Why the left must go beyond electoral politics: Chris Hedges and David Talbot in conversation

"Intellectual bomb-thrower" Chris Hedges and Salon founder David Talbot on the lessons of the 2016 election

Published October 11, 2018 7:00AM (EDT)

Chris Hedges; David Talbot (AP/Chris Pizzello/Harper Collins)
Chris Hedges; David Talbot (AP/Chris Pizzello/Harper Collins)

Excerpted with permission from "Unspeakable" by Chris Hedges. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Chris Hedges is an intellectual bomb-thrower. The kinds of insights he provides into the troubled state of our democracy cannot be found anywhere else. Like many of our most important thinkers, he has been relegated to the margins because of ideas deemed too radical — or true — for public consumption.

In "Unspeakable," Hedges speaks with Salon founder and New York Times bestselling author David Talbot about the most pressing issues currently facing our nation. If we are to combat the intellectual and moral decay that have come to grip American life, we must listen to Chris Hedges and the urgent message he brings in this book.

Bolded text is David Talbot speaking, and regular text is Chris Hedges.

David Talbot: Let’s talk about the Obama legacy. Do you share your friend Cornel West’s view of him — that he was an Uncle Tom who sold out to Wall Street and the other centers of American power?

Chris Hedges: Yes. The facts support Cornel’s statement.

Talbot: How do you back that up?

Hedges: A $7.7 trillion bank bailout and nothing for people who lost their homes — I mean, how is that disputable? Obama did what he was paid to do. He delivered credulous vot­ers into the hands of Wall Street. [Ed. Note: According to a Bloomberg Markets analysis, during Obama’s first year in office, the Federal Reserve committed a staggering $7.77 tril­lion to rescuing the financial system, or “more than half the value of everything produced in the US that year.”] He’s worse than Bush. Bush was witless. He was a tool of Cheney and the neocons. But Obama is very intelligent and very cynical. And Obama has not only expanded these wars, especially with drone strikes that include assassinating US citizens, but his assault on civil liberties has been worse than under Bush.

Talbot: When did you see that writing on the wall about Obama?

Hedges: [Former Ohio congressman] Dennis Kucinich gave me Obama’s two-year voting record in the Senate. He said, “Read it — it’s one corporate giveaway after another.”

Talbot: Obama’s a product of the elite educational system that we were talking about earlier, that you’re very familiar with. A bright, middle-class boy who gains entry to the elite world through his education at Punahou School in Hawaii, then Occidental College, Harvard Law and so on.

Hedges: These elite institutions train you to embrace the shared belief system of the elites. Schools like Harvard exist to perpetuate the plutocracy. Obama was a diligent and obedient pupil.

Talbot: So you and Cornel West, who is a friend of yours, saw eye-to-eye about Obama. But you parted company on the 2016 presidential race. He threw himself into the Bernie Sanders campaign, while you backed the Green Party candidate.

Hedges: Cornel is not blind to Sanders’ faults. Cornel believes an insurgency can take back the Democratic Party. I do not. Sanders was never going to be, in his own words, a “spoiler.” He always made it clear that he would support the Democratic nominee. This makes him an obstacle to real change. He recites the mantra of the “least worst.” He inevitably will become part of the Democratic establishment’s campaign to neutralize the Left.

Sanders is, in all but title, a Democrat anyway. He is a member of the Democratic caucus. He votes 98 percent of the time with the Democrats. He routinely backs appropriations for imperial wars and voted for the corporate scam of Obamacare, wholesale surveillance and the bloated defense budgets. He campaigned for Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential race and again in 1996 — and this was after Clinton passed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), vastly expanded the system of mass incarceration and destroyed welfare. He campaigned for John Kerry in 2004. He called on Ralph Nader in 2004 to abandon his presidential campaign. The Democrats recognize his value. They reward Sanders for his role as a sheepherder by not running a serious candidate against him in Vermont.

We are never going to carry out deep structural change through the Democratic Party. We have to build movements, including third party political movements, outside these structures.

Talbot: Aren’t you being too hard on Bernie? He at least brought the rhetoric of the Occupy movement into national electoral politics. Don’t you think his messaging about the grotesque wealth gap and the corruption of the political system helped advance the discussion in this country?

Hedges: Yes. He did a few important things. He restored the good name of “socialism” to our political vocabulary. He spoke openly about income inequality and corporate greed. He did not toe the rigid party line on Israel. And he defied the corporate financing of campaigns. These are important steps forward.

Talbot: Certainly he was a different political figure than what we’ve been accustomed to on the presidential stage — an unapologetic democratic socialist who campaigned against the power of Wall Street and Big Pharma and the fossil fuel industry.

Hedges: He acknowledged reality. We live in a non-reality-based political system. Trump’s success was based on a similar candor. “Sure,” he told people, “I gave money to everybody, even the Clintons, because that’s how the system works.” It’s the same with Sanders. He talked about economic inequality and everybody went ecstatic because a politician is finally acknowledging the obvious! But what was he going to do about it? He wasn’t going to nationalize the banks if he became president. And supporting Hillary Clinton is not going to help us wrest back power from corporations.

Talbot: He promised to impose much higher taxes on the wealthy and Wall Street speculators.

Hedges: Yes, but if we don’t get control of the military spending we’re finished. We’re being hollowed out from the inside like every other empire. We have expanded beyond our capacity to sustain ourselves. Our infrastructure, our public educational system, our social services — everything is crumbling for a reason, we don’t have any money for it. It is being consumed by the war machine. And Sanders didn’t touch the military-industrial-complex. That would have been political suicide.

Talbot: I agree with you on that—by and large, the bloated war state was not part of Bernie’s campaign rhetoric.

Hedges: There will be no socialism until we dismantle imperialism and dramatically slash military spending power. Martin Luther King understood that.

Talbot: So you don’t believe that there’s any way to turn the energy he generated among young voters and so on into a long-range, progressive movement?

Hedges: He raised political consciousness. But he did not create a movement. A movement has to have a bigger goal than elect­ing a candidate. A real movement will only rise outside the Democratic Party, since the Democrats are captive to cor­porate power. How can you talk about a political revolution and support Clinton? If he had been building a revolutionary movement I would have supported him. His talk of political revolution was as empty as Obama’s slogan about hope and change.

Talbot: So what do you think his end goal was, then, if he had no intention of creating a movement beyond his candidacy?

Hedges: I talked with him about his strategy in fall 2015, when he was getting ready to run.

Talbot: You met with him?

Hedges: The night before the big climate march in New York. I did an event with Bernie, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein and Kshama Sawant, the socialist city council member from Seattle. Kshama and I asked him why he wasn’t running as a third-party candidate. He said, “I don’t want to end up like Ralph Nader.” And he’s not wrong. The Democrats would have destroyed him if he had challenged the Democratic Party. The corporate media would have ignored him.

So he’ll keep his Senate job. He’ll keep his seniority in the caucus. But it’s cowardly.

Talbot: Again, in Bernie’s defense, he acknowledged that electing someone like him president would not be enough. Even if you think his rhetoric about this was hollow, he kept saying that we need a revolutionary movement to address the country’s fundamental inequities and problems. But you don’t seem to put much value in electoral politics, while I see it as a potential way to help build a progressive movement and in some cases to elect people who actually do make a real difference in terms of the public good.

Hedges: Voting is meaningless without movements that can pressure those in power and without serious campaign finance reform. We live in what Sheldon Wolin called a system of “inverted totalitarianism.” Unlike classic totalitarianism, our system does not find its expression in a demagogue or a charismatic leader but in the faceless anonymity of the corporate state. These corporate forces purport to pay fealty to electoral politics, the iconography and language of American patriotism, the Constitution, but internally have seized all of the levers of power to render the citizen impotent. Even if Sanders had somehow become president, his hands would be completely tied. The centers of power lie outside the system of electoral politics.

Talbot: I want to be clear about your position on electoral politics and whether people should be involved at all in the election process. So you reject even left-wing campaigns within the Democratic Party like Sanders’. But you do endorse third-party campaigns, like that of Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party’s 2016 presidential candidate. See, that to me is baffling, speaking of the follies of the Left. Because clearly Stein has not made a dent on public consciousness, not even on the left.

Hedges: That’s right.

Talbot: Her campaign is completely quixotic …

Hedges: It’s because she’s a socialist and seeks to build a party that gives a political voice to groups such as Black Lives Matter or the anti-fracking movement. The Green Party platform calls for massive cuts in military spending and a national plan to build a green infrastructure. It backs the BDS [boycotts, divestments and sanctions] movement against Israel.

Talbot: But when you’re facing a real fascist threat, with the emergence of someone like Donald Trump, as you have acknowledged, is it responsible to throw your support to a fringe candidate who has no hope of stopping this train wreck?

Hedges: Voting for Clinton and supporting the Democratic Party will not curb the rise of American fascism. Trump did not create the phenomena. He responded to it.

The Democrats, and in particular Hillary and Bill Clin­ton, are responsible, along with the rest of the Democratic elites, for our being sacrificed on the altar of corporate profit. They engendered this rage. They told the same lies as the Republicans. They fed the same white racism. They exploded our prison population. They destroyed our welfare system — and 70 percent of the original recipients were children. They enabled the corporate coup. They unleashed the predators on Wall Street and in the fossil fuel industry. They colluded to strip us of our civil liberties. They backed endless war and fed the obscene profits of the arms industry and swelled agencies such as Homeland Security. Obama and the Democrats have authorized the assassination of US citizens. They signed into law legislation that permits the military to act as a domes­tic police force and detain US citizens indefinitely without due process. Obama and the Democratic Party establish­ment, working with the Republicans, turned us into the most watched, photographed and monitored population in human history. And they are attempting to ram new trade agreements down our throats.

It pays to sell out the citizenry. The Clintons have made more than $153 million for paid speeches alone since 2001. The Democratic Party is awash in corporate cash. And the Obamas will soon, like the Clintons, be multimillionaires.

American politics is anti-politics. Culture wars have replaced political debate. The Democrats co-opted the liberal elites, minorities and unions. The Republican Party embraced the Christian right, nativists and opponents of abortion rights. The Republicans and the Democrats looked at their supporters as useful idiots. It worked for a while. Then, the manipulated and the abandoned rose up. Voters flocked to the Trump and Sanders’ political insurgencies.

It was a bankrupt liberal establishment that made possible the rise of totalitarianism in Germany and Russia. From Fyodor Dostoevsky to Hannah Arendt [astute observers have] singled out a failed liberalism as the cause of widespread hopelessness and isolation that led to totalitarianism. They understood that stories of rage begin as stories of despair. Liberalism, by constantly betraying its stated values, destroyed itself. It left the working poor bereft of support. Incremental and piecemeal reform within the system became impossible. When the underclasses turned against the liberal establishment in Weimar Germany or revolutionary Russia, they rejected not only its representatives, but the values liberals claimed to represent. A desperate population searched for a messianic leader who would bring new glory, strength, moral renewal and vengeance.

We can continue to vote for these self-identified liberals, but the problem will only get worse. Trump may disappear. But someone as vile will rise to take his place. The mantra of the “least worst” does not work — look at the steady deterioration in American politics. The “least worst” paves the way for the worst.

Talbot: And so yes, the 2016 presidential race devolved into a contest between Hillary Clinton and Don­ald Trump — which reminds me of what my mother used to say: “Pick your poison.” Did the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency disturb you any less than a Trump reign?

Hedges: The focus on the particular personalities vomited up by the political system distracts the public from the near total transfer of power into the hands of corporations. Trump and Clinton do not have the ability to change our system of inverted total­itarianism, nor do they have the interest. Our political and economic elites — including Trump and Clinton — are hostile to genuine change. They don’t work for us. They don’t work for the planet. And they are well paid for it.

The wars will still be waged no matter who wins the White House to enrich the arms manufacturers. Wall Street will still carry out its casino capitalism and push us ever closer towards another financial meltdown. The security and surveillance state will still make us the most monitored and watched society in human history. The trade agreements will still be signed to further weaken national sovereignty and send more jobs overseas. The prisons will still swell with the bodies of the poor. Social programs will still be diminished or terminated in the name of authority. These corporate forces lie beyond the control of the state, indeed the state has become the vehicle for the further consolidation of corporate power and profits. We do not have any institutions left that can be authentically called democratic, if we define demo­cratic to mean the expression of the popular will. Civic virtue has been transformed into economic rationality. We have to start rebuilding from scratch outside of the system, including the creation of third parties that openly defy corporate power.

That the Left falls election cycle after election cycle for this charade is a sign of its political immaturity. Plato warned that a failed democracy lays the foundations for a “democratic” despotism. Democracy, at least as myth, does not disappear, Plato says, but becomes the ideological framework by which tyranny is advanced. The presidential face is only the brand on the package of corporate power. Elected officials serve the system. If they do not, they are replaced. If anyone thinks there would be vast differences between Trump and Clinton — each uniquely repugnant — they do not understand how our system works.

By Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges is the former Middle East bureau chief of the New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a columnist at ScheerPost. He is the author of several books, including "America: The Farewell Tour," "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America" and "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning." He previously worked overseas for the Dallas Morning News, the Christian Science Monitor and NPR, and hosted the Emmy-nominated RT America show "On Contact."

MORE FROM Chris Hedges

By David Talbott

MORE FROM David Talbott