This is one of the most contentious election cycles in recent history. On the right, you have a Republican Party thrown into chaos because the most popular candidate is not just a racist, right-wing demagogue, but a racist, right-wing demagogue who is not yet under the control of the party leadership; and, on the left, you have a Democratic Party whose hand-picked candidate is facing opposition from a challenger who represents the interests of the party as it used to be, not the party as it is now. It can certainly be argued that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders represent the will of the people for a party outsider who is not beholden to the establishment, though to say they are essentially identical — as have some media outlets, taking as proof a sample size of crossover voters so tiny as to be statistically nonexistent — is nonsense; what isn’t nonsense, though, is the palpable frustration of millions of Americans that neither the G.O.P. or the liberal left represent them any longer.
These developments have thrown Hillary Clinton’s campaign into a bit of a tizzy, to put it mildly. Though her victory over Sanders is probably inevitable, sparing us the sad spectacle of watching her crumble into a despairing sack of frustrated entitlement à la Jeb Bush, she’s at least been forced to answer charges that her candidacy — and the direction of the Democratic Party in general — has drifted far afield from its traditional base of labor, working people, and progressives. Already frustrated by the ascendance of Barack Obama in 2008, Clinton must now be pretty annoyed that she now has to prove her left-wing bona fides to the country at a time when she by all rights should be having the presidency handed to her as her due.
In doing so, Clinton has, of late, made some curious statements, one of which was so odd that it bears examination. While Sanders is certainly not going to establish a Politburo in Washington if he wins the Democratic nomination — he’s not even running as a socialist, despite what you might think from hearing people discuss him — he at least represents a resurgence of leftist economics that has been absent from mainstream American politics for over 20 years, since Clinton’s husband was elected and fully embraced the technocratic neoliberal centrism that has animated the Democrats ever since. And although he’s pretty weak sauce compared to, say, a Eugene Debs or a Rosa Luxemburg, he at least has some grounding in the Marxist analysis that has provoked nothing but exasperated eye-rolls from liberals ever since the demise of the New Left.
But with the economic collapse of 2008, the foisting of austerity measures on the citizenry by both foreign governments and American state legislatures, and the growing sense of desperation that has accompanied a vast transfer of wealth from ordinary people to the ultra-rich, Clinton — herself a member of the economic elite and a close ally of their Wall Street cronies — has been forced to make public utterances that establish why she should be the candidate of the party of the people. In doing so, she has committed herself not to the materialist dialectic and the traditional economic values of social democracy, but to the post-Marxist identity politics of neoliberalism and the idea that America’s problems transcend something as base as the fact that the vast majority of its citizens have trouble making ends meet.
A few weeks ago, Clinton spoke at a rally in Las Vegas, and made an attempt to paint Sanders as a one-note candidate who, blinded by his economics-über-alles ideology, was ignoring even deeper issues — issues which, presumably, she herself would be more capable of addressing. “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow,” she asked attendees in the crowd, “would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community?”
This is a remarkable thing to say. It is not often that one’s opponent makes such a sharp and clear argument against themselves as Clinton did here for Sanders, but she did, and in a way that is so telling it is almost unfathomable that the line was picked up and disseminated by her own followers as if it were something worth repeating. At the heart of what Clinton was trying to push was the idea of intersectionality, the idea — very heavily discussed in areas of racial and gender politics — that, contrary to old ideas of class analysis, there is more than one kind of discrimination, and that various social oppressions like racism, sexism, and homophobia, among others, operate either independently of or simultaneous with classism.
It is not that intersectionality (or kyriarchy) does not exist; certainly it does, and discussing its existence and the way that it can be recognized and combated is one of the most important social developments of the last few decades. While I believe that economic issues are still of paramount importance, I think it is foolish to assume that these other systems of control do not exist independently of them. And while I believe that furthering the cause of social democracy will do more to help everyone than fighting sexism, racism, homophobia, etc., alone, I believe all these fights are important, and would never deny that these forms of dominance exist outside of the class system to a certain extent. No one should think that social justice and economic justice in any way constitute an either/or dichotomy.
But what is remarkable about Clinton’s statement is that, in making what she meant to be an argument that Sanders is a one-issue candidate, she actually made a statement that makes her sound like a no-issue candidate. If the implication is that Sanders would break up the big banks and she wouldn’t, what does her statement question actually ask? If Sanders gets his way and we break up the big banks — whose dazzling greed and unparalleled fraud led to enormous suffering less than a decade ago, and who have not yet in any way been punished for doing so — then at least we will have broken up the big banks, which as far as I can see is a pretty estimable goal in and of itself. Will doing so end sexism, racism, and homophobia? Certainly not, but it’s not supposed to. Clinton, on the other hand, has no intention of breaking up the banks; but so far as I can tell, not only would she, like any other human being we might elect to the office of President of the United States, lack the ability to do something as grand as eliminate racism, sexism, and homophobia, but in fact, she has no plans on how to do so, unless I missed the subsequent release of a position paper. (I suppose she might be arguing that the mere election of a woman to the presidency might end sexism, but she might want to ask her predecessor how much being the first black president did to eliminate racism.)
It’s such a strange tactic — and one that she’s continued in the following weeks — that I wonder if anyone touting it can do math. If there are four policy goals in play in this scenario (reign in the ‘too-big-to-fail’ financial behemoths, end racism, eliminate sexism, and make everyone love homosexuals), Bernie Sanders at least has a plan to do one of those things; is Clinton keeping her policy platform on how to permanently end racial prejudice in the same locked safe as Nixon’s secret pan to end the Vietnam War? Otherwise, it seems like he wins even by her own rules, albeit by the unsatisfying score of 1-for-4 vs. 0-for-4. Leaving that aside, though, Clinton’s followers, when attacking Sanders, are always emphasizing practicality, and stressing that his grand economic reforms are not feasible and could never be enacted into law by a hostile congress. Well, fine. If we want to talk about what’s practical in American politics, is Clinton actually suggesting she has a way to end racism? Go ahead, then; we’re all ears.
One of the best ways to kick the political football down the road, thus preventing you from ever having to deal with an issue, is to imply that since we can’t solve every problem, we’d best not even try to solve any problem. Intersectionality is meant to be a way of understanding the complexity of socioeconomic oppression, of recognizing that controlling people and keeping them from acting on their own behalf is not always a simple matter of elites vs. majorities. It is not supposed to be a prescription for inaction. Eliminating sexism, racism, and homophobia are laudable goals, although they are likely beyond the means of any one person or even administration to accomplish; subjecting poisonous cabals of the super-rich to some reasonable degree of regulation is something a determined President could actually make happen. For Clinton to argue that Sanders shouldn’t be allowed to do the latter because it wouldn’t result in the former isn’t a victory for intersectionality; it’s a failure of political courage.