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Democrats Get Ready

Photograph Source: Elizabeth Warren – CC BY 2.0

The 2020 election, now a “mere” seventeen months away, has been sucking up political oxygen for months. Remember that the next time anyone questions “American exceptionalism”!

That our electoral seasons grind on for so long is only one of many reasons why our political culture, like our gun culture, is off the charts exceptional – and absurd.

The ways we deal with real and imaginary “existential threats” are nothing if not absurd. The human race could well go under before long – if not from global warming, then from nuclear war. These threats surely are “existential,” according to the literal meaning of the word. But they are not the existential threats we hear about. They are not even so-called “elephants in the room,” unmentioned but on everybody’s mind.

I believe that it was the Israelis who introduced “existential threats” into our political discourse. Israel needs existential threats to thrive and perhaps even just to get by. They help keep the country together; and, for keeping “benjamins” flowing in from abroad, they work like a charm. Israelis therefore cobble them together as best they can.

In recent years, with Palestinian resistance on the skids militarily and diplomatically, Iran has become Israel’s most serviceable existential threat, notwithstanding the sheer implausibility of the idea.

But insofar as this contention has taken hold, the claim that Iran threatens Israel “existentially,” that it threatens its very existence, has been a godsend for the Israelis.

Americans have no love in their hearts for the Ayatollahs. Historical memory is short in “the United States of Amnesia,” but the Hostage Crisis that brought Jimmy Carter down – and helped set Ronald Reagan loose upon the world — is not forgotten. This is nowhere more true than in the upper strata of America’s military and foreign policy establishments.

At the same time, it is hard for anyone whose moral sense is intact and who knows anything at all about the situation to muster up a whole lot of animosity towards the Palestinians; they have suffered so much already under Israel’s thumb.

Perhaps Christian Zionists have it in them, and also Jews who consider the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob their realtor, but, for nearly everyone else, including Jews not blinded by ethno-nationalist delusions, it is impossible not to be moved by the oppression and dispossession that Palestinians have had to endure over eight decades of occupation and exile.

Even so, for a very long time, the Zionist propaganda machine was able to make hay out of the Palestine Question. Thanks to its machinations, ethnic cleansing in Palestine got a pass in the West, and ethnocratic rule came to seem almost benign.

They couldn’t have pulled this off, however, in the absence of a military and diplomatic antagonist capable of at least seeming to pose a serious threat to the Israeli state.

The idea that Palestinians did indeed threaten Israel existentially was credible, albeit barely, back in the days when secular Arab nationalism flourished, and when the Soviet Union served as an ally of last resort to nationalist regimes.

Those days, however, are long gone, leaving a void that is not easily filled. Because, by now, everyone can see that Palestinians wielding homemade rockets are no match for a U.S. backed military juggernaut, a nuclear power no less, it can only be filled from afar.

And so, Iran became an existential threat to die for.

In reality, Iran hardly threatens Israel; it never has. But it is big and powerful enough to serve Israel’s purpose.

In the view of John Bolton and a few other Trump advisors, conflict with Iran serves American interests, notwithstanding the risk of falling into a Vietnam (or Afghanistan or Iraq) style quagmire. The Saudis are all for it too, and so are the several Gulf monarchies.

Their friends in the fossil fuel extraction industries are playing an even more dangerous game – not so much for geopolitical reasons, but just to line their pockets. They ironically are a main source the all-too-real existential threat our planet faces from global warming.

The Trump administration has been doing even its predecessors in doing nothing to stop, and quite a lot to encourage, global warming.

It has also taken up Obama’s “pivot towards Asia” with gusto, reluctantly joining up with the Democratic Party mainstream by recklessly demonizing China while increasing the likelihood of a nuclear conflagration with Russia.

Trump talks out of both sides of his mouth on Russia but, in practice, he, as much as Obama and Clinton, has been stirring up the dying embers of the formerly defunct Cold War.

It would therefore not be too much of an exaggeration to say that, while the spotlight is on who is up and who is down in the race to become the Democratic nominee, we face a “bipartisan” threat to human life itself, and to the lives of countless other species of the earth’s fauna and flora.

And yet our politics is not about that — not directly. It is about an election that will not even take place until a year from November. And it is about impeachment.

This is hardly ideal, except for 24/7 cable outlets hell bent on raising ratings and therefore revenues as the electoral soap opera and the latest Trump reality show unfold.

People dumbed down and misinformed by Fox News and worse, by a propaganda system that promotes views that no sane person would take seriously but that some forty percent of the American public nevertheless do, are more difficult to reach than the folks respectable corporate media target.

It could be worse, however. Even within the MSNBC-CNN ambit, real politics, politics that directly engages class interests and the interests of other social groups is still possible, especially for anyone willing to think outside the MSNBC-CNN box.

There is no getting from here to there, however, without joining conversations already in progress. At this point, those conversations mainly engage the race for the Democratic nomination for president and the vexed question of what to do about the Trumpian menace in the weeks and months immediately ahead.

***

It has never been clearer than it has become since Trump’s election that it matters whom the president is – not just cosmetically or for peripheral issues, but on matters of political substance as well.

But getting hung up now, on what is essentially a popularity contest, is mostly a waste of time. The important thing, at this point, with primary elections and caucuses a half-year or more away, is not so much determining who the eventual nominee should be, as determining who should be in the debates that lie ahead, and how to deal with what comes out of them.

Needless to say, next year’s debates, like those in the past, are not really debates at all; they are more like joint press conferences. But they are a very important part of the show, and they do attract attention.

The good news is that thanks to Trump’s and his minions’ vileness, and thanks also to the way that the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Party media flunkies rigged the nomination contest against Sanders and for Clinton in 2016, the Democratic Party’s base is primed for real and significant changes.

There is also the increasingly inegalitarian trajectory of contemporary capitalism itself. It too generates grievances that have contributed to the leftward drift of the Democratic mainstream, and that will likely go on doing so.

The bad news is that, with just a few exceptions, most of the twenty or more contenders for the 2020 presidential nomination seem to have been cut from the same cloth as Democrats in the past. They have moved to the left, but they are still basically corporate in outlook. And on issues of war and peace and geopolitical diplomacy, they are very much of a piece with the mainstream of their party.

While being on the alert for good ideas emanating out of their many quarters, it is therefore unwise, barring convincing arguments to the contrary, to have any time for any of them. This could all change, along with prevailing circumstances, at any moment, especially inasmuch as candidates will need to do some innovative thinking in order to stand out from the crowd; but, for now, the focus should be on ideas, not personalities.

The distinction is not hard and fast, however; and, in a few cases, it is probably not too soon to start thinking about reasons for conferring or withholding support from one or another of the many candidates in contention.

Most obviously, it is not too soon to rule out Joe Biden and “moderates” like him. Our troubles now were brought on, in large part, by people like them, and they have not changed their stripes. Who cares what they have to say!

It is not too soon either to start supporting Tulsi Gabbard – not for the nomination itself so much as for inclusion in the coming debates. Even if there were reason to think that, as a candidate, she stands head and shoulders above the rest – there is not — her candidacy would almost certainly be a non-starter, if only because she seems to have alienated the movers and shakers of her state’s, Hawaii’s, Democratic Party and of the national party; and, unlike Sanders, she doesn’t have a base of her own to sustain her candidacy in such circumstances.

Hawaii Democrats are now even running adds against her or encouraging others to do so. At least one soft left website, Daily Kos, is piling on.

Nevertheless, it is important that she be in the debates because, of all her many rivals, she stands apart from the field in holding “realist,” as distinct from liberal imperialist or neoconservative views on foreign policy.

This isn’t great, far from it; but in a party where Clintonism still reigns, it is something, as they say, to write home about.

To make a long and complicated story short, realists think that states, including global hegemons like the United States, are and for the foreseeable future ought to be, generally self-interested and concerned mainly for their own preservation.

They differ in the resources they control, in their geographical and geopolitical circumstances, and in their respective histories. But, in the end, they have no choice but to play the hands they are dealt with a view to prevailing as best they can.

Realists are therefore generally opposed to interventions in the affairs of other countries, and to regime change. They are not interested, for the most part, in imposing their values upon others; at least not in the way America has taken to doing, through the use or threat of force when soft power just isn’t enough.

Political realism is problematic on many levels, but it does not lead to the kind of permanent war regime that we live under now. Trump’s “America first” rants struck some as having a realist flavor; to the extent they did, their general drift seemed less odious than the liberal imperialist adventurism championed by the foreign affairs establishment types in Clinton’s circle.

But, as was evident at the time, and is beyond serious dispute now, Trump actually meant none of it. For him, it was nothing more than part of his “make American great again” shtick; a disingenuous appeal to nostalgia, not principle.

On the other hand, Gabbard comes by her views honestly and thoughtfully. Were they to become part of the public conversation, we would all be better off for it.

There is no more likely way for this to happen in the next year and a half than for her to articulate and defend her way of thinking about America’s role in the world before the huge national audience those “debates” will attract.

To be sure, she will almost certainly not be the nominee, not even for vice president, but if she becomes a top act in one of the electoral circus’s main attractions, it may help wean the Democratic Party away from its obsessions with war and preparations for war, and its determination to make the world over in ways that accord not so much with American realities as with America’s self-image.

***

Elizabeth Warren is good for moving the conversation along on many fronts, not just one; name the issue and she has a plan. She is also, along with Sanders, the most progressive candidate in the race, notwithstanding her inclination to badmouth “socialism,” her expressed veneration of Teddy Roosevelt, the foremost American imperialist and militarist of his time, and her reluctance to challenge mainstream thinking on matters of war and peace.

On the other hand, unlike many of her rivals, she did at least have the decency not to abase herself before AIPAC; and, in diplomacy generally, she seems less wedded to the status quo than all of the others except Gabbard and maybe Sanders as well.

However, the main reason to favor her, even at this early stage of the popularity contest, is that were she to be elected, it would put the Democrats’ “glass ceiling” explanation for the 2016 electoral debacle to rest.

Clinton didn’t lose because of a glass ceiling; that would already have been a feeble excuse decades ago. She lost because she was a poor choice to start with, because she ran a terrible campaign, and because Clintonian (neoliberal, liberal imperialist) politics has seen its day.

Before she had a chance to leave her mark on Honduras, Libya, Syria, and throughout the Greater Middle East, Clinton was a lackluster Senator and a First Lady. It was as Bill Clinton’s official wife that she was able to get herself parachuted into New York to run for the Senate. With feminists playing “feminist cards” like that, who needs patriarchy!

It is even worse now. Blaming her loss to Trump on that mythical glass ceiling is even lamer than blaming it on Russian meddling.

Could those who invoke the glass ceiling excuse think that there is something special about the presidency that makes it the last nut to crack? That was never likely, but it is even less likely than it used to be; now that Trump has demeaned the office so thoroughly that the idea that is “exceptional” in its own right has become downright laughable.

Nevertheless, a lot of people still buy into that excuse, and inasmuch as she and Sanders seem pretty much tied for first place at this point, it would seem to make sense to opt for Warren, even if only to dispel a disabling, historically antiquated illusion. I, for one, would be fine with that.

There is a well-trodden left case against Sanders that boils down to the claim that he is soft on Clintonism, and that the way he ultimately campaigned for Hillary in 2016 was unforgiveable.

I agree, though I would venture that the word “tragic” is more apt than “unforgiveable.” For Aristotle, a tragic figure is a good, but not heroic person who is compelled by fate to do wrong and who then suffers on this account.

It could be argued that had Sanders bolted the Democratic Party after they screwed him over in 2016 – had he run as an independent or as a Green – we would be a lot better off now because we would be freer from the disabling clutches of the Democratic Party.

But then he would have been blamed for Trump with far more vehemence than, say, Ralph Nader is, to this day, blamed for George W. Bush. The charge would have been unfair, as we know in retrospect, but we could never be sure of this had he actually bolted.

It is possible that the resulting outrage would go on to disable popular insurgencies for decades to come.

Warren is no less soft on Clinton or Clintonism; perhaps, on this, she is even worse. But the charge seems more egregious in Sanders’ case, maybe because Warren was with Hillary – and therefore against Sanders — from Day One.

This apart, there are reasons to prefer Bernie, and therefore to regret that the glass ceiling argument afflicts our political culture to the extent it does, making Warren a marginally better choice all things considered.

For one, unlike Warren, Sanders has only good things to say about socialism; indeed, he can be fairly credited with having brought the word, and therefore indirectly the idea, back into the national conversation, notwithstanding the fact that it is not really socialism he has in mind, but some idealized amalgam of Scandinavian social democracy and the New Deal and Great Society in their most progressive, unfortunately brief, phases.

For another, on Israel-Palestine, he doesn’t just intimate disapproval of the Netanyahu government; he has actually spoken out –meekly and superficially, but undeniably – about the injustices and indignities Palestinians suffer.

One feels, with him, more than with her, that he understands that progressive politics ought not to stop at the water’s edge; it is in his background, in his bones. Warren seems primed to learn, but with her it may be necessary, from time to time, to reinvent the wheel.

If only Sanders would do more with what he plainly understands than he so far has. For what it is worth, if he did, he would pull ahead of Warren at least in my own take on the popularity contest. But he has not, and so he does not.

There is an additional consideration that I surprise myself by making, but that is worth making explicit: the possibility that a Sanders candidacy and presidency might not be “good for the Jews.”

That was something grandparents used to worry about; for generations now, those words have been fodder for comedians, and something to joke about within the tribe. But then came Trump — and all that once seemed historically superseded, if not outright atavistic, became timely again.

Confounding expectations, the Obama presidency turned out not to be particularly good for African Americans – partly because he and many others thought that just his being there was enough, and because anti-back (and brown) racism was alive and well the whole time.

Not so, for anti-Semitism. Since the end of World War II, if not before, Jews in America have been as white as the Irish and the Italians; and so many Jews have occupied high positions that nobody could think that the mere fact that the president is Jewish would be of any consequence at all to the economic or social status of American Jewry. In other Western countries, the situation was much the same.

There were vestiges of historical anti-Semitism, of course; there always are. But the United States was a country where someone like Sheldon Adelson, a character straight out of central casting for a Steve Bannon produced “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” blockbuster, could be a big macher, a kingmaker even, in the more retrograde of our duopoly parties; and where the likes of Joe Lieberman and Chuck Schumer could ascend to the commanding heights.

What I failed to appreciate was just how compatible, and even mutually reinforcing, Zionism and anti-Semitism are; I assumed that hard right, even “alt-right” miscreants who were as gung-ho for Israel as any End Times preacher or Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, couldn’t also be hardcore anti-Semites.

Boy, was I wrong!

I would love to see Bernie in the White House, and I don’t mean to suggest that now is a time for Jews to go back to being as discreet about their Jewishness as Jews were decades ago.

But I do wonder whether, all thing considered, it just might be better, as long as the Trumpian menace hovers, if Democrats would nominate someone who, but for a minute number of Cherokee genes, is white as the driven snow, and whose accent says Oklahoma, not Flatbush.

After all, if we’ve learned anything over the past two and a half years it is that Trump is not the only “fucking idiot” out there, that there are millions more, and that quite a few of them are armed and dangerous.

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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