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The Election Blues Again

by Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.

We construct personal timelines in many ways. Lately, I find myself situating events according to where they fall within the lifetimes of dogs I have owned.

Perhaps this is why the 2016 Presidential election already seems more than usually disheartening. We are staring in the face of another election between a Clinton and a Bush. Been there, done that — three dog generations ago.

Marx famously remarked that “history repeats itself; first as tragedy, then as farce.” He was referring to “great world historic facts and personages.”

No one could accuse the Clintons or the Bushes of being great world historic personages. And, for that matter, the first Clinton v. Bush matchup wasn’t any more of a tragedy than presidential elections normally are. Indeed, the consensus, at least on the liberal side, is that the better man, the lesser evil, won.

I am not so sure.

I am positive, though, that should history repeat itself in 2016, as it very likely will, it will be as a farce.

I am positive too that if she is the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton will win. And she will be the nominee; only a miracle can stop her now.

Because hardly anyone really wants her to become President, the scenario about to be played out is farcical through and through: the plot line is improbable, the characters are exaggerated and grotesque, the entire affair borders on slapstick.

It would be hilarious, if it weren’t pathetic.

How did it come to this? Blame lesser evilism. Its appeal, when elections loom, can be, and often is, irresistible. Its downside, though, is that it makes Clinton v. Bush choices, or rather their functional equivalents, ubiquitous.

This time around, the lesser evilists will have an especially strong case; stronger by far than a quarter century ago when Bill and George I went at it– not because Hillary now is any less evil than her husband was then, not by any means; but because between Jeb and his father there is no comparison.

The first George Bush was a mediocrity; for American Presidents, this is par for the course. Jeb, the latest Bush in line is, a mediocrity too. But, like his brother, George II, another mediocrity, this one is also a calamity waiting to happen.

George père and mother Barbara set out to raise a litter of muckety-mucks to take over the family business they inherited from Senator Prescott Bush, George I’s poppy. They succeeded with two of their brood. But they also bred each and every admirable leadership quality out of the family line.

The Clintons lack admirable leadership qualities too, but the comparison stops there: without family connections, they had to claw their way up to muckety-muck status. Boundless opportunism and brazen slickness got them where they are.

They have been there far too long. Even though, on average, human beings live seven times longer than our best friends, 1992, the year Bill slammed George I, was forever ago for us too.

Jaded voters, staring in the face of middle age today, were barely post-pubescent in 1992; the digital age was in its infancy, and the worldwide web was still only a gleam in Al Gore’s eye.

Back then, there was a peace dividend that hadn’t yet been squandered entirely, and a climate that had not yet been heated up to ruinous levels. Constitutionally protected rights and liberties still seemed secure.

And yet, on the Clinton side, there isn’t even a (human) generational difference between then and now.

It was by being Bill’s First Lady, his official wife, that Hillary got the experience, credibility, gravitas and, above all, the corporate and political connections she needed to be parachuted into New York state fifteen years ago, to become its lackluster Senator; and then, after losing to Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries, to become perhaps the most inept Secretary of State in modern times.

This would include even her husband’s picks for the job: the hapless Warren G. Christopher and Madeleine (Mad Maddy) Albright, the principal architect and proud defender of sanctions responsible for the early deaths of some half million Iraqis.

At least the House of Bush had the decency, as long ago as the year 2000, to pass the baton on to a new generation.

That was the year that Jeb’s older brother was first elected President, not in reality but according to the dispositive ruling of five Republican Supreme Court Justices.

Fifteen years is a long time too. Infants fifteen years ago are adolescents today; dogs that were puppies then are now most likely dead.   Only two of mine ever lived that long.

Mainstream pundits, commenting on the scene, decry America’s lapse into “dynastic politics.” But they haven’t quite got that right.

There is no Clinton dynasty; there is just a husband and wife who stay together because it is useful to both of them that that they do.

It is only on the Bush side that there is dynastic politics to complain about. And how can even sycophantic commentators not complain about a dynasty that is as interesting and appealing as Wonder Bread! Compared, say, to the Kennedys, they are a joke. They even make the Windsors look good.

But credit where credit is due: in only three (human) generations, the Bushes have managed to turn themselves into one of the most noxious political families in the history of the United States.

Of course, it is still possible that some or all of the likely Clinton v. Bush matchup won’t materialize; the farce this time is not a done deal – yet.

It isn’t likely but Jeb could still do himself in or be done in by Republicans even more retrograde than he. The chances that the Clinton juggernaut will founder are a lot worse.

In 2008, after it had become clear that she would lose the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, Hillary was asked why she was keeping on.

To the dismay of Secret Service agents, intent on keeping the first serious African American contender for the presidency out of the crosshairs of any of America’s armed-to-the-teeth Dylann Roofs, she said, in so many words, that while there is death, there is hope.

Indeed. There is serious illness too.

Even a quarter century ago, Hillary was no spring chicken. She isn’t a septuagenarian yet, but she soon will be; and, as Bette Davis is reported to have said, “old age is no place for sissies.”

There is therefore a non-trivial chance that lightening will strike. But it isn’t much of a chance; and as long as Hillary stays alive and spry, the Second Coming of the Clintons is at hand.

In a word, we are doomed.

In Greek antiquity, tragedians sometimes resorted to a plot technique that Aristotle called deus ex machina. When all seemed hopeless, an actor representing a god would be lowered onto the stage by a machine-like contrivance. The god would then go on to set matters aright.

Over the past several months, in several entries on this site, I argued, in effect, that were Virginia’s former Senator Jim Webb to launch a serious campaign, he could play a similar role. Webb has been testing the waters seemingly forever.

There is no reason to think that his views on domestic politics are more “progressive” (less retrogressive) than Hillary and Bill Clinton’s, and he is plainly not a principled anti-imperialist. But, from the perspective of a professional soldier, Webb’s take on American foreign and military policy is as good as it gets.

This is the important thing. At this stage in capitalism’s history, the constraints capitalists, especially finance capitalists, impose upon the political class are so demanding that only far-reaching systemic changes, propelled on by people power, can change domestic politics for the better.

In other (no longer fashionable) words: “the only solution, revolution.”

Hillary surely heard that slogan, back in the day, after she stopped being a Goldwater Girl. Her future husband would have heard it too, as he struggled to “remain viable within the system” while picking up all the girls he could. In the late sixties and early seventies, radical politics was the best aphrodisiac.

Were Webb actually to become President, it would hardly matter what his views on domestic politics are; the constraints are too constraining. But what he thinks about foreign and military affairs would matter. In those areas, Presidents can still shape the course of events.

Also, as a white Southerner with ties to organized labor and to many of the white and black rural constituencies that suffer the most from neoliberal predations, Webb could shake up the Democratic Party enough to shift the focus of its concerns back to where they were before the Clintons helped make prissy niceness the be-all and end-all of liberal politics.

Maybe, just maybe, this would be enough not only to ward off the next installment of Hillary and Bill, but also to set American politics on a more salutary course.

I am not holding my breath, however. Webb seems unable to find a billionaire willing to pay the freight. Without one, a candidate these days has almost no way of gaining traction.

And even were he to launch a serious campaign, his chances of defeating Hillary, of beating back one of corporate America’s most biddable flunkies, would be slim at best. Odds are, though, that we won’t get a chance to find out.

And so, as the electoral season approaches, there is even less to look forward to than there usually is.

There have been off-year elections in which there is nobody running, even far down the ballot, whom I want to vote for or against — their names are only names to me.

When this happens and when there are no ballot measures I care about, as is normally the case where I now live, I do what most of my compatriots do; I don’t vote.

More often, though, even when there is no one whom I can bring myself to vote for, there are candidates whom I am eager to vote against.

Thus, over the years, I have often written in the names of one or another of those dogs whose births and deaths shape my personal timeline.

This is infantile, of course; but the obligations of democratic citizenship are compelling, even in the absence of substantive democracy.

And voting for animals can be as good a way as any to cast a vote in protest. Readers of a certain age, Hillary’s and Bill’s, will remember Pigasus, the Yippie candidate for President in 1968.

However, there should be no need next year to write in the names of dogs.

I expect that when Election Day comes, I will cast my protest vote for the Green Party’s candidate, Jill Stein. This is what I did in 2012, and I look forward to doing it again.

I also expect that, in 2016, as in 2012, the vast majority of my compatriots, were they somehow to hear about her campaign, would first say to themselves something like: “Jill who?”

The Greens have ballot access in most states, and, if voters knew about it, many, maybe most of them, would think, as I do, that their proposals for a Green New Deal are just what the doctor ordered.

But the sad truth is that third parties and independent candidacies get nowhere in American elections. With media ignoring them, the Greens have been all but invisible seemingly forever. There is no reason to think that this will soon change.

They along with other third parties may sometimes get a few people thinking, but they seldom affect the tenor of Democratic or Republican campaigns even in trivial ways. At the national level especially, they are good for protest voting, but not much else.

Intra-party caucuses and primaries are a different story. This is why, next spring, when the circus comes to my town, I expect that I will cast my vote for Bernie Sanders.

Bernie is a mainstream Democrat on foreign affairs. On domestic issues, though, he is nearly as good as Stein.   Also, I am delighted that he calls himself a “socialist.”

“Calls himself” is the operative phrase. If “socialism” means what people thought it did for roughly two hundred years — if it means that a society’s principal means of production are socially, not privately, owned — then Sanders is no socialist. He is only what pollsters call “very liberal.” He is, in spirit, a European-style social democrat with views adapted to American conditions.

He therefore does uphold socialist values, equality especially; and the policies he advocates reflect his commitments. But were he to get his way, capitalist property relations would remain essentially unchanged.

Still, I’m glad he uses the word. The time for “socialism” to to come back into public awareness was years ago. Bringing not just the word but also the concept back would be better still. However, in today’s world, just getting the word in circulation is a plus.

It gives hope that other changes will follow: for instance, that, before long, “red” will again mean what it meant before corporate media took up the word only to defame it. The idea that a “red state” is a state that votes Republican may accord with the CNN worldview, but it offends historical memory.

Because he has something to say that speaks to peoples’ interests and needs, Bernie has fervent supporters, quite a few of them.   Hillary’s supporters are, for the most part, merely resigned.

Nevertheless, my vote for Sanders will be a protest vote too. For all the obvious and often stated reasons, his chances of becoming the Democratic nominee are not much better than Stein’s chances of garnering the 270 electoral votes she would need to become President.

The difference is that his presence in the campaign, and in as many debates as the Democratic Party leadership will allow, will force Hillary to put on a “populist” face. It will force her to fake left.

This is already happening.

It isn’t likely, but she may keep it up even after the Democrats have picked her to be their nominee. It depends on what seems expedient at the time.

Remember, though, that mainstream politicians, Democrats and Republicans, are chronic liars; and that the Clintons lie more than most. They do what they have to do to get what they want.

When, in 2009, Congressman Joe Wilson, “the gentleman from South Carolina,” twice called out “you lie,” as Barack Obama addressed both houses of Congress on health care reform, he unwittingly articulated what future historians may come to see as the defining truth of the Obama presidency.

But compared to the Clintons – on this, as on nearly everything else, there is no light between them – Obama is as truthful as the fabled George Washington of cherry tree fame, and as honest as Honest Abe.

I say this in full awareness of the enormity of Obama’s whoppers. His lies about “free trade” – about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — are only the latest in a very long list.

But liar that he be, the Clintons are worse.

The wise will therefore pay no attention to what Hillary says; no attention at all.

The Sanders candidacy will force her to assume a less noxious persona than the one we have come to know over the years. But any connection between what she says when running for office, and what she will do once that office is hers, is, as they say, purely coincidental.

Martin O’Malley has also positioned himself to Hillary’s left. There is so much room there; where else could he go?

As Mayor of Baltimore and Governor of Maryland, O’Malley was a garden variety Democrat, distinguished mainly by his penchant for Michael Bloomberg-style policing.

Now that Baltimore exploded and Black Lives Matter has struck a chord, his credibility with liberal Democrats is bound to be a tougher sell than it would have been a few months ago.

Nevertheless, he is hard at work morphing into a milquetoast version of Bernie Sanders, a Sanders Lite. He will probably pull it off.

It is a good career move.   If lightening does strike, O’Malley could take Hillary’s place. What is more likely is that the two of them will end up on the same ticket, with O’Malley taking up the slot occupied, three dog generations ago, by Al Gore.

I don’t expect that I would vote for him even were he leading the ticket, not in preference to any of my dogs. There are standards to maintain, after all. But I do wish him well – because, on the off chance that God does take a notion, better him, better anybody, than Joe Biden, the next Democrat in line.

Biden is so off his rocker that a Biden presidency would probably be even worse than an unmitigated Clinton Restoration.

But were he somehow to become the nominee, he too would win in November. The chances that a Republican will win are nil.

If the GOP’s party elders succeed in securing the nomination for Jeb Bush, or anyone else they deem fit, their ever-dwindling base won’t turn out in sufficient numbers to elect him (it would surely be a “him”).

On the other hand, if the Republicans nominate someone who can get Tea Partiers’ juices flowing, it will scare the so-called moderates” and “undecideds” away.

Ergo, the Democrat will win.

Media moguls nevertheless have a stake in making the 2016 election seem like a horse race. It isn’t just that they want to deflect political energies away from serious politics.

As class warriors on the wrong side of history, they surely do want to do that. But, as capitalists, what they mainly want is money from political ads.

This is why, when push comes to shove, they will do their best to lock in Jeb’s front-runner status. He is, after all, the most plausible (least implausible) GOP contender, the one most likely to make the election “interesting.”

Expect them therefore to depict Jeb Bush as the least whacky of the front-line crew – the anti-Trump, as it were. No matter, that his politics and performance belie this representation.

Country Club Republicans will jump on board; they and the Bushes are torn from the same cloth. But what about the Republican base?

So far, the indications are that they won’t buy it. Since evidence means nothing to them, it hardly matters that Jeb’s “conservative” credentials are beyond reproach. Neither does it matter that, unlike Mitt Romney, he has no “liberal” gubernatorial record to live down.

What matters is that, like Romney, Jeb is a grandee, from a family of grandees.

The Republican base was recruited to serve those grandees, to assure the election of candidates that will make them even richer and more secure.

Nevertheless, Jeb’s patrician associations are enough to get self-respecting Tea Party Republicans’ hackles up; the cultural contradictions run that deep.

They are right to take exception, even if their reasons are unsound. Where Jeb is concerned, everybody’s hackles should be up.

Jeb’s brother was the worst President ever: he broke the Middle East with consequences that are still unfolding; he did more than his share to wreck the economy for all but a fraction of the one-percent; he trashed international law; and he put Americans’ basic rights and liberties – privacy rights, especially — in jeopardy.

Yes, guilt by association is wrong, and Jeb is not his brother’s keeper.   But there are limits.

And even those who are able to rise above those limits should worry that, by all accounts, Jeb’s instincts are even more reactionary than George II’s.

He is supposedly smarter than his brother, for whatever difference that makes. But this is most likely wishful thinking, suggested by the fact that, like everybody else in his family except brother George, he neither acts nor sounds like a bumpkin. If, beneath the surface, he really is smarter, there is no sign of it.

So there it is: Clinton v. Bush. Here we go again.

* * *

Observers could see this coming — months, even years, ago. Only now, though, is the extent of the impending catastrophe beginning to register. It is human nature, after all, to discount the future.

But with the primary season “only” six months away, there is no longer any denying how appalling the prospect is.

Some of the consequences are already apparent; they too were predictable, but they are no less unnerving on that account.

It is 2012 all over again. The Republican goon show is back on; the Democrats’ cheerleaders are already playing it up for all it’s worth.

Republican buffoons are easy prey, but making fun of them on cable TV is getting old.    MSNBC might at least vary the format. Maybe they subtly are. Perhaps this is why Rachel Maddow seems to have slowed the pace of her increasingly tedious commentaries.

If so, it isn’t helping. When she takes a half hour to make a point that she could have made in a minute or two, accompanied with all the visual aids her staff can muster, my impulse is to yell at her through the TV screen – “Rachel, get to the point!”  I can’t be the only one who feels this way.

The truly appalling thing, though, is the way that Democrats who prefer Sanders or O’Malley or anybody but Hillary are already circling their wagons around the Clintons.

When Republicans are awful, as they almost always are, they can’t help it; it is their nature. Democrats who rally around the Clintons have no excuse.

Hillary has opponents – two of them so far, or three if you count Lincoln Chafee, the former Republican.   But they don’t exactly oppose her.   Their function, even they concede, is to make her a better candidate.

This line is, by now, so pervasive that, for example, Amy Davidson, writing in The New Yorker, recently called on Joe Biden to run on the grounds that this too would somehow be good for Hillary. Biden? Seriously? Gimme a break!

In 2008, Hillary’s prospects were done in, in part, by what observers called an “enthusiasm gap.”   There is no more enthusiasm for her now than there was eight years ago. But this time, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Hence, the farcical aspect – the principals, obviously insincere, enthuse too much, making themselves ridiculous in the process.

Ridiculous too in their determination, inasmuch as it is no mean feat to concoct the farce they are acting out.

It isn’t easy because it isn’t easy to enthuse over Hillary. Even feminists of a certain age – again, that would be Hillary’s and Bill’s – need prodding.

Grudging resignation is sure to pull her through in any event. But the prospect of another enthusiasm gap is evidently still troubling to lesser evilists who would leave no stone unturned.

How else to explain Katha Pollitt’s special pleading in the June 22-29 edition of The Nation magazine?

Pollitt can only soft-peddle, not outright deny, the plain fact that, even in comparison to the dismal standards Obama has set, Hillary’s politics suck.

Nevertheless, she argues that everybody, women especially, should enthuse over Hillary. Why? Because she is a true feminist.

Seriously? On issues like family leave and pay equality that bear materially on women’s wellbeing, count on Sanders and even O’Malley to have more far-reaching proposals.

But it isn’t really about feminism, as Pollitt surely knows. It’s about identity. It is hardly necessary to read between the lines to see that Pollitt’s real reason for wanting people to enthuse over Hillary is Hillary’s lady parts.

Ever since Ralph Nader ran for President fifteen years ago, Pollitt has been throwing cold water on third party and independent efforts to attack the rot that the Democratic Party has become.

Fair enough: electoral politics outside the duopoly party system may well be a waste of effort and resources at this point in time. This is certainly a subject for debate.

In the past, though, the debate was between supporting Nader or Stein or whoever versus going along reluctantly with the Democratic candidate — or, in 2008, not so reluctantly because Obama had not yet, as speakers of Clintonese might say, “ended hope as we know it.”

But now she would cast reluctance aside – essentially for the reason feminists did in 1994, when Geraldine Ferraro ran for Vice President.

In that prelapsarian (pre-Clintonian) year, candidate Walter Mondale’s needed a Hail Mary pass to deny Ronald Reagan a second term. The one he settled on was named Geraldine.

Reagan would surely still have trounced Mondale even had Ferraro not done her own candidacy in. Nevertheless, the episode left a bitter taste.

Ever since that election, though, breaking through the “glass ceiling” that Hillary now talks so much about has been Topic A for a few feminist activists and writers.

One would have thought, after Sarah Palin, that the issue would fade. Palin too was brought in for a Hail Mary pass; and, like Ferraro, she too did her running mate’s cause no good.

Pollitt et. al. held the line on Palin; that was a no brainer. Hillary, on the other hand, somehow gets past the threshold.

Does it really matter, though, that she is a woman?

In all its years, the United States has had only one Catholic President, John Kennedy. But no one any longer thinks that being Catholic is a relevant consideration in Presidential elections.

Indeed, hardly anyone still thinks that being Jewish matters. For all the many reasons there were to vote against Joe Lieberman fifteen years ago when he was Al Gore’s running mate, his very public identification with Judaism never came up.

And can anyone plausibly claim that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism was the reason he lost to Obama in 2012?

Is there, then, a taboo still on women, but not on Catholics, Jews or Mormons?

Maybe. And Pollitt certainly does her readers a service in calling attention to the problem.

The American case really is anomalous — though, in fairness, it should be noted that glass ceilings of the type that she and others decry are hardly unique to the United States.

What is striking, though, is that, even in countries where virulently patriarchal attitudes are the norm, women have sometimes made it all the way to the top.

When this has happened, the women were usually wives or daughters of influential male politicians.

Hillary too fits that mold. With her election, the United States will be on course to becoming like, say, Pakistan.

Even so, other things being equal, it would be a good thing were that glass ceiling breached; it would be good in itself.

The consequences might be good too, though it is hard to see, in general, why this would be the case. The evidence, drawn from instances from all over he world, is not promising.

Surely, the mere fact that a woman is President would not improve the status of women generally.

The election of an African American President did hardly anything for the vast majority of African Americans in the United States; if anything, it made them more the objects of governmental neglect than they might otherwise have been. Of course, the cases differ, but the parallel is worth pondering.

Would electing a woman make American domestic or foreign policy less noxious? A decade or two ago, when “the ethics of care” was all the rage, there were people who thought so. It would be fair to say that they were fooling themselves.

Would it be good for little girls and young women to have a President for a role model? No doubt, it would be sometimes, though it plainly matters who the role model is.

In 2008, thoughtful people actually argued for Obama and against Clinton on the grounds that providing a role model for black boys was more urgent than providing one for girls.

By now, it would be hard to make that argument with a straight face.

It is, or ought to be, nearly as hard to keep on with identity-driven role model arguments altogether. To the extent that they have merit, other considerations almost always have more.

Pollitt is wrong. The case for or against Hillary Clinton is not, and should not be, about her gender or any other identity attribute.

The only plausible case there is is the very problematic one that Pollitt has pressed repeatedly over the years: that when god awful Democrats run against god awful Republicans, people should vote for the Democrat because, as surely as night follows day, the Republican is worse.

It’s just not about identity. With apologies to James Carville, a key advisor to Bill three dog generations ago and to Hillary in 2008: it’s her politics, stupid.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, 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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