April 27, 2007
It grieves me to dignify Bill and Hillary Clinton by attaching an ism to their name. But I don’t know a better way to refer to the political tendency “Clintonism” aptly denotes. Neither do I know how to define the tendency. Like pornography, it is something you know when you see it. Clintonism is not an ideology. It has no settled convictions. In what might be called its classical phase, during the (Bill) Clinton administration, its policies reflected, not very thoughtfully, the exigencies of American capitalism at the time -- hence its dedication to corporate globalization and its (implicit but real) opposition to the remnants of our never very robust labor movement and welfare state. Its foreign and military policies descended from the “bipartisan” consensus of the Cold War period, without benefit, needless to say, of a credible enemy. Hence its main preoccupation was to demonstrate American dominance whether through sanctions (Iraq, Cuba) or by demonstration bombing campaigns (the former Yugoslavia, Afghanastan, Iraq again, Somalia) and “humanitarian interventions (again, Somalia).” The human costs were incalculable, but since few Americans were affected, they were little noticed in the United States. These were policies dictated by circumstances, not any principled vision. What they reflect, beyond servility to economic elites, is a certain political style that, by now, is almost reflexive for empowered baby boomers who, decades earlier, had been drawn to the fringes of the oppositional movements of the 1960s and 70s -- for the sex, drugs (if they inhaled), and (bad 70s) rock’n roll. It is what those who wanted “to remain viable within the system” contrived as they drifted into what anywhere else in the world would be the center-right of the political spectrum, but counts as “liberalism” in the United States.
To combat Clintonism, as I am using the term, is therefore not quite the same thing as opposing Hillary Clinton’s bid to become President. But, at this point in time, she is the main Clintonite standard bearer. She brings with her all the baggage of the Clinton presidency; politically, there is no distance between her and her husband. As such, it is significant that she has been among the most shameful of the Bush aiders and abettors in the Democratic Party. Not apologizing for her vote to authorize the Iraq War is the least of it. But it is not automatically true that she is the most egregious Clintonite in political life. There are Democrats who are worse.
At the end of the Clinton presidency, Clintonism seemed to be just a kinder, gentler Republicanism, Republicanism Lite. Back then, there was a debate to be had about whether it really was a lesser evil than the genuine article. But that was before George W Bush transformed the Republicanism of his father and his father’s friends beyond recognition. Even after the 2000 election, it could still be said that Republicans are not necessarily worse than Democrats; and that Bush the father was not clearly worse than his successor. Now there is no doubt that the chicken hawks and torture mongers the Bush boy empowered are far, far worse than the Clintonites in power ever were. In the spring of 2007, they are, by far, the greater evil. But that doesn’t let Clintonism off the hook; not by any means.
No matter what happens in the next few months, it is unlikely that there will be any appetite in the Democratic Party to settle accounts with the legacy of the Clinton presidency, with Clintonism in power. Remarkably, its sanctions and wars and even its anti-labor and anti-black policies are still applauded in some circles of what passes for a political Left and for a civil rights movement in the United States. But we are now at a time when, even without a proper accounting, Clintonism can be turned back. For that to happen, those who would take up the cause need to reflect on the nature and limits of the political party that the Clintons moved to the right by several orders of magnitude. The Democratic Party has always been more of a problem than a solution. But, from at least 1992 through 2006, it was far worse than it had to be. It can be made better again. Here are some thoughts on how this can be made to happen:
1) As always, when an electoral contest looms, electoral politics take center stage. But electoral politics is not, and never has been, where the action is. In the last century, there were brief episodes, each cut short by war, in which what some today wishfully call the party’s “democratic wing” was not marginalized. The New Deal was one, so was the Great Society. But Democratic Party leaders have never initiated fundamental changes. Each important advance was made possible and necessary by militancy at the “grass roots.” The political leadership was forced to come along. It is no different now.
2) Nevertheless, elections matter. Some leaders are more susceptible to being brought along than others; more importantly, electoral outcomes affect the conditions under which genuinely transformative political work proceeds. This is why it matters who wins in 2008. The next President will almost certainly be a Democrat; the failure of the Bush presidency makes that all but inevitable. Therefore the real electoral contest will be in the Democratic primaries. The stakes are clear: either there will be a Clintonite Restoration, with or without a Clinton at the helm, or opportunities to do better will at long last open up.
3) Leaving Dennis Kucinich aside as a non-starter (though, like Mike Gravel, an important presence in “debates”), John Edwards now seems the least Clintonite of the party’s likely candidates. His stump speech and the positions he has staked out recall New Deal and Great Society themes. His foreign policy positions, especially on trade, but even on Iraq are now, finally, not bad. To be sure, he has been obsequious towards the Israel lobby, as all Democrats seeking office are. But the other candidates are at least as bad, and it is telling that Nancy Pelosi, along with many others in the so-called Progressive Caucus, are even worse. Of those who now seem to have a chance, Barack Obama is still not beyond consideration. Perhaps someday he will say something substantive enough to consider. In the meantime, his candidacy serves two purposes: it puts issues of race in the forefront, and it offers the best hope early on of ending, once and for all, the chances of Hillary Clinton.
4) The Democratic Party is a problem for reasons that are largely structural. Americans are technically free to form political parties to their liking. But, in practice, Democrats and Republicans enjoy a cozy and secure duopoly. When the party system was in formation during the first several decades of the republic’s existence, the situation was more fluid. Since the post-Civil War settlement, it has been fixed in stone. “Third” parties have appeared from time to time. Indirectly, they have affected the political agenda, mainly by promoting new ideas. But they have never had a serious chance of coming to power. Democrats and Republicans will compete with each other, but they are united in their determination to maintain a status quo that benefits them both. Through their control of state legislatures, the duopoly has been quite successful in denying challengers the opportunity to compete, even on an unlevel playing field. The recent past offers many examples – most conspicuously, the Nader campaign in 2000. This is not to say that third party efforts are ill advised; quite the contrary. But they are almost certainly not sufficient for changing the status quo. Perhaps some day conditions will change. But, for now, much as one would like to turn one’s back on the whole sorry mess that the Democratic Party has become, it would be irresponsible to do so.
5) Both Democrats and Republicans have always drawn votes from an improbable mix of constituencies, held together less by common interests or ideological commitments than by hostility towards the other side. Over the years, party alignments have changed; but this fact has not. Thus, for both sides, lesser evilism is endemic and longstanding. What is new, in recent decades, is how Republicans made lesser evilism work for them. In an electoral duopoly, there can only be lesser evil parties if there is some dimension along which positions cluster in a polarized way. This would be the case whenever parties can be arrayed along a left-right spectrum. Until recently, such a spectrum did exist, more or less, within the two parties as much as between them. The left was, generally speaking, egalitarian; the right was not. Since those who stand to gain from egalitarian redistribution vastly outnumber those who stand to lose, and since the parties work together to marginalize independent and third party candidacies, and since the Republican Party no longer has a liberal wing (just an increasingly anxious old guard and diminishing numbers of fellow-traveling “moderates”), there was no way for it induce a majority (or even a plurality) of voters to vote for it on the basis of material interests. To gain the votes of the victims of the economic elites they represent, Republicans therefore had to set American politics on a new and largely unprecedented course. So long as distribution was the issue, the Democratic Party can play the role of greater evil for only a small minority of well-off voters. Not so, however, if the focus shifts away from what politics is really about, turning instead to cultural disaffections and anxieties. Then economic elites can depict social liberalism as a threat to traditional values, inducing their victims to side with them and against their natural allies. It was the Republicans’ good fortune that, several decades ago, influential Democrats, the Clintons among them, got it into their heads that the way for them to win elections was to abandon, or at least marginalize, the remnants of the party’s New Deal and Great Society traditions. The inevitable consequence was a new and unprecedented left-right spectrum – based on “values,” not interests. The inevitable consequence was that, for several election cycles, the Democrats lost all but the “bluest” of states. [Why the Republicans got “red” is a story for another time.] However circumstances change: by 2006, it was clear even to many “values” voters that the Bush government had effectively self-destructed. It did so at terrible cost. But the country’s and the world’s misfortune was the Democrats’ good luck. The same thing could happen again in 2008; another political realignment, within the framework of the duopoly, might well result. Then the country and world would be far better off than it now is. But they would be no better off than they would have been with a more traditional Republican president, and much less well off than they could be. Paradoxically, thanks to Bush and despite the Clintons, there is now a chance to change our politics, however modestly, for the better.
Positive changes are again possible. But, if they are to occur, redistribution must come back onto the agenda. This is why it is urgent to struggle against Clintonism. There is very little doubt that the vast majority of Americans who are likely to vote in 2008 know this already. John Edwards seems to be counting on it. Perhaps Barack Obama will too. The task, for now, is to push them in that direction – by forcing them to accommodate to pressures that, as Democrats, constrained by the interests that run the party, they would never think to address on their own.
In the 2006 elections, the Clintonite leadership of the party did its best to repress the aspirations of the base. Even so, many Americans, perhaps a majority, are now so far ahead of the Party’s leadership that Clintonites, even Hillary herself, have found it expedient to moderate their Clintonism, or at least to appear to do so. However it is only their opportunism coming to the fore; with the Clintons themselves, and with those who came to power with them, that’s all there ever was. But maybe, just maybe, the Democratic Party can reverse its Clintonite turn; maybe it can change for the better, at least somewhat. For now, the party is as much a tool of the interests that own it as it ever was. But the situation is more fluid than it has been in decades. With the people mobilized, if the party’s leadership can be turned over to those who have it within themselves to be part of the solution, there is at least a chance of moving in a better direction. Since we can’t get by without Democrats, at least not in the foreseeable future, there is nothing to do but try. Dispatching Clintonites, Hillary first, is a necessary start.
Notes on the April 26 “debate”:
1) it proved, yet again, that even Democrats can speak obvious truths – but only if they are of a certain age and only if they no longer care to be “players.” Witness Robert Byrd (on Iraq long before it was opportune) or Jimmy Carter (on Israeli apartheid). To their ranks, add Mike Gravel. If only he had been given more time – not treated, as he put it, like a “potted plant” – the “debate” would have been far more instructive.
2) it showed that, unlike their base, Democrats are as little disposed to come to terms with the Bush presidency as they are with Clinton’s. Only Kucinich favors impeachment, despite growing support for it at the grass-roots. But even he doesn’t contemplate bringing Cheney and Bush and their sorry neo-con crew to justice.
3) it showed that intellectual dishonesty, bordering on incoherence, still thrives in the Democratic Party. How hard is it to understand that to fund the war is to support the war? Evidently, as hard as to understand that “supporting the troops” is not the same thing as putting them in harm’s way!