Reich v Hedges v Clinton v Trump

Just listened to a debate on Democracy Now! between Robert Reich and Chris Hedges over whether to support Hillary in the general. A frustrating experience, as is so often the case with debates like these. I can imagine that when you’re trying to think on your feet, in front of a microphone, it’s easy to lose track of certain ideas, even when you have a lot of experience as both these men do. Nevertheless, I found it hard to take. Hedges, especially, continues to annoy me with his rhetoric, which increasingly strikes me as self-indulgent and toxic. He fulminates excellently, but that’s all he’s got. When Reich argued for building a feasible left challenge to Hillary, going forward, Hedges responded by discussing an ostensible historical parallel in Yugoslavia, the burden of which seemed to be simply the same point in a new form: mainstream liberals are bankrupt and have nothing to offer. Not that this is inaccurate, nor that we shouldn’t learn from history, but this just struck me as an particularly egregious example of what I don’t like about him. It’s much easier to wave your arms and talk about incipient fascism than to propose concrete strategies and tactics.

In a way it’s ironic, because he especially, but Reich as well, were both arguing that the choice makes relatively little difference. Which brings me to the main point. As usual, the debate boils down to whether we should back Hillary because she’s better than the alternative, however bad she may be, or whether we should break with the Dems and build a genuine alternative—in this case represented in the debate by occasional mention of Jill Stein and the Greens. Hedges did say at one point that Bernie should take up her offer to head the Green Party ticket. In fact—another irony—Reich essentially argued that that is exactly what we should do—in the next election. Support Hillary now, and then go out and build a third party movement that can challenge her, or whoever the Democratic nominee is, in 2020.

Now, this strikes me as a gaping hole in Reich’s argument, and it would have been absurdly easy for Hedges to point out that, if we do as he suggests, in 2020 all the same arguments will be made again: you’re splitters and spoilers who are going to give the election to the big bad Republicans. Why, then, on the one hand, should we believe things will be any different four years from now, and on the other, why shouldn’t we just go ahead and do it now, as Hedges is suggesting? And here again my frustration with Hedges emerges, because rather than take up this painfully obvious line of argument, he prefers to spout his rhetoric about how terrible everything is. Not that he’s wrong, and not that the rhetoric isn’t powerful and, to some extent at least, persuasive. And I have to give him credit for the real work he has done in challenging the surveillance state, and in reporting on the real state of the country. (Not having read his latest book, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that it has more substance than his broadcast appearances or his op-ed columns. I once had my students analyze one of his columns and they were able to show quite convincingly that his argument was completely lacking in concrete evidence.) To give him credit, he did mention in one heated exchange that he and others who agree with him are, in fact, doing exactly what Reich is calling for—but it was one sentence tossed off in a quick back-and-forth that quickly reverted to type.

To fill in the gap, then, I can imagine that Reich would have said the time is not ripe, but if we do as he’s suggesting—spend the next four years movement building, using the momentum Bernie has developed—it will be, so the analysis today that says we should back Hillary won’t apply then. This is an argument worth considering, though the obvious rejoinder is that the more powerful such a movement becomes, the more persuasive all the Democratic fear-mongering about splitters and spoilers becomes. But it would have been nice to hear some of these ideas fleshed out. Instead, we got Hedges telling us yet again how evil the Democrats have become. All of which may be true, but it’s a theme that a) the listeners to that program are already quite familiar with, and b) could have been made once and then left, like a booster rocket that’s done its job of getting the satellite into orbit. As Reich pointed out, granting all of Hedges’s premises, the real question is, what do we do about it.

It was in the context of a similar question that Hedges went off about Yugoslavia and even threw in Weimar, the perennial favorite of all those (myself included, I admit) who are prone to seeing fascists under every bed. Not to disparage the real dangers, but honestly, I’ve been hearing that analogy my whole life, and it has yet to bear fruit. You do get a little jaded after a few decades. Historical analogies are always approximate at best, and only serve to start the conversation. Sooner or later, you get to the question of what’s specific to our situation—and, again, what is to be done? (To invoke another, even less appropriate historical analogy.) In any case, while I was more frustrated with Hedges, I was also frustrated with Reich for not making the obvious argument: if it really matters so little, why vote against Hillary?

Both speakers, and most analysts whom I respect, make the point that the election is not the main issue. Both parties are in the pay of Wall Street, and whoever is in the White House—unless you believe the fantasy that the Greens have a real shot—they will continue to serve those interests. At the end of the discussion Juan Gonzalez asked Hedges which would be better for movement-building, a Hillary presidency or a Trump presidency, to which Hedges responded that it would make no difference. He made some valid points—surveillance and repression under Obama in some ways are worse than under Bush—but it was hardly a comprehensive response. We don’t really know what Trump will do if he gets elected, but we can safely assume it will not be good for civil liberties, for economic justice, for racial justice, for gender equality, for the environment, or for a host of other issues. On the other hand, we have a pretty good idea of what a Democratic administration under Hillary Clinton would look like, and while it would certainly continue the warmongering and corporate cronyism that the Dems have been perfecting for a generation, with the Clintons leading the parade, there would be some marginal benefits in some areas. To use a recent example, we would never have gotten a Lilly Ledbetter law if Romney had won in 2008. And there’s Obamacare, which, while it’s a mixed bag, I think most people agree has benefited at least some of the un- and under-insured. Even if it’s not a “step in the right direction,” as Jill Stein argues, because it treats health care as a commodity rather than a human right, it does make a measurable difference in some people’s lives. It’s safe to assume that things like this won’t happen under Trump, and instead they will get worse, at least in some respects, at least to some extent.

Now, this is damning with faint praise, and I don’t mean it as a reason why we should enthusiastically endorse or support Hillary. But it does speak to the question of whether she or Trump would be better for the chances of any putative movement for social change, or to build a third party with a credible shot at challenging the Democrats in four years. It seems to me the question is whether the marginal superiority of a Democratic administration, with its attendant real if thin advantages, provides more space for building such a movement, or whether we’d be better off with the Democrats acting as the opposition. The one argument I can think of on that side is that the Democratic opposition would not be silenced as they have been under Obama; we’d have more people up in arms over abuses of our civil liberties, arrogation of power abroad (there was more opposition to extraordinary rendition under Bush than there has been to drone strikes under Obama), environmental degradation, etc. But that raises an obvious question: if, as should by now be obvious, the Democrats only use those issues to get themselves elected and then promptly forget about them or even wholeheartedly embrace the positions they once opposed, what good is their opposition when they’re not in power?

In the end, my frustration with the debate boils down to the fact that, as so often happens, it remained stuck in simplistic binaries. Either we support Hillary or we don’t. But in fact the question is more nuanced than that, and so should our answers be. Plenty of people—Noam Chomsky, and even Kshama Sawant—have advocated for strategic voting. If you’re in a safe state, vote for the Greens. If you’re in a contested state, vote for Hillary. This isn’t a new idea (Norman Solomon made it on DN! just the day before) or difficult to grasp, and it isn’t perfect either, and Hedges might argue with it, but at least it moves us past the binary. Sawant, whom Hedges invoked at one point, took the conversation much farther in the comments I cited above. Build the movement so you have powerful primary challengers with a real shot at winning, then in the general vote for the best candidate who has a chance. That’s a real strategy that considers both the short and the long term in a coherent way.

Following up his question about whether the movement would do better under a Trump or Clinton presidency, Juan Gonzalez asked specifically about immigration. Hedges was stumped for a minute, then ended by saying yeah, there’s no difference—look at what Obama’s doing on immigration. Which strikes me as a fatuous argument, epitomizing everything I don’t like about him, because it substitutes a knee-jerk self-indulgent self-righteousness for genuine analysis: Obama is bad, Trump is bad, therefore there’s no difference. As Reich rightly pointed out, such arguments are absurd—to which Hedges responded, in the last seconds as Amy Goodman was trying to wrap up, that he did not say what he had just said.

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