping a cocktail in the sun, watching her imperial charges bludgeon their way across Eurasia. There’s a certain sense of superiority that comes from duping the masses. Just ask Bill.
Or ask Henry Kissinger, of whom Hillary wrote so affably in a recent review of the war criminal’s latest parcel of wisdom. Now 92, Henry doesn’t mince words. Just close your eyes and listen to that soothing baritone rippling with gravitas remind us that, “It’s not a matter of what is true that counts, but what is perceived to be true.” You couldn’t sum up the Clinton political strategy any better. To be sure, if Hillary wins the nomination, it will be because we have read our Krugman and our Brooks, and have endorsed the lie that it isn’t meet to ask for what we want, but rather to settle for an ersatz replica of something we once believed in. Rather than waste a vote on the “unelectable,” we ought to elect a charmless political lifer with a handbag of bootless pledges and a mountain of dirty money.