Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends: the spectacle of the American left (I could, and perhaps should, use scare quotes around that term) chewing on its own entrails in anguish and frustration. With the misery of the midterm elections out of the way, and their thoroughly unsurprising revelation that people who nominally support the Democratic Party don’t actually care enough to vote, we can move on to bigger things. Specifically, to the Big Kahuna of American politics, the specter that’s been haunting the political arena from just offstage for months if not years, like a half-inflated cartoon blimp from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. I refer, of course, to Hillary Clinton, who will provide endless fodder for deep-thinking punditry and 24/7 programming for the Liberal Despair Network from now through the 2016 Iowa caucuses and beyond. If you thought you were sick of her already, just wait.
I plead guilty as charged, of course. Clinton is so hated both on the right and on the left, yet so overwhelmingly likely to be our next president, that she’s like a black hole that sucks up all political energy, a bright flame that draws in all the hapless moths. I wrote a column a few months ago comparing her to Ronald Reagan, which I certainly meant to be provocative but was far too arch in execution. I forgot or didn’t know the first rule of punditry, which is to make your premise really obvious and beat the reader over the head with it repeatedly. I still get occasional mails from horrified liberals telling me that Clinton is the exact opposite of Reagan, or horrified conservatives saying “LOL u wish libtard.” So here’s the Cliff’s Note version: The comparison was not meant to be flattering to either of them, but the point was that they both functioned as supercharged political symbols, meant to mobilize specific voter demographics far beyond their normal level of participation. (White men and white women, respectively.)
That demographic superpower made Reagan impossible to defeat, and may do the same for Clinton. Here’s my premise this time: Clinton’s impending presidential campaign is causing immense anguish on the left (which I share), but the 2016 battle is quite simply not worth fighting, not by Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or anybody else. I think we have to consider that potent symbolic dimension when we face the left’s combination of Hillary-mania and Hillary-phobia, which does not entirely correspond to the measurable dimensions of Hillary Clinton as a politician, policymaker and public figure. There just isn’t much anyone can say about her on those latter fronts that hasn’t been said many times before. That problem bedevils Doug Henwood’s thorough and even cautious “Stop Hillary!” cover story in the November issue of Harper’s (unfortunately, it's behind a paywall), along with almost everything else that gets written about the former first lady, former secretary of state and presumptive presidential front-runner.
Henwood’s article was the longest and most articulate entry in a stop-Clinton litany that has also included pieces in the Nation, In These Times and the New Republic over the last year or so. This week brought us a gossipy summary in Politico, loaded with unfounded surmises and insiderish jargon, which argues that the “liberal media” is desperately trying to gin up an anti-Clinton crusade and provoke someone into running against her from the left: Sanders or Warren or outgoing Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley or, what the hell, outgoing Virginia Sen. Jim Webb (who isn’t a left-winger by anyone’s definition). This article is both vastly dumber than the Harper’s essay and, curiously, much more on point. Hillary Clinton’s actual positions are not really in doubt, and as Henwood rigorously details, anybody who fails to grasp that she’s a hawk on both economics and foreign policy, a pawn of Wall Street, a creature of the neoliberal “Washington consensus” and a loyal defender of the deep state is living inside a willed delusion.
No, the focus of current left-wing obsession is not so much Hillary herself as the Hillary conundrum. It’s meta-Hillary, Hillary meteorology or perhaps Hillary Kremlinology: Can she be stopped? If not stopped, can she be diverted onto a new course, like a runaway locomotive or a hurricane? Do we resist, submit or run away? What, in short, is to be done? (I agree, by the way, that it's condescending to refer to a female public figure primarily by her first name. I wouldn’t do it if it weren’t for the fact that Clinton’s official website and her super PAC, Ready for Hillary, have both embraced the usage.)
My larger point is that these questions are the wrong questions, and that they only serve to expose the sense of impotence and worsening crisis on the American left. But at the risk of being sucked into the weeds of political wonkery, the answers are pretty obvious: Nothing is to be done. Hillary Clinton cannot be remodeled as a politician or a policymaker at this stage of her career, beyond superficial questions of campaign branding, and is not foolish enough to try. The only plausible way she can lose the Democratic presidential nomination is if she decides not to run, or through the intervention of some unforeseen scandal or crisis. Sanders and Warren probably won’t run, and if they do they will lose. Progressive voters are at liberty to stay home or go Green or flirt with the half-appealing, half-crazy, libertarian jazz-dance stylings of Rand Paul, as they choose. But they can’t stop Hillary.
Viewed through that prism, the litany of Clinton-bashing assembled in the Politico story is something like the denial that marks the first stage of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ famous model of grief (with a fair amount of anger and bargaining, steps two and three, mixed in). When a handful of modest-circulation publications on the leftward edge of the Democratic Party stand shoulder-to-shoulder in an anti-Hillary united front, they’re in denial about the fact the 2016 primary process is almost a foregone conclusion, dominated by big-money corporate donors lined up in advance and a crushing political machine honed for this purpose over the last eight years. They’re also in denial about the fact that they wield very little influence with the Democratic electorate as a whole, and that in the wake of the midterm catastrophe, Clinton – as the safe, consensus choice, the “moderate,” and the perceived likely winner – is in an even more commanding position than she was before.
As various political operators and observers tell the Politico reporters, the bargaining stage comes next. For a veteran progressive like Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, the crusade against Hillary is almost certainly more about trying to push the candidate toward Elizabeth Warren-style positions on taxing the rich and forgiving student debt than about defeating her. It’s more like short-term political tactics than long-term political strategy: Galvanize the left-leaning base, or at least reduce its sense of alienation and marginalization, and hold the “Democratic coalition” together long enough to win another election. Not an unworthy goal, you may say, but also not terrifically inspiring.
David Corn, the Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones, provides the Politico article’s final quote, or kicker: “It’s easy to gripe about Hillary. It’s a lot harder to find a solution.” That’s because there is no solution and because Hillary Clinton, noxious as she may be, is not really the problem. To put it more precisely, Clinton’s likely nomination and probable victory in 2016 are an important symptom of the underlying disorder within American politics, but are not the disorder itself. This is really a side issue, but I suspect Clinton’s ardent defenders are correct that an element of sexist or misogynistic caricature creeps into the exaggerated scorn heaped upon her from the left, just as it does into the right’s fantasy portrayal of her as a ball-slicing feminist harpy.
What the left’s Kübler-Ross negotiation with Hillary Clinton is really about is more than another election of being forced to swallow a center-right, corporate-sponsored candidate barely preferable to the Republican alternative, or about watching the feminist dream of a female president come to fruition in such agonizing fashion. Disillusionment with Clinton is inevitably contaminated by disillusionment with Barack Obama, who ran in 2008 as the reformist candidate to her left but has protected the power and privilege of the Washington establishment more than any previous Democratic president. What is really being mourned in this grief process, whether people realize it or not, is the demise of a political party that once stood for economic populism (whatever its ample flaws in other areas) and for at least the last two decades, since the administration of Hillary Clinton’s husband, has stood with Wall Street.
As former Clinton aide Bill Curry wrote earlier this year, it was Bill Clinton, not Reagan or either of the Bushes, who enthusiastically gave away the public airwaves to Big Telecom and deregulated the financial markets, undoing a whole series of progressive reforms that stretched back to FDR and Woodrow Wilson. The Clinton tactic of “triangulation” toward the center was only partly a matter of ideological compromise and ruthless realpolitik; it was also about flinging away issues of economic and political power that were once central to the Democratic brand and identity, and stuffing the party coffers with corporate cash.
The Democrats have sold their souls, and if we learned one clear message from the midterm elections, we learned that the Democratic brand is in profound crisis. (The Republicans were never big on soul, at least not since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. Their brand is in crisis too, as they will be reminded soon enough.) That’s a hopeful sign, in its way, as is the fact that the tiny handful of Democrats who ran as vigorous economic populists this year did OK, while the ones who sold themselves as Vegan Steak Alternatives -- not quite as red-blooded as a real conservative! -- were eviscerated. There are genuine and unmistakable stirrings of genuine anti-corporate populism in and around the Democratic left, and even in the general population. Elizabeth Warren should not be oversold as the lefty Jesus, but she might represent the leading edge of an effort to recapture elements of the party power structure, or an effort to build something new. Or she could just be a nostalgic glimpse backward toward Paul Wellstone and Frank Church, a political Throwback Thursday.
But in any case the revolutionary moment is not here. Where I come down, and it’s a painful landing, is all the way at acceptance, the final stage of the Kübler-Ross process. I honor the rage of people like Doug Henwood, and I sympathize with the ardent bargaining of Katrina vanden Heuvel. But it’s just not worth it. Self-described progressive pragmatists like Markos Moulitsas and Arianna Huffington are right that it’s not worth trying to stop Hillary Clinton -- but not because there is any reason to be optimistic about her presidency. (Yeah, I know: SCOTUS and abortion. Fine.) It’s not worth it because presidential elections in general are an irrelevant distraction from the long, hard struggle against money and power and entrenched dark forces that might someday, just maybe, return meaning to American politics -- and the 2016 election is more irrelevant than most. And it’s not worth it because it won’t work: Hillary Clinton feeds on the anguish of leftists, and to stand against her only makes her stronger. If you haven’t figured that out, you haven’t been paying attention.