The Empty Populism of Hillary Clinton

Empty Stadiums

As I write this, the Baltimore Orioles are playing a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox in an empty stadium. Last Saturday, running melees took place between drunken sports fans, protestors, and police outside of the stadium, Camden Yards, keeping thousands of Orioles fans from exiting after the game. Although eyewitnesses report that a drunken crowd of white onlookers mutated into an ad hoc counter-protest, sparking violent exchanges by hurling epithets at the indignant protestors and entering into physical altercations, racists quickly took to social media to circulate photographs misrepresenting protestors as purse-snatching aggressors.

The empty stadium has become a cultural signifier. In a tremendous twist of irony, the Washington Post and New York Times currently host images not of riots or of the National Guard, but of the empty stadium on the home page of their websites, and their print publications do not carry front page images of the Guard. The story is the lack of images, the lack of representation. It is the evisceration of the public through mass incarceration and social injustice, which is made all the more patronizing through the public image of establishment populism parading towards 2016.

In his brilliant work The Mirror of Terrorism, Jean Baudrillard wrote of a similar phenomenon surrounding a Real Madrid soccer match in 1987. Due to horrendous displays of hooliganism at a prior match, the International Federation barred fans from entry to Heysel Stadium, and television stations broadcasted the Madrid versus Naples European Cup game from an empty stadium as thousands laid siege to the gates. The soccer hooligans amount to terrorists, for Baudrillard, not because they took from the game the possibility of real public participation, but because they are a necessary outcome and active part of the strategy to foreclose on political life.

The State, like the empty stadium in which a match is experienced virtually, no longer contains the passions of human interaction; its technocratized, procedural perfection erases us from the picture that we watch from the barroom or the living room. The “masses” inevitably implode, replaced by the caricatures of “thugs” and “hooligans,” and society is eliminated (for example, former Prime Minister of England, Margaret Thatcher’s denial that society exists) as a precondition for postmodern life.

Race and Baseball

If there is a metaphor for the boarded-up homes, the dispossession of people of color through finance and police repression, perhaps an apt one would be an empty baseball stadium filled with the ghost-like silence of those behind bars. After all, the disproportionate number of incarcerated people of color seems an appropriate inversion of the normal attendance of baseball games.

One of the few baseball teams that tracks race stats among its fans is the Orioles’ current competitor, the Chicago White Sox, who documented in 2006 that even though the city is one-third African Americans, a mere 4.5 percent of their game-attending fans were black; in general, attendance of African Americans at baseball games was a mere 8 percent. Ironically, the mainstream media’s portrayal of mostly-white riots after baseball victories in San Francisco, Boston, New York City, etc., tended to highlight the “party”-like atmosphere, while the same news sites condemn the political “violence” surrounding the Baltimore protests, incited by racist baseball fans, and carried out amidst gross social injustice.

In her latest “impassioned speech” on Baltimore (so-called according to the reporting of the New York Times), Hillary announced her newfound opposition to “an era of mass incarceration,” and a restoration of order in Baltimore. Covering their bases, Bill declared prior to the speech that his administration helped put “too many people in prison and for too long.” He is correct, of course. It would take 150 stadiums to seat the 7.2 million people incarcerated in the US as of the 2006 US Department of Justice report—a disproportionate 60 percent of whom being people of color. As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, explained, “Clinton—more than any other president—created the current racial undercaste.” Part of that involved the deregulation of the financial industry, bringing about the sub-prime boom and ensuing bust of the entire US economy.

Meanwhile, the New York Times, Washington Post, and any number of blogs trumpet the vitality of Hillary’s new populist aura, which presumably will present a cogent solution to these problems—the answer coming from the “people.” As to whether or not she becomes the populist type, the New Republic summed up the zeitgeist: “truth is it doesn’t matter—not in any meaningful, lasting way. Whatever heuristic you use to explain it—necessity, expediency, or conviction—Clinton’s movement to the left is unalloyed good news for liberals. Because if she wins the presidency as a result, that would change American politics in perpetuity.” The author of the article, Brian Beutler, is totally incorrect: it does matter, but he is admiring fools’ gold if he thinks things will change either way.

The Empty Politics of the New Despotism

If her recent statement to veteran journalist Christiane Amanpour that the US should send the children of Central American migrants back across the border did not indicate the true colors beneath the populist veneer, it is because Hillary’s State Department was excellent at concealing its machinations. The children of immigrants are always a hot-button populist leitmotif, because they represent the “enemy within” in all its lurking potential—the ticking time-bomb that will undermine the integrity of the nation (a concept that means, literally, “community of birth”). Hillary’s engagement with this ultra-right wing position will likely be forgotten by her boosters in the midst of her powerful public relations campaign, as will the invasion and subsequent annihilation of Libya, and all of the innocent young children who have died as a result.

Far better than the images of these poor children that hang over Hillary’s head is the grouping of idealist cyber-activists that she has attempted to cultivate as a quasi-populist vanguard. It was only five years ago that Hillary addressed the State Department-funded Alliance of Youth Movements by video, calling the group’s followers a “vanguard” of web-based social justice activists who work as the foot soldiers of the free world (generally to overthrow governments antithetical to the US’s interests, as in Venezuela).

The principle non-governmental sponsor of Hillary’s “vanguard” is a group called Gen Next, a group that is intimately connected to the Tea Party through people like Chad Sweet, who sat on its board of directors after a stint as chief of staff in Michael Chertoff’s Department of Homeland Security. In 2011, the Alliance of Youth Movements morphed into, and the next year merged with Advancing Human Rights, which was formed by the founder of Human Rights Watch, because he did not want to report on the crimes of Israel and the US. The year of the merger, Sweet helped manage Ted Cruz’s campaign, and he’s on the docket to manage the Cruz campaign in 2016.

Crowdsourcing Authoritarianism

Along with the US State Department, Human Rights has also made Ukraine’s EU integration a top priority, which Hillary’s appointee to the State Department Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, sought to bring about through regime change. According to the website of the Ukrainian World Congress, which pushes EU-integration and joins forces with, “Movements is a program designed to help individuals who suffer from authoritarian regimes and violations of human rights and freedoms, and who are prepared to defend their principles and beliefs. The online platform, whose motto is ‘crowdsourcing human rights’, matches those who need assistance with professionals willing to volunteer such assistance.”

Just months before the famous Maidan protests broke out, the Clintons were at the Yalta European Strategy talking about EU integration. The conference is sponsored by Viktor Pinchuk, a pipeline magnate who is the top contributor to the Clinton Foundation and the son-in-law of a former President of Ukraine. Since natural gas from Central Asia through the Ukraine has always been the desideratum of EU integration, it should not come as a surprise that Hillary’s chief ally in Ukraine is a pipeline oligarch—much like one of the key sponsors of what is now being called Movements is Edelman, a PR firm famous for its leaked, hyper-militant strategy presentation for a TransCanada pipeline chock full of counterinsurgency pointers for beating activists at the social media game. The complication here is that Pinchuk has been trading with Iran, so dealing with him may be violating US sanctions, but isn’t this the point of populism—that consistency is unnecessary as long as the bottom line remains in tact?

The truth is never so obvious. Populism in this case is just an academic’s word for calculated demagoguery. In the game of geopolitics, Realpolitikstill dominates. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, until the latter has been defeated. It was, after all, Hillary’s State Department that turned the tables on Mohammar Qaddafi who, along with being a deplorable tyrant, had been a crucial ally of the US in the War on Terror. Populism and political realism go hand-in-hand here, which is why Hillary can stand next to Henry Kissinger and call him a friend. This is Kissinger who helped orchestrate the 1973 coup of democratically-elected leader of Chile, Salvador Allende, and in 2001 wondered, regarding Latin America, “whether democracy and free markets will remain the dominant institutions or whether there is a gradual relapse into populist authoritarianism, at least in some countries.”

The decrial of Hugo Chavez, among others, as authoritarians was always part of the shadowgame that conceals the unspoken reality of neoliberal populism and its inconvenient segues with authoritarian regimes, like the Pinochet regime in Chile or even the FPÖ under its quasi-Nazi former-leader Jörg Haider. But this is precisely why Hillary’s populism does matter; if she is taking a “hard-line” stance on immigrant children, aggressively seeking to overthrow the governments of Venezuela and Ukraine (deploying fascistic elements in the latter instance), and adopting reactionary corporatist economic leadership, her “populism” is dangerously close to that of Marine Le Pen and what, in Europe, is considered the populist right wing. The only way that wouldn’t matter would be in the event of a complete evacuation of all significance.

Nature Bats Last

Hillary’s astroturfed populist connections, from Ukraine to the Tea Party vis-à-vis a “vanguard” of idealistic cyber-activists unwittingly drafted into the US security complex, adequately expose the lack of real politics in the United States. Populism, after all, is most-generally characterized not by purely leftist politics, but by a merging of right-wing and left-wing positions into a common platform—in this context, one of “national security.” The extreme right and the so-called “populist” liberals are united in their interests of corporate hegemony, and the security complex binds the two in efforts to increase surveillance links with Google and other Silicon Valley gentrifiers. The difference is purely virtual, the reality is a new despotism—political leaders differentiated more by clientelism than by serious economic policy contentions.

Mass incarceration was developed along with the War on Drugs to enrich the elites while displacing the poor undercaste from urban areas, whitewashing the dreams of economic sovereignty in neoliberal rhetoric. What populist calls for an end to mass incarceration represent is not the fulfillment of a democratic project, but of a far more complex machinery of capitalist accumulation, which erases the political presence of the public in exchange for sanitized, targeting messages—a kind of political realism without reality. Mass uprisings have managed to extract at least that message from liberal politics, ushering in speculation that Google’s surveillance partnerships with the NSA and the widespread violation of privacy in the US today might eclipse the needs for mass incarceration to curate the appearance of public life, but this, too, would be terrifying if Clinton’s vacant promises could even be trusted.

Neither Hillary nor Bill mentioned political prisoners like Mumia Abu Jamal, who literally disappeared into the system yesterday, the same day that CNN televised the National Guard’s brutal arrest of young social justice activist Joseph Kent in a macabre scene putting on display the obscenity of military power. As Kent admonishes ranks of riot police with his hands in the air, a national guard Humvee creeps up behind him. He turns in alarm, hands still raised, as a group of National Guardsmen jump him and push him into the Humvee, which slowly drives in front of the camera to block the view. The reporter allows the event to pass without comment. Nothing to see here.

This is precisely the problem with “tele-populism” or “neo-populism,” as many commentators call it. It produces the public it wants, it summons the “people” into existence by championing a variety of popular causes from a position of authority, and it erases the voices of critics and marginalized groups who demand representation from the political periphery. Populism becomes the vacuous act of speaking for the “silent majority,” which only deepens what Baudrillard called an “[o]minous emptiness of all discourse” within a politics that consumes pre-packaged life.

Meantime, Bernie Sanders has announced not that he will run for the office of the President of the US, but that he will announce that he will run for the office of the President of the US on Thursday. It is the resounding echo of a non-event cast through the emptiness of the public. As we await the actual announcement, the stammtisch can settle down: “Sanders, an Independent candidate, betrays the left by gaining ties with the Democratic Party in order to mount a long-shot campaign against Clinton, rather than simply opposing the Democratic Party in the national elections.” That frustration being exhausted, Thursday’s announcement will be a wake-up call: Get serious about politics, and stop pretending that a radical leftist platform can survive in such a deoxygenated space as US American politics.

Play ball!

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.