I’ve been seeing Facebook posts by Leftists getting the vote out for Hillary Clinton popping up. The first think I thought of as I saw them was, wow, that’s brave. Then it occurred to me that my thinking that says everything about this time in our politics. How the hell did we get to the point where committed, true-believer Left leaders making an appeal against what might be fascism, and on Facebook, a social media platform in which you “friend” people, is brave?
Anti-Clinton forces on the Left have made a lot of important points we should remember when steeling ourselves for the fight we’re in for if Clinton is elected. But within the ranks of her critics on the Left there are those who seem to think she’s the devil herself and anyone who votes for her is the devil’s accomplice. That only works if you believe in demons.
Demonization is dangerous. I know it feels good. I occasionally share the feeling. Especially on the foreign policy front, Bill and Hillary Clinton have not been friends of the Left. In fact, they’ve often behaved like enemies, making demonizing them cathartic.
As a racial justice advocate, I have a special hate-on for Bill Clinton. His was the most sophisticated example of dog whistle racism in my memory. He took the teeth out of racial justice by equating it with superficial multiculturalism, while also fanning the flames of white racial fear and then calming those fears by leading the way to policies that would eventually result in the biggest prison build up in history. Clinton-style dog whistle racism is the bookend to GOP racism. Between those two bookends of mainstream racial politics, there are no solutions, no equity, no real justice possible.
But while that may be true, the kind of demonization the Clintons have been subjected to is right in line with a way of thinking that makes institutions of power appear to be monoliths, and governments the equivalent of individual leaders. It is important to see Mrs. Clinton as flawed, but it is also important to see her as a human being who, like all human beings, are historical actors. To do anything else is giving away power.
Here’s some context for that statement. Democratic President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942, giving the War Department the authority to relocate and incarcerate 120,000 (out of a population of 127,000) Japanese Americans living on the continental U.S., and 881 Alaska Natives. One in ten Alaska Natives incarcerated by the Roosevelt administration never made it back out because they were housed in conditions that would have been inhospitable even to cattle.
Japanese and Native Alaskan internment during WWII was justified by one of the biggest lies ever told in U.S. politics. Worse, taxpayer dollars were also invested in propaganda campaigns to shore up that lie, including through the commissioning of Works Progress Administration artists who were deployed to depict prisoners as happy campers being “protected” by the U.S. government.
But there’s so much more. By allowing the New Deal and certain aspects of the G.I. Bill to function as racially exclusive entitlements, the Roosevelt administration did more to bake structural racial inequality into American political culture and the design of American society than any single administration since the end of the Civil War. And, btw, Roosevelt also refused to support anti-lynching legislation in order to protect the New Deal, adding insult to serious injury.
Then there’s Kennedy. There’s so much to say here, but as “corrupt” and “criminal” have been put on the table, allow me to remind you of COINTELPRO, the clandestine and often illegal spying operation executed by the FBI against suspected communists and Civil Rights and Black Power leaders. Under COINTELPRO the FBI didn’t just spy on people, it deployed provocateurs to disrupt political movements and create the circumstances that they believed would provide the justification for even more intense repression and violence. COINTELPRO’s victims include political prisoners like AIM activist Leonard Peltier, a person I mention because he seems to have been forgotten by many on the Left, and slain Black Panther Party leader, Fred Hampton.
And, of course, there’s Lyndon Johnson, the supposed champion of Civil Rights. Under Johnson, U.S. involvement in the conflict in Vietnam grew into a full-scale war. Kennedy is also in this story, as is Nixon, obviously, but no one did more to seal our fate in Indochina than Johnson. As a result, genocide was committed in Southeast Asia. Under Johnson, alone, more than 1 million Vietnamese were killed or maimed in a conflict we had no f#%king business intervening in as we did.
Under four U.S. presidents, between 1960 and 1971, including two Democrats, the Department of Defense funded research that subjected poor Black cancer patients to massive whole body radiation bombardment without their knowledge or consent. The researchers actually went as far as to code the records of these experiments in order to prevent “either adverse publicity or litigation,” a statement that suggests actionable lawsuits were anticipated and prevented by disguising the evidence.
President Jimmy Carter is lauded as a human rights leader, but in order to win the Democratic Party nomination for governor of Georgia in 1970, President Carter ran as a racial conservative. Carter viciously attacked former liberal Georgia governor, Carl Sanders, through a campaign built on the template of the last person to defeat Sanders in a campaign for governor, segregationist, Lester Maddox.
To those who will respond to this litany by suggesting that maybe all of these leaders are demons, I have this to say. Richard Nixon.
Remember what I said about Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam? Johnson waited until after his election to the presidency to move on Vietnam because he was afraid of public backlash. Once he moved his war policy forward and the public reacted, many of us did so in a way that demonized Johnson and made it impossible for him to stand for reelection. And, who did we get as our next president? Nixon. Had we focused more of our rage on anti-communism and the military-industrial complex, Johnson’s recognition that he couldn’t run successfully and be hawkish on Southeast Asia might have made us think differently about him. There was leverage there. But, too many of us put all of the onus of responsibility on him.
And, you know how some Republicans defend the party by reminding us that Richard Nixon was the best president on the environment we’ve ever had? Well, they’re right. We got the EPA from Nixon (and, btw, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration). But, when we hear that, we on the Left know how to respond. We understand Nixon’s record on the environment in the context of a time when the environmental movement had built a broad based, bipartisan coalition, making Nixon’s pro-environment “achievements” really just compromises he was forced to make at a time when the momentum for change was too powerful to resist.
We need to be consistently critical in our thinking. When we fail to do so, we give up power.
To add to my litany, consider the CIA sponsored coup de tat that toppled the Salvador Allende presidency. That neoliberal takeover occurred in 1973. Yet, some people I know actually blame Mrs. Clinton for neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism is an effect of late capitalism. It’s what results from an economic system that must constantly consume new markets or die, finally reaching the point where the only thing left to consume is itself. Sure, she rode that wave, but so did a lot of political leaders. We’ve been at this for a long, long time.
This is a witch trial. Witches as they’ve been historically conceived of by witch hunters aren’t real. They’re a mixture of scapegoating (bad crop this year?), projection, and misogyny, all tied up in vicious campaigns that mainly serve as distractions from our real problems.
Is Mrs. Clinton a terrible public policy leader? Yes. Is she a hawkish neoliberal and one of the architects of late 20th century liberal dog whistle racism? Absolutely. But is she really that exceptional? No. Believing she is distracts us from seeing her as the historical actor she is, operating in a context that made all she has done possible and, in fact, business as usual. History is something we make together. We have more power at each historical turn than we may think. That is, unless we give our power to demons.