Friday, August 19, 2016

On Reed's argument for Clinton

Adolph Reed has published an essay arguing that leftists should vote for Hillary Clinton. It has some serious flaws. He briefly entertains the theory that left opposition to Clinton is "tinted with sexism", even though specific studies on this question have come up negative, and even though we know that electoral sexism is far more systematic and institutional than attitudinal, and even though there is significant reason to believe that this accusation was always better understood as a cynical smear campaign. He also suggests that
From the standpoint of fealty to Wall Street and corporate interests, or for that matter imperialist bloodlust, she’s no worse than Obama, John Kerry, Al Gore, or Bill Clinton.
And yet Bill Clinton, Gore, and Kerry all faced levels of defection from the left directly comparable to what Hillary is facing; and it's easy enough to argue that Obama is a marginally preferable candidate for the left without recourse to speculation about crypto-sexism. (Indeed, won't anyone who makes the opposite case be vulnerable to charges of crypto-racism? And yet the least likely thing is that both candidates would, on the merits, be absolutely identical; surely there must be some minimal basis for some preference between the two.)

These digressions in Reed's argument are truly obnoxious, but they're notable precisely because they're digressions. For the most part, Reed accepts the standard left critique of Clinton ("Clinton and Trump are both evil", she's a "Lying Neoliberal Warmonger") and writes sympathetically about her critics ("there are more than enough politically serious people who, for whatever complex of reasons, have fixated on Hillary Clinton as embodying a particular Evil that they as moral individuals cannot abide").

I think, in other words, that Reed is grappling with the moral tragedy of this election in a way that Clinton's liberal advocates are not. He is making a lesser evil argument, and he owns it, for better and for worse.

Compare this with those Reed describes as the "neoliberal Democrat hacks who are still intent on discrediting the Sanders forces as infantile and irresponsible". Clinton's campaign and media surrogates have certainly leaned heavily on the point that Trump is an intolerable threat who must be defeated regardless - but they can never honestly add the crucial caveat, despite Clinton's failings. Instead, it is clear that liberals are absolutely intent on hijacking opposition to Trump and tethering a vote against him into an endorsement of Hillary Clinton. That's why we're seeing comments like this:

Sanders cannot make an emotional case for voting for Clinton because that would be dishonest. There is, for the left, no emotional case for supporting Clinton. There is nothing that warms the heart about knowing that the poor, minorities, and foreigners are going to continue to suffer under her governance. If there is a case to be made for voting Clinton, it is a grim, cold, strategic calculation, one grounded in abandoning hopes and aspirations, in a pessimistic dismissal of the Green Party, in accepting the limits of our agency as democratic voters and our effective imprisonment within the two-party system.

This, of course, is not the case that Clinton's advocates have made. Instead, we have constantly been told that Clinton "takes a back seat to no standing up and fighting for progressive values"; that she is responsible for "the most progressive platform in party history"; that we have to excuse her past failings because "a woman doesn't get the fucking option *not* to play the game"; that we should suspect privilege from people who oppose her; and that refusing to vote for Clinton should necessarily be equated with a vote for Trump. Worse still, we've been asked to defend and endorse Clinton even in particular instances where she is directly comparable to her opponent. In just the past week for example, Clinton's advocates have stoked outrage over lobbying corruption among Trump's camp that is indistinguishable from what we've seen at the Clinton Foundation, and have argued that we should give the Clintons a pass on rape and intimidation while prosecuting Trump for the exact same offense.

It would be one thing if Democrats simply insisted on a vote against Trump; but by insisting that the left affirmatively embrace Clinton and her neoliberal agenda, I fear that liberals threaten to break the spirit of skepticism, rebellion and integrity that animates the left. Democrats may try to leverage the danger of Trump to pull the party as far to the right as it can, but eventually there has to be a point where the leftist can say, as Camus put it:
 "up to this point yes, beyond it no"...up to this point he has at least remained silent and has abandoned himself to the form of despair in which a condition is accepted even though it is considered unjust. [But] to remain silent is to give the impression that one has no opinions, that one wants nothing, and in certain cases it really amounts to wanting nothing. (The Rebel, 11)
I don't know where this point is; I suspect it is different for everyone. But without it, the left cannot exist - it no longer wants progress in any meaningful sense, and has simply resigned itself to failure in the name of an empty, aimless "pragmatism". Reed, evidently, still thinks Clinton's demands are tolerable - but in recognizing the misgivings of the left as "serious", he honors them in a way that her liberal apologists do not. This is a small thing, but it's not nothing.