There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say.
-W.E.B. DuBois, 1956
1. Hillary Clinton, public discourse and media control
At this point I hear three potentially compelling arguments to support Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy. The first is that Donald Trump must not be elected. The second is that Hillary Clinton is a woman, and her election would be a symbolic victory against a patriarchal social and political system. And the third is that she knows the ins and outs of American partisan politics in such a way that she will be able to barter with a Republican legislature to make incremental progress, whereas an “idealist” like Bernie Sanders could never make any progress in our presently gridlocked, corrupt system.
Of these three arguments for Clinton, I think all three have their flaws but the second argument–we need a female president–is at least somewhat convincing. Surely, it will be important for young people in this country to see a woman at the helm, to further dismantle imagined stereotypes about women being professionally subordinate to or less capable than men. Clinton’s election will be invaluable in how it will help us continue to rework our collective, often inexplicit associations between gender and power–how for example we might soon be less fixated on how women look, sound and act in positions of power (“I can’t stand Hillary because her voice is just so grating!” “Her demeanor is just really off-putting, I don’t know!”) once female leadership becomes more normative.
That said, it is worth mentioning that Hillary Clinton is not the first but the 36th female candidate to be nominated for president. True, she’s the first to be nominated by a “major” political party, but emphasizing her “first”-ness helps us continue to erase from the record courageous and far more progressive women like, for example, Shirley Chisholm, a black politician from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, who served in Congress for seven consecutive terms and ran for president in 1972.
I think the other two popular pro-Clinton arguments leave much room for debate. I am not at all convinced that Trump would be far worse than Clinton in the long run, especially on the global scale, for people who do not live in the United States or in states and nations toward which the American empire is not friendly. More on this in Part 2. And furthermore, I’m also not even remotely convinced that Clinton is able to make more progress domestically in a deeply partisan and right-veering political arena than a more left-leaning (but not really that “left” at all) Sanders. But of course this has become a moot point; Sanders is finished, though mainstream media are still interested in playing up the drama of his stubborn refusal to exit the race.
Incidentally though, it’s also problematic that we never seem to define “progress” when it comes up in this hackneyed conversation about which Democrat will make more of it. I think that the people who like to argue about who can and cannot make progress often have very different–and maybe quite disorganized–views on what kinds of progress our society should pursue.
We need to be having more discussions about what kind of “progress” Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton actually has made, and what kind of progress she apparently wants to make. On this matter–not just with Clinton, but with all the candidates–mainstream news media have fallen pathetically, disgracefully short. Indeed, what is perhaps most infuriating about this election cycle, for me, is how dominant news stories about the candidates are almost always about some trivial thing one of the candidates said, or what polls a candidate won, or what strategy the candidates are planning on employing as they seek out votes in whichever state is next up on the endless itinerary of presidential primaries. We get headlines like “Cruz courts Independent Voters in Idaho” and “Clinton Makes Appeal to Blue Collar Whites” and “Sanders Plays Down Defeat in Key Battle State, Speaks of Political Revolution,” and so on. If we want to know where the candidates actually stand on issues–i.e., what their actions were, what their opinions are, what philosophies they adhere to and what ideologies they privilege–the media have made us dig as they report the drama rather than the facts. Even the presidential debates seem designed to give viewers a superficial understanding of what the different candidates represent; such platforms are ill-equipped to hold the candidates accountable for all their rhetorical evasion, and really only present us with a picture of their temperaments, their speaking style, and their coded messaging with its grave absence of substance.
On June 6, a night on which there were no presidential primaries, the Associated Press announced that Clinton had secured the number of superdelegate votes that she would need to win the Democratic nomination. Superdelegates do not cast their votes for candidates until the convention in late July, but the AP did not find this problematic. Nor did they or the myriad news sources parroting the announcement find it problematic that a few pivotal primaries were being held the following day, and that their announcement would likely discourage thousands or even millions from showing up to vote. One could argue that, in this way, the media won the June 7 California primary for Hillary Clinton–a primary victory which enabled her to make the case that she had earned the Democratic nomination by a wide margin, and that her agenda was more viable than Sanders’. Similarly, by inserting Donald Trump’s name into their headlines practically every day for the past year, publications like the New York Times sensationalized Trump’s candidacy into legitimacy; furthermore, by refusing to give significant airtime to any other presidential candidates than those trying to represent the Democratic and Republican parties (aside from the multibillionaire Michael Bloomberg, who never actually ran), publications like the Times perpetuate a system in which there seems to be no alternative to Democratic or Republican candidates.
This is why, had Bernie Sanders run as an independent, voters on the left might have been a little more willing to identify with his “socialist” platform, however from the very beginning he would not have had a prayer against Clinton. The media never would have given him the time of day. This is also part of why a candidate like Jill Stein of the Green party cannot be seen as legitimate–indeed, cannot be seen at all–by the public. Those who claim they will vote for Stein are told by their more “responsible” friends that supporting a third party would inevitably help Donald Trump get elected since it detracts from the Democratic vote. The logic is that an “idealistic” vote for Stein would make sense in a year when the election wasn’t so close, and so important. Of course, that’s what potential third-party voters were told in 2012 when they wanted to vote for Stein, and in 2004 when they wanted to vote for Ralph Nader. Who can forget that this was the precise logic through which third-party voters were blamed, in 2000, for George W. Bush’s coup. And supporters of Jesse Jackson in 1988 were, comparably, told repeatedly that their candidate could never be elected, an argument that was signified by the lack of press he got in mainstream media.
Those who reject the two-party system and its status quo candidates–who dare to dig into the candidates’ actual beliefs, actions, and historical patterns–are passionately told by their friends and their media that it is morally imperative that they vote for the lesser of two evils in November. As a result, these perennial arguments discourage us from standing up for what we really want. When we consent to sweeping compromises in our politics, we shut off what our critical thought tells us about our leaders and our country’s actions. “Liberal-Progressive” America wants me to grit my teeth, avert my eyes and mark the box for Hillary Clinton for fear of fascism. “Moderate Liberal” America has asked me to support Clinton because she reliably pushes incremental change, and because she is a fierce and qualified leader, not to mention she’s a better alternative to Trump. But what if neither of these options reflects the changes I actually want to see in the way my country is governed? What if the leadership of Democrats is scary to me, too?
2. Hillary Clinton and the rest of the world
Since Clinton “won” the Democratic nomination in early June, my Facebook feed has suddenly filled with zealous commentary about how we must form ranks around Hillary Clinton in order to defeat Trump in the fall. Many of these people were sending out revelrous Bernie Sanders memes two months ago; six months ago, many of those people were high on Hillary, because they had been told by the media that Bernie didn’t have a chance and that his candidacy would only vex the Democratic party in its campaign against presumptive Republican nominee Jeb Bush. Now that it’s no longer cool to Feel the Bern, it seems the choice is to either get behind Clinton unabashedly, or get behind her as long as she adopts some of Sanders’ platform, or at least gives some kind of lip service to Sanders’ ideas. Furthermore, for progressives who liked Sanders, the narrative has become about how Clinton’s campaign, and perhaps her presidency, will be that much better because Sanders was around for the past year, pushing her to the left. Now, as we thank Bernie for playing, we send Hillary on to the final round. As consolation to the left, we tell ourselves how her “socialist” competitor made her platform more progressive.
And yet, can Bernie Sanders, one of the most progressive senators in the party that has presided over American imperialism, mass incarceration and the protection of elite corporate interests over 16 of the past 24 years, really push the new face of that party in any new direction? I am not so sure.
No matter how I look at it, Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy record is downright chilling. As Secretary of State, Clinton presided over American-led regime change operations in Syria, Libya and Ukraine. We know that the killing of Muammar al-Gaddafi, part of a NATO bombing effort in Benghazi in 2011, precipitated chaos and civil war in Libya. We know that that chaos helped empower groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State, and particularly in Syria, the latter has capitalized on NATO’s anti-Assad endeavors to create more havoc, more death, and more regional volatility. Who knows how or when the civil war in Syria will end, or how millions of displaced families will find peace.
We know that Clinton supports American drone bombing in Yemen and has helped supply Saudi Arabia with arms to amplify its own bombing campaigns on that country. American drone bombings in Iraq–over which Clinton has presided as well–are, like in Yemen, responsible for the murders of thousands of civilians, which the Obama administration justifies with vague allusions to terrorist organizations whose anti-American sentiments we can apparently just annihilate with explosives. Clinton has gone against the UN Security Council in her support for Israel’s oppressive occupation of Palestine. She helped install authoritarian rule in Ukraine undemocratically, catering to NATO while alienating its citizens in its provocations with Russia. In these examples the United States is not so much the world’s policeman as it is its wizard behind the curtain. Under the leadership of the Democratic (and Republican) party over the past several decades, the United States has consistently decided which people to elevate to power and which political groups, religious sects or cultures to decimate. In this way, inadvertently, the U.S. has also caused the rise of various extremist groups, sowing hatred within these rising groups for unchecked American military control and subsequent ideological domination.
Our reach extends beyond Western Asia and North Africa. In Latin America, Clinton has helped protect the rise of a far-right authoritarian regime in Honduras after democratically elected Manuel Zelaya was exiled through a swift military coup in 2009. She has opposed increases to the minimum wage in Haiti and Colombia, and advocated for deregulation and more maquiladoras in the former, claiming that such measures would improve the economies of these countries on the whole, as its underclasses are increasingly subjected to exploitation. Though she has called NAFTA a “mistake,” she has still been generally supportive of free trade agreements in Asia and Latin America that erode labor unions, drive down wages, exacerbate inequality in countries like Colombia, South Korea, Taiwan and Panama, and above all, increase profit and power for the American corporations that outsource production there.
Maybe it’s inexact and ambiguous to just call Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy “warmongering” and “neoliberal,” but we still need to understand the patterns of American actions abroad that the Obama administration and its Secretaries of State have overseen. We can avoid using these labels while still drawing a few conclusions. (1) Clinton supports American ideological hegemony and military domination all around the world, in places over which we would otherwise have little control. Ultimately recent history has shown how, indeed, our armed solicitousness often backfires and creates more unrest, giving way to situations like global refugee crises and the replacement of old national-ideological enemies with new, more dangerous ones. And (2) Clinton backs a free-market economic method in industrializing or post-industrial countries that ultimately worsens labor exploitation and social stratification in those places while benefiting American elites and their corporations.
In the U.S., mainstream media gloss over all of this. The vast majority of Americans are merely presented with bleak images of war and terror to evoke sympathy or general outrage–fodder ripe for politicians’ moralizing and a national consciousness marked by rampant, uncritical patriotism. We enable our politicians to report their crusades for things like “democracy” and “freedom,” meanwhile our American exceptionalistic complacence with all foreign affairs insulates most of us from any of the direct effects of these policies. Essentially, if I am like many, many people living beyond U.S. borders, I should be terrified of a Clinton presidency, much but not exactly like I would be terrified of a Trump presidency. Overall my point is that Clinton is not the lesser of two evils but an international evil that is substantial enough on its own. A political movement against that evil is a step toward brushing back American empire, whereas a vote for a “lesser” evil easily gets lost in the noise of our endless and vapid American two-party drama.
3. Clinton domestically
How does one get behind Hillary Clinton’s candidacy from an economic standpoint? The main argument is that she is simply worlds better on government regulation than any Republican candidate–that in fact her stance is akin to the philosophical opposite of Republicans like Trump who serve up trickle-down economics and laissez faire capitalism, smothered in the sticky sauce of rugged individualism. Some would also argue that she is in fact more coherent on financial regulation than Bernie Sanders, who preaches about revolution but doesn’t have an idea of how exactly he’d rework the laws we already have to create a drastically different system of wealth distribution. Sanders appeals to many because, in his speeches, he is less interested in articulating how he’d work with current laws and structures to make progress on narrowing the wealth gap, and more interested in condemning the whole format, the banks, the corruption, the tax structure, etc., implying we might tear it all down. The problem, of course, is that in a country in which money talks, a total system dismantlement can only happen if there is powerful corporate and political backing for it. And why would elite donors and corporate interests with all the sway ever grant their political party the power to destroy their very project?
Citing reality, then, we throw our support behind Clinton, and we take consolation in the fact that she supports regulatory mechanisms like that of Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act. We know she would not try to reinstate Glass-Steagall–the regulatory act that was part of FDR’s socialistic agenda in the 1930s, that Bill Clinton repealed in 1999–but we reassure ourselves that Glass-Steagall couldn’t have prevented the 2008 economic crisis anyway, since it was investment firms whose greed and irresponsibility created the housing bubble.
Clinton presents herself as the candidate who is critical enough to articulate a progressive domestic agenda, but nuanced enough in her judgment to make small fixes that would create a more just society while basically preserving our current system. On environmental policy, for example, she talks about being generally opposed to fracking, but also claims she is not averse to it when there is local support and when there are limitations placed on how much can be done. In this way she’s able to appear progressive on environmental policy, but also a champion of American enterprise, a candidate who can appeal to the traditional Republican call for “jobs” and attract the moderate vote. This flexibility is conducive to incremental progress, we tell ourselves. She’s better than Trump. She’s more proactive than Sanders. In this broken system of ours, she will do.
The problem is that such leaders aren’t actually changing the way our government works, and the way in which power is distributed. Again, this is more about the Democratic party than about Hillary Clinton herself. Our liberal politicians preach change, meanwhile they have vested interests in the very individuals who have always held all the power. How can we have it both ways? Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of getting special interests out of government, then supported George W. Bush’s $700 million bailout of banks that were determined to be too big, and too important, to fail. Elizabeth Warren has been as critical of Wall Street and of, say, the Keystone XL Pipeline as the most progressive Democrats, yet she has thrown her support behind Clinton, whose relationship with Wall Street corporations and with the pipeline has raised huge questions about her transparency. Regarding Keystone XL, Clinton, who finally opposed the pipeline after it became somewhat clear that Obama would veto it, has staff ties to lobbyists who worked with TransCanada in attempts to get Keystone XL passed.
Regarding Wall Street, Clinton talks about imposing more regulation and limiting the power of the private financial sector to amass wealth, yet (as Bernie Sanders loves to remind us) four of her top six campaign contributors are JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley. Her third-highest campaign contributor is DLA Piper, a New Jersey-based law firm that represented the bank lobby for breathing room in Dodd-Frank. And she has campaign staff members with ties to private prison corporations as well as with Bank of America. All signs here point to what one might call Clinton’s nauseating problem of integrity.
In the healthcare debate, Clinton champions the Affordable Care Act (no doubt she helped in its initial creation) and claims to favor a public insurance option. Yet her campaign is financed heavily by pharmaceutical and insurance companies that benefit from how corporate profit and healthcare are still synonymous under Obamacare. The ACA cannot become a universal health care system because millions of Americans still can’t afford coverage. Many people I know who aren’t insured through their work have determined that it’s more affordable to just pay the penalty for not being insured than to actually pay Obamacare premiums. This is what healthcare in the U.S. has come to: many of us would rather not have insurance than go through the financial and bureaucratic ordeal of getting insurance through the current “progressive” system. Clinton wants to preserve the ACA while potentially making small changes for increased affordability, but since her party is saturated by the influence of the drug, tech and insurance industry, she has no path or incentive to overhaul the system so that healthcare is affordable and available to all American citizens, as it is in social democracies across Europe.
Those of us who harbor these concerns, who are yet supportive of Hillary Clinton, relinquish the ability to send a message that it might be the other way around–that all Americans might deserve to be healthy regardless of how much money they make or what neighborhood they come from. Common sense opposition to government corruption also gets muddled by a Clinton vote, since Clinton’s rise to power has been funded by private individuals, and the profits their corporations reap, from the very beginning. Hell, Hillary Clinton used to be on the board of directors of Walmart. A lot of progressives reconcile their criticisms of Clinton and her party by making the case that the United States, in all its imperfections, is still a good place to live, with its ample freedoms and opportunities. My take is that those who make such an argument merely have the privilege of doing so. They don’t fall at the bottom of a deeply unequal class structure created by the empowerment of a few elite individuals and their corporations. They can afford healthcare, even though it’s kind of expensive. They don’t have that hard a time getting a job. They don’t live in a neighborhood that will get bulldozed and/or blighted because of the effects of revitalization projects aimed at the economic hubs of urban centers, the kinds championed by Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton because they sound good for business and general prosperity. Their kids don’t have to attend segregated, ghettoized schools created by all the above, with all of its constant emphasis on middle class prosperity.
In short, those who see Clinton as the lesser of two evils have not really experienced what kinds of evils Democratic politics have leveled upon low-income, marginalized, often black and brown Americans, and onto other black and brown and racially ambiguous populations across the world. Those who see the Democratic party as a basically good, well-intentioned cohort have never felt the effects of its most heinous policies. They live in a world in which only the middle class is suffering. One way in which the mainstream media have done a relatively good job, in my opinion, this election cycle, is how many publications have taken the cue from Bernie Sanders to put pressure on Clinton for her role in the War on Drugs, the rise of the mass incarceration of black and brown people, and welfare reform, during her husband’s presidency. While Hillary Clinton has thus been forced to think through her complicity and answer to progressives’ and social justice activist groups’ calls to disavow Bill Clinton’s racial policies, she (like Bernie Sanders) has fallen way short of coming across as an advocate for any kind of social/racial justice agenda herself. In her rhetoric she comes across as fairly inept and awkward. She has blatantly and quite despicably pandered to historically disenfranchised voters while her record shows a shameful lack of interest in them over the years.
4. The presidential election and the reality of civic participation in 2016
All this, and yet Hillary Clinton is still the “lesser of two evils.” Why should I mess around with a third-party candidate, when Donald Trump–publicly a white supremacist, stoker of Islamophobia, self-proclaimed thief and anti-intellectual–heads the Republican ticket? How can I justify a vote for a third-party candidate when we need to ensure that Democrats, not Republicans, replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court?
Fair enough. Vote for Clinton if you must, if you live in a swing state and you fear its reddening in November. If things get bad enough, I might even decide that I have to vote for her.
Ultimately, though, this is not about the vote. The vote has long ceased to be a legitimate expression of American opinion–in recent years voter turnout rate has hovered around 55% among eligible voters in a presidential election year, which does not include six million Americans with felonies, plus some 20 million non-citizens who will be hugely impacted by the election. Not to mention when we go to the polls we are not even directly voting for our candidate, thanks to the electoral college or, during primary season, superdelegates. Every four years we lose our minds over a presidential election, and then, once it’s over, we pretend that the political picture has been settled: the losing party laments “four more years” while the victors breathe a sigh of relief. In reality, about half of all the people who live in the United States cast a ballot that in many cases represented a personal compromise, while the other half did not vote, out of disillusionment, apathy, powerlessness, defiance, confusion, or simply because they were not allowed to.
For “progressives” or “liberals” who have criticisms of the status quo, a vote for Clinton should not be the extent of their civic participation. I can get behind a vote for Clinton with the full understanding of all the reasons she and the Democratic party have historically furthered American hegemony abroad, exacerbated American income inequality, and abetted the marginalization of racialized groups, women, the LGBTQIA community, and people with disabilities. Civic participation, and the work of affecting change, has less to do with voting for the ideal candidate; it has more to do with being real about what is wrong with the “viable” candidates, rather than simply focusing on what is “less evil” about them. Those who want to vote for Clinton should in my opinion be able to articulate how Democrats in power must change their agenda after they retain the Oval Office. Supporters of Clinton who want to claim that her election will be a victory for women must be able to acknowledge all the victories that far more radical and courageous women achieved before her, so that she could have today’s limelight, and they must also understand how Clinton’s presidency will not necessarily be a boon for all women, especially women who face an intersection of oppressions domestically, or who live in places around the world that are at odds with American foreign policy.
We must vote, but more importantly, we must understand how the discourse around the election and the candidates get severely, unrecognizably distorted and watered down by mainstream media and the candidates themselves. We must understand that we do not merely have a choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton; we have an infinite number of choices about our goals for society and the role of government, and we can only express those choices if we remain true to what we believe and committed to making those beliefs known in alternative arenas.
The ballot can only take us so far; in 2016, it cannot take us very far at all. As follows, the structure of our government itself, in its present form, will not lend to real change. A great example is the current political activism around gun control reform. On June 15, 2016, in the immediate aftermath the June 12 shooting at the Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Democratic senators filibustered for 14 hours to provoke a good faith agreement from Republicans that a compromise could be reached on imposing heavier restrictions on who can buy guns. Ostensibly, some legislation could be passed soon that would make it harder for people on the terror list to buy guns, and stronger background checks could become required for any Americans trying to purchase firearms. This kind of progress makes us feel good about how Democrats are working to erode the NRA’s and the Republican party’s control over the issue, however, such legislation does nothing, say, to address homophobia and other manifestations of destructive, violent masculinity in the United States, nor does it address a political economic system that creates ghettoized communities in which gun violence is epidemic and police control is cast as the only solution.
Kudos to the Democratic senators who staged a filibuster and forced Republicans to bend. But it is far more important that we continue to express our support and love for the LGBT community in the wake of the shooting; that we insist on pushing the issues of homophobia, American masculinity, the gun lobby and government corruption into the forum; that we recite sonnets about the universality of love at the Tony Awards, that we speak out in our campus social justice organizations. And that we problematize the candidacy of those who have consistently stood on the wrong side of history because it was too politically risky to demand justice.
Maybe Hillary Clinton is the lesser of two evils, but her election will not significantly ameliorate the social, structural problems that have darted in and out of the debates and the discourse this general election season. In order for those of us on the left to speak out on what we want to see change, we need to do more than prevent a Trump presidency. Perhaps the first thing to do is to properly educate ourselves, and the rest of the country, about all the injustice that gets glossed over in the incrementalist political project that has been, more or less, the story of the second half of the twentieth century.