BEING FRUSTRATED ENOUGH TO BERN IT ALL DOWN
So the Hillary Clinton’s nomination as the Democratic candidate for President of the United States is a disappointment to the left. So what else is new? When was the last time the left actually had a presidential nominee we could be excited about? Clinton’s nomination is not an aberration to the left. Left politics is, always has been, and probably always will be movement politics. Same as it ever was.
What is different this time is the potential devastation consequent to a Democratic loss at the polls. Trump is, as advertised, a dangerous man to consider in the White House. We are talking about a man who is running on an open platform of directly harming, even killing, millions of people. His campaign, his platform and his success as a candidate is predicated on ruthlessness, hate, anger and violence. He’s a revealing phenomenon. It’s not like we didn’t know that these were the motivating forces behind modern conservatism. It’s just that these principles were always so prettily packaged that we could deny the greater demons of the movement.
We can’t do this any more. And the fact that Donald Trump has been successful without having to code and conceal his animus is liberating to a future President Trump. He doesn’t have to hold back. He really can order the military to target civilians and participate in torture and construct a police state. After all, that’s what he said he would do. He would be admirably keeping his sick promises in an ironic twist of politics. After all, the first thing we criticize our politicians for is not keeping their promises. With Trump, we fear he will.
So it’s unfortunate that we have a Democratic presidential nominee with a hawkish, pro-corporate, tough on crime background. Should she win the White House she will, most likely, be inclined to hawkishness, corporatism and law and order policies. The left will have to fight her and push her to keep the progressive promises of her campaign. She will almost certainly compromise liberal legislation, taking progressive policies off the table as a means of reaching across the aisle. It is likely that she will disappoint the left in many of the same ways that Obama did. Same as it ever was.
This truth is frustrating to the left. I know. Many of Obama’s “compromises,” which always seemed to mean taking progressive policies like the public option, like card check, like prosecuting Bush Administration war criminals, off the table, have left a permanent mark on me as it has all members of the left. After over a generation in which left liberals have experienced a virtual political drought, after having a candidate in which the left could actually believe in Bernie Sanders, left-wing frustrations are coming to a head–a potentially toxic and damaging mindset that I understand, but must, under the circumstances, condemn.
I call this Apocalyptic Liberalism: the willingness or even the desire to let the most destructive elements of conservatism happen just to prove to the nation and to the world how bad things can become should conservatives have full reign to do what they want. I recognize the allure of such a proposition. There have been times in my career when I’ve allowed my students or wards to do something I knew was going to end disastrously for the value of the learning experience. Call it the “don’t touch, it’s hot” curriculum. Once they touch it, they’ve learned it’s hot.
The first iteration of this strategy stems from the frustration of movement dynamics and the allure of conservative rhetoric. For years we work to make for a more equitable marketplace, union protections, higher wages, safety nets, limits on corporate power, that would make life better for everyone. Then we watch working and middle class voters turn to Republicans who flat out say they want to take these protections and rights away, who have openly voted against worker interests. We watch politicians propose turning Medicare, which everyone loves, into a voucher program, which everyone would hate, getting re-elected and even lauded as principled.
Well, okay then, screw it! If people want conservative policies then let them have ’em. Sit back and let the Republicans take over the government and end Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, minimum wage laws, environmental protections. Let them destroy everything and then see how their supporters like it. A pox on their houses!
I have to admit, I’ve been prone to this kind of thinking myself. When it is so clear that the opposition is trying to dump toxins in our drinking water and voters who will surely be poisoned cheer them on, it’s exasperating for those working hard for clean drinking water. However, this is nothing more than the political equivalent of a meltdown or a temper tantrum.
The other element to this phenomenon is strategic. There are those on the left who believe that the people would turn against the right if conservatives were ever able to put their platform into effect. Indeed, actual conservative policies are often very unpopular once the pseudo-populist rhetoric is stripped from the discourse. If conservatives really were able to end the welfare state, privatize Social Security, turn Medicare into a voucher program, shut down the public schools, return to the destructive laissez faire policies of the late 19th century, then any conservative party would be so unpopular that they would never be able to win an election.
This assumption has new currency under a Trump campaign. It’s understood that a Trump presidency would be such a train-wreck that the Republican Party would be destroyed forever. Even many established Republicans fear that this is true. For Apocalyptic Leftists, the certain pain and suffering of a Trump presidency might just be worth it if Republican Ruin and the implosion of the conservative movement were the result.
The third, and in my mind the most perplexing, iteration of Apocalyptic Leftism derives from an overall rejection of Hillary Clinton. This isn’t necessarily a position of established activists of the left, but perhaps new members who were brought into the movement by Bernie Sanders. These are folks who saw Hillary as the enemy during the primaries, believing that Bernie could defeat her, and became dedicated adversaries. Others are those who may reject Republican conservatism, but nonetheless accept the vituperative rhetoric of the right that has been institutionalized over the last thirty years. They see Hillary as the the equivalent or close equivalent of Donald Trump. They believe that a Hillary presidency will be no less destructive than a Trump presidency would rather see The Donald in office than to stoop to voting for Hillary. According to one comment I saw on social media, “I would rather see the White House burned to the ground than see Hillary Clinton sitting in the Oval Office.”
The underlying theme of all of these positions is to let the structures burn down and then take on the left liberal moment to rebuild.
Yet there is one overarching truth that is neglected in each of these apocalyptic positions. That is, the indisputable fact that structures will burn down, and consequently there will be a great deal of human misery, even death, as a result. An end to the social safety net would leave millions of people not just poor, but destitute. Privatizing Social Security would be devastating to working people. Ending the EPA would result in the vast majority of Americans living within a toxic environment without recourse. Destroying public schools would create a two tiered system of education that favors the well off and relegates the poor to a dismal future of menial labor.
The above are just the bare essentials of the conservative movement. Add on top of this dark agenda the promises being made by Donald Trump, a wall, a police state targeting brown people and Muslims, the expansion of an already obese surveillance state, rejection of our allies for the favor of despots. We are talking about massive levels of human suffering, pain, oppression and even death. And this vision of a Trump future does not even account for the dangers of having a thin-skinned demagogue as Commander in Chief of the most powerful military in the history of man, as well as a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the world many times over.
Letting the system burn to the ground may start a conflagration that we will never be able to control. This is the danger of Apocalyptic Liberalism. An actual Apocalypse.
This view also presumes that, once the ashes have settled, that the left would be in a position to rebuild. Best case scenario, we emerge from a Trump presidency with a more or less functional society and political infrastructure. Still, we are talking about facing the most conservative and radical Supreme Court in history, with at least three or even four or five justices nominated by Trump. Let’s not forget the conservative war against voting. Will liberal coalitions, especially among our minorities populations, even be able to vote when the time comes? There is no way the Republican Party is going to let go of the 2020 elections go without doing everything they can to suppress the left. This is a census year in which congressional districts are defined and gerrymandered.
If legitimate means of effecting political change is denied the left, then what remains? There are some advocates for revolution out there who may be themselves ready to fight, kill and die for liberal beliefs, but their zeal does not have a good history. And yet, with rights and benefits that it took the left over a hundred years to gain, they could all be lost within one administration. How many more years would it take to rebuild and re-establish what has been lost? Another hundred years? How long would it be before we could even hope to get back to where we left off and start making progress again? And in that time do you suppose the conservative elements will go extinct, or do you suppose they will regroup and eventually make a comeback?
Hillary Clinton is a flawed candidate, but it is not likely that she will stray far from the political script that has been at play since World War II. She may not advance leftist ideas, but she will probably not destroy what remains of progressivism. Yes, there will be damage, there will be human suffering, but there will also be opportunities to build a left movement and advance a left agenda that can be influential in American politics. We simply cannot afford the Apocalyptic option.