Sunday, April 10, 2016

Choosing a President Is Not Guesswork

A theatre colleague on social media reposted this blog about the Sanders-Clinton primary contest entitled "I'm With Her...I Guess" and asked her friends what they thought. 

So I read it and thought about it and as I have read many pieces like this one in various media, here's what I think.

After patting Sanders on the head ("I like irascible New York Jewish liberals, and I would be one if one could choose such a thing"), writer Elie Mistal dismisses the entire range of people who support Sanders with a funny joke:

Bernie’s support comes from educated white males, young white women, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the Screen Actors Guild. That’s not a political revolution, that’s the check out line at Whole Foods.  

Okay, that's funny.  However, it distorts the scope and range of Sanders support and ignores the substance of his campaign and the people who have arrived at considered decisions to support him. One could craft similar jokes about Hillary Clinton and her following that do the same thing.

But in context it doesn't seem to be meant simply as a silly joke. Mistal treats this as a fact on which she is basing (perhaps rationalizing) her decision to go with the more familiar brand of politician. The desire to go with someone familiar and clearly competent for the office, along with the excitement of finally electing a woman to the presidency, would be quite understandable. It does not sufficiently explain why someone feels the need to publicly support the kind of agenda Sanders wants to pursue in office, while finding reasons to support the candidate whose record in politics demonstrates an unambiguous opposition to that agenda. She also dismisses Sanders on terms that has nothing to do with the substance of his policy proposals, preferring to joke about him clapping his hands to make Tinkerbell live, in contrast to Clinton saying, "It's time to grow up."

And that's a well-worn trope, isn't it? Grow up. Stop believing the world can be any different; stop believing you can change the system. Being an adult means accepting that you can only vote for a candidate you despise less than the other one; being an adult means lowering your best expectations and submitting to a system you know to be unjust. Growing up means voting against your best judgment and your self-interest. Growing up means ridiculing your own conscience, your own ethical judgment, and your own political imagination. Is that what it means to "grow up?" Some of us beg to differ, as we think growing up means taking responsibility for our choices.

I experience the Democratic primary as an onlooker. New Mexico will not vote in its party primaries until June, and even then I am not permitted to vote, as I am not a Democrat and New Mexico is a closed primary state. I watch with interest in part because these are two figures who have been around a long time, and I have been paying attention to both of them. 

Hillary Clinton, along with her husband and people like Al Gore, Joe Biden, Harry Reid, and more, were leaders of the "Third Way" movement that overtook liberal parties in Europe and the Democratic Party in the US in the nineties. They called themselves "New Democrats." It was a fundamental and deliberate shift away from New Deal/Great Society manifesti in favor of a collaboration with corporate capital, an embrace of militarism, and "tough on crime" policies that built a billion dollar private prison industry and incarcerated masses of people. On policy, looking past rhetoric, this is the agenda she pursued as a United States Senator and as Secretary of State (including our endorsement of the coup in Honduras, against the judgment of everyone else in the OAS) and the inhumane response to the subsequent refugee wave.

The author of this article is making the case that she'll support Hillary Clinton as a "flawed candidate." If I subject Hillary Clinton's record - on policy, leaving aside rhetoric and persona - to an ethical analysis I cannot construct her as a "flawed candidate," but as a highly successful candidate representing terrible and inhumane policies. I do not observe evidence that she has had a fundamental change of worldview, beyond some rhetorical concessions to the national mood. Intriguingly, the author insists that "Hillary Clinton is the only candidate with a reasonable plan" but doesn't weigh the substance of either candidate's plan.

For the middle-aged onlooker, it is amusing to watch the objection emerge in this campaign that Sanders's policy agenda is impractical because it would be difficult to pass in Congress (true) and that it would have to be modified for real world numbers (also true). It was only in 2008 that Barack Obama ran on a very ambitious plan to reform health insurance, which many said was a third rail in politics that could go nowhere. Hillary Clinton herself mocked the plan in similar terms: the numbers don't work, it would be opposed in Congress and by industry, etc., etc. And that wasn't false. That plan did have to change (mostly for the worse), there was opposition in Congress, there was fierce opposition from the private insurance industry, and the Affordable Care Act eventually became law. And that plan that Hillary Clinton once said could not work, is now what Hillary Clinton says represents the best we can do. That's politics!

A presidential candidate does not need to be "economist in chief." The Sanders proposals would require adjustment and if Congress took them up what would emerge would be different in detail from the campaign manifesto. That's normal. Sanders isn't clapping his hands for Tinkerbell. Some version of these proposals can in fact be implemented to the greater good - and have been implemented elsewhere in the world. Their value as proposals is to change the conversation about policy and what we want policy to achieve. To say "the numbers don't work" buries the lede, which is that the "numbers" fundamentally don't work in our system as it is.

Arguments like the one presented in Mistal's blog piece don't impress me very much because it's not about policy or ethics, or even the recent history of this political party. There is a substantive argument to be had about the "New Deal" approach versus the "Third Way" embodied by the Clintons. There are arguments we need to engage constructively about war; about how we extract resources and produce energy; about education, criminal justice, and economics. Instead, we get articles like this. "Grow up," we are scolded: Stop believing change is possible. Or desirable.

This kind of thinking dominates our political discourse (and little else is modeled in our popular media) which is why I would bet Hillary Clinton will be elected president, and she will work with Democrats to push the kind of policies she has pushed for historically. Educated guesses about the consequences of those policies look pretty grim to me. Speaking for myself, I am unable ethically to cast a ballot for this person. I will be told that the Republican candidate will likely be worse, and I can agree that that statement is true, but it does not follow that I should jettison my ethical analysis and vote for an imperialist. I'm not trying to persuade you to agree with me, but presenting why an article like this seems unconvincing to me. Supporting someone like Hillary Clinton because "I guess" does not strike me as a consistent or rigorous decision on which to determine the fate of human beings who will live or die as a consequence of policy.

For further consideration...

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