Thursday, June 09, 2016
The Hillary conundrum posted by Richard SeymourNow that the Democratic Party has chosen a patriarch as its presidential candidate, what will become of women's rights in the US?
Obviously, Clinton's Republican opponent is a great deal worse, an outright Berlusconi-style swaggering misogynist, as well as a patriarch in a decidedly Oedipal sense. (But, believe me, a great patriarch, the best, he has the best patriarchy, you wouldn't believe - and cheap, too, because Mexico will pay.) However, the depressing reality is that the presidential contest will now be fought between two candidates with an anti-feminist record. Sanders is nominally taking the fight to the Convention, but we all know he doesn't expect to win. He has shifted gears to bargaining for influence. At most, he will cause a bit of a ruckus at an event that is usually a cheerleading rally.
And so, the Democrats are left with a candidate who harmed women, especially poor women and women of colour, through her involvement in welfare reform; who has a poisonous record of defending that most patriarchal of institutions, 'traditional' heterosexual marriage, against the gays - and invoking her 'traditional' wounded distaff role in doing so; with a penchant for the hypertrophically masculinist, militaristic culture of the US empire; and with at best a conditional defence of Roe v Wade, a stance she has qualified repeatedly by suggesting that she will compromise, by leading campaigns against teen pregnancy, and by declining to do anything substantial about the years and years of demolition of the abortion clinic infrastructure. (Although, in fairness, Planned Parenthood might be just about the only campaign constituency that the Clintons have not systematically shafted.) Then, of course, there is the small matter of her firing on all cylinders to protect a probable rapist from being held accountable for his actions - the probable rapist in question being her husband and political confederate, Bill Clinton.
But these arguments are well-known by now, and Liza Featherstone has done a lot to popularise them. The point of adumbrating Clinton's anti-feminist record is not to confound her defenders who will simply retort, with a naivety not seen since Seventies pornography, that she has had a change of heart. Rather, it is symptomatic. The one progressive sell for Clinton throughout the campaign has been gender, and her policies on this front should worry women - particularly women who don't care to be called 'soccer moms'.
Now, I realise that the fact of Clinton's gender is itself not merely incidental. She will be the first female leader of the United States, a country that finds itself lagging behind all of these other countries in this respect, and this has a symbolic significance. That significance is hard to disaggregate from the politics of the candidate - most feminists did not celebrate the election of Margaret Thatcher, for instance. Nonetheless, one can make allowance for the fact that, to win, Clinton will have to defeat the kind of sexist culture that could support a candidate like Trump - just as she has no doubt had to outflank, neutralise or (more frequently) make alliance with sexists in order to advance in her career. The defeat of a far right misogynist by a middle-of-the-road patriarch will have some significance. Yet, and this is the point of the post, she might not defeat Trump. She should defeat Trump, and she is still the favourite - but it may be precisely her centrist politics, which her supporters believe is an electoral advantage, that hands it to Trump.
To explain. Clinton is one of the sharpest, most ruthless, and most tactically ingenious bourgeois politicians in the United States. Many lesser politicians would have frozen in the face of the email scandal. Even if her Democratic opponent gave her a free pass on it, it was still something that could have finished her. Lesser politicians would have found it far more difficult to explain away a record jarringly at odds with her campaigning themes, but Clinton brazened it out without a bead of sweat. Yet her campaign, barring exceptions such as her very subtle way of ducking the Black Lives Matter punch early in the race, has been abysmal.
Consider. She told stupid, pointless, self-gratifying lies - lies that only Trump would top - such as the now infamous series of fibs about her heroism in Bosnia, each doubling down on the last. Challenged about her support for the Honduran coup, she first claimed to have supported democracy, then claimed that the coup was perfectly legal. She patronised young voters backing Sanders with barely sublimated aggression, and then condescended to them by wagging her finger and saying: "even if they are not supporting me, I support them". If this was a professional wrestling programme, Clinton would have just turned heel: that was a Bob Backlund move, and she didn't even know it. And her advisors didn't know it. She tried to represent herself as 'your abuela' in an awful social media campaign, only to provoke a classic social media backlash hashtagged #notmyabuela for her disgraceful record on immigration rights. When she was finally challenged by a Black Lives Matter protester, a young girl, she looked sour and had security bundle the girl off. And when asked why she has trust issues, why no one believes a word she says, the best her campaign can do is offer that she's been the target of media calumny - as if anyone has been more protected by the media than Hillary Goddamn Clinton.
Considering the advantages that Clinton started out with, everyone expected a coronation. It was 'her turn' as far as she and the Democratic Leadership Council was concerned. Bernie was a charming Larry David character with 3% in the national polls, a distraction. But just to make sure things stayed that way, the Democrats ensured that party debates were kept off prime-time, so that only one candidate would have name recognition in local hustings and on the ballot paper. Super-delegates, meanwhile, that undemocratic mass of corporate donors and party elites who wield so much power in the selection process on the basis of pure patronage, let it be known that they were behind Clinton, thus skewing the terrain heavily in her favour from the start. I won't waste time recapitulating all the irregularities and gimcrack trickery culminating in the extraordinary stitch-up in Nevada, to the foam-flecked disbelief of Democratic Party operators. The point is that Clinton had the big machinery, the big media, the big donors, the big super-PACS, every possibly advantage on her side. And she almost didn't defeat Bernie Sanders.
Now, on top of this, we see that her commanding lead over Trump in the polls is not all that commanding. Having seen double digit leads, she now has a 2 percent spread. Trump has pulled ahead of her a few times. Even a rare recent poll that gave Clinton a ten percent lead over Trump among likely voters, suggested that over 20 percent of likely voters would refuse to vote for either candidate. Where the hell are those voters going? Clinton should be cleaning up here. She has the support of business and most major media outlets, and she is far more unanimously and enthusiastically backed by her party machine than Trump is by his. If the normal forms of political control obtained, the Democrats would be efficiently corralling their base into the Clinton camp and this would be showing up in the polls - as a result of which, the latter's supporters could afford to feign magnanimity toward the elder social democrat Sanders rather than scapegoating him for her weakness.
Clinton's strategy in all this, it has been advertised for some time - although poor Matthew Yglesias really seems to think he has a scoop here - is to go after Republican 'moderates'. There aren't actually that many 'moderates'. Presumably, we are talking about people who backed Rubio and Kasich, neither of whom even rise to the level of Bush II conservatism, let alone Eisenhower conservatism. The Republican base, even those who detest Trump, are pretty reactionary - and most of them detest Hillary Clinton even more. So while Clinton goes out of her way to demoralise and demobilise Democrat voters, pulling to the Right in order to win over the non-Trump Republicans, Trump will be exciting his voters and getting them to turn out. What's more, with the truce drawn up by the GOP establishment, who perhaps think Il Donald can be temporarily useful to them, he will be burnishing his 'anti-establishment' credentials while still getting the donations and without drawing friendly fire. And he has a lot of material to work with in attacking Clinton as a 'crooked' scion of the establishment, and he is adept at dragging the debate into subterranean levels from whence the gutter looks holy and august.
The fact that Sanders generally polled better against Trump and all other Republican candidates than Hillary Clinton did is not an accident. In the context of a general crisis of politics germinating over several decades and brought to a climax by a post-credit crunch decline in living standards, the old political centre is falling apart. That is what has brought the GOP to this life-threatening denouement, and it is what is consuming the Democrats more slowly. The fact that the Democrats not only chose the loathed establishment candidate, but that the process by which they did so was one so openly marked by obvious manipulation and contempt for the unwashed, means that they are more committed to the defence of the status quo than they are to little things like electability. At any rate, and not for the first time, one senses that the centre would rather lose to the Right than to the Left.
So it is in this context that Clinton and her political machine has adapted incredibly poorly. She was cut out for politics of a different age, when she wouldn't have to apologise for calling black people 'super-predators' (Sanders's last campaign ad was a condign response to that racism), when she wouldn't have to pretend to dislike her Wall Street friends, when she wouldn't have to worry about being criticised for homophobic policies, when she could get away with styling herself as an 'economic populist' without hollow laughter resounding. She was made for the era of triangulation, that high point in American democracy wherein Dick Morris called the shots and 'everyone was happy'. She was custom-designed for the days when you could demoralise the base and no one cared, because there was enough affluent liberalism about. She should have been president when her husband and business partner was. In this situation, that of the breakdown of the representative link and the rise of populisms, she isn't the natural player she once was. One apprehends that she can calculate the rough sequence of moves she is supposed to make, but there's nothing intuitive about it; she has no feel for it. And we will know more definitively quite soon, but I suspect she hasn't got the measure of Trump either.
Clinton should win, in the ordinary run of things. It should be an easy ride. The GOP has been crashing and burning, the Democratic establishment has been hugging itself gleefully, and all that Clinton had to do was see off one previously marginal politician from Vermont. But it just isn't working out that way. That's the Hillary conundrum. Go ahead and blame it on the Bern. Blame it on ungrateful voters. Blame it on the boogie, if it helps. But Clinton is a bad candidate running for the wrong era, and that's the bottom line.