The Center Cannot Hold
Polls are frivolous, untrustworthy, and based on inherently flawed methods. They have only heightened the horse-race nature of elections, further sportified our political process, and cause enormous amounts of anxiety in a race that is already painfully stressful. That said, if almost every recent poll is any indication and we don’t find ourselves on the eve of a Brexit-level misreading of the numbers, Donald Trump’s prospects for the presidency, predicated from the very beginning on the idea that the irreducible minimum of voters who will believe literally anything is significantly higher than previously believed, are as cooked as his as-yet-unreleased tax returns.
Trump was already flailing thanks to his complete lack of ideas, inability to formulate a plan more sophisticated than yelling, and dismal debate performances, which showed him to be exactly what he is: everyone’s worst boss. Even the white working-class men who have been hoodwinked by false consciousness into throwing him what little support he had are beginning to recognize in him the guy who has a disproportionately large amount of influence over your life and who can never admit that he was wrong. And that was before video evidence surfaced of him bragging about sexually harassing women. Trump was never going to win this election, and now the electorate, not to mention at least half of the Republican Party, is likely wishing they could retroactively rescind his nomination.
You’d think this would be good news for fans of his opponent, Hillary Clinton. But it’s not. Faced with the possibility of championing a largely uninspiring and deeply compromised candidate, they’ve been able to coast on the strength of having a worst-case scenario like Trump as the only possible alternative; but now that it’s clear that Trump is out of serious contention, they are now having to contemplate what it will be like when Clinton actually has to govern. And it doesn’t look good.
Certainly there are those who insist that they are happy warriors for Clinton; that they think of her not as just the lesser of two evils, but as a candidate for whom they are genuinely excited, and whose presidency they are eager to see in action. They’re with her, they insist with the-lady-doth-protest-too-much zeal, with joy and enthusiasm, and claim that her platform is the most progressive in Democratic history. It’s hard to question their sincerity; goodness knows how much historical ignorance can be suffocated by blind enthusiasm in the current climate. But it’s pretty easy to disprove the idea that Clinton will govern from the left, without even pointing out the many presidential platforms that were more progressive, because not even Clinton or her campaign really believes it.
E-mails from her closest advisors, including mercenary lobbyist/defender of dictators John Podesta and jazz expert/job eliminator Neera Tanden, make it crystal-clear that they see their roles essentially as marketers of the Clinton brand, not as individuals with any interest in seeing any particular political program enacted. Podesta, as befitting his role as one of the most two-faced hypocrites in a town full of Januses, uses political positions like a club to beat his opponents with, but his opponents are just whoever isn’t signing his checks at the moment. Tanden makes no bones about the fact that the progressive elements of the Clinton platform were meant only as a sop to Bernie Sanders supporters, to get them to shut up and go along with the program; they will never be enacted because they were never meant to be. Tanden — the head of an entity called The Center for American Progress! — openly expresses her contempt for progressive ideology and identifies herself as a loyal foot-soldier for Clinton, who would never dream of letting her alleged political beliefs get in the way of a victory for her boss.
And what about the candidate herself? In other leaked e-mails, she expresses frustration at the idea that there are so many of her fellow Americans who seem to want a Scandinavian-style socialist democracy; she claims they don’t understand what that means, but it seems, rather, that Clinton is the one who doesn’t understand it. She says without reservation or qualification that she intends to govern from the center, and her aides speak of her as someone who, like her husband, is obsessed with polls, with triangulation, with reaching out to her political opposition — as someone so firmly rooted in the centrist technocratic position that it’s hard to pin her down to any actual core beliefs. This is why it’s so easy to portray her as a flopper, or to isolate her actual beliefs: she may not actually have any, or, if she does, they are hopelessly adrift in the murky seas between, as she put it when speaking to a cabal of finance-industry millionaires, “a public position and a private position”.
The responses to these revelations of a woman who seems interested only in attaining power and not in putting it to any particular use have been highly instructive. At first, the leaks were dismissed as the work of Russian ne’er-do-wells; so firmly has this bizarre New Cold War narrative implanted itself in the lexicon of the 2016 election that Russia has been discussed at far more length in the debates than the economy, the environment, or the security state. Then, when enough people questioned the idea that the source of a information was more meaningful than its content, the narrative shifted: there was no ‘there’ there. It’s a non-issue: Clinton’s campaign is just trying to do what campaigns do, which is win elections, and governing from the center only means her presidency will represent all Americans, free of poisonous partisanship. Ideology, in the language of neoliberalism, is a dirty word, and it is good that Clinton is free of it. The goal of politics, to quote a well-known jurist, isn’t to believe things; the goal is to win. What good is believing in anything if you never have the power to act on your beliefs?
This is all well and good if you believe in the gamification of politics, if you perceive the world in a sort of pocket-Machiavellian scheme were money talks and bullshit walks. But politics means something. It’s the process of making decisions that will effect real peoples’ lives, and what’s the point of winning if your beliefs are limited to the best way to win? Very soon, winning will be a moot point, and Clinton will actually have to run the country she wants to run so badly. And her supporters will have to ask themselves important questions: What now? What does she really believe about the Trans-Pacific Partnership? How does she reconcile her alleged commitment to climate change with her support of fracking? How much will she truly fight for a higher minimum wage? Is her support of increased policing just talk, or will she revert to her previous views on a clearly broken system? What does she really think about the surveillance state? Will she continue her support of Israel and her disdain for the future of the Palestinian people? Will she be the President Hillary Clinton who talks a good game about peace and prosperity, or the Secretary Hillary Clinton who continued America’s violent and confused foreign policy in the Middle East and the Global South?
These are not academic questions. They are real-world issues with real lives in the balance. People will die, in great numbers, if she gives the wrong answers. The stakes literally could not be higher. This is why it is not bad for a leader to have a firm and committed ideology; it is essential. Governing from the center means not governing, because the center cannot hold. It never has. When John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency, he said that what surprised him the most was that things really were as bad as his campaign propaganda had been saying they were. Clinton’s campaign, to the contrary, has assured us that everything is good and getting better; that America needs merely to return itself to the greatness it has always boasted in the past. Perhaps when she gets in office, she will learn otherwise. But she’d better start thinking about it soon, because the campaign is almost over, and the presidency will soon begin. She doesn’t have much time to convince herself, if no one else, what she really believes and what she plans to do about it. In four years, we won’t have Donald Trump to kick around anymore, and everyone who’s been shouting that Clinton is the only reasonable choice will have to answer for what she’s done in that time. We can’t take many more years of good campaigning; we don’t need another president who we can believe in. We need a president who believes in something other than being president.