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The Electoral Circus as the End of Its Initial Phase Looms

Photograph Source: Beatrice Murch – CC BY 2.0

Democratic hopefuls will be back at it over two nights in Detroit later this month; more or less the same twenty candidates as in June, presumably again at ten a pop. The composition of the two groups will be determined later and, as before, left to chance.

These debates – actually, joint public appearances – are a ridiculous way to pick a president, inasmuch as the skills needed to deliver a zinger that the cable news channels will endlessly repeat don’t much coincide with those useful for running a deeply divided super power in decline.

Ours is a perpetual war regime that does little to mitigate the countless vexations that come with living in an overripe capitalist economy, superintended by a weak, financially depleted state The fact that catastrophic global warming is underway doesn’t help either, especially with the president and his miscreant minions cheering the process on, even as they call what is plainly happening “fake news.”

Reality does sometimes intrude, but, for the most part, what those infernal debates are about is catching the attention of donors intent on buying political influence by marketing candidates to voters desperately seeking “hope” and “change.”

Starting the process so far in advance of the election is silly – unless, of course, the idea is to funnel political energies into safety zones for “the billionaire class,” as Bernie Sanders calls it, and other beneficiaries of the status quo.

It would be hard to deny that this is at least part of the reason why Americans who don’t tune out devote nearly two years of their lives deciding between Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dee or, as in these unprecedented times, between Tweedle Dee and an incompetent and corrupt narcissistic imbecile.

On the other hand, though, those debates do draw large audiences and they do encourage the mind to focus on matters of political moment.

Real debates, conducted by knowledgeable moderators, could be quite useful, but what we are in for will, as in the past, fall far short of that. But we are not going to get anything better this time around; and, all things considered, what we will get is better than nothing.

In any case, there is no escaping the unfolding debate season. Now would therefore be a good time to reflect on how to get the best we can out of them.

It is not a good time, however, to draw any but the most tentative conclusions. Things will look different in August and then again when the season resumes in the fall. By the time the caucuses and primary elections finally get underway in five or six months time, the state of play now will seem like ancient history.

***

Barack Obama was thoroughly vetted and passed all tests with flying colors; he was therefore all but certain not to disturb the sleep of our “malefactors of great wealth.”

Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that his administration governed under the aspect of an Original Sin; not the original one – whatever did or did not happen in the Garden of Eden pertained to Obama and his crew no more or less than to everyone else — but to a later day Original Sin nearly as portentous as the first.

That was letting Bush-Cheney era war criminals, including Bush and Cheney themselves, off scot-free. Obama wanted “to look forward,” he explained. In retrospect, though, it looks like what the future President Drone and Deporter-in-Chief really wanted was to be free to do pretty much whatever he would go on to want, without fear ever of being called to account.

It goes without saying that defeating Trump and Trumpism ASAP is more urgent than defeating Mitt Romney in 2012 or John McCain in 2008; it is a matter of such importance that it may even excuse if not quite a reprise of Obama’s Original Sin, then something that looks a lot like it.

However, beyond much needed temporary relief, not much will be gained if all voters do is saddle themselves again – not with a clear and present danger, but with the conditions for the possibility, if not the downright inevitability, of one. I am thinking, of course, of Joe Biden.

Where Obama was thoughtful and cautious and beneficial for “persons of color” — not for anything he did, but for being there – Biden is a reckless doofus. Their politics is essentially the same, however; the same too as Hillary Clinton’s.

A Biden presidency would serve only to make his predecessor look good. More remarkably, it would make Clinton look good as well. It would be the same with anyone aiming to carve out a niche in the middle of the road.

Centrists’ characters are usually flawed, but that isn’t the main reason to steer clear of their politics. The reason for that would be because, as a true populist, Jim Hightower, aptly put it, “the middle of the road is for yellow lines and dead armadillos.”

Even so, if the election were held tomorrow, and if there were no other feasible way to defeat the Trumpian menace, I’d hold my nose and vote for a mainstream Democrat, no matter how dead centrist she or he might be.

In 2016, the polls were unequivocal right up to the bitter end; Trump was going to lose. The polls were dead wrong. It has been clear, ever since the morning after, that the hyper-risk-averse had been right, and that nearly everyone else, including Trump himself, had misread the situation profoundly.

Of course, we don’t want to be fighting the last war, but at this point in time, with the Donald’s poll numbers rising in tandem with certain misleading economic indicators that corporate media flacks disseminate far and wide, could anyone seriously take issue with voting even for Biden, if that is what stopping Trump entails?

While there is mortality and morbidity there is hope, but short of that, there is almost no chance that Trump will not run again – Nancy Pelosi will see to it.

Therefore, no matter how much more “unpresidential” his behavior in office becomes, no matter how publically his mental and moral decomposition proceeds, and no matter what further news will come of his many “high crimes and misdemeanors” and his overall sleaziness and incompetence, the Trump menace will persist; and risk averse behavior will continue to be wise.

This will not change significantly even when the gods whose playthings we are finally visit that long overdue recession (or worse) upon us.

More or less virulent periods of boom and bust (recession, depression) are endemic to capitalist economic systems. One sure thing is that the next downturn will be worse than it otherwise might be because Trump has done so much to diminish or even dismantle the several institutional arrangements contrived over the years to even out the ups and downs.

No doubt, when it hits the proverbial fan, many of Trump’s especially venal and debased ruling class supporters will flee, like rats from a sinking ship. Also, many of his especially stubborn and therefore still deceived marks will at last realize that they have been snookered.

But the forces of darkness that Trump has unleashed will not be easily called off. Therefore, even if all goes very well, better than we have any right to expect, it will still be some time before it will make sense to let down one’s guard.

Even so, I would find it exceptionally difficult to vote for anyone who goes along with any of a number of corporate-inspired, mainstream Democratic fantasies, especially ones that put peace in even greater peril than it already is, and that punish dissent.

This would, of course, include proponents of the party line on Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and so on, and candidates more than usually servile towards the military, the CIA and NSA, and the FBI.

I would also find it hard to vote for anyone who honestly thinks that the party’s establishment and its newly nascent left basically agree on ends but differ only on how best to achieve those ends and at what pace to proceed. In politics, one must suffer fools, but anyone who would put mainstream Democrats and AOC on the same page is beyond the pale.

Beyond the pale, but better than Trump. If it comes to that, the wisest and most humane course would probably still be to cut “moderate” Democratic candidates some slack, especially if the Trumpian roundups and deportations of undocumented “persons of color” accelerate, and if the regime’s policy of family separation and its depraved indifference and gratuitous cruelty towards children – including babies and toddlers – doesn’t stop.

Lesser evilism is a snare and almost always a delusion, but because the stakes are so high, and because anything even the Biden wing of the party is likely to put forward really is better than Trump, this would seem to be one of those times when, as it were, the bullet must be bit.

There is, however, one thing that I think must be insisted upon even so: that the Democratic candidate must at least realize that Trumpism involves more than just that one ridiculous moral reprobate, and therefore that, this time, there be no mercy shown to monsters, no “looking forward” Obama-style.

The lower level “bad apples” in ICE and the CBP and at Homeland Security, should, at the very least, be relieved of their duties immediately and fined or jailed if their malfeasances were unusually cruel. The higher ups, up to and including the Don himself, should be made to do serious prison time – not, like Jared’s papa, at one or another Club Fed, but in the way that other common criminals would.

***

In a more normal world, arguments against lesser evilism would be dragged out again at this point, and it would be appropriate to point out that, except at the margins, it hardly matters whom the president is because they all end up doing more or less the same thing.

However, normalcy holds no sway in Trump’s America. What will be decided over the course of the coming year could therefore matter a lot.

As noted, it is way too soon to draw more than tentative conclusions; too little is known about most of the contenders in any case. But given the pace of events beyond anyone’s control and in view of the stakes, it is not too soon to start thinking about what the future might hold.

The views of most people in public life are no more worth taking seriously than those of ordinary persons not in public life. Some, like Trump’s, are not worth taking seriously at all. But insofar as they wield power, they cannot be ignored. Thus the free airtime Trump gets on the cable channels, though excessive, is not out of place.

Inasmuch as most of the twenty or so contenders still in the running will be yesterday’s lunch tomorrow, there is no reason at this point to dwell long and hard on what they have said, written or done – beyond what is already widely known.

Now, however, is as good a time as any for some preliminary sifting and winnowing. In that spirit, I would venture that, at this point, the candidates who have made it into the first debates, can be sorted into three broad categories: serious contenders, long-shots, and non-starters.

In the first category are, by my (admittedly idiosyncratic) reckoning: Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris, and maybe Booker; in the second: Castro, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Gillibrand, and Klobuchar; and in the third: Bennet, Ryan, Hickenlooper, de Blasio, Delaney, Yang, and Williamson. Swalwell would be in that group had he not dropped out, and Gabbard and Inslee belong in the third category as well, though the issues they raise merit special attention.

Of the entire pack, Gabbard is the most principled opponent of Clintonite liberal imperialism, the theory behind the perpetual war regime America has become.

Whether self-consciously or not, she is what students of international relations would call a “realist.” Realists think that modern states are basically moved by rational self-interest, and that their most fundamental interest is in their own preservation. By no means does realism entail pacifism, but its implications are generally more pacific than are those of the rival Clintonite view.

Gabbard is also, depending on your point of view, either the apotheosis or the reductio ad absurdum of the diversity blather to which Democrats are prone. She would be the only Hindu in the race, and the only descendant of a Pacific Islander.

I therefore want her in the debates. I’m not sure, though, that I would want her in the White House, not that there is any significant chance of that.

Leave aside all the very dubious things that she said and did for which the mainstream Democratic Party’s goody-goody police could hold her accountable. It all happened in an earlier life and, as she has more than adequately explained, under the influence of a socially conservative upbringing.

Leave aside too that, while Biden voted for the Bush-Cheney Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, she enlisted to fight in them – twice. Surely, by the second time, she should have wised up.

Even to this day, she thanks herself for her service a bit too much. It counts for a lot, though, that she inveighs against the chicken hawks Trump has empowered, and that she goes after President Bone Spurs every chance she gets. Nevertheless, a more skeptical, if not outright anti-military, attitude would be more welcome.

One other thing: while she has inveighed many times against Islamophobia, she has also expressed appreciation for Hindu nationalism – an ideology not exactly friendly to Muslims or, for that matter, to Western liberalism (by which I do not mean, as Trump does the political cast of local governments in and around the Bay Area and Los Angeles).

The apparent fervor of her support for Israel, which has included pandering to the likes of Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, the iniquitous Adelsons, and assorted AIPAC muckety-mucks, though not unusual for ambitious Democrats, is disturbing as well.

It is important that Inslee be included in the debates too. He has made global warming his cause to a degree that none of the others have. It is, or ought to be, a main concern for them all, though you would hardly know it so far. If corporate Democrats, always on the lookout for fossil fuel industry money don’t like his focus one bit, think of it as icing on the cake.

And while, we’re at it, I’d like to say that I’d also like to see Williamson survive for as long as possible. Trump is not funny; he is a laughing stock, which is something else altogether. On the other hand, Williamson, if she stays in the public eye, could be a godsend for late night comedians, to a degree not seen since the salad days of the late H. Ross Perot.

***

There is no reason to focus on any of the long shots now. It makes more sense to wait to see which ones, if any, break into the top category. If and when one or more do, it is unlikely to be on the merits, but because he or she comes up with a Kamela Harris type zinger that catches on.

They have all been getting respectful attention because they are all more or less “moderate”; closer, say to Nancy Pelosi than to AOC.

Neither she nor any of “the squad,” the name now being applied to her, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Presley, have advocated any particularly radical departures from mid-century social democracy, and neither have their many, generally more timid, co-thinkers in the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, they have managed to scare the pants off America’s titans of finance, commerce, and industry – enough to get Nancy Pelosi expressly involved in pandering to their concerns.

Were any of the long shots actually to get the nod, it would not be a tragedy, but it would be disappointing. How disappointing depends on which long shot it is.

Based on his performance in the first debate, I would say that the most impressive character of the lot is Julián Castro. He is no Fidel, but he would make a fine running mate for someone in need of an Hispanic that leftists could live with.

I look forward to the time when we can look back on Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke as flashes in the pan. In O’Rourke’s case, this is becoming the case already.

If Biden falters, either one could take his place as the Democrats’ favorite Moderate Male. They both come packaged with a few vague pie-in-the-sky proposals under development, and, so far as the public now knows, neither one would be particularly imperiled by the discovery of past mistakes.

However, O’Rourke seems like too much of a gawky kid to pass muster, and it is hard to believe that an electorate that was still enough opposed to same-sex marriage to keep mainstream Democrats, including Obama, from signing on just ten years ago, would consider a man with a husband a good choice for beating back Trump and his politically incorrect supporters.

Klobuchar and Gillibrand occupy a similar political space, but from the distaff side. Contrary to what unreconstructed Clinton supporters may still believe, that is probably more of an advantage than not.

There is no way to prove the point beyond a reasonable doubt, but there is ample reason to think that it has been many years, if not decades, since the country has not been “ready” for a woman president. America is not that “exceptional.” Moreover, an electorate that is ready for a Ronald Reagan, much less a Donald Trump, is ready for pretty much anything, except perhaps trans-sexuals and Muslims.

More on point, how can an electorate that is fine with a woman’s place being in the Senate, not also be fine with according a woman a place in the White House? The contrary view, though widespread, simply doesn’t compute.

If we end up with Klobuchar or Gillibrand on the ticket, even at the head of the ticket, it won’t be the worst thing in the world, but neither will it be a giant step forward for womankind. Womankind is already there, and they are unlikely to do anything for women that, say, Sanders wouldn’t.

The best way to put the idea that the country isn’t ready to rest would, of course, be to elect a woman president – or president and vice president too. Why not? We have been electing all male tickets since Day One.

Cory Booker straddles the line between serious contenders and long shots, and the line between guardians of the status quo, and Democrats who really do want fundamental change.

Biden plays his Obama connection, his eight years as Vice President, for all that it is worth; name dropping “Barack” every chance he gets. If he were debating himself, he could channel himself and deliver the quip that everything Biden says reduces to a subject, a verb, and Barack Obama. In truth, the affinities are as shallow as Biden himself.

With Booker it is different; he is Obama 2.0. More “of color” – he is indisputably African American – more vetted on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms, and more experienced in serving politically connected interest groups and corporations.

Kamela Harris is better than that, though as news of her tenure as San Francisco’s District Attorney and then as California’s Attorney General filters in, one has to wonder by how much.

However, in her current incarnation, she tows a good line and is perceived accordingly. Many consider her a true progressive in the Sanders-Warren mold.

She is also considered, no doubt with good reason, more palatable to traditional party elites than they.

Conventional wisdom has it that “electability” is the average Democratic voter’s Number One concern. Therefore, her apparently more anodyne progressivism is supposedly a mark in her favor with centrist-leaning rank-and-file Democrats and with independents, who are, for some reason, presumed to be even more centrist than the centrists.

Also, by showing herself capable of standing up to Biden, it is assumed that she would be more than up to the task of standing up to Trump. That so much is made of this is odd, to say the least. On the merits, a potted plant could stand up to Trump in a free and fair argument. But, in such matters, appearance is all.

For a while, it looked like the more odious duopoly party or its slightly roguish allies would make an effort to introduce a “birtherism” hoax against Harris, notwithstanding the plain fact that no one would dare claim that she was not “born in the USA.” She was born in Oakland, California.

Nevertheless, the oldest of Trump’s idiot sons, Don Jr., following a Trump family tradition, did briefly float the idea that, with parents from India and Jamaica, she isn’t really African American.

It is unclear why he or anyone else in the Trump orbit would care. Perhaps like “the Russians” in the Clintonite account of 2016, he just wanted to stir up confusion by delving into the morass of contemporary identity politics. His father’s anti-Warren Pocahontas ravings are cut from the same cloth.

Whatever the explanation, Harris survived the son’s nonsense, just as surely as Warren survived the father’s. This gives both of them credibility.

Several weeks ago, The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a story on two teen-agers who had taken it upon themselves to get Mike Gravel, now eighty-nine years old, into the race. I confess to a soft spot in my heart for Gravel; indeed, I voted for him in 2008, in the primaries that stopped Clinton in her tracks, and made Obama famous.

The alternative, for those of us who were up to casting a protest vote back then was Dennis Kucinich. My thought then was that Gravel’s role in getting The Pentagon Papers out trumped Kucinich’s cuteness or whatever it is that gives him the appeal he has.

In any case, Gravel now is even more of a non-starter than the others in category three, and those teenagers have probably moved on. Their line on Harris should not be forgotten, however; it was spot on. They said that she would make a fine Director of the Secret Police.

***

As it dawns on those masters of the universe who prefer Democrats to Republicans that there is currently movement within the Democratic Party that could lead to the party of Obama and the Clintons taking a sharp left turn, causing it to slip out of their control; and as their media flacks are therefore working overtime to proclaim to anyone and everyone within sight and earshot that a vote even for such hardly radical progressives as Sanders and Warren is a vote for Trump, it is not helpful for the two most leftwing contenders in the field to be running against each other.

But although it feels as if they have been at it forever, Democrats are still not past even the very first stage in the process of selecting their nominee for president. By the end of the month, after the second set of debates has concluded, the process may be further on, but, as of now, it has hardly begun.

Therefore, at this point, except for increasing the number of annoying fund-raising emails that will keep coming in any case, there is probably no harm in permitting or even encouraging divisions within “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” as the late Paul Wellstone famously called it, back in the days when there was already no Left left, and when even idle talk of socialism was strictly verboten.

However, by the time the caucuses and primaries actually get underway in January and February of next year, we will surely be better off with a united front.

Either Sanders or Warren will have to take the lead. At this point, I don’t think that it matters a whole lot which one that will be.

I like Sanders for having done so much to transform the Democratic Party for the better, and for putting socialism, the word anyway, back into America’s political lexicon.

There is both more and less to this than meets the eye. On the one hand, it joins the coming election to traditional Left political concerns, albeit in a highly attenuated way. On the other, Sanders’ “democratic socialism” has more to do with mid-century social democracy than with socialism per se, as that idea has been understood for more than two hundred years. In a Sanders “revolution,” nothing would disturb private ownership of major means of production.

Even so, this makes the coming election more political, more concerned with questions of economic and political power, than has been the case in American elections for nearly half a century.

I like Warren because she has a plan for everything, and because she has fire in her belly. She is a serious, smart, policy wonk – with passion and the common touch. What’s not to like in that?

And what’s not to like about having a woman in the White House at last, not so much because that would be good in itself, but because we could then finally set Clinton’s glass ceiling jibber jabber aside, and move on to where it really is “the politics, stupid.”

To be sure, someone more like Jeremy Corbyn, a real deal socialist whose progressive concerns go beyond domestic affairs would be better still. But we don’t have anybody like that with the right credentials and stature to make it into the first or even the second category. For getting foreign policy on a sounder track, Gabbard is the best we’ve got, and she is a non-starter.

Sanders has taken some mealy-mouthed but generally progressive positions on foreign affairs – on Yemen, especially and other facets of Middle East politics. The Saudis and the other Gulf monarchies have more reason to be wary of him than of the others; and, were he in the White House, Iranians could rest a little easier than they now can.

Sanders has not exactly been a proponent of justice for Palestine, he has been, especially lately, among the least inclined legislators in Washington to turn blank checks over to the increasingly rightwing government of America’s favorite ethnocratic settler state. This does not exactly make for a “profile in courage,” but it is a step in the right direction.

So far, Warren has had even less to say than Sanders about foreign affairs, and, as far as she is concerned, on Israel-Palestine, mum’s the word. But she has also shown no eagerness to make nice with AIPAC, as, for example, Kamela Harris has.

On this, Corey Booker is the worst of the lot; not quite as awful as ace accounting major and Trump U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, but not a whole lot better either.

If, contrary to fact, Trump had a brain in his head, he’d dump Mike Pence for Haley, especially if the Democrats nominate a woman. But, of course, no new brain is in the works. As an intellectually and emotionally “challenged” septuagenarian, he is not about to grow one now.

Therefore, my recommendation, at this point, is to let events between Sanders and Warren play out, at least until Daylight Savings Time is shot. I would not be the least surprised, or disappointed, if, by then, the scales were tipping in Warren’s favor.

Meanwhile, now that it is plain that even if, through some aberration of the light of reason, Biden does become the nominee and therefore the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer, he will not and cannot be the party’s savior. The party’s internal divisions will not be automatically overcome; quite to the contrary, they will intensify.

Thus there is a related problem, more urgent and ultimately more important than who becomes the nominee, that has arisen within the Democratic fold that risks becoming swamped as the nomination process gets further underway, but that must not be kicked down the road, if the victories of November 2018 are to be retained and built upon.

The nature of the problem is evident in the efforts of “moderates” and even more retrograde defenders of the status quo, and of ostensibly more liberal “pragmatic progressives,” to neuter the results of the 2018 election by halting, and, as far as possible, turning back the insurgent tide.

The problem, in short, is how to stay united against Trump and Trumpism without falling back into the politics that made Trump and Trumpism possible.

With Pelosi now using her considerable political skills to keep the good guys (and gals – most of them these days are female) down, the problem is to survive, but also not to retreat – indeed, to move forward with renewed vigor.

There is no doubt that “the squad” is up for it – ready, willing, and amazingly able.

For everyone else – their Congressional colleagues, of course, but also, of even greater importance, their supporters around the country and the world – the task is what it has always been: to build as broad a base as possible, and then to struggle as sharply as an aroused and insurgent citizenry is able.

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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