Hell to the Chief
With Hillary Clinton’s victory in California, and her definitive if a tad presumptive anointment by the press as the Official Democratic Candidate for the 2016 elections, we can move from Stupid Season into Silly Season, and from there to Oh God Why Can’t This Just Be Over season. Few people — even among his supporters — really thought that Bernie Sanders would have a chance at the nomination, but his candidacy managed to accomplish a lot of things: it highlighted Clinton’s own inadequacy both as a campaigner and as an actual leader; it illustrated how bone-feared a lot of self-identified liberals are with actual (or even perceived) anti-capitalism; and it reminded people of how deeply compromised our one-person, one-vote system really is.
One thing it did not do, and almost certainly will not do, is move the Democratic Party to the left. Already the Democratic faithful — whether defined as the wearily ignorant professional political class inside the Beltway or their true believers in middle America — and their pundit torchbearers in the press have taken the lesson of the astonishing challenge mounted by Bernie Sanders, and it’s the wrong one. Rather than fear for their political future by the popular uprising of a democratic socialist left (and one comprised mostly of young millennials, who will only continue to grow in numbers and power), they have decided that it was just a fluke, this season’s Pet Rock or Soccer Mom, and that there’s no reason to change or even correct course. Rather than note the surprising number of young women, voters of color, Arab-Americans, and a newly uncertain underclass not happy with Democratic centrism, they’ve taken the poll numbers they previously viewed as sacred and chucked them out the window, deciding instead that the Sanders movement was little more than a rowdy Twitter mob of Angry White Males who will soon be dealt with by the ruthless hand of actuarial reality.
This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened, of course. It’s happened in pretty much every election for the last 25 years, going all the way back to the first time a Clinton won the primaries; the only difference in 2016 has been the degree of resentment and anger at traditional party politics, combined with the degree with which the establishment is determined to ignore it. Barack Obama practically specialized in ignoring the insurgent left; as Thomas Frank lays out so skillfully in the introduction of his new polemic Listen, Liberal!, this was the case in 2008 and 2012 as well. Faced with a nearly unprecedented economic crisis, a supremely frustrated electorate, a damaged Republican party, and a nation so desperate for change that they were willing to elect a black man President, he chose not to move the Democratic Party further to the left, but rather closer to the center — a center already so strained by neoliberal ‘compromise’ that it was already pretty far to the right. At a certain point, and we’re most certainly at that point now, you have to stop thinking the Democrats govern this way because the system allows them no choice, and start thinking that what they’re doing is governing according to what they actually believe.
Hillary Clinton’s case is just as instructive, if not more so. Painted by her partisans as a sincere if flawed liberal who will do her best against what is likely to be tremendous resistance, she has acted thus far more like what her detractors claim she is: a neoliberal centrist, even a conservative, with very little regard for her party’s traditional constituency. She is not alone in taking the Democrats’ working-class and minority support for granted, but she has been particularly egregious in showing it. In the face of Sanders’ unguarded challenge, she made a show of allowing him representation on the party platform, but, by all accounts, firmly resisted his attempt to place spokespeople for private-sector unions, allowing instead only one labor representative and that one from the AFSCME. There are four times as many lobbyists on her platform as union reps. Likewise, when it became clear that the Sanders threat was mostly defused, she did not reach out to the left and attempt to secure the votes of this large and clearly dissatisfied bloc; instead, she chose to focus on gaining the votes of conservatives, moderate centrists, the allegedly undecided, and Republicans who found Donald Trump a bit too naked a representation of their own principles.
The press and the thinkpiece industry followed heel in just as predictable a manner. It was not the job of the party to reach out to the left-leaning Ds who felt betrayed by its movement to the right; it was instead the job of the left to shut up and get in line behind the party. It was not the job of Bernie Sanders to remain a symbol of conscience and a reminder of what liberalism has forsaken; it was his job to get his people on board with Clinton to defeat Donald Trump. It was not the job of voters to complain about feeling disenfranchised or disaffected; it was their job to fight for progressive candidates downticket, as if they hadn’t been doing that all along. One was forced to wonder, what exactly is the job of Clinton and the party elite, then? Sanders even caught heat for suggesting that Debbie Wasserman Schultz be removed as the DNC chair; this showed, we were told, that Sanders was stubborn and divisive and didn’t know when to quit, instead of that Debbie Wasserman Schultz is an embarrassment who shouldn’t be in any position of power in an allegedly liberal party.
The presidency is a funny thing. Throughout the election, establishment commenters strived to remind us that the President really can’t do anything at all, and that therefore Sanders’ big dreams of changing the system were just that — big dreams he could never accomplish with little popular support and a hostile Congress. When Clinton became the presumptive nominee, however, the presidency was suddenly infused with vast power and meaning, and became something that could never be allowed to fall into the hands of the monstrous Donald Trump. The Supreme Court once again became the example par excellence of why the Democrats must always control the White House, although it was not made clear whether the people making these arguments believed that Sanders would pick less liberal jurists for the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Clinton’s extremely dismal record on foreign policy, the one area in which the President can truly wield a great deal of power, was minimized or ignored; Sanders was portrayed as a naïf in the field of international affairs, but why this claim, even if it were true, made him preferable to the experienced but awful Clinton was likewise unclear.
At any rate, the deed is done. Clinton is the nominee, and congratulations are in order. Certainly we should all wish her the best of luck in defeating Donald Trump, who is really a worst-case scenario until the Republicans field someone even more awful a few years down the road. We are repeatedly told that we should at the very least respect the fact that America has finally placed a woman at the head of one of its two allowable parties; this, however, might still prove to be less historically delightful than promised. It might do to ask the people of the United Kingdom how well that worked out for them. (It is highly amusing to see a lot of young liberals, none of whom would have voted for her, discover the existence of Shirley Chisholm.) But Clinton is the nominee, and what has not changed is the fact that she faces the most divided, disarrayed, and dysfunctional opposition in 50 years. If she is really the liberal Democrat her boosters tell us she is, there’s no better time to show it than right now; she could seize the moment, reach out to the energized Sanders left, and push a highly progressive platform, if that’s what she really wants to do. This is the moment for Clinton to show her true colors. But I’ve got a feeling that her kind of red isn’t the red of the labor left.