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Which Side Are You On?

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET

Hillary Clinton: Center-leftist?

In its recent Election '08 issue, The Nation magazine offers this assessment, "Hillary Clinton has proven herself a dedicated centrist and when the center moves left, she has shown she can move too."

The Nation is certainly not wrong about Hillary, but their evaluation brought to mind an encounter of my own from thirty-five years before.

I was sitting at a McDonald's--eating a fish fillet--when a friend and fellow activist proposed "a game." He wanted to create an absolute political scale from left to right and place various national and local political figures ideologically along its' grid. The point of the game, according to my friend Roger, was to determine who was the most liberal politician, with the unspoken implication being, that the most liberal politician was "the best" politician. For those of you who didn't live it, this was a real early 70's state of mind.

I was about seventeen at the time but even then there was something about this exercise that struck me as wrongheaded. I may have even told my friend Roger, the erstwhile President of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate Students Association, that I thought he was barking up the wrong tree.

I might have told him that there was no absolute political scale of Right to Left, and that "who was the most liberal" was the wrong question to ask. The better question, then as now, would have been "Which side are you on?"

It's been a long time since this question has been relevant to any American election cycle, but remarkably, with so many candidates claiming the mantle of change, it has become so in this one. However, to understand who is the real candidate of change, it's necessary to understand just what needs changing.

Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980, as a new kind of Conservative, one who turned liberal politics on its head by proclaiming himself the heir of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. In Reagan's world it was the Democrats who had betrayed FDR's legacy, turning the latter's party into a haven for appeasers, druggies and perhaps most damningly, elitists, out of touch with the lives and concerns of every day Americans.

The attack on the supposedly liberal elites, echoing older Republican attacks on the so-called "pointy headed liberals," was the opening salvo of a broader attack in what came to be known as the culture wars.

In the Reagan years we got the War on Drugs and the rising influence of evangelical Christianity on American politics. We got Lynne Cheney, in her role as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, attacking new history textbooks of the period for supposedly over emphasizing slavery and genocide against Native Americans, while not sufficiently emphasizing "what was good about America." We got the War against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the arming of death squads all through Central America as a bulwark against communist subversion in our hemisphere.

However perhaps more important than the cultural and political Reaction of the Reagan years was the rediscovery and aggressive application of the free market economic theories of University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman.

It was Friedman's contention that if the government would just take the shackles (excessive regulation, trade protectionism, worker and union rights etc) off industry and business, then the gusher of ensuing economic growth would lift all of society's boats together.

Under Reagan, Friedman's principles were applied not just domestically, leading to the loosening or abandonment of regulation in most sectors of the economy, but internationally.

US development agencies together with the US controlled International Monetary Fund and World Bank began to link promises of aid with demands for the nation-states of the developing world to convert to Free Market principles. This forced economic conversion of the developing world, eerily paralleling the rise of Islam a millennium before, was called "structural adjustment."

The application of Friedmanomics also coincided with the long-term decline of American manufacturing. With the rationalization of the world economy, it no longer made economic sense for manufacturing to be done in the high wage, developed world when it could be done more cheaply elsewhere.

The new economy of the developed world was instead supposed to be based on brains rather than brawn. The West and America in particular were now to be powered by the new technology revolution and by the rise of Wall Street and the Financial Markets, by the business of Money itself.

The totality and seamlessness of the Reagan Revolution led some exultant neo-right wingers to proclaim, and not for the last time, the beginning of a thousand year Republican Reich. However it was not to be.

It turned out that there was a key political contradiction between the Reaganite emphasis on values and its rationalizing economic engine. The decline of manufacturing was felt disproportionately by the "Reagan Democrats," mostly blue collar and working class whites who had cheered on Reagan's appropriation of the cultural mantle of FDR. These Democrats, the ones who had responded to Reagan's evocation of the optimism of post World War II America, of the shining "city on the hill," now saw their jobs being shipped overseas. They saw themselves being phased out, marginalized by the rise of the new technological and financial elites.

By 1988 the table had clearly been set for a Democrat to address the rising political- economic dislocation and inequality of Reagan's America. Almost any Democrat could have won that election, but especially a Democrat with working class roots, who addressed the epic political-economic hypocrisy and dishonesty of the Reagan regime.

Instead we got Michael Dukakis who stressed "leadership and management."

When a Democrat finally was elected in 1992, in response to the economic failures of the first Bush administration, there was hope that there might finally be a pushback, politically, economically and culturally, against the excesses of what still was (and truthfully, still is) the Reagan era.

Instead we got William Jefferson Clinton, a sort of Rabellaisian figure, Michael Dukakis on steroids.

Chief among the failures of the Clinton years, beyond his seeming inability to keep his thing in his pants, was the failure to address the legacy of Reagan and Reaganism. Rather, in the economic sphere, Clinton, through his extraordinarily able Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, furthered the Reagonian rationalization of the economy. The success of the Clinton era economy is often looked back on now as his great achievement but its long-term consequences for the country and the world have proved disastrous.

The difference between Clinton, Reagan and for that matter, the Bushes, was that under Clinton, we were actually told that yes, we were going to lose our manufacturing jobs, but it was going to be alright. In the future, they told us, we would all be going to college to get better jobs in the new economy, and jobs that paid more to boot.

A full economic cycle later we can see that this was not the case. The jobs that replaced the lost manufacturing work were largely service jobs, shit jobs, non-union jobs. We see that the only way many Americans are able to keep their heads above water is by going so deeply into debt they never expect to get out of it. And we begin to sense that Ross Perot was right and Robert Rubin was wrong, that a great power cannot survive the loss of it's manufacturing base.

Meanwhile the financial, business and tech sectors of the economy continue to boom, creating not only a two-tier economy, but a level of class stratification previously unknown in modern America.

The failure of the Clintonites to address the rise of debt as the engine of American prosperity set the template for the speculative frenzy that has ultimately led the country and the world to the brink of a catastrophic financial collapse. Further, their inclination to allow Wall Street financial empires to dictate government economic policy has created a de-facto permanent government; an interface of the large Investment houses and the State complete with a well known cast of characters--like Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson--continually passing through the revolving door from one branch of the permanent government to the other.

The final failure of the Clintonites to roll back the Reagan legacy is perhaps the most damning. It was the acceptance of the commodification of every day life; what the kids see when they watch The Matrix. It's what happened to us in the 70's and 80's when the market realized it could sell anything to anyone; that the only bad drugs were the ones that made us not want to shop. It was and remains the real deal death of values that the Christian value voters never seem to address: the concept that nothing has an inherent value of its own, only what it can fetch on the market. It's the primacy of style over content where all the best stuff has a continual if impermanent sheen.

It is within this world without memory that the current election cycle takes place. In this world we are told that all the problems of America are the fault of the second George Bush, the stupid one, who actually believed that Jesus was going to bail out his sorry ass.

This is certainly is the dominant narrative of Hillary Clinton's campaign. Get rid of Bush, we get rid of the plague that is sickening America and we can all go back to business as usual. And certainly Bush has been the worst President that I can remember, probably the worst of the modern era. But Bush didn't create the current structural problems of the country.

Getting rid of Bush will be good and great thing, but it doesn't make the case for Hillary Clinton as President. The problem with Hillary is that she doesn't really fit the political moment. Hillary's politics are essentially an enlightened business-as-usual and it's not clear the world can survive too much more of that. It also appears as though Hillary feels she is the carrier of her husband's legacy and as we have seen, that legacy is part of the problem.

The final element of "the problem with Hillary" is that, as many others have said, she might not be electable, even against a Republican field that ranges from laughable to delusional. Can a Batman villain like Rudy Giuliani actually get elected? Can a John McCain, who thinks we are winning the war in Iraq--a war that wouldn't exist if we weren't in it--actually get a day pass out of the asylum where he must spend the nights? It's hard to say, but certainly any Republican's chances--or for that matter Michael Bloomberg's chances--are greatly enhanced by a projected match up against Hillary.

As contrasted to Hillary, Barack Obama does fit the political moment but not in a good way. The problem with Obama's politics is that they are, like the culture, cosmetic. Rather than run as an actual change candidate, Obama has chosen to run as a symbolic change candidate, a charismatic young bi-racial man as a symbol of change. However it's hard to say what change Obama actually represents beyond his assurances of it.

And then there's John Edwards. Edwards is not a perfect candidate, but Edwards is running a transformational political campaign, and in doing so, is addressing the real issues and challenges we face as a people and a species. Edwards is attacking the collusion of the investment banks, the insurance companies and your government. He's calling those trade deals rammed through by the last Democratic President what they are, a sell out of the American working class to international Capital. Edwards is naming the system, the first viable Democrat in a Presidential campaign to do so in a long, long time.

If this election is really to be about change, the question for Hillary, Obama and Edwards becomes, who's willing to take a stand against the system? Who's willing to take a risk on behalf of people who've been locked out or left behind; people without influence, people who might not even show up to vote? If this election is really to be about change, the question for Hillary, Obama and Edwards is "Which side are you on?" By that measure, I think the candidate of change is fairly obvious.