Hillary v. Bernie and the Future of American Democracy

I’ve been meaning to write about the primaries for a while now, but administrative duties at CIIS, finishing my dissertation and other writing projects, and online teaching has taken up all my time and energy. Lack of time hasn’t stopped me from rushing off a ton of tweets and FaceBook posts in support of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, but the 140 character limit makes nuance difficult. So, finally, I’ll try to provide that nuance now.

Many Americans are forced to put in way more time at work than I am. And many of them (about half) make less than I do. Many also have kids or aging parents to take care of. Being so overworked makes it tough for Americans to participate fully in the political process. Being jobless or homeless makes it even tougher. Doing the research to understand the history and the policy proposals of the presidential candidates takes a lot of time, energy, and education. All the Super PAC money being pumped into shaping our opinions for us doesn’t help. It’s so much easier to parrot op-eds written by pundits paid by the campaigns or their Super PACs than it is to battle through the ideological posturing to forge an informed perspective.

I’m not alone in being extremely concerned about the future of democracy in this country. Moderates may think continuing to compromise with oligarchs will eventually right the ship. But if there is one thing that reactionary conservatives and revolutionary progressives both agree on it’s that a fundamental transformation in the way the federal government operates is necessary. The people of this country are tired of establishment politicians. Of course I am terrified of Trump or Cruz becoming president. They represent the worst of our nation’s hubristic and self-centered shadow. Hillary would prevent many of the evils of a Republican president. But at least while we are still in the primaries, I refuse to jettison my idealism to support the lesser of two evils.

I’m well aware that with today’s congress, a President Sanders would be unable to get any of his proposals passed. But the reason I support him is that his campaign is not about him. It is about the people. He has been quite frank on the campaign trail that his proposals will not succeed unless the 99% rise up to take their democracy back from the 1%. His whole campaign is geared toward generating a groundswell of democratic energy to follow him into office to make sure sitting members of congress know their seats are at stake in 2018 if they don’t support what the majority of Americans want (like universal health care and free public higher education).

I’ve been rather harsh in my criticisms of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It has been suggested that this is because I’m sexist. Hillary’s supporters are growing increasingly anxious about the rise of Bernie’s underdog candidacy (and his 3.2 million small contributions from individual donors who keep on giving), so I’m not surprised they are resorting to such desperate tactics. I cannot deny that some of her detractors on the right and, yes, even on the left, are indeed sexist, and I agree that it is much harder for Hillary as a woman to survive in a patriarchal political arena. But this isn’t about Hillary Clinton’s struggle to become president. It’s about the future of our democracy. One of the main reasons I criticize her is because of who is funding her campaign: four of her top five funders live on Wall St., and the other is a transnational law firm that helps corporations avoid paying taxes. The other is her hawkish foreign policy and over-zealous interventionism abroad. She is way too quick to advocate for military action, and has done so in Libya and Honduras to topple regimes when no threat existed to Americans. As she herself admits, she sways back and forth from moderate to progressive depending on who is asking. I am convinced that her more recent left-leaning rhetoric is just that–talk–since once in office she will be beholden to her corporate funders to continue the same old 90s Clinton-style neoliberal capitalism. There have been several waves of feminism, and Hillary seems largely second-wave. As many have argued, her form of feminism has largely functioned to support the neoliberal agenda. The critical theorist Nancy Fraser wrote an illuminating article for The Guardian about this a few years back that is well worth a read. The French professor of American Studies Pierre Guerlain followed up Fraser’s article by tying it specifically to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run:

Electing an African-American president was a strong symbol. Yet, as Cornell West and others have pointed out, the lives of most African-Americans have not been improved by this potent symbol. In New York, the gender or sex-orientation issue was deemed secondary by Democratic primary voters who preferred De Blasio to Quinn (before New Yorkers in general confirmed this choice). The Ready for Hillary supporters might be trying to play the gender card, but it would be risky and politically problematic. If I were American, I would prefer a candidate like Elizabeth Warren, but I also know her left-liberal anti-plutocratic positions make her almost unelectable as president. Warren would not survive the money or hidden primary.

Hillary Clinton constantly has moved toward the center of US politics. And when the center migrated rightward, she migrated with it. She might be more electable now – not because she is a woman, but rather because she is a friend of the Money Power and willing to compromise on the issues that matter to it. Feminism in this context is just a gimmick to attract some voters who place gender above any other issue. Respecting the rules of the Money Power during a campaign means toeing the line of oligarchy while in power. Neither men nor women benefit from this. Clinton and her neoliberal allies are hijacking feminism and the rhetoric of diversity.

This was written back in 2013, when Sanders was basically unknown and Warren seemed like the progressive movement’s best hope. I, too, would readily have voted for Warren had she decided to run. The big surprise now that we are in early 2016 is that Bernie is not only surviving but thriving despite not having a Super PAC, a well-oiled political machine, or much positive media coverage. The CEO of Goldman Sachs Lloyd Blankfein (a major contributor to Hillary) even acknowledged just a few days ago that the success of Bernie’s campaign represents “a dangerous moment” for oligarchs like him.

Now, just for added nuance, let me be clear that I’m not a fanatic and there are some issues I do not agree with Bernie on. I think he should reconsider the issue of reparations that was recently magnified by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I don’t know if it is ultimately politically feasible to institute reparations, but the moral case for them is hard to deny. Regardless, there has been a bill sitting in the house for years (HR 40, put forward by John Conyers) to at least study the issue. Undertaking such a study would initiate a long overdue national conversation about the lasting effects of slavery and inequality in this country. I think Bernie’s supporters should push him to advocate for congressman Conyers’ bill. In the end, I think racial inequality should always be considered right alongside class inequality. Separating these intersecting issues by fighting about which is more fundamental only prevents us from getting at the root of the issue which is inequality as such.

The main factor motivating my political involvement is the ever-expanding power of capital in human life. Domains like criminal justice, healthcare, education, and politics are no place for the profit-motive. Hillary has flip-flopped on her support for universal healthcare because of pressure from the insurance industry and has taken huge sums of money from Wall St., the private prison industry, and other transnational corporations. Bernie has been a consistent opponent of capitalism’s influence on these domains and hasn’t taken a single dollar from the oligarchs. I have no reason to believe Hillary will take office to work for the American people. She may try to do what is best for 99% of us, but she owes too much to her funders to put us first. Bernie, on the other hand, owes his campaign to the millions of small donors who still believe democracy has a future in America.

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