Americans like to talk a big game about how politicians work for the people and we can “fire” them and so forth1, but we’re completely full of shit. Sideshow Bob had it right: the only things we care about are low taxes, vicarious violence, and the safe, comfortable feeling of being ruled. But the situation is actually worse than that, because there’s a particular behavior that we engage in with renewed intensity every four years, which goes beyond foolishness to become completely unconscionable: we look to politicians for leadership.
It’s correct to treat elections like morality plays – that’s the only way to extract any value from the spectacle. Elections aren’t about the issues, obviously, but they’re a time when everyone’s talking about politics, so it’s a good opportunity to, you know, talk about politics. Even people who use elections as opportunities to argue against involvement in electoral politics are taking advantage of this dynamic. So as annoying as this all often is, it’s ultimately a positive thing. The problem is that we’re bad at it. When you hear someone arguing that Hillary Clinton is “qualified” and will therefore “get things done,” you have left the realm of politics and entered the realm of fantasy football. The questions of “qualified for what?” and “which things?” are the entire substance of what we’re supposed to be talking about, but we’ve become so alienated from our values that we’ve forgotten how having values actually works. So we instead fall back on lazy shorthands, a prominent recent example being the framework in which Clinton and Sanders are politically equivalent except that one of them is “idealistic” and the other is “pragmatic.”
It’s just as easy to turn this around. Clintonian triangulation is precisely what led to the current situation; to advance it now as a solution can hardly be called “practical.” Clinton’s belief that starving people can be placated by effective management is an article of faith that has been disproven by the facts. This is even clearer in the realm of foreign policy, where Clinton is the last living hawk. If the history of the 21st century so far has taught us anything, it has surely been the folly of attempting to export stability through the American military. Even the ruling class is starting to back off from this approach, or at least clean up its image, or at least avoid the issue by focusing on domestic policy. Yet Clinton clings to her belief in American exceptionalism like a rosary, praying for the day when our bombs and bullets will finally kill chaos. She’s an idealist.
Meanwhile, the only reason Sanders ran as a Democrat is that he knew it was the only way he’d get any media attention. He never gave Jill Stein the time of day because he knew that associating with her would have been a political death sentence. Furthermore, none of his policy proposals were either outside the current limits of political discourse or particularly radical. They’re basically all either obvious things, like raising the minimum wage and taxing rich fucks, or things that have been implemented successfully in other countries, like universal health care and subsidized college education. The Sanders campaign was nothing more than the pragmatic approach to making things slightly better, given where we are right now.
This explanation is just as facile as the alternative; the point is that framing political conflicts in this way drains them of their substance. There’s not really any such thing as “idealism” or “pragmatism” – every action is based on beliefs and tends towards a goal, and every ideal represents itself practically as a set of steps taken in the real world for the purpose of moving towards it. The actual conflict in the Democratic primary was very simple: Sanders was attempting to return the party to the era of welfare-state liberalism, while Clinton was attempting to rally the ruling class around inclusive neoliberalism. Clinton won, and, thanks to improbably favorable circumstances, now has the near-unanimous support of the political establishment. That’s the story.
Yet this misunderstanding is not entirely the fault of gutless, drama-craving media types; Sanders’ support was largely grassroots, and it is his hardest-core supports who understand this the least. They’ve created all on their own the narrative that Saint Bernard is our last hope to save the American Dream from the clutches of the Email Demon. Everything from dumb memes about how Sanders is a cool hippie while Clinton is an “out-of-touch politician” to exhausting focus on Clinton’s “scandals” and “corruption” has the effect of turning political discourse into pageantry. Those stupid shirts with Sanders’ hair on them are tombstones, marking a spot that was once political and is now merely fashionable. This is the actual reason that “Bernie or Bust” is a stupid idea: if you’re relying on one specific person to save you, you’ve already lost. The issue is not that, god forbid, some people might not vote for Clinton, it’s that we’re all being insufficiently idealistic. I mean, come on. This whole thing is based on the idea that one brave honest man is going to march into the White House, roll up his sleeves and start getting down to brass tacks. You call that an ideal? I’ll tell you what my ideal is: I want us to stop dropping everything every four years so that we can elect a Boss of America to tell us all what to do and what we should believe and then immediately go back to sleep as soon as the party’s over.
The whole “corruption” thing is actually really important here, because it’s the kind of thing that sounds like a political issue while actually being entirely irrelevant to almost everything. Case in point, there’s a recent bit of scandal about favorable arms deals being made to countries that donated to the Clinton Foundation. That’s, y’know, a bad thing, it’d be better if that wasn’t happening, but fixing that problem won’t even slightly impede the imperialist death machine that’s slowly grinding the Middle East into a big pile of exploitable resources. Again, Clinton’s agenda here is not subtle: she’s entirely open about being an interventionist; we don’t have to uncover any secret emails to figure that out. Focusing on corruption here implies that an “uncorrupted” version of Clinton would be the ideal candidate – that Clinton has the correct agenda. This is why arguing based on corruption is always a garbage strategy: it cedes the entire debate as its first move. Political corruption is like an inverted iceberg: the part below the surface is minuscule compared to the massive problems that loom in plain view. The scandal is always what’s legal.
Indeed, if Clinton really were the amoral weathervane she’s so often portrayed as, wouldn’t that actually be the best possible situation? Wouldn’t that mean that she would adopt any position that her supporters pressured her towards? Isn’t that exactly what we want out of democracy: a candidate who is perfectly responsive to the people’s will? Clinton initially resisted the call for a $15/hr minimum wage, but, due to popular pressure, she’s since adopted it to the extent that it’s now one of her official bullet points. This is the kind of thing that gets her called “conniving,” but isn’t that exactly how the political process is actually supposed to work?
What Sanders holdouts have largely failed to realize is that Sanders didn’t actually do anything. He didn’t run a particularly effective campaign or offer any kind of insightful take on the issues. His remarkable success was due to the fact that he simply hammered on the issues that people already cared about. What his success actually demonstrates is that there is a broad base of support waiting for anyone willing to advance a politics that actually tries to help people, so the proper response is to get on with it.
Many people have complained that Clinton was essentially appointed as the nominee by the DNC, that the primary amounted to little more than a “coronation,” but like, no shit. Why would the Democratic Party ever have done anything else? What possible incentive would they have had to produce and support candidates who would have been genuine threats to the existing political establishment? Indeed, the only reason we saw such candidates this time around is that the necessary work had already been done. The reason Sanders was able to get anywhere was that he was responding to existing demands; he did not convince anyone that he was right, he gave people what they were waiting for. And it’s the same situation on the other side: Honky Kong’s climb up the Empire State Building has nothing to do with how big of a monkey he is and everything to do with the road that has already been paved for him by the past eight years of escalating reactionary psychosis.
Closely related to all of this is the criticism that Clinton doesn’t seem “authentic” or “human,” and that’s what really gets to the heart of the issue. What people actually want out of politics is a “leader,” someone who is “strong” and doesn’t “flip-flop,” and who is “convincing” by virtue of being authentically human. What people really want is not to see their values instantiated; it is to be told what to think. Consider the fact that Obama never had to deal with any of the shit that Clinton is currently navigating; he was hailed as a literal messiah for advancing exactly the same agenda. The only difference is that he looked good doing it. The problem is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that, when Obama finally got around to leading from behind on gay marriage, many Obama supporters shifted their opinions along with him (and vice versa) – as though one’s opinion on the actual issue were a mere coincidence. And the vehemence of Obama’s opposition demonstrates the very same thing. It is entirely unrelated to his anodyne policies; the motivation is also that Obama is seen as a powerful leader (let’s dispel with this fiction that he doesn’t know what he’s doing), but one of the wrong type; hence, the Antichrist. Most famously, Mitt Romney’s health care plan suddenly became the end of the American Dream when it was a black guy what done it. People who can be influenced in this way are people who don’t actually care about the substance of the issues. They can be led into any position by someone who talks good on the TV.
David Foster Wallace, as usual, expressed this tendency very well while completely failing to realize that he should have been interrogating it (italics original):
“[T]he electorate . . . seems so paroxysmically thankful for a presidential candidate somewhat in the ballpark of a real human being that it has to make you stop and think about how starved voters are for just some minimal level of genuineness in the men [sic] who want to ‘lead’ and ‘inspire’ them.”
This is precisely how most people feel about politics, and it is an unproductive and bad sentiment to hold. You may recall that the politician Wallace is referring to here is John McCain, which, come on. Any theory that leads you to support friggin’ McCain is not well-calibrated. And of course this problem is all over the place: liberals will, in the same breath, mock conservatives who voted for Bush because he seemed like a guy you’d like to have a beer with and gush about how much better Obama is because he’s so hip and attractive. So while the fact that Clinton is a bad campaigner is convenient at the moment for people who oppose her policies, reliance on this dynamic represents an extreme danger. Remember, ol’ Honky Kong is getting quite a lot of support based on the fact that he’s “not a politician” and he “tells it like it is.” The road to hell is paved with sincerity.
(Actually, this is something that leftists need to be particularly worried about. It’s easy to assume that fascism/totalitarianism and socialism/anarchism are “opposites,” that anything that leads a society towards one pole necessarily leads it away from the other, but there’s no real reason to believe that this is the case. Fascism and anarchism share at least one very important trait in common: they both want power dynamics to be raw and transparent, bureaucracy to be a tool rather than an ideology. If you’re sick of “stalemate” and “gridlock” in the government and you want to bring in someone who will “shake things up” and “change the system” – someone who will make the trains run on time – you are in fact advocating a dictatorial coup. Fascism is capitalism with a human face.)
Despite our big talk, we’ve managed to get all of this completely backwards. We give politicians the right to be human, while we sink ourselves into the muck of politicking: yelling at people about how to vote, preemptively triangulating positions based on “feasibility,” endlessly compromising our own values into oblivion. The simple fact of the matter is, when you perceive a politician as being ahead of you, when you find yourself looking to them for guidance, you have failed in the task of politics. We must demand the opposite: fewer inspiring speeches, smaller ideas, less leadership. To look to a politician for leadership is among the most vile inversions a human being can make, worse even than looking to a lawyer for morality or to a businessman for expertise.
Evidence of this inversion is everywhere. We talk about government spending as though it were a family budget – we humanize the government. Spending is “irresponsible”; taxes are “punitive.” And this is more than just politics, of course (which is to say that politics is more than just politics). We read self-help books and “lean in” to turn ourselves into more effective workers; we program ourselves with the correct political opinions to smooth out our social interactions; we perform “life hacks” to “maximize” our “productivity.” We humanize the machine while automating our own lives. The obligation to support evil in order to avoid catastrophe is precisely the psychic violence that our political system inflicts on us. There may be more or less that each of us can do on a material basis, and we may disagree on tactics in any event, but we can all – we’re all morally obligated to – resist psychic death.
Politicians ought to be seen like lawyers: despicable people upon whom we foist a sordid but necessary job so that the rest of us don’t have to do it. Our role is not to do their job for them; our role is to hold the line, to cleave as strongly as we can to what is actually right, regardless of what kind of short-term compromises we have to make for the purpose of self-defense. I appreciate how Eric Foner described this:
“Here’s the point. I am a believer in the abolitionist concept – that the role of radicals is to stand outside of the political system. The abolitionists said, ‘I am not putting forward a plan for abolition, because if I put forward a plan, people are just going to be debating my plan. ‘Oh, it’s going to be two years, five years, seven years.’ No: I’m putting forward the moral imperative of dealing with slavery.’ And if people are convinced of that, then politicians will come up with a plan to do it. That means politicians are eventually going to pick up those ideas and use them in other ways and turn them into political strategies.
. . .
Our job is to put out new ideas, different ideas, pressure people, and I don’t care fundamentally if Obama or Hillary gets the nomination in 2008. Sure I have an opinion about it but I don’t think that’s our job to worry about it. All of this maneuvering, ‘Oh, what do we do in this or that election.’ We are not politicians. Politicians do it better.”
So yeah, by all means vote. You might as well lean away from the volcano’s edge rather than towards it. Just remember that, in allowing our politics to come down to a choice of ruler at all, we have failed in a far more significant sense than we ever could by simply electing the wrong person. So don’t pretend like voting for “the right person” is at all morally laudable, or like it counts as “progress.” Don’t let the fact that voting is “something you can do” confuse you into thinking that that’s where the action is. Don’t forget whose side you’re really on, and don’t forget who your hands were made for. Most of all, don’t forget that the real issue is and always will be the fact that people are being slaughtered, poisoned, enslaved, and mutilated, every second of every day, and that all of this is happening for no reason. Or, to put it in classical terms: ask not what you can do for your country; ask what your country has been doing to you.
- There was an Aaron Sorkin clip I vaguely remembered that I was going to link here to illustrate this point, but I watched it again and lol no. Just use your imagination. ↩