It Didn’t Have to Be Hillary

Hillary Clinton, our next President, is inept, intellectually shallow and morally obtuse.

She is also a Russophobe, a neocon, and a liberal (“humanitarian”) imperialist, who is fond of military “solutions” to problems she and her co-thinkers have created.   When she becomes Commander-in-Chief, she will be a disaster waiting to happen.

The prevailing view, however, is that foreign policy is her strong suit, and that she is a seasoned and capable leader, a “progressive pragmatist” who knows how to get things done.  Conventional wisdom often conflicts with reality. Sometimes it inverts it. This is one of those times.

Shame therefore on The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN (the Clinton News Network), MSNBC (=MSDNC), and other so-called liberal media; and extra shame on publications like The New Yorker, where intelligent journalism still sometimes appears, and on the purportedly left-leaning Nation, and Mother Jones. For helping to concoct and reinforce the illusions that have made Hillary the reigning Queen of the War Party, they have a lot to answer for.

No doubt about it, though: as propagandists, they are good. They can’t “fool all of the people all of the time,” but they come close. Their achievement is especially impressive inasmuch as the truth is not just out there – it is staring everyone in the face.

Hillary has been, after all, almost as awful a candidate as she was a Secretary of State and, before that, a Senator and official wife of America’s forty-second President, the horn dog who finally did what Ronald Reagan and the first Bush could not. With Hillary by his side, that rascal closed out the “Vietnam Syndrome,” making America free again to run roughshod over the world. And, by neutralizing the opposition in ways that no Republican could, he, more than anyone else, including Ronald Reagan himself, implemented some of the most pernicious, corporate and bankster friendly elements of Reagan’s neoliberal agenda.

All leading Democrats these days think like Hillary to some extent, but, by making her their standard bearer, Democratic Party “donors” and functionaries, and the media flacks who serve them, scraped the bottom of the barrel. All of the Party’s nominees this century — Barack Obama, John Kerry, and even Al Gore – have been a cut above.

There are liberal scribblers and talking heads who, when pushed, will grudgingly admit that Hillary comes with a lot of baggage and many serious flaws. But they then go on to insist that for being about to break through “the glass ceiling,” that should all be overlooked.

Perhaps they have forgotten that even the hapless Walter Mondale realized, as long ago as 1984, that the glass was already broken. Is there anyone on earth, or any second wave feminist still writing for The Nation, who actually believes that Geraldine Ferraro’s gender is what cost Mondale that election?

The Obamas, Michelle especially, are going all out for Hillary. They are counting on her to make Barack look good. He is a serial violator of international law and of that pesky “thou shalt not kill” Commandment, a terrorizer of large swathes of the Muslim world, a deporter of Hispanics of almost Trumpian dimensions, and, like other Democrats, an exponent of the ideological commitments the Clintons hold dear.

But he is a prince compared to her.

By far, the most important mark in Obama’s favor is that we are all still here to talk about how awful his presidency was. This will be the case with Hillary, four or eight years from now, only if we build a peace movement large enough and militant enough to hold her back, and if we are lucky.

There is more: Obama really did have a daunting barrier to break through: a color line, a real one, fraught with momentous significance. No one – not Jesse Jackson, not anybody – could have broken through that “ceiling” three decades ago. It was far from obvious, even eight years ago, that the situation had much improved. Nevertheless, Obama got himself elected – twice.

He won the second time because, in the end, Mitt Romney was unable to Etch A Sketch his way out of the corner into which he had painted himself.   To win the GOP nomination, he had to pander shamelessly to the Tea Partiers and other retrogrades that Republican grandees, always on the lookout for useful idiots, had recruited into the Republican base. And then, to have any chance of winning in the general election, he found that he had to keep on pandering right up to the bitter end.

Defeating Romney was therefore no great feat.   It was different in 2008.

Getting elected then was the signal achievement of Obama’s presidency. It is worth noting, though, that it occurred before he took office, and that it has all been down hill since then.

To anyone willing to face reality, it was already apparent, by the time of that memorable pre-Inauguration Day concert at the Lincoln Memorial, that the Obama presidency had peaked on election night in Grant Park.   But there was little appetite for facing reality in those salad days; and so, for several months more, willfully blind Obamaphiles continued to cut him slack.

Even so, it didn’t take long for Grant Park memories to fade, and for the scales to fall from the eyes of even his most ardent supporters. Obama bailed out Wall Street, leaving the ninety-nine percent to fend for itself; he let Bush era war criminals off scot-free; and, time and again, he proved himself impotent in the face of Republican obstinacy. For these reasons and more, by the end of his first summer in office, the shape of things to come was clear to all.

Obama will be remembered for breaking through the color line, but also, once in office, for things that hardly do him credit — continuing the wars he inherited from George W. Bush, for example, and then surreptitiously starting a half dozen or so more on his own; for an Affordable Care Act that, for whatever good it has done, set back efforts to provide health care as a universal right, the way civilized countries do, for perhaps another generation; and for doing too little too late to slow down, much less reverse, the ecological catastrophe into which the world is careening head on.

Nevertheless, he will be sorely missed once Hillary takes his place.

Of all the reasons why, one stands out above all the rest: the fact that she is hell bent on causing “regime change” in Russia and containing China. With a lesser evil like that, who needs a temperamentally unfit billionaire buffoon to bring on a nuclear war?

Did it have to come to this?

The short answer, I think, is No. To change the world fundamentally and for the better, electoral politics is radically insufficient. But it still makes a difference. We can do, and could have done, a lot better.


I don’t just mean that there was never anything inevitable about Hillary herself. Obviously, the ordinary vicissitudes of life and the whims of fortune can put the kybosh on the best-laid plans of highflying political schemers, just as on everyone else.

Had her path forward somehow been blocked, someone similarly acceptable to America’s economic, political and media elites, but a tad less bellicose and noxious, would probably now be in her place; and the future would look slightly less bleak.

I meant that we can do better because, as we now know, thanks to the Sanders and Trump insurgencies, that, when the stars are properly aligned, even a system as “rigged” as ours can fail to deliver the outcomes our elites demand.

To be sure, it is as plain now as it always has been that there are no purely, or mainly, electoral roads to the fundamental political and social transformations that we urgently need if the world is to survive.

Electoral campaigns can be useful for educating people and for mobilizing them, but, in the end, the most they can do is ratify changes that have already effectively taken place outside the electoral arena.

But this is not to say that their outcomes don’t matter. Quite to the contrary, they can matter a lot – for making situations better or worse.

Needless to say, presidential elections in the United States matter most to Americans. But since the United States is still a global hegemon, with a military presence throughout the world, they also matter to everybody on the planet. Americans therefore have a special responsibility to reflect on how this election could have gone better this time around.

Gaining a purchase on that question now could be useful too for planning what to do next — not immediately, it is already too late for that, but in the months and years to come; assuming, of course, that our next President’s reckless, ideologically-driven provocations of nuclear powers don’t make worries about the future moot.

As it happens, it doesn’t take a whole lot of counter-factual imagination to think of not too improbable paths not taken over the past year and a half that could have resulted in better outcomes than the one the American people are about to foist upon themselves.

Three examples come to mind; two of them are fairly obvious.

For one, had Sanders done just a little better in the primaries and caucuses, enough, say, to have won a majority of elected delegates, and then if he had had the will not just to complain about, but actually to fight against, the super-delegate system, he might well have become the Democratic Party’s nominee. Then, he, not Hillary, would be the one who will win November 8.

It would likely be a hollow victory, however, inasmuch as anything smacking of the “political revolution” he talked about would soon run up against determined ruling class opposition.

Obama’s problems with obstinacy came about because Republicans discovered that he had feet of clay, and because they realized that to keep their base on board, they needed to sink his presidency by appealing to their racism, nativism, and Islamophobia. Trump didn’t start the GOP down that road; the kinds of Republicans that conventional wisdom deems respectable did.

Were he President, Sanders would have to deal with an even more formidable problem: a ruling class determined to retain its power, wealth and privileges.

It would hardly matter that the “socialism” Sanders speaks of is only a twenty-first century version of New Deal-Great Society liberalism. America’s “economic royalists” are of one mind in thinking that whatever challenges, or seems to challenge, their economic and political power must be blocked at every turn, even if the challenge is only superficial.

Were Sanders the candidate of a political movement that derives its strength from the militancy and solidarity of its members, he could perhaps overcome the obstacles they would place in his way. But he had only a top-down electoral campaign behind him. How, then, could he be expected to govern effectively?

This is an excellent question, but the concern it expresses is not what did Sanders in. For that, blame the Democratic Party and the political machines associated with it, especially the African American ones in the South.

Even so, he could have won a majority of elected delegates, and then gone on to make the super-delegates offers they could not refuse. There were no structural obstacles in his way.

That this didn’t happen was largely his own fault – inasmuch as it took too long for him to understand just how much Black Lives Matter, not just to African Americans and to American society generally, but also to the fortunes of his own campaign.

Not all the fault is his, however. The famously polarized Democratic and Republican Parties also bear some of the blame.

They have been working together for years to schedule primaries and caucuses in ways that give Southern states undue influence over the nomination process. Their intent, it seems, is to drag the political center rightward — and, in the process, to diminish the prospects of electoral insurgencies like the one that Sanders ignited.

That strategy worked this time, as it usually does; but it did not work perfectly. After “Super Tuesday,” Sanders’ prospects were dim, no matter how well he would go on to do. But they were still good enough to give the Clinton juggernaut pause.

The Electoral College votes of most of the states that the primary and caucus schedule unduly empowers are likely to go to the Republican candidate in any case. This has the perverse consequence of assigning more weight to the preferences of Democratic voters in “red” states than in states that Democrats are sure to win.   One would think that the Democratic Party leadership would have the concerns of their base enough in mind to find this objectionable; the fact that they don’t speaks volumes.

Of course, Trump could turn out to be so toxic that even the most retrograde states turn “blue.” Even if that happens, however, the political machines in those states would already have set the tone. They have been courted by the Clintons for decades, and it shows.

Had Sanders been more willing to take on superannuated civil rights era “icons” whom the Clintons bombard with charm offensives, people like Jim Clyburn and John Lewis, and to identify wholeheartedly with the struggles of the present generation of African American activists, he might have been able to fight Clinton and the Clintonites back, even in the South.

But, of course, he didn’t. Hillary therefore prevailed – for reasons that are political, not structural. Had Sanders been more savvy and politically adept, he could have beaten her.

Similarly, if, early on, (small-d) democrats, left, right and center, had come together to fight the duopoly’s Commission on Presidential Debates, insisting, say, that the debates be run on the old League of Women Voters rules, the Green Party’s Jill Stein, and also Gary Johnson, the Libertarian would have had to be included.

Then, if nothing else, the intellectual and moral tone of the debates, and of the larger electoral contest in which they play such an integral role would have been a hundred-fold improved. Who knows what good might have come from that – if not on November 8, then in the struggles against Clinton and Clintonism that lie ahead?

The less obvious path not taken that I have in mind is a hobbyhorse of mine that others are not as likely as I am to find intriguing.

In the early days of this electoral season, in what already seems like another era, I went out on a limb – suggesting, several times, on this site, that the Democrats should consider making Jim Webb, the former Senator from Virginia, their standard-bearer. For my reasons why, see here and here.

I cannot say that I agreed with Webb’s politics; I knew, and still know, very little about his views.

But I was impressed by the fact that, where the Clintons are chicken hawks and warmongers, he had been a professional soldier whose life path, in and out of the military, reflects a deep understanding of war – at both a theoretical and experiential level.

Webb was a Vietnam War hero, awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star Medal, two Bronze Star Medals, and two Purple Hearts. Swift boat that! He also served in the Defense Department (under the villainous Ronald Reagan) and in the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.

This is why I thought, and still think, that his views on war and peace, right or wrong, merit serious consideration and respect; unlike the views of Hillary Clinton and the harpies she is likely to empower – Michele Flournoy, Samantha Power, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and others of their ilk.

I was impressed too by the fact that Webb is a first-class writer, especially of war fiction. This ought to count for something in a race against a dunce whose ghostwriters churn out self-serving, mindless pablum.

Most impressive of all, Webb is and long has been an assiduous critic of American military policy and imperial overreach.

He has never repudiated his support for the Vietnam War. But, in the years since, he has devoted considerable time and effort helping to make the Vietnamese people whole again. Webb has a Vietnamese wife, speaks fluent Vietnamese, and has, by all accounts, a deep understanding of Vietnamese culture and of Southeast Asia generally. Evidently, he is evidently a man of unusual intelligence and moral depth; everything Hillary is not.

Most important of all, he is a populist in the tradition of the class, not race, based populist insurgencies that have erupted, from time to time, in the rural South and Southwest, and in the mountain states.

By my lights, Webb gave out a better version of the vibe that John Edwards evinced when he ran against Clinton and Obama in 2008, before his prurient nature got the better of him.

The Vietnam War ended Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty,” and what little of it that survived was, for all practical purposes, terminated decades ago by the Clintons and their co-thinkers. Edwards talked about reviving it. Webb seemed like someone who could and would.

Back when Webb was still in the race, neither I nor anyone else took the Donald seriously. However, I can now see that my thought was that Webb would appeal to future Trump supporters – not the “deplorable” ones, but the pissed off and defiant men and women who harbor a visceral hatred of Hillary and Bill and who are susceptible to being mobilized along class lines.

This turned out to be a pipe dream. At the time, though, the idea that a Democrat with roots in rural Appalachia could revive the best traditions of multi-racial American populism seemed no more far fetched than the idea that a septuagenarian Jewish man from Brooklyn and Vermont, who espouses the merits of European Social Democracy, would stand a chance of handing Hillary her comeuppance.

It became clear early on, however, that Webb’s candidacy would go nowhere, not just for the usual reasons — because the Party leadership was indifferent when not hostile, and because corporate media dutifully ignored him — but also because, as it happened, the beginning of this year and a half long electoral season coincided with that brief span of time in which attention was being paid, not always fairly, to ways that white supremacists appropriated Confederate flags and other symbols of the old South.

This was therefore not a good time to promote Southern pride or to talk about ways to relieve poverty in what Great Society liberals used to call “the other America.”

It is worth recalling that, in those days, the Black Panthers, the (mainly Puerto-Rican) Young Lords, and the (mainly white Appalachian) Young Patriots made common cause. My hope was that a later-day version of that alliance could be forged around Webb’s candidacy.

That never happened, needless to say. Webb’s candidacy fizzled out instead.

But, in this case too, there is no structural reason, inherent in the logic of late (overripe) capitalist development, why this had to happen.   With better luck, Webb or someone like him could have become, as it were, an anti-Trump – a progressive populist.

In these ways and others, the outcome could have been better than it will be when Hillary takes over.

When that day comes, Task Number One will be to do everything possible to assure that we make it to Task Number Two; in other words, to make it impossible politically for Hillary to act as her nature and convictions incline.

Task Number Two will be to work to assure that nothing like Task Number One becomes necessary again.

It can happen, if we get the politics right. It could even have happened this time around – with the right people and a few good breaks.

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).