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Must We Now Rethink the Hillary Question? Absolutely, Not

Photo by Nathania Johnson | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Nathania Johnson | CC BY 2.0

I would have rather bathed in vomit than voted for Hillary Clinton.  I thought that before she astonished the world by losing to Donald Trump, and I have not changed my mind.

That Trump is likely to be an even more awful President than George W. Bush changes nothing.  As of now, for sheer awfulness, the Bush presidency is the gold standard.  It wasn’t just the class war he waged (on the wrong side) or his assaults on civil liberties; Bush broke the Middle East, with consequences that will continue to reverberate for years to come.  The Donald could be worse.

Nevertheless, I do not regret not voting for Hillary and trying to persuade others to do the same – not one bit.

Along with nearly everyone else, I thought that Hillary would win.  The pollsters said so, and they seemed to know what they were talking about; they certainly had enough data.  Common sense said so too – this side of a real revolution, how could someone backed by the entire power structure lose?

And I was confident that even an electorate that reelected Bush in 2004, would not stoop so low as to elect a buffoon who, whatever his own views (if any) may be, ran a nativist, misogynist, and outright racist campaign directed against vulnerable populations which, together, comprise roughly half the electorate.

Of course, I knew that anger was on the rise against the neoliberal order with which the name “Clinton” will forever be associated.  According to the conventional wisdom, Hillary was a whiz at getting things done.  I knew that just the opposite was the case: that she had made a mess of nearly every project she has undertaken.  She certainly botched her Secretary of State gig; and only the willfully blind could deny what a piss poor candidate she was.  Even so, I was sure that even she could not lose to someone as embarrassingly risible as the Donald.

I was wrong.  Hillary did get the most votes, but, unless recounts in three “battleground states” show otherwise, she lost the election – thanks to a Constitution which assigns the role of electing Presidents to an antiquated, deliberately undemocratic institution, the Electoral College.

I will have more to say about those recounts presently.  One sure thing is that they will not put Hillary back in the White House.  That would require a lot more than the electoral equivalent of a Hail Mary pass – not least because, at this point, overturning the results of the election would unleash a civil war.

In trying to persuade people, liberals especially, not to vote for Hillary, I did use the argument that it was pointless to pile on votes for her because she was bound to win anyway, so why not send her a message?

I also pointed out that, if Jill Stein were to get five percent of the votes, the Greens would get federal funding and easier ballot access the next time around.   There seemed to be a good chance of that – after Bernie Sanders betrayed the movement his campaign got going.

A less marginalized Green Party would damage the duopoly party system that has all but undone democracy in America – not by a lot, but enough to make a non-negligible difference.

For what it’s worth, I voted for Stein.  And, as it turned out, Hillary got schlonged in the Electoral College, the Democrats didn’t even take back the Senate, and Stein didn’t come close to five percent.

If I had somehow figured out in time how wrong I was, I would, of course, have stopped using the argument that Hillary couldn’t lose.  That would have made trying to persuade others to vote against Hillary more complicated.  But I would not have changed my vote.

***

Now is not the time to go back over the case for and against lesser evil voting.  My view is that, for American presidential elections in this historical period, the case against is more compelling than the case for.  For the past eighteen months at least, that perennial question has been debated ad nauseam; for the time being, it is best given a rest.

Neither is there much point in debating which of the two, Clinton or Trump, actually was the lesser evil.

For most liberals, the answer is obvious: Hillary was.  I disagreed – mainly, but not only, because I thought that she was the more likely of the two to unleash a Third World War.  I still do; and that trumps all.

Trump is hardly a pacifist or an anti-imperialist, but while running for office, he did, for the most part, advance anti-interventionist positions.  Who knows if he meant any of it – like any good huckster, he says what he intuits his marks want to hear, and now that the campaign is over, he seems to agree with whomever he spoke with last.

Also, he is impetuous and erratic and inclined to act out.  This is worrisome, to say the least.  Even if he and the Russians do reach some sort of understanding, he could start a nuclear war nevertheless.

But Hillary is a Russophobe with a fondness for military “solutions” to problems that she and her husband and their collaborators helped to create.  Worse still, she favors “regime change” whenever and wherever neocons and “humanitarian” interveners deem it in the empire’s best interests.

At a time when seemingly the entire foreign policy establishment, in league with The Washington Post and other media accomplices, is hard at work reviving the Cold War –demonizing Vladimir Putin, blaming (unnamed and probably imaginary) “Russian hackers,” along with every other damn Ruskie nogoodnik they can think of for all sorts of real and imagined offenses – this is a lethal combination.

It is therefore a close call, but I come down on the side of those who think that having the fate of the world in the hands of a wheeler-dealer who never quite matured beyond adolescence is less worrisome than entrusting it to an ideologically committed warmonger — at a time when Cold Warriors in both the government and the media are back with a vengeance, and when the understandings that made “mutual assured destruction” work have, for all practical purposes, lapsed.

I thought, and still think, that this makes Hillary the greater evil all things considered.

But if, while flip-flopping his way out of the tangle he put himself into during the campaign, Trump decides to change his views about interventionism and relations with Russia, or if it looks like he will cede power to the miscreants and dunces he is putting in charge of foreign policy and military affairs, and if they, in turn, start itching for war with a fervor equal to or greater than Hillary’s, or if, drunk with power, the Donald’s mental balance deteriorates enough to make it likely that in a fit of pique he would just let loose — it may become necessary to rethink this assessment.

Even then, however, it wouldn’t follow that those of us who voted against Hillary ought to rethink our vote.

The current Deporter-in-Chief, President Drone, has been cut endless slack by liberals and others who seem to believe that, no matter what he does, he is one of the good guys.

Hillary would likely have been able to get away with murder too, at least for a while – until the consequences of her warmongering turned liberals against her in much the way that, generations ago, liberals turned against Lyndon Johnson, a far more worthy figure in every respect.

When Trump is in charge, liberals will cut him no slack.   From even before Day One, there will be no get-out-of-jail-free cards for him.

There was no peace movement to speak of when Nobel laureate Obama was continuing Bush’s wars and starting others of his own.   Liberals with “beautiful souls” didn’t want to upset the boat when a Democrat – especially the first African-American elected to the office — was at the helm.

Those days are over now; this is the good news.

The bad news is that, if Trump stays true to the word he gave to his most “deplorable” supporters, the harm he causes could make everything Obama has done look like small potatoes.

If that happens, there will be ample reason to rethink the who-was-the-greater-evil question.  But the how-ought-one-to-have-voted question is something else.

The reason why it was right to oppose Hillary, and to urge others to do so too, has nothing to do with how much worse or better she might be compared to Trump.

***

Trump has neither ideological convictions nor fixed views, except in a very general sense.  He has instincts – most of them bad.

A vote for Trump was a way of sending a message to those who needed to hear it.  But the message conveyed was profoundly, indeed fatally, flawed.

It is not hard to understand, though, why many voters thought otherwise.  Voting for an obscenely rich vulgarian who dumped on political and media elites at every opportunity, seemed like a good way to say “fuck you” to a regime that has been fucking over a lot of Americans, some say as many as ninety-nine percent, for decades.

There were better ways, of course; but they were problematic too.

One would have been not to vote at all, or to vote only in down ticket contests.  Many did precisely that; many always do.

But it is never clear what message, if any, not voting conveys: are non-voters abstaining in a principled way, perhaps because they want to do no evil?  Or are they merely irresponsible or lazy?  Or all of the above?

This is why casting a protest vote is almost always a better choice than casting no vote at all.

One way to do that would be to write in a name, and hope that somebody notices.

Another way, in this last election, would have been to vote for the Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson.  He was on the ballot in all fifty states; votes for him were therefore sure to be noticed.  Since many Republicans identify with (small-l) libertarianism, it should not have been hard for many of them to make their disgust with Clinton and Trump, and with Democrats and Republicans, known this way.

And for anyone left of the dead center, there was Jill Stein.

Being less of a threat to the guardians of the status quo, Johnson was not quite as thoroughly marginalized as Stein, but neither of them got significant media attention.  It was as if they didn’t exist.  This made it hard, even for those who knew better, to take their candidacies seriously.

How ironic therefore that major media are now deigning to bring Stein and the Green Party to the attention of an anxious public — for calling for recounts of the votes in three states that Hillary almost won: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

In those “battleground states,” all of which regularly go for the Democrat in presidential elections, Republican governors and secretaries of state did their utmost to suppress voter turnout in communities “of color” and among the young.  They also had ample opportunities to rig vote counting; and there appear to have been many instances in which the exit polls and the official vote count diverged enough to create at least a presumption that they did just that.

One would think that Democrats, not Greens, to be the ones initiating the call for recounts. Why did they have to be embarrassed into going along?

Robert Frost’s quip — that liberals are people who won’t take their own sides in arguments – is surely relevant.  Frost attributed this trait of theirs to excessive broad-mindedness.  But the liberals he knew back in the day put the Clintonian kind to shame.  The problem now is not so much broad mindedness as muddle-headedness.

This accounts for another part of the explanation; that Democrats probably believe the babblers who are even now telling them to lay off because if there is a recount and Trump still comes out on top, as he likely will, it will somehow “legitimize” his presidency.

Do they really think that anybody cares?   In the 2000 election, there was little doubt about the illegitimacy of George Bush’s election, but that didn’t stop him or his éminence grise, Dick Cheney, from going on to wreck the world just as soon as Osama Bin Laden gave them a pretext, and a terrified public gave them a chance.

Anyway, the Clinton campaign is now on board; after the Stein campaign got the process going, they could hardly do otherwise.

It is hard to figure out what Stein thought she would gain by demanding a recount.

Many leading Greens are opposed.  They do not want their party to do anything that has any chance at all of helping Hillary; they also think that decisions of such importance should be made at the party level, not just by the candidate and her close advisors.  These are good, if not compelling, reasons.

Stein says her concern is for the integrity of the voting process; this too is a good, if not compelling, reason.

I think there is a better reason, though nobody mentions it.  Demanding a recount is a way, when all else has failed, to put the Green Party on the political map.

At this point in the history of a party that has been floundering in obscurity ever since its inception, and that does nobody any good by remaining marginalized, gaining significant media attention is – or ought to be — Priority Number One.

Once it became clear that the Sanders insurgency would fail – thanks mainly to Democratic Party machinations – there was nothing at all good that could come out of this last presidential election except a slightly less marginalized Green Party.  For a while, it looked like even that wouldn’t happen.  But now it has!

Bravo, therefore, to Jill Stein.

The pundits made Hillary out to be a “pragmatist,” and Bernie Sanders an idealist with his head in the clouds.  Had they mentioned Stein at all, it would have been only to say that Sanders seems downright hard-headed in comparison.   But Stein outsmarted them both – leaving Sanders stranded on the Dark Side and Hillary out of luck.

At least we have that!

***

There are strains of moral philosophy that accord greater weight to the rightness or wrongness of actions, or to the integrity of moral agents, than to the consequences of what they do.

Politics, on the other hand, is about consequences – not entirely, but mainly.

This is what the great social theorist Max Weber had in mind when in “Politics as a Vocation,” he distinguished what he called an “ethic of responsibility” from an “ethic of ultimate ends” – an ethic for persons engaged in real world political affairs, and an ethic for persons who aspire to live in accord with the demands of morality, as moral theorists from Biblical times through to the present day have conceived them.

Normally, the two are not at odds.  But there are times when they are – and therefore when acting responsibly in political contexts can involve acting wrongly from a moral point of view, and vice versa.

It is emphatically not because I want to live in accord with an ethic of ultimate ends, or its political equivalent, that I would not vote for Hillary.  Moral fastidiousness is not driving this conviction; neither is a sectarian urge for ideological purity.  I would vote for Clinton or for Trump or for the Devil Himself if that really was what a defensible ethic of responsibility called for.

In this instance, it does not – not because it is debatable who the lesser evil is, or because voting for one or the other would lead to even more degraded choices in the future, and not even because, with the downward spiral set off by past episodes of lesser voting already presenting us with a Clinton-Trump choice, enough is enough.   No doubt, there are thresholds that even committed lesser evilists should hesitate to cross that both Clinton and Trump do cross, but that is not the reason either.

Even were Hillary the lesser evil, which is still far from clear; and even were there no reason to think that the choice next time, if there would be a next time with her calling the shots, would be even worse than it was November 8; and even if she weren’t awful enough for plausible threshold considerations to kick in, a vote for her, in the current conjuncture, would be indefensibly irresponsible, in roughly the sense that Weber had in mind.

The Clintons and their supporters are good at blaming everyone but themselves for Hillary’s defeat.

Some of their arguments are transparently bogus: of these, the idea that she lost because she is a woman heads the list.

To be sure, no woman has been elected President yet, though, as long ago as 1984, the Democrats nominated one, Geraldine Ferraro, for Vice President.  She ran with Walter Mondale who lost, big time, to Ronald Reagan.  It was argued back then, and still is, that her presence on the ticket added to Mondale’s woes.  Perhaps so, but her lady parts are not what did him harm.  Her husband’s real estate machinations did.  In those halcyon pre-Clinton, pre-Trump days, candidates themselves, and their husbands and wives had to be beyond suspicion.

Then in 2008, the Republicans nominated Sarah Palin to run with John McCain. The consensus view on that is that, though a laughing stock, she actually helped the ticket – because “deplorables,” the folks whom Clinton apologist say would never elect a woman, loved her.

There is also the irksome fact that, in important sectors of the electorate, more women voted for Trump than voted for Hillary.  Katha Politt, writing in The Nation, has an answer for that: internalized misogyny.  There you have it: a second wave feminist who is eloquent in exposing Zionist nonsense about “self-hating Jews,” going on about “self-hating women.”

She is right of course in pointing out that Hillary bashers in the Age of Trump are not shy about using misogynistic slurs.  But so what?  Obama bashers used, and still use, racist slurs, and he was elected President twice.  When civility fails, people will let their prejudices loose; they will say what is on their minds.  But that doesn’t determine how they will vote.

Liberals say unseemly things about spoiled, rich frat boys when they rage at George Bush.  I, for one, have no problem with that!  I suspect that no one at The Nation does either.  Like Pollit, I do have a problem when unseemly taunts are leveled against women; also against persons of color, gays, people with disabilities and so on.  Such behavior is reprehensible.  But it doesn’t mean that an African American or a woman or a homosexual or a disabled person cannot be elected President, or even that the bigot vote is a force to be reckoned with in presidential elections.

If anything, Hillary’s gender was more of an asset than a liability.  She lost despite, not because, she is a woman.

The more interesting excuses – the ones that involve blaming white workers – are not quite so entirely off the mark.

Hooray for corporate media, the Republican and Democratic Parties, and the labor movement too.  After years of denying that there even is a working class, they now talk of nothing else.

Too bad, though, that their marker for working class membership is lack of a college education, not relation to means of production; and that instead of viewing the working class as the bearer of new, more fully human, social relations, they see it as a relic of an historically superseded world – full of gun crazy, aging, unpleasant people.    But, what the hell, something is better than nothing.

Bernie Sanders made talk of “socialism” almost respectable, even though New Deal liberalism was all he had in mind.  Either way, he brought a pre-Clintonian (pre-neoliberal) sensibility back into our political discourse.  Ironically, Trump helped with that, by turning some of the most justifiably aggrieved victims of the neoliberal order into useful chumps.   And, now that Hillary blew the election, mainstream Democrats making excuses for her defeat are helping too.

More amazing still, a kind of vulgar Marxist sensibility is seeping into mainstream media accounts of the political scene.  When Marx famously said that he was not a Marxist, he meant, among other things, that he did not think, as some self-declared Marxists did, that everything political has an economic explanation.

For Marx, the nature and trajectory of capitalist development constrains what is possible within the political sphere; sometimes it also gives rise to political exigencies of various kinds.  But what actually happens depends on class struggles and the political forms through which they are realized and expressed.

Media pundits who see the Trump phenomenon and cognate movements in Europe as inevitable consequences of current economic exigencies should take a look, for example, at The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon or Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune, among countless other examples.

The Trump phenomenon — and the Brexit vote and the likely vote against Matteo Renzi’s proposed constitutional changes in Italy, and the vote next year in France that may put the National Front in power — are not mere epiphenomenal expressions of unavoidable perturbations in the capitalist world system.  They are political uprisings.  They are grounded in underlying economic realities, but they obey a logic of their own — specific, in each case, to their own particular situations.

“Populism” has so many vague and disparate meanings that it is best not used without abundant clarification.  However, the term has become so trendy of late that it is difficult to avoid.

Allowing, then, for some inevitable imprecision, it would be fair to say that these “populist” backlashes have everything to do with the (justifiable) disgust people living in overripe capitalist societies are experiencing; that “populism” is what happens when politicians, like the Clintons, pursue neoliberal agendas too hard for too long.

In countries where there is still a flourishing Left – Greece and Spain come immediately to mind – populism has taken on a left-wing coloration.  In today’s world, however, it is more often a creature of the Right.

For the first part of 2016, there were populist insurgencies of both kinds going on at once in the United States.  The Clintonite dead center killed off the one, the progressive one of course, and then got killed off by the other.  This is only fitting; the Clintons and other neoliberals have always been more contemptuous of the Left than of the Right.

But the news is that the tide has finally turned against neoliberalism; even in its heartland, the United States.

A vote for Hillary would have been a vote for the neoliberal status quo, just when the realization that the old order is dying has taken hold.

Nearly all Democrats these days are Clintonites, but Hillary is their Queen – she played a role in shaping the neoliberal order and she embodies all that is wrong with it.

It would have therefore been the epitome of irresponsibility, in Weber’s sense, to support her, even against Trump, and no matter which Trump she was running against – the one who, in past lives and during the campaign, sometimes outflanked her from the Left, or the one who is now assembling a cabinet comprised of the vilest and most reactionary plutocrats, Islamophobes, and rightwing ideologues in captivity.

***

Had Hillary won, as she surely would have were she a less flawed candidate, opposition to her would take off in short order.   Those who support her now would soon turn against her in much the way that half a century ago, Lyndon Johnson’s supporters turned against him.  The Vietnam War did LBJ in; Hillary would be done in by the wars she has up her sleeve – if a nuclear war she brought on didn’t do everybody in first.

Johnson was, of course, a far more worthy figure than HRC – he actually did accomplish great things.  Also, in 1964, he ran against an undeniably greater evil, Hillary’s first political hero, Barry Goldwater.

If Trump turns out to be nothing more than an out-of-control Hillary, he will be undeniably a greater evil too.

But this is a reason to oppose him and all his works and everyone associated with him – a reason to boycott his hotels and golf courses and office towers and apartment buildings along with everything else he is involved with; and a reason to boycott everything he and his complicit children sell.  It is a reason to turn the name “Trump” from a marketable brand into a stigma that even those who are drawn to conspicuous displays of bad taste and over the top glitz would feel compelled to avoid.

Because Democrats lack backbones, they won’t obstruct Trump’s doings with a tenth the zeal that Republicans obstructed every little thing Obama did.  This is something “we, the people” will have to do instead.

But, still, this is not a reason to have voted for Hillary or to regret now not having done so.

Stopping Trump is our job; how much priority to give it in the short run will depend on how awful he and his underlings turn out to be.   So far, all indications are that they will be awful indeed.

Had she not flubbed so badly, stopping Hillary would have been a job for us too – though, in that case, Republicans could be counted on to do their fair share and more, albeit for the wrong reasons.

But more important than using votes to try to stop greater or lesser evils – a fool’s errand, in any case – there is a more fundamental and long rage task that people involved with political affairs who seek to act responsibly cannot shirk.

That would be to turn back the neoliberal tide that has made the Trump phenomenon, along with so many other horrors, possible; in other words, to smash Clintonism.   In this last election, not voting for Hillary was one way, the best available, of doing precisely that.

This is why, for anyone trying to live in accord with a defensible ethic of responsibility, supporting Clinton is more than distasteful.  In much the way that voting for Trump would be, it is unthinkable.

No doubt, those who voted for Hillary in order to stop Trump were acting with the best of intentions.  But, as has been clear all along, all they succeeded in doing was deflecting attention away from the paramount struggle of our time – the struggle against all that Hillary and husband Bill epitomize and represent.

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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