One of the less edifying displays in this election—there are many—is the level of left-liberal and radical critique of Hillary Clinton. Whether you advocate a vote for Clinton, Stein, or nobody, the discussions of Clinton need more ideological heft than is often observed in left-of-center fora.
I’m referring to the concentration on corruption and misfeasance in and out of office attributed to the Clintons. That means the emails, the Goldman Sachs speeches, and the unsavory cast of donors to assorted Clinton-sponsored charitable endeavors. From a more substantial left standpoint, these critiques are thin gruel. They are liberal.
Goo-goo is short for “good government.” It refers to a style of liberal reformism associated variously with the original progressives in the early twentieth century, and sometimes with the “Watergate classes” of the late 1970s—the latter were Democrats elected to Congress on the strength of public revulsion over Nixon administration depredations. Good government did a lot of good, such as replacing politicized hiring with merit systems, and promoting transparency in government operations.
So that’s been done, and it was well and good. But at this point, granting that corruption is a bad thing in public officials, is it the main thing? I would say no.
As a matter of tactical politics, the shortcoming of this critique for the left (broadly defined) is that it does not preclude support for politicians of the right. Anyone can claim to be honest, and if they haven’t been caught yet, they are entitled to the benefit of a doubt. In the political science literature, there is the idea of ‘cycling’ between parties. When neither party satisfies the electorate, voters with no ideological anchor are driven back and forth, electing one, then the other, in an endless loop.
Present circumstances present a novel variation on this theme. On one side we have a candidate who is obliged to constantly deny allegations of wrong-doing. Whether they are true or not becomes secondary. The mainstream media has validated them. On the other side, you have someone who frankly admits to a lifetime of crookedness—the refreshingly honest candidate!
Another tactical issue stemming from a focus on the Clintons is that it tends to gloss over Trump’s career of crony capitalism. Anything the Clintons have done, or might have done, he has done better.
Taking it one step further, dwelling on the crony angle in general obscures the deeper connection between crony capitalism and the system at its most basic level. Capitalists’ objective is not to make useful things, or any things, actually. It is, of course, to make money. (M-C-M and all that, for adepts of Capital.) The same issue arises in populist suggestions of a distinction between manufacturers and the financial sector. Democrats have betrayed a weakness for this trope.
Playing me-too on the corruption stories takes up oxygen better devoted to bigger issues like class, race, gender, the forever wars, and the climate.
The left has something more valuable to inject into the presidential debate: a political-economic critique and the promise of social democracy. Playing me-too on the corruption stories takes up oxygen better devoted to bigger issues like class, race, gender, the forever wars, and the climate.
On the critique side, for example, it would be nice to educate the public on the political aspects of unemployment. In other words, what prevents the government from the borrowing-and-spending required to expand employment? (Bernie Sanders, a diehard budget-balancer, was weak on this.) How does the weakened labor market diminish the future of newer cohorts of young workers? Relatedly, how has U.S. federalism has interacted with institutional racism to give rise to housing patterns that saddle minorities with persistent economic disadvantages? And how do the burdens of caregiving and occupational segregation by gender subjugate the female half of the population?
This is the good stuff. Granted, it takes more explaining than allegations of corruption, but until foundational political-economic principles are widely absorbed, U.S. politics is never going to change in any meaningful way. And that means we will be circling the drain into the parallel hells of gross inequality, ubiquitous denial of basic political and social rights, and catastrophic climate change.
The Sanders campaign started to get at basic needs and wisely avoided Hillary’s damn emails. Legions of Bernie supporters, radical or otherwise, would be well-advised to stay on those themes, and many are doing so.
A contrast worth drawing is between programmatic ideals and process issues. Examples of the latter included campaign finance, the electoral college, and the damned U.S. Senate. A problem with pursuing political reforms is that one is obliged to petition those whose position derives from those same flaws in the system. My hope is that we break this logjam by pursuing the programmatic side. Program drives the movement, and the movement changes the rules to its benefit. Rinse and repeat.
It is argued that with the Clintons, we get the worst of both worlds: corruption as well as a failure to pursue progressive goals. The latter is the more deserving focus for the campaign, and even more so, afterwards, whether you want her to win or not. We need democratic socialism more than we need saintly politicians.
This argument follows all the more under current circumstances. The Republicans have become a party of grifters. They steal from everybody—veterans, viewers of their media (buy gold coins!), political donors, their campaign workers, their own relatives. Why wouldn’t they steal from you? There is no hope of honest government, policies aside, under Republican rule. As we speak, GOP leaders are working to cement in place permanent obstacles to voting for wide swaths of the working class, which is not good for anyone left of center, Democrat or otherwise.
There will be no shortage of Democratic party operatives providing defense of all the accusations bombarding the Clintons. A left mobilization ought to have more durable foundations that outlive the careers of mere politicians. This means support for basic institutions, such as high-employment policy, social insurance, labor rights, and reproductive choice that attain a status superior to liberal nostrums about honest government, balanced budgets, and free trade.