Politician Speak at the DNC

When American politicians speak it’s as if they want to disillusion you forever on the significance and veracity of words. They seem to hope to destroy your faith in the liberating potential of humanity’s glorious capacity for language. They and their writers and speaking consultants craft rhetoric and delivery to turn wrong into right, falsehood into truth, fiction into fact, left into right, war into peace, and hate into love. It’s straight out of Orwell, almost.

A Liberal Activist He Met

The Democratic National Convention (DNC) in its first two evenings has been a case in point. Over this time (and I presume the problem I am about to describe will continue into the next two nights) one speaker after another, including Bernie Sanders, has stepped up to the platform to depict the right-wing fanatic, Wall Street darling, and Pentagon-endorsed war hawk and arch-neoliberal Hillary Clinton as some kind of progressive people’s champion of workers, minorities, Black Americans, peace, justice, and disadvantaged children.

The depth and degree of deliberate deception and deletion required to carry out this deeply mendacious con job is daunting indeed. What’s most depressing is the ostensibly passionate and sincere belief the star speakers bring to telling this Big Lie. These are consummate used car salespersons up on the DNC podium.

None are more adept at the fake-progressive sales job than Bill Clinton. Taking your Hillary history from the Big Creep (as Monica Lewinsky used to call Mr. Clinton) during his “I Met a Girl” speech two nights ago, you’d think he’d never engaged in epic levels of philandering while he’s been married to the noble and selfless liberal idealist Hillary Clinton. You’d never imagine that his wife: worked at a vile corporate law firm like Rose Law; sat on the board of the viciously anti-worker and globalist retail giant Wal-Mart; voted for authorizing George W. Bush to arch-criminally invade Iraq if he wanted to (he did); applauded her co-president husband’s malicious and calamitous elimination of disproportionately Black poor mothers’ and children’s entitlement to basic federal family cash assistance; pushed Bill to criminally bomb Serbian children; backed and protected a right wing coup in Honduras as Secretary of State; led the way in the U.S.-led Western destruction of Libya and Syria; joined Bill in cozying up to vicious authoritarian rulers like Rwanda’s President-for-Life Paul Kagame and the decrepit kings of arch-reactionary ad absolutist Saudi Arabia; joined Bill in helping engineer the full corporate-neoliberal Wall Street takeover of the Democratic Party during the last quarter of the last century.

The double whammy of financial deregulation and public assistance slashing under the co-presidents during the 1990s has born horrible fruit for the nation’s middle, working, and lower classes in this century.

“Drop Her in Any Trouble Spot”

Bill Clinton reached new levels of sociopathic deceit when he said the following: “You could drop her [Hillary] in any trouble spot — pick one– come back in a month, and somehow, someway, she will have made it better. That is just who she is.” Oh yes, absolutely. Just ask the people of Honduras (where Secretary of State Clinton aided and abetted a vicious right wing coup in the spring and summer of 2009), Libya (where Secretary Clinton led the charge for the disastrous overthrow of Gadaffi with Western bombs), Ukraine (saddled with a neo-Nazi government thanks in no part to Hillary’s maniacally anti-Russian designs), Haiti (where Secretary Clinton weighed alongside the giant corporations Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, and Levi’s to oppose an increase of the minimum wage from 24 to 61 cents an hour), and Syria (where a disastrous Civil War and the rise of the Islamic State bears the criminal fingerprints of Secretary Clinton’s lust for fake-humanitarian regime change) – all countries where “the Queen of Chaos” has pushed forward the destructive American imperial project with disastrous consequences.

In a House Built by Slaves

For sheer evil mendacity at the DNC, I’d give the prize to Michelle Obama when she said that America needs “Leaders like Hillary Clinton, who have the guts and the grace to keep coming back and putting those cracks in the highest and hardest glass ceiling until they finally break through, lifting all of us along with her.” And “that,” the lame duck First Lady non-sequitured,

“is the story of this country. The story that has brought me to the stage tonight. The story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, who kept on striving, and hoping, and doing what needed to be done. So that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters — two beautiful intelligent black young women — play with the dog on the White House lawn.”

Gee, so what if the Clintons and Barack Obama have stood in the fake-progressive neoliberal vanguard of the Democratic Party’s long rightward, pro-Wall Street and pro-military march, moving party ever further away from economic, social, environmental and racial justice? Who cares if they’ve helped bring us to a New Gilded Age in which – as Bernie Sanders claimed in his sad Monday night endorsement of Mrs. Clinton – the top tenth of the top U.S. One Percent owns nearly as much wealth as the nation’s bottom 90 percent? So what if average Black net worth has undergone an epic decline and millions of Black U.S. children have attended miserably underfunded and persistently hyper-segregated schools while Maliah and Sasha have romped with their pooch on the grounds of the White House and attended the posh ($40,000 a year per student) Sidwell Friends School? So what if countless videos have surfaced in the Age of Obama of mostly white and almost universally exonerated police officers criminally murdering mostly young and unarmed Black men? And if epic Black lower and working segregation (residential and educational) persists alongside the “New Jim Crow” of mass Black imprisonment and criminal marking? Never mind that this and more terrible to mention has occurred while the nation’s First Black President has poor U.S. Blacks on their own purported personal and cultural responsibility for their presence at the bottom of America’s deep socioeconomic wells and has reprimanded those same Blacks on their need to respect “law and order.” Along the way, he has repeatedly held himself up absurdly as an example of how anyone can advance in the supposedly color-blind land of opportunity that is “this magical place America,” thereby feeding into white America’s widespread sense that racism no longer poses significant barriers to Black advancement and equality (“Look: the president is Black, so shut up about racism already!”).

Divide and Rule

The best DNC speech so far (I am writing here about the convention’s first two days) was in my opinion given by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). I say this (which is definitely not the majority or mainstream media opinion) for two reasons. First, of all the major speakers, Ms. Warren spent the least amount of her allotted time pretending the Hillary Clinton is a some kind of serious liberal progressive and the greatest amount of time pillorying the noxious white-nationalist billionaire and arch-plutocrat Donald Trump. She came the closest of all the top speakers so far to making the only case “for” Hillary Clinton that should merit any shred of respect from a serious leftist: Mrs. Clinton as the Lesser Evil.

Second, Senator Warren’s speech included the following passage, a passage that merits reading and reflection from those who are fighting for racial justice in the United States today:

“Trump thinks he can win votes by fanning the flames of fear and hatred. That’s Donald Trump’s America…Whites against blacks and Latinos. Christians against Muslims and Jews. Straight against gay. Everyone against immigrants…. But ask yourself this. When white workers in Ohio are pitted against black workers in North Carolina, or Latino workers in Florida, who really benefits?… ‘Divide and Conquer’ is an old story in America. Dr. Martin Luther King knew it. After his march from Selma to Montgomery, he spoke of how segregation was created to keep people divided. Instead of higher wages for workers, Dr. King described how poor whites in the South were fed Jim Crow, which told a poor white worker that, ‘No matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.’ Racial hatred was part of keeping the powerful on top.”

“…When we turn on each other, bankers can run our economy for Wall Street, oil companies can fight off clean energy, and giant corporations can ship the last good jobs overseas…When we turn on each other, rich guys like Trump can push through more tax breaks for themselves and then we’ll never have enough money to support our schools, or rebuild our highways, or invest in our kids’ future…When we turn on each other, we can’t unite to fight back against a rigged system.”

The passage just quoted makes a very important point on the functions of racial, ethnic, religious and other forms of divide-and-rule for the ruling class (the One Percent, if you like). I’ve long been surprised that this key point isn’t emphasized more on the anti-racist Left and in response to the tendency of many white middle and working class Americans to recoil against very basic and decent calls for racial justice and Black civil rights. It is largely futile, I think, to appeal to the moral conscience of many white working class Americans when it comes to the causes of racial equality and justice. Many of these Caucasians have some very good reasons to feel embattled, insecure, and far from privileged in this ugly New Gilded Age of harsh inequality and ruling class oligarchy. They are too preoccupied with their own precarious situation and fading prospects and bank accounts to work up a lot of concern for Black lives, sadly. To make matters worse, segregation blinds them to the harsh realities of daily Black experience in still-deeply-racist America while the mass media bombards them with images of significant Black wealth and power (Oprah, the Obamas, LeBron James, Alicia Keys, etc.) alongside chronically decontextualized nightly news images of Black violence and criminality.

In this context, the best bet for getting ordinary whites on board with the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle for racial justice is to appeal to their class interest in not allowing themselves to be played by the One Percent. It is to challenge those Caucasians to reject what the great Black Marxist W.E.B DuBois called “the psychological wage” of racism. By DuBois’ account in 1935, anti-black racism grants lower and working-class whites a “public and psychological wage” – a false and dysfunctional measure of status used to compensate for alienating and exploitative class relationships. As Dr. King observed in 1968, racialized capitalism gives its Caucasian proletarian prey the Janus-faced “satisfaction of…thinking you are somebody big because you are white.” The trick has been to encourage the white working class majority to, in historian David Roediger’s words, “define and accept their class position by fashioning identities as ‘not slaves’ and ‘not blacks.’”

The “satisfaction” has always been a terrible lie. It has helped cloak white workers’ subordinate and expendable status, which never disappeared despite the advantages white skin privilege has conferred relative to non-whites. It has injured those workers’ material status by undermining their capacity to enhance their economic and political power by joining in solidarity with nonwhite workers. It has joined them in spirit and political allegiance to rich fellow whites who couldn’t care less about working class people of any color. It has focused white workers’ ire on the wrong enemies – those with the least power (non-white workers and the poor) instead of the moneyed elite, which wields its wealth and power to cripple and destroy lives and the common good. And it has (along with numerous other the related reactionary messages in the reigning American ideology) encouraged white workers to blame themselves for their own difficult circumstances under the remorseless reign of capital. “Privileged” people are supposed to be doing well, after all. If they’re not, it must be their own fault.

The problem with hearing the democratic socialist Dr. King’s analysis (shared with DuBois) on of how the racial division of the American working class serves the U.S. economic elite fall from the lips of a Democratic politician (Elizabeth Warren in this case) is that the neoliberal Democratic Party is no less beholden to the nation’s financial and corporate ruling class than the Republican Party. The Democratic Party has no intention whatsoever of organizing the working and lower classes across racial lines to engage in a great people’s struggle against the wealthy Few. It does not remotely share the egalitarian spirit of Dr. King and his many socialist and left progressive allies during the middle and late 1960s. When they play the race card, top Democrats do so mainly as part of their own pseudo-liberal identity politics strategy. Their statements on race may be more liberal, tolerant, mature, and progressive than what you hear from the Republicans but, just like the rightmost major party, the Democrats use race (and ethnicity, gender, nationality, guns, abortion, and gay rights) in a way that is carefully calibrated to make sure that Goldman Sachs’ interests and power remain unscathed. With elite financial and corporate power beyond significant and substantive challenge, the basic structural and capitalist underpinnings of “Divide and Conquer” stay intact.

Dissing Disillusionment

A final thought on the DNC speech rhetoric through Night Two (Tuesday). Michelle Obama got loud applause from Clinton fans when she praised Hillary for not “get[ting] angry or disillusioned” when she was defeated by Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary race. This was a shot at the many angry and unhappy Bernie Sanders fans within and beyond the DNC convention hall.

It was a misleading criticism in two key ways. First, Obama beat the party favorite Hillary Clinton for the most part fair and square, by running a superior marketing campaign than hers and without the benefit of party machine corruption and shenanigans. That was not the case with Sanders’ defeat by the Clintons, which came with a plethora of nasty pro-Clinton cheating and game-rigging across the party machinery and into the nation’s major media.

Second, Hillary and Barack Obama were for all intents and purposes ideological twins. They were and remain both equally vapid and vacuous neoliberal imperialists masquerading as progressives. They were and remain deeply committed to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire beneath their respective highly identity-politicized candidate brandings.

Things are different with the contest between Mrs. Clinton and the old white guy Bernie Sanders. As critical as I and other supposedly ultra-radical lefties have been of the nominal socialist and empire-captive Sanders, I am quite aware that Sanders represented something different than the mainstream corporate -neoliberal Democratic Party. His defeat represents not the victory of one full-fledged Goldman Sachs-DLC-Hamilton Project-Council of Foreign Relations Democrat over another (as was the case when Obama bested Hillary eight years ago) but the victory of the Dismal Dollar Democrats over a liberal-progressive insurgency in the ranks of their own ruling class party. Along with the shenanigans and corruption, that makes anger and disillusionment on the part of many Sandernistas today far more worthy of respect than the bitterness of Hillary fans in 2008.

I finished writing this at 5 pm on Wednesday, July 27th. I am not sure I have the energy to listen to any more speeches tonight. Decoding Orwellian doublespeak can be exhausting.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).