Monday, May 2, 2016

Who is the greater enemy of the left?

Out of curiosity, I recently ran a grossly unscientific poll on my Twitter account:

Though the phrasing suggests one question, I actually framed the poll with another one in mind: does the left tend to recognize meaningful differences between various Democrats? This poll suggests they do, by about a 2:1 margin. Still, I was surprised by how strongly respondants singled out Hillary Clinton as an appreciably greater threat to the left. Over half of all respondants picked her - nearly ten times as many as those who picked Obama.

Two incidents

Presumably the immediacy of the fight against Clinton for the Democratic nomination has at least something to do with that result, but even so I'm inclined to agree that it's the right one. The question is purposefully vague and hard to evaluate with any significant rigor, but here I'll point to two recent episodes that I think point at a distinct difference between the two. Yesterday, on May Day, Obama issued this proclamation:
I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim May 1, 2016, as Loyalty Day.  This Loyalty Day, I call upon all the people of the United States to join in support of this national observance, whether by displaying the flag of the United States or pledging allegiance to the Republic for which it stands. 
The left, of course, largely recognized this for what it is: a deliberate, reactionary erasure of a central cultural institution of the international working class, one that ignores May Day and sets a creepy nationalistic substitute in its place. It's idiotic and gross that Obama would do this, and the left is right to view it as an attack on the dignity and solidarity of workers.

Still, it is historically important to understand that Loyalty Day is not Obama's initiative. Though a few leftists missed this point of (minor) trivia, Loyalty Day is actually the legacy of the mid-twentieth century red scares, and was ratcheted into law in 1955. It's not entirely clear if Obama even has the legal discretion to not issue a Loyalty Day proclamation; but here, suffice to say that Obama is best understood as a participant in the reactionary status quo.

Contrast that with a second public statement, posted Wednesday by economist Brad DeLong:
The day will come when it will be time to gleefully and comprehensively trash people to be named later for Guevarista fantasies about what their policies are likely to do. The day will come when it will be time to gleefully and comprehensively trash people to be named later for advocating Comintern-scale lying to voters about what our policies are like to do. And it will be important to do so then--because overpromising leads to bad policy decisions, and overpromising is bad long-run politics as well...But that day is not now. That day will be mid-November.
DeLong is an influential economist, a prominent Clinton surrogate, and a former staffer in Bill Clinton's administration. He is rehearsing a line of rhetoric that the Clintons themselves clearly believe: the Democratic left flank should be dismissed as radical commies, and Sanders is overpromising to his supporters. He is also reminding us of the well-known Clintonian predilection for retaliation against political opponents, even opponents to the left - a tendency so notorious that people who work in policy openly fear for their careers if they oppose her.

An enemy of the movement

This, I think, marks a (perhaps) minor but appreciable difference between Obama and Clintons.

Obama has certainly targeted the left as a movement on occasion - in his administration's infamous criticism of "the professional left", his efforts to destroy Occupy Wall Street, his war on whistleblowers, and so on. But undeniably, his greatest attack on the left has been an attack on left positions and priorities. He has participated in all kinds of odious historical trends of neoliberalization, militarization, and imperialism, and presided over a continuing erosion of civil liberties, enormous increases in economic inequality, the institutionalized racism of the carceral state, and so on - and all of this, not his occasional direct jabs at the left as a movement, will be his primary legacy. Indeed, it is the very contrast between these two tendencies that define the most sinister aspect of Obama's politics: his pose of relative detente towards the left, which deceptively veils his ongoing war on their substantive politics.

There is no such ambiguity with Clinton. Not only do the Clintons disagree with left politics - they clearly see the movement left as a political enemy that they need to actively destroy. We should take DeLong at his word: Clinton and her allies think it is "important" to "gleefully and comprehensively trash" their opponents to the left, and they are already making plans to do so. Practically speaking, this means that Clinton is likely to invest more time, energy, resources and political capital into attacking the left than Obama did. This isn't a particularly ambitious claim: the odd thing would be if Hillary invested the exact same effort into attacking the left as her predecessor, no more and no less.

None of this is an apology for Obama. Chomsky's famous observation is as true of him as it has been for everyone else: if we observed the Nuremberg laws consistently, we would have to find him guilty, too. But there's probably a reason why Obama has always maintained higher favorability ratings among self-identified liberals than Clinton, culminating in a 15-point lead today. Polling consistently shows a distinct preference on that end of the spectrum for Obama over Clinton, and however minor the basis for this may be, I suspect that it's justified.