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Stuck in America, With the Election Blues Again

Jim Webb is out of the race for the Democratic nomination. For all the attention the media paid his campaign, it would be fair to expect that most people, hearing the news, might ask: Jim Who? More on that later.

First, though, to put the end of Webb’s candidacy in perspective, stock must be taken of where matters currently stand in what is turning out to be one of the bleakest, most bizarre, but also, just possibly, most hopeful election seasons in American history. 

Americans who pay little attention to the outside world and to Canada especially, might not have noticed. But, the few of us who do pay attention can hardly believe that our neighbors to the north would complain, good-naturedly of course, about the longest election season in their history, a whopping seventy-eight days.

Unlike American elections in recent decades, theirs was more or less in line with civics class views of what democracy is supposed to be like – or, rather, with what the civics class view would be if there were still civics classes in our schools.

This isn’t all: their election produced a result that gives Canadians a better chance for “hope” and “change,” than we Americans had even after the election of our Hope and Change President, Barack Obama, in 2008.

We know how that worked out, but at least in 2008, we did get to see the back of George W. Bush. In this last election, Canadians got rid of their Bush, Stephen Harper.

Congratulations to them on that, and good luck. Maybe their Justin Trudeau moment will not fade as quickly as our Obama moment did.

Even if it does, at least they don’t have to despair just yet – like we do, with our next election still a year away.

Poor us! We have already been at it for a lot more than seventy-eight days. The 2016 election season has been underway, at nearly full throttle, since early in the summer.

For the next six months or so, the focus will continue to be on candidates’ personalities –not the programs or “issues” that they or their parties champion (if and when they bother with irrelevancies like these).

Canadians didn’t have to put up with much of that either; their election was never just a popularity contest. It is the same in other self-described democracies.   Obama and the others are right: the United States truly is exceptional.

We are exceptional too for having hordes of numbskulls, in government and out, who regard our Constitution, the parts they like, the way that proponents of Biblical inerrancy regard Holy Writ. They are not close readers, however and they say the darndest things.

For example, there are some who say that the Second Amendment underwrites or even calls for the maniacal gun culture that threatens our public safety. There are others who say that First Amendment protections for free speech license all but the most blatant (tit for tat) forms of political corruption.

Because some of those numbskulls are ensconced in the upper regions of our judicial system, and because powerful lobbies promote their nonsense, they often get their way. It is an amazing state of affairs.

But where are they when we really need them?

With another year of mindless punditry and mind-numbing hucksterism ahead – and with corporate media fixated only on the horse race — why are they not talking about the Eighth Amendment ban on “cruel and unusual punishment”?

Where is the indignation, as corporate “persons,” super-PACs, and self-aggrandizing scoundrels with too much money recklessly drive nails into democracy’s coffin?

If Canadians can complain about having to endure seventy-eight days of comparatively high-minded electioneering, why are we so quiescent?

We don’t complain – not enough of us, anyway – and we certainly don’t fight back. Instead, we follow media reports on the horse race with rapt attention — the lesser evilists rooting for the Democrats, while the whackos, misinformed and dumbed down by Fox News and rightwing talk shows, cheer the Republicans on.

This may not qualify as mass Stockholm Syndrome, but the parallels are striking.

There is no way out either, except by dissociating psychologically — like persons suffering intense physical pain. Obama claims to have closed down the Bush-Cheney torture regime; at most, he only closed down its most egregious part.

So there we have it: a stark choice indeed. Tune out or take a long electoral detour around serious politics.

Or, for those who find those choices unacceptable, wait it out while trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Holding a light up to major party shenanigans is one way; that is always a good thing to do.   And, in some jurisdictions, there are third party or independent electoral efforts at the state and local levels that are worth supporting.

There may even be some down-ticket Democrats to vote for who are not too awful – even a few House members and a Senator or two.

Also, there is now more reason than ever to vote for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. If nothing more, it is a way to strike back at the hordes of feckless liberals — Sherrod Brown is the latest example – now running in droves to jump onto the Hillary bandwagon.

Also, the longer Sanders remains a player, the longer Hillary will feel obliged to keep on faking left. This could make it harder for her to morph back into her old self when the primary season is over.

Then, on election day, since not voting conveys no message at all, there will likely be nothing much to do except to cast a protest vote.

I will be sorely tempted to write in Edward Snowden’s name; but the only way for that to get Hillary’s goat would be for a whole lot of people to do it, and that isn’t going to happen.

I therefore expect that, a year from now, I will cast my ballot yet again for the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein. She will have done very well indeed, if she receives even three percent of the vote.

Unlike the organizations formed to get out the vote for Obama in 2008 and Sanders now, the Greens do have the right idea: they are in it for the long haul, and they use elections for party building as much or more than for electing, or rather trying in vain to elect, candidates.

But, for them, it has been ridiculously slow going, and slow and steady isn’t all that it is cracked up to be.

In Europe, when Greens succeed a little, they turn rotten; in America, they reach a plateau too low to do any good, and then they stall.

These are reasons to despair; sound reasons. But there is also a reason to hope: its name is Donald Trump.

The very idea of a Trump presidency sends shivers down the spine, though it is not clear why inasmuch as his rivals for the Republican nomination are scarier than he is — and more risible. Also, his past views on most issues are no worse, and sometimes better, than Clinton’s.

In any case, what he says when he mouths off hardly matters; like Clinton, he will say or do anything that serves his purpose.

His purpose now is to win over the hearts and minds of America’s basest and looniest voters – its gun nuts, its nativists, and the rest. For Trump, with his money and his demeanor, they are easy prey; all but the evangelicals. Those wingnuts are flocking to Ben Carson like shoppers to a Morons R’Us Black Friday sale. Trump isn’t blissed out enough for their tastes.

Hillary’s purpose, of course, is to keep Sanders voters on board when the time comes for them to switch their allegiance to her. Therein lies nearly all the difference that there is between her and the Donald.

In any case, there is no need to worry about a future President Trump; it isn’t going to happen. Worry instead about the next President Clinton or whichever other Democrat – it won’t be Sanders – trounces her or his Republican opponent next year.

Trump probably won’t even be the Republican nominee.

Ironically, though, his candidacy provides more reason for hope than anything else in sight.

Whatever his intentions, and no matter what he thinks he is doing, the man is on a mission to destroy the Republican Party or at least to transform it beyond recognition.

If he has other ends in mind, or even if all he wants is to win for winning’s sake, then, in the Trump phenomenon, we are witnessing an example of what the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) had in mind when he described the Cunning of Reason working through individuals’ passions and interests.

Hegel also thought that the meaning of historical events becomes evident only in retrospect. This election season still has a year to go.   It is therefore well to keep in mind a well-known saying of another great thinker, Yogi Berra: that “it’s not over ‘till it’s over.”

Nevertheless, it is a very good bet, even now, that doing the GOP in is what the Trump campaign is and always has been about.

There is nothing even far out on the horizon that could be more beneficial than that. In comparison, the best that the Sanders campaign can accomplish — getting a few progressive ideas back into general circulation and dragging Clinton temporarily leftward – doesn’t hold a candle.

The Good Webb Might Have Done

Before Trump, a Clinton versus Bush matchup in 2016 seemed inevitable. Our politics couldn’t get any bleaker, even if only on aesthetic grounds.

But the noxiousness of Clintons and Bushes is the least of it; there is also their politics.

On the one hand, Hillary: an inept and clueless “humanitarian intervener” with neoconservative leanings, linked by marriage and conviction to the man who did more than anyone on earth to implement the Thatcher-Reagan vision of global capitalism.

On the other, Jeb: the brother of the greatest menace to befall the historically Muslim world since the crusades, and the most god awful President in the history of the United States.

Guilt by association ought to have long ago quashed both their candidacies many times over. And that is just the beginning of the case against them both. Jeb was a piss poor Governor; Hillary a piss poor Senator and an even worse Secretary of State.

Also, Jeb is a bore, and such a poor debater that, despite his donor backing, his campaign is already hanging by a thread.

It doesn’t matter, however; he never stood a chance. Barring totally unforeseeable developments, it was plain even last spring that Hillary or any other Democrat would swat Jeb down like a fly.

Therefore, nothing much would change if Jeb is replaced by someone else – Marco Rubio perhaps, or even someone as repellant as Ted Cruz. We are looking forward, as it were, to the same nightmare now that we were looking forward to last spring.

And it won’t end next November. Indeed, it will just begin then.

Must we therefore abandon all hope? Perhaps not. Even before Trump, there were straws out there waiting to be grasped.

I am aware of no one else who held a similar view, but I, for one, did think that some good might come from Jim Webb’s campaign — if he could find his stride, and if he could come up with a billionaire or two to back him.

It wasn’t his politics that appealed to me. In fact, I didn’t know – or care – much about his political views. It was enough that he knew his own mind, and that he felt more comfortable running as a Democrat than as a member of that monstrous assemblage of miscreants and know-nothings that the Republican Party has become.

On that basis alone, it could be inferred that a President Webb would be no worse than a President Clinton on domestic policy issues.

Thanks to her need to hold onto as many Sanders supporters as she can when his candidacy folds, Clinton has lately repositioned herself a few notches to the left.

That this would happen was already apparent last spring. I must say, though, that I did not think then that the transformation would be quite as pronounced as it has been. I underestimated the Sanders effect.

No matter; what Clinton says now bears almost no relation to what she will do once elected.   I thought then, and still think, that, were Webb somehow to become the President, he would do no worse.

But even if I was wrong about that, it would hardly have mattered in this neoliberal world, where finance capital calls the shots. A President Clinton, a President Webb, even a President Sanders – in the end, they would all end up doing more or less the same things.

For significant improvements to become feasible, militant, bottom-up collective action directed against the capitalist order itself is indispensable. There was little prospect of that as the electoral season took shape last spring; and the situation is no more promising now.

Sanders was – and is — the only bona fide social democrat in the race, but so what! It may be different elsewhere, but here in the Land of the Free, there is no business-as-usual, electoral way out of austerity politics, and no way to counter, much less reverse, the increasingly pervasive and disabling inequalities that afflict us.

There was a time, within living memory, when real socialists, maybe even Sanders in his younger days, would chant: “the only solution, revolution.” That slogan seems almost quaint nowadays. But it is nevertheless as apt now as it ever was.

There is nothing even remotely revolutionary about Webb. Having been medically discharged from the Marine Corps after suffering serious wounds in Vietnam, he was, and still is, a good soldier, a defender of the regime.

He joined the Democratic Party in 1988, and he was a Democrat when he represented Virginia in the Senate between 2007 and 2013. But he cut his teeth in national politics working as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs and then as Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan.

He and Reagan had their differences, and his reported views on the Vietnam War are, as they say, “complicated,” but he has never quite repudiated either one.

Were our political culture today more like what it still was in the seventies, Webb might now be running as a Republican.   In the run-up to the first (and so far only) Democratic Party candidates debate in Las Vegas, this point was not lost on the handful of pundits who bothered to mention him at all.

Webb’s résumé is therefore not one around which progressives were likely to rally.

But I would argue that it beats Clinton’s – because Webb is a man of principle, uncompromising intelligence, and good sense. And on issues that bear on foreign policy, military affairs, and our increasingly onerous national security state – issues on which Presidents can still make a lot of difference — his views make more sense than hers.

Webb was a trenchant critic of the Bush-Obama wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, though for common sense reasons, not anti-imperialist ones, and because, unlike Clinton, he has, or at least seems to have, a certain moral depth.

The evidence is in writing; his war novels are about as good as it gets. If the United States were more like France, Webb would be admired as a national treasure. But even in a country as anti-intellectual as ours, and as unimpressed by literary merit, Webb’s fiction should count for something.

It is also relevant that, on aspects of Asian politics, Webb seems to be as well informed and sensible as any foreign policy professional or university specialist. The former Secretary of State is clueless.

That Webb still thinks that, on balance, the Vietnam War was necessary is off-putting, to say the least; and it was disappointing to learn, from the few words that he was able to get in edgewise in Las Vegas, that Webb still harbors Cold War attitudes, especially towards China.

He also praises Israel for being a reliable offshore military asset for the United States, and he condemns Iran for reasons that the Israeli government and its retrograde Salafist allies in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies advance. This is disheartening too.

The last chance he had to turn his fortunes around was in that candidates debate. The CNN moderators didn’t give him much time or opportunity to shine, but, even so, his performance was lackluster. Too bad because in our so-called democracy, so-called debates are where the action is, and because in those debates performance is all.

My hopes for Webb’s candidacy last spring reflected wishful thinking. Nevertheless, the fact that he never got much past the starting line is bad news in several respects.

For one, just as the GOP contenders are actively moronizing American politics or, rather, moronizing it further, Webb could have raised the intellectual level.

There was some hint of this in Las Vegas.

While the others were going on, meaninglessly, about how much they think that black lives matter – by now, even our quintessentially aloof President has chimed in on that one — Webb was asked a gotcha question on affirmative action, the purpose of which was plainly to convey the impression that, as a white Southerner, black lives matter less to him than to the others. There is no evidence of that, needless to say.

Moreover, affirmative action has not been a hot wire issue in black-white relations in years — partly because one of its goals, the creation (through cooptation) of a black middle class was achieved long ago, and partly because neither the public nor the courts nor the legislative and executive branches of government are particularly interested in affirmative action anymore.

Prominent African-American liberals still are, of course; but there are, by now, significant numbers of more radical activists and intellectuals who are less intent on propelling a few African Americans into the higher regions of mainstream white society than on smashing the institutions and practices that keep the vast majority of African Americans down, and on replacing them with more egalitarian alternatives.

In the few seconds Webb had to make his views known, he said that he did favor affirmative action for African Americans – for the sake of restitutive justice after slavery and Jim Crow segregation – but that he opposed affirmative action generally.

There was no time to elaborate, but his position seemed to be that he opposes expanding affirmative action policies to include virtually everyone who is not a white male, and that he is not much moved by diversity arguments.

Had a serious discussion of this position ensued, I expect that I would have found myself disagreeing with Webb’s position and with his justifications for it. But there is no doubt that his view is intellectually serious, and that it can be backed by reasons that are at least plausible and that are worth taking seriously. In our politics these days, this is almost unheard of.

I would also expect that what Webb would have said in defense of his position would have been consistent with the main reason why I once thought that his candidacy could do a lot of good.

More than John Edwards in 2008 or any other working class white Democrat from the rural (or urban) South, Webb champions the cause of white Appalachians and other traditional Democratic voters whom the Democratic Party abandoned when it took a Clintonite turn, but who can still be mobilized to struggle against poverty and other consequences of neoliberal social and economic policies on bases of class solidarity.

A Webb candidacy was therefore the best chance there was for breaking down the Clintonite stranglehold over the Democratic Party.

It has been clear from Day One that the Sanders campaign was a non-starter in that regard – not just because, if it became necessary, the Party establishment would see to it that he would not rain on their parade, but also because his campaign strategy is based on going along to get along with the Clintons and other mainstream Democrats.

Another reason why Webb never had much of a chance from the get go is that his message was, or was perceived to be, out of line with the conceits of the party’s liberal wing.

Among other things, the Confederate flag issue came along at just the wrong time. With anti-racist militants climbing flagpoles to tear down the Stars and Bars, and with even retrograde Southern politicians, along with their northern counterparts and President Obama, showing sympathy for their cause, there was too much villainization of all things Southern to overcome – last summer for sure, and maybe at any time.

Webb’s position on this, as on much else, was intelligent, moral and in no way condescending. He could have pointed out, but didn’t, that it was silly to make a flag, a piece of cloth, the issue while the real problems, poverty and the many legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, continue to be ignored. He must have been tempted to point out that while symbols matter, social and economic realities matter more.

Instead, he called attention to the plain fact that the problem with the offending flags is their use by white supremacists now, not their uses in rebel states a century and a half ago.

The Confederacy was not the incarnation of all things evil, notwithstanding the fact that slavery was a root cause for its secession. Neither was the North the home of all things good. Slavery was legal in all thirteen states when the Declaration of Independence was signed, and there were five slave states fighting on the Union side, even as the Civil War raged.

Webb was as understanding of African American attitudes towards the Confederacy as any of the other Democratic candidates, but he did not shy away from faulting liberal do-gooders whose self-righteous outrage over white supremacist symbols shades off into unwarranted disdain for working-class white Southerners and other poorly off rural and urban Americans.

Neither did he fail to note how his rivals for the nomination have, so far, had little, if anything, to say about the root causes of poverty in America today.

Webb could have brought Appalachians and others back into the Democratic fold by appealing to their class interests and to the many other factors that join their plight to the plight of African Americans and other persons of color. But this was not to be. Webb is out.

He is supposedly looking into running as an independent, but this would be of no interest at all. The good he might have done could only be done as a Democrat. There is no way to de-Clintonize the Democratic Party from outside its fold.

***

After Las Vegas and after Joe Biden decided not to go for a last hurrah, the commentariat decided that Hillary had gotten her mojo back.

Therefore the conventional wisdom now is that Hillary will indeed get the nod, while Bernie will linger on for a while – more as a gadfly than as a serious threat.

Since we live in the thrall of a media system that almost always gets its way, this will very likely come to pass.

Therefore, at least one of the factors that made the outlook for the coming election season seem so bleak when it began is now, again, securely in place.

The general line in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, and other “quality” media outlets is that left-leaning “populists” had their day, acted out, and are now coming to their senses. As long as Sanders acquiesces and Clinton keeps on talking the talk, they may be right.

The rabble that Republican grandees have been recruiting into the Republican fold since the Nixon days are not being nearly as accommodating.

The media call them “populists” too. Nixon called them “the silent majority,” an expression that Trump has shrewdly revived.

Whatever they are called, they are not about to coalesce around any of the bland mediocrities in the GOP field.

They may not be the brightest bulbs on the tree, but they are full of passionate intensity, and they find only blatant non-starters – like Trump and Carson – appealing.

Carson won’t last: he is too jovial and too wooly-headed.   All he is good for is debunking the reputation of Johns Hopkins and brain surgeons everywhere; and for making traditional evangelicals think that Seventh Day Adventists are weird.

But, unless he becomes bored, Trump will soldier on long enough to land a few mortal blows on the soon-to-be rotting carcass of the GOP.

Maybe the Party’s grandees will figure out a way to be rid of him; more likely, he will figure out a way to be rid of them.

He doesn’t need their nomination, after all. Why would be want to be set up for his friend Hillary to trounce him next November? What is the percentage in that?

How ironic that, despite himself and without really trying, Trump could end up serving his country well and winning a place in its history!

This dreadful election season will end with the Clintons moving back into the White House. Even so, more good just might come out of it than anyone a few months ago would have dared to imagine. If so, we will have Trump to thank.

How much more seemly it would be were Webb, not Trump, the one to drive the GOP down. But that isn’t going to happen. History is cunning, not seemly; and it works in mysterious ways.

More articles by:

ANDREW LEVINE is 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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