Before the 1960 Presidential Election, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the historian who would become John Kennedy’s court intellectual, published a short book called Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference?
His answer was that it made a big difference because Nixon was a feckless scoundrel while JFK was God’s gift to America and the world. Even at the time, it was far from obvious that he was more than half right.
With the primary season now just a little more than half a year away, a similar question arises about two contenders for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the Presidency: Jim Webb and Bernie Sanders (or Elizabeth Warren or anyone else who runs against Hillary Clinton from the left). Webb has not yet declared his candidacy; Sanders has. Warren has maintained consistently that she is not running so, at this point, she need not be taken into account.
Schlesinger’s book would have been a bestseller even had the Kennedy forces not actively promoted it; the question it posed was on every voter’s mind.
Webb and Sanders are on hardly anyone’s mind. Few people know who Sanders is; fewer still know anything about Webb.
Also, at this point, the smart money has it that the question is moot because the chances of stopping the Clinton juggernaut are nil.
Nevertheless, there is no timelier question in American electoral politics today.
With few exceptions, people, especially “progressive” people, don’t realize this –first, because they don’t have a sound purchase on what elections these days are good for; and, second, because most of them have never taken the full measure of the harm that the Clintons have done to progressive causes, and therefore don’t appreciate what is at stake in getting that wretched family out of public life.
It is the family, the former President as well as his First Lady, that must go. For all practical political purposes, she and her better half might as well be one and the same.
* * *
What, then, are elections good for? In a world where global finance capital rules, it is tempting to say: “absolutely nothing.” But this is not quite how it is.
Recent elections have been good for giving voters opportunities to express opposition to the neoliberal austerity policies of their governments. Syriza’s victory in Greece is the clearest example, but there is also the spectacular success of the SNP, the Scottish National Party, in the recent parliamentary election in Britain.
Closer to home, there was the NDP’s, the New Democratic Party’s, rout of the Wildrose, Canada’s version of the Tea Party, and of the Progressive Conservatives (PC) in the Canadian province of Alberta. Alberta is Canada’s most right-leaning province; it has been under Tory (PC) rule seemingly forever.
Of course, there is still a democracy deficit afflicting all the world’s so-called democracies. Voters still sometimes vote for “hope” and “change”; sometimes their parties or candidates win. But then all that changes is that different people are officially in charge. Global capital still rules.
Therefore how much, if any, hope those electoral successes in Greece, Scotland and Alberta justify remains to be seen. For the time being, though, there is no better news coming out of ballot boxes anywhere in the developed world.
Not that the news is that great. Even if Syrizza and the others do succeed in implementing their programs, all they will have done is put a break on some of the most debilitating social and economic trends of the past quarter century.
These days, reversing those trends altogether seems almost utopian.
There are genuine socialists in Syriza and also in the SNP and the NDP, but there is nothing radical or counter-systemic in the programs they ran on; thirty or forty years ago, they would not even have seemed extreme.
In the world today, there seems to be no place for revolutionary challenges to the existing order or even for far-reaching, structural reforms of the status quo. The need is greater than ever, but public opinion is not there, and all the agents of social change that have not gone missing have been effectively neutralized.
Even more than helping to make the rich richer, this has been neoliberalism’s greatest achievement.
But even in better, less one-dimensional times, elections never led the way forward. The most they did was ratify changes already achieved in other ways.
Nevertheless, giving voice to peoples’ discontent with neoliberal social and economic policies is nevertheless worth doing.
Elections are also good for letting the center know that the people are on to what they are doing to them. They are good, in other words, for making the ruling classes uncomfortable, and for showing contempt to the contemptible.
Because there is no longer anything left about the Center-Left, it generally draws more contempt upon itself than the Center-Right does.
People like authenticity; and the Center-Right is at lest less phony. Its problem is only to stay respectable enough not to scare voters away.
Contempt for the inauthenticity and cowardice of Center-Left politics is at least part of the reason why the Democrats got “shellacked,” as Barack Obama put it, in the last two mid-term elections; and why the Conservatives in Great Britain just handed Labour, the Conservative Party Lite, its comeuppance.
Obama’s victory in 2012 was no exception to the rule. He won reelection only because the Republican primaries had exposed how unhinged the Republicans had become, and because Mitt Romney, the candidate Republican grandees imposed upon their base, was a poltroon and a phony in his own right.
* * *
Elections aren’t good for much, but in America they are good for even less than nearly everywhere else.
There are, first of all, Constitutional reasons that make a mockery of the democratic ideal of “one person, one vote.”
The Senate, the more powerful of the two branches of our legislature, is comprised of two Senators from each of the fifty states. Therefore, the half million or so citizens of Wyoming have as many Senators as the more than thirty-eight million citizens of California. In what universe is this defensible?
And then there is the Electoral College, which effectively puts the outcome of Presidential elections in the hands of citizens living in only a dozen or so “battleground” states.
There are also extra-Constitutional, but deeply entrenched, institutional impediments to democracy as well. Our semi-established duopoly party system heads the list of offenders.
It would not be quite so bad if the two parties, appealing to different constituencies and reflecting different cultural values, were not permanently at each other’s throats — at the same time that they are ideologically entirely on the same page.
Add on the method for selecting candidates – the caucuses and primaries – that has taken hold in recent decades. It accords inordinate power to the citizens of a few under-populated states, none of which could plausibly be mistaken for microcosms of the larger American society.
The United States was therefore “exceptional” even before the Age of Obama. But with the White House in Obama’s lackluster hands, Republicans became emboldened enough to break new ground in their efforts to keep democracy at bay.
Democracy is more of a threat to Republicans than to Democrats because time is not on their side.
Since Nixon launched his Southern Strategy, they have gotten as far as they have by appealing to rural, white, mostly older voters. But the demographics of the United States are changing. Before long, there won’t be enough of the kinds of voters Nixon wanted to draw into the Republican fold to make up for the younger voters coming along, and for the persons “of color” moving in.
The United States is still a long way from being a majority-minority country, and the suburbs are still teeming with affluent Republicans of all ages. However, the tipping point is, by now, enough in sight for Republicans to benefit from appealing to the social and economic insecurities of less well-off sectors of the dwindling white majority.
In the long run, though, the GOP cannot remain as it is, and still be on top at the national level. But, we are living in the short run. In 2016, it will still have many cards left to play, provided democracy does not get too much in the way.
This is why Republicans have been doing everything in their power to push democracy back.
Thanks to the generosity of reactionary plutocrats, there are plenty of well-funded think tanks around showing them the way.
One way is through aggressive gerrymandering. This has always been a fact of life in American politics, but, since the 2010 census made substantial Congressional redistricting necessary, Republican governors and legislatures have been outdoing themselves.
It is therefore harder now than it used to be – and perhaps harder than it has ever been – for changes in public opinion to change the House of Representatives substantially. Ironically, the House is the only constitutionally mandated part of government that is supposed to reflect peoples’ preferences directly.
The corrupting influence of money has also always been a part of American politics, to a degree that would be unthinkable in other so-called democracies. In recent decades, rightwing Justices on the Supreme Court have actually succeeded in getting political corruption – they call it “campaign contributions” – redescribed as Constitutionally protected free speech.
The Roberts Court’s Citizens United ruling carries this line of thinking to a level that can only be described as absurd. The Justices who arrived at that result are embarrassments to the federal judiciary and to themselves. They are also enemies of democracy, and class warriors – for the wrong side.
Because of what they did, it is now harder than ever – and harder than it is in any other capitalist state – for people power to prevail over the money interests.
The corruption is bipartisan; Democrats and Republicans are both after all the “free speech” they can rake in. One reason, perhaps the main one, why Hillary Clinton currently seems unbeatable is that her campaign is on track for attracting contributions in excess of one and a half billion dollars.
When it becomes clear to “donors” that the GOP will be unable, yet again, to find a candidate who can keep the Republican base on board without scaring everyone else away, even that obscene figure may be too low.
And, as if all this were not bad enough, Republican Governors in states with Republican dominated legislatures have lately come up with a new ploy – voter suppression.
It is an old strategy, brought up to date.
The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the last of the great Reconstruction Amendments, became the law of the land in 1870. It prohibits federal and state governments from denying citizens the right to vote for reasons of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
But, so far as African Americans were concerned, the Fifteenth Amendment was a dead letter from the moment the Reconstruction period ended after the 1876 Presidential election. From that point on, nothing changed until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
For some ninety years, literacy tests, poll taxes, and outright intimidation suppressed the African American vote in the South. In other parts of the country, the situation was not much better.
When the civil rights movement forced a very different political class from the one we now have to end this outrage a half century ago, there was a bipartisan push nearly everywhere to expand public participation in voting.
This didn’t just affect African Americans and other minorities. The Twenty-Sixth Amendment, passed in 1971, guaranteed voting rights to eighteen year olds. Also, many states made it easier for citizens to register and vote.
No more; not, anyway, in states where Republicans run the show. The pretext they use is voter fraud, though no one has ever been able to document that this is a significant problem or indeed a problem at all.
Plainly, the intent is to suppress the voting rights of groups that are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans. The effect on African Americans is less extreme, but not different in kind, from the obstacles former slaves and their descendants endured in the days of poll taxes and literacy tests.
Could the hypocrisy be more blatant or the intent less subtle? And could the conflict with the Constitution be clearer? Probably not. But Republicans are getting away with voter suppression ploys more often than not.
The Democrats are partly to blame. Even as they veer to the right, they remain, like the liberals of old, people who, as Robert Frost pointed out, won’t take their own side in an argument. A more important reason is that Republican judges are on board. Republicans do take sides. Indeed, in the Obama years, their obstinacy has risen almost to the level of the sublime.
And so, our elections are more useless than most. Why then should anyone who doesn’t have a personal or financial stake in the outcome care? Why should progressives care?
* * *
The answer that suggests itself immediately is the one people on the Left are currently voicing – the reason to care is that elections provide opportunities for getting progressive ideas across, for educating the public.
This has been why Left parties have been participating in America’s electoral circus seemingly forever. Has it ever gotten any of them anywhere? Has it expanded the universe of mainstream political discourse one iota?
If these are not quite rhetorical questions, they are as close as can be.
Yet, for anyone who is neither in denial nor inclined to pursue lost and hopeless causes, there seems to be no other plausible rationale for engaging in electoral politics.
Candidates will never admit it, but everyone knows that, for anyone with views that challenge the status quo, being in it to win is foolishness on stilts.
Only candidates vetted by economic elites stand a chance of winning. Witness Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or, God forbid, any of the laughing stocks that Democrats rely on Republicans to nominate.
This is an old story, but, for the past several decades, it has had a new twist.
The idea now is that, even if winning is out of the question, spreading the word is not – for any candidate who can force his or her way into those ubiquitous, and effectively obligatory, candidate debates.
Needless to say, the debates are not really debates; they are joint campaign appearances organized by the public relations staffs of the two semi-established parties. But they do draw enough media attention to attract large audiences; and, once the pundits weigh in to declare a winner, they sometimes do affect public opinion.
This doesn’t do third parties or independent candidates much good, because they are left out. It has been that way for as long as there have been debates, though it used to be easier for candidates with large followings to break through the barrier.
The last time this happened was in 1996, when Ross Perot bought his way in. This scared the guardians of the duopoly system so much that they took the operation over from the League of Women Voters — in order to make sure that nothing like that would ever happen again.
This is surely why Sanders chose to run as a Democrat, rather than as the “independent” he has always claimed to be. Good luck to him in that. Perhaps he can force Clinton to debate; perhaps, in sharing the stage with her, he can change a few hearts and minds for the better.
This is what Dennis Kucinich tried to do in 2008; maybe Sanders will have better luck.
Meanwhile, “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” is already busy fine-tuning their rationale for caving in to the Clintons on lesser evil grounds. To this end, the Sanders candidacy is helpful.
Those “progressives” know that, come the general election, they are going to hold their noses and vote for Hillary. But, if only to salve their consciences, they want to push her as far to the left as she can be forced to go. They are counting on Sanders to get her there.
They are already floating the idea that a lively challenge from Sanders will make Clinton a better candidate in the general election – in just the way that, according to conventional wisdom, Obama became a better candidate in 2008 because of his long, drawn out race against her.
This doesn’t matter, of course, because the Democrat, whoever she or he is, is sure to win. But they may be right about how to make Clinton a better candidate.
They are wrong, however, to think that what Clinton says when campaigning has any relation to what she would do in office.
They never learn. Surely, by now, they realize that when Obama was saying things progressives wanted to hear, he was only blowing air. And how could they not understand that, when it comes to opportunistic lying, the Clintons have Obama beat by a mile?
And yet they continue to delude themselves! W.C. Fields got it right: there is one born every minute.
The sad truth is that nothing Sanders can do will make the next President Clinton less awful. If he gets enough traction, he may be able to affect her bloviations for the next year or so, while the campaign for the nomination is on, but he is not going to move her presidency one inch farther to the left.
Educating the public is therefore all that anyone can reasonably expect Sanders’ candidacy to achieve. And there is not that much educating that a marginal candidate can do – even with televised debates.
It would be different if Sanders had a chance to win, but winning is out of the question. What chance does a septuagenarian Jewish man who calls himself a socialist have? To say that he has no chance at all would be an understatement.
This would be true even if Hillary didn’t have all that money flowing into her coffers. Only people power can defeat the finance capitalists, and, regardless of the positions he takes, Sanders just doesn’t have the charisma to get anything like that off the ground.
Ralph Nader did, but, in the end, even he got nowhere.
And because he tried, Democrats have been vilifying him for the past fifteen years. The incompetents who fumbled Al Gore’s campaign in the year 2000 and then blew the Florida recount, allowing Republican Supreme Court Justices to declare George W. Bush the winner, blame Nader for their loss of Florida’s electoral votes and therefore of the election itself.
They say he was a spoiler. This is nonsense, of course, but it does raise an interesting question – would it have been better if Nader, like Sanders, had run in the Democratic primaries against Gore instead of in the general election against both Gore and Bush?
Had he run in the primaries, he would have trounced Gore in the debates, but he would have lost the nomination nevertheless. The party leadership would have forced this outcome somehow; Gore was their anointed one.
But he would probably have been heard more than he actually was. Would his impact on public consciousness – and on the positions Gore would eventually take — therefore have been greater? This is a question worth pondering.
Had he run as a Democrat, Nader’s campaign would have been useless for something that many people hoped to achieve through it: breaking the duopoly’s hold over American electoral politics. The thought was that, by running as a Green, Nader would get enough votes to set the Green Party on a road to becoming a viable third force.
In retrospect, this hope seems, at best, naïve. The problem was not just that Nader’s relation to the Green Party was essentially a marriage of convenience, and that his heart was never exactly into party building.
A greater problem is that the duopoly’s stranglehold over American politics is so far-reaching that no single campaign, no matter whom its standard bearer may be, can do much to end it.
* * *
Even allowing that the Sanders campaign can do some good by getting some ideas out, the question arises: will the benefits, such as they are, outweigh the costs of collapsing real politics into an electoral dead end.
And a dead end is what it is bound to be, because a functional equivalent of Syrizza or the SNP or the NDP can’t happen here –not with “American exceptionalism.” Needless to say, anything even more far-reaching is utterly out of the question.
But the coming election can nevertheless be good for something. This is why it does make a difference whether Hillary Clinton’s principal challenger is Bernie Sanders or Jim Webb.
It is impossible to say at this point what Webb’s politics is – he is still too much under the radar, and his campaign is only in the planning stage. It is more than likely, though, that Sanders’s politics is more like Syriza’s than Webb’s is.
Nevertheless, his candidacy might offer the Left more than Sanders’ would.
This brings us back to the question: what are our elections good for?
Having determined that they are not good for much, it will be instructive to approach the question in a different way by asking what they are not good for; or, what comes to the same thing in this case, what American presidents cannot do.
Since the occasion for asking this question is the contest for the Democratic nomination next year, we might as well ask ourselves what difference it makes whom the Democratic standard bearer is.
In other times, it might make a difference because some candidates are more electable than others. But this consideration is moot in this case because, as in 2012, the Republican candidate is likely to be unelectable.
Unless the GOP changes its stripes, any Democrat will beat any Republican.
There is a genuine damage control issue, however. The damage that needs controlling is Hillary Clinton.
She stands to the right of most Democratic voters, but she cannot be beaten by being outflanked from the left. There is too much corporate money behind her for that; and although there is little love for her in the media, the media are on board for marginalizing challenges to her inevitability.
If our democracy were anything like the democracy people used to hear about in civics classes, she wouldn’t stand a chance. Instead, it is her only declared opponent, Bernie Sanders, who doesn’t stand a chance.
But even if he did, and even if events fell his way, he would not be able to change anything fundamental.
Barring an eruption of people power massive enough to overwhelm the money interests that dominate American politics, no American President could do anything that would put the power and privileges of capital itself in jeopardy.
This is a powerful constraint, but not a crippling one. Presidents have a fair amount of wiggle room.
The constraints are greatest on issues that directly affect powerful, politically connected economic interests.
Even so, an American president doesn’t have to be quite as awful on trade policy as Barack Obama and the Clintons have been; or as lackadaisical as Obama is in doing what must be done to stave off global warming and other ecological catastrophes.
An aroused citizenry would help, but even with the general level of acquiescence as it is, a President’s hands are not entirely tied.
However, it is on foreign affairs — and especially on questions of war and peace – where American presidents are least constrained.
Under present conditions, no President could take a principled stand against the American empire or deliver a “peace dividend” that would seriously diminish the power, influence and wealth of those who benefit from it.
But there was no inherent economic need for Bush and Cheney to lead the country into wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, or for Obama to continue those wars indefinitely. And neither is there any need now to target the entire Muslim world with proxy armies, weaponized drones, mercenaries, and special ops assassins.
Nor is there any need to destabilize relations with Russia or to “pivot” aggressively towards Asia, exacerbating tensions with China.
These are all bad causes, and also lost causes; and they make the problems they purport to address – terrorism, especially, but also nuclear instability and American economic decline – worse.
The Bush and Obama administrations have much to answer for — on these accounts, and many others — but they can hardly claim, in mitigation, that capitalism made them do it.
This is where a Webb presidency could make a difference; and it is why, while there is still a chance, it makes more sense to promote his candidacy than Sanders’, even if in some of the ways that matter to liberals, Sanders’ politics is better.
* * *
Whenever Hillary Clinton runs for President, the role model issue comes up. It is as if people are determined to demonstrate how shallow our political culture can be.
When she was running against Obama in 2008, there were commentators who thought that the choice came down to who was more in need of positive role models: black boys or girls (presumably, of any race).
Black boys won; though there were more than a few old school feminists who thought that girls needed a woman in the White House more.
The controversy even made it into the op ed pages of major newspapers like The New York Times. Seriously!
Rural white Southern men are less in need of role models, but there is an “identity” issue of some moment pertaining to them that the prospect of a Jim Webb candidacy raises.
I’ve discussed this before – on this site in an entry dated April 17-19. I’ll not go back over that ground here. Readers who are interested can find that entry here.
This is a reason why it makes a difference whether the Democratic nominee is Sanders or Webb.
A more important reason, though, follows from the fact that, even without massive public support, a President actually can change foreign policy and therefore military policy too in significant ways.
It is telling that in those rare instances where the prospect of a Webb candidacy is discussed in the media, the line is that Webb is more of a Republican than a Democrat.
Presumably, the reporters and pundits who say this don’t mean that Webb, like every Republican now in the national limelight, is a wingnut. They mean that the kinds of people who think Rachel Maddow is the greatest thing to come along since sliced bread, and that Obama – and the Clintons – mean well and would do the right thing if only those pesky Republicans would get out of the way, wouldn’t easily acknowledge Webb as one of their own.
This looks like a compliment to me.
What seems to prompt this assessment is the fact that Webb has never repented from having had an illustrious career in Vietnam as a Marine, or later from working in the Defense Department under Ronald Reagan, even serving as his Secretary of the Navy.
This is disturbing, but not nearly as disturbing as the fact that Bill Clinton was the best, the most effective, Reaganite President ever– better than the villainous old Gipper himself, better than the two Bushes, and better than Barack Obama.
Clinton takes the prize because no Republican could have neutralized opposition to the neoliberal assault on the ninety-nine percent that Reagan launched as effectively as he did.
Obama tries hard to follow his example – witness his work on behalf of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – but, in the end, he simply cannot compete.
There is every reason to expect that Hillary, if she becomes the nominee, will be even worse than her husband was. Turning the Democratic Party into a vehicle for advancing the neoliberal agenda is a Clinton family tradition, after all; and Hillary is not one to be content with second place.
Worse still, when it comes to war mongering, Hillary is indisputably Number One. Toni Morrison forever sullied her reputation by calling Bill America’s first black President. His wife is now in line to become not just America’s first woman President, but also, in view of her readiness to go to war, the Oval Office’s first Israeli.
Needless to say, Webb is hardly an anti-imperialist. He is a professional soldier who abhors chicken hawkery – along with the neocons and liberal interventionists who promote it. Unlike them, Webb knows war; he has a sense of its complexities and its limits.
Read his Vietnam novels, especially Fields of Fire; his writings attest to a level of moral integrity and intellectual depth that is unknown in the Clinton family and among politicians of their ilk.
Anyone who is skeptical should read Webb’s books alongside the drivel that Hillary Clinton has had ghost written for her; or, for that matter, alongside Obama’s much touted attempts at conveying serious ideas.
If the so-called war on terror is ever to end, Webb is the only candidate who could pull it off. If there is the will, there is a way; and this is something an American President can do.
The war on terror has been from Day One a war of choice, America’s choice. It was the United States and its allies that turned the other side into the menace it has since become. And it is still the United States, not fanatical Islamists, that is calling the shots.
Therefore, the United States could turn the situation around, if its political class were willing. A President Webb just might be able to pull it off.
In recent elections, Ron Paul was the only candidate with a non-trivial following who could count as a genuine opponent of the Bush-Obama wars. But, to the extent that his opposition was principled, it was based on the whacky libertarian ideology that colored everything else he had to say.
His son Rand, a contender for the Republican nomination, holds similar views, though he disguises them from time to time for opportunistic reasons. On Israel, he has actually gone over to the other side. Dialing for dollars will do that; it is a case of “campaign contributions” at work.
All things considered, Ron Paul would have been a disaster too; but, on matters of war and peace, the old man is way better than his son. Rand Paul is a non-starter.
Of course, there is no guarantee that Webb, were he to run, would not fall prey to the temptations that led Rand Paul astray. But all the signs suggest otherwise.
There is ample evidence that Webb doubts the wisdom of nearly everything the United States has done in – and to – the Middle East, even more thoroughly and rigorously than Ron Paul.
The difference is that there is nothing whacky about his reasons. As a professional military man, all he he wants is for America’s foreign and military policy to make sense.
* * *
On matters over which Presidents can change very little, Sanders gets high grades compared to Hillary Clinton – no surprise there! Most Democrats are less retrograde than the Clintons; he compares favorably against them too.
This is why, all in all, it is a good thing that he is in the Senate.
By the same standard, Sanders probably also compares favorably to Webb, though, as Webb’s views become known, there is some chance that progressives will be pleasantly surprised.
But none of this makes much difference inasmuch as there are limits to how much good a President can do on matters that challenge fundamental aspects of the capitalist world system.
However, in the one truly important area where Presidents can make a difference, Sanders, on a good day, is only par for the course. Webb, on the other hand, does better than any Democrat seeking the Presidency since George McGovern.
This is the principal reason why it does make a difference whether Sanders or Webb is the nominee.
At this point, though, both are such monumental long shots that the difference may be irrelevant. If this is still the case in a few months’ time, there will be no reason not to despair of the coming electoral season.
This might be the best thing to do in any case. Even in circumstances where elections plainly do matter, there are ways to change the world that do not involve getting sucked into their distractions.
But if the idea of a Webb candidacy somehow does take hold, and if he runs along the lines we can reasonably expect, then, unlikely as it now seems, it just might be the case that this coming election is worth getting sucked into; that, despite all the factors pulling in the opposite direction, it actually is good for something.
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).