Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Hillary Clinton’s July 28 speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia — her attempt to re-introduce herself to an American electorate that, according to pollsters, believes she’s competent but also doesn’t trust her — was dramatically different from the one Donald Trump had given at the Republican Convention in Cleveland the week before. For one thing, it was considerably shorter: 56 minutes as opposed to Trump’s 78. It was also much cooler in emotion and temperament.
The PBS commentators who ganged up on her after the speech and said it “lacked emotion” were missing the point. Clinton has never been good at the touchie-feelie side of politics; during one of the Democratic primary debates she said, “I’m not a natural politician, like my husband or President Obama.” She’s not the sort of person who can address a crowd, tell you she “feels your pain,” and get you to believe it. And she’s aware enough of her own limitations that at the Convention, charged with making the biggest speech of her life, she didn’t try.
Instead Hillary Clinton projected an image of sober competence — and quite frankly, if she’s going to win in November, that’s the biggest selling point she has. Against Trump, who seems to be so proud of his own ignorance that he quotes “Two Corinthians” before an audience of evangelical Christians (the correct reference is “Second Corinthians”) and swears that he’ll uphold the entire Constitution — not only Articles 1 and 2, which exist, but Article 12, which doesn’t — she’s obviously selling herself as the candidate of reason and experience: the adult in the room, not the petulant, spoiled brat we’ve seen from Trump.
The third, and perhaps the most important, big difference between Clinton’s speech and Trump’s is that Clinton’s was not all about her. She didn’t say “I alone can fix” America’s problems, like he did; she said that the true spirit of America was to unite and “fix it together.” She quoted the much-maligned title of her book It Takes a Village — which she got from an old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” — and used it to say the obvious truth that it will take all of us to solve our country’s problems and make things right for all Americans.
Clinton’s tone was also refreshingly humble. She did not go into the finger-wagging schoolmarm-ish mode that marred her performance in a lot of the debates against Bernie Sanders. She played a person who has benefited from her over three decades’ worth of experience in the rough-and-tumble of electoral politics (counting Bill Clinton’s years as Arkansas governor as well as his presidency and her own terms as U.S. Senator and Secretary of State) precisely because she’s realized how difficult change can be, particularly in a political system with so many built-in hurdles against reform as ours.
One of Clinton’s hurdles is that sober competence tends to come across as dull. Even the Democrats who voted for her in the primaries don’t seem all that excited by her. She may offer the novelty of being the first woman to win a major-party nomination for President, but that’s less a triumph than it seems because she’s just been around so long — a quarter-century on the national scene — she’s hardly a new or fresh face. And — unlike Donald Trump, who’s been building up his nationwide image at least as long as Clinton has (since he published his first book, The Art of the Deal, in 1987) but hasn’t gone after elective office before — she’s spent most of those 24 years in public service and become an old-hat figure, one we’re too used to having around to be impressed by her “first female major-party Presidential nominee” accomplishment.
What’s more, Hillary Clinton has accumulated a weirdly assorted host of enemies on both Left and Right who ceaselessly repeat the same scurrilous stories about her. Some of the anti-Hillary tales have at least some connection with truth; others — like the still-live reports that Hillary and Bill Clinton’s friend Vincent Foster was murdered on the Clintons’ orders (every official investigation concluded he committed suicide) — have about as much credibility as the nonsense Donald Trump peddled for years about President Obama’s birth certificate.
And now it’s not just the Right that’s peddling this B.S. about Hillary Clinton. Members of the Bernie-or-bust crowd, as well as Leftists who long ago gave up on the Democratic Party and only briefly returned to it to vote for Sanders in the primaries (and have, in some cases, turned against Sanders himself for his full-throated endorsement of Hillary at the Democratic convention), are regurgitating the old lies that the Clintons had a hit list; that the Clinton Foundation exists only to extort protection money from other countries and their leaders; and that Hillary’s long-standing ties to Wall Street campaign donors make her just as bad for the country, and for progressive ideals, as Trump.
It’s yet another example of why Vladimir Lenin called “‘Left-Wing’ Communism” an “infantile disorder.” My Facebook page is currently being cluttered up by grainy videos purporting to show Hillary’s supporters mysteriously making Sanders’ votes disappear. I’m reading hysterical (in both senses of the term: insane and funny) posts to the effect that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are “the same shade of evil,” and their authors are proudly boasting that they’re planning to throw their votes away this November — or to vote for an “alternative” candidate like Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party, which under America’s winner-take-all election system is the same thing as throwing your vote away.
Democrats vs. Republicans: The Real Difference
I’m especially incensed by this because in several previous elections I’ve drunk the “they’re both evil” Kool-Aid myself and voted accordingly. Not this time. The Republican Party is in the grip of an economically libertarian and socially authoritarian ideology that rejects the idea that human beings have any responsibility to each other or their environment. It rejects the idea that people of color, women or Queer people are equal to white straight men. It not only rejects doing anything substantial to reverse, stop or even slow down human-caused climate change, it ridicules the science that shows humans are causing climate change.
A nation governed by the current Republican Party would be one in which it would once again be illegal to have an abortion or have sex with someone of your own sex. It would be one in which it would be illegal for workers to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers. It would be one in which there would be no minimum wage and no enforcement of laws to protect the health and safety of workers on their jobs. It would be one in which, instead of narrowing, the gap in pay equity between men and women would increase. It would be one in which racial discrimination would not only be allowed, but encouraged. It would be one in which Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid would not exist, and health care would be a luxury available only to those who could pay for it. It would be one that continued to run itself on fossil fuels and ignored their impact on the environment.
And it would be one in which the bloated U.S. military budget would be increased still further, in which the U.S. would push its weight around the world even more than it does now, in which any Leftist, progressive or liberal who came to power in any country in the world would have to worry about being overthrown in a Right-wing revolution or military coup supported by American power. It would be one in which once the U.S. government declared someone a “terrorist,” however flimsy or nonexistent the evidence for that declaration was, they would cease to have any due-process rights and would routinely be tortured.
That’s the sort of world your generic cookie-cutter Republican leaders believe in, and that doesn’t even get into the specific positions and attitudes of their standard-bearer in this year’s election, Donald Trump. It’s true that on a few issues Trump has staked out positions at least vaguely more progressive than the Republican mainstream — like protecting Social Security and Medicare, and opposing the network of so-called “free trade” agreements that began with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1992 and continues with the currently proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
But it’s also true that every time Trump stakes out a progressive position, elements of the Republican coalition are right there to snap him back in line. It happened when he declared he wouldn’t care which restroom Caitlyn Jenner used if he visited Trump Tower — and then quickly backtracked when Right-wing “social conservative” Republicans declared it’s a matter of party policy that states can make laws keeping Transgender people from using the restrooms of the gender in which they identify and present themselves. Trump went along and, as is his wont, pretended that nothing he’d said had changed.
The Republican Party of today is a Right-wing ideological party, and its current Presidential nominee is — I’m going to say it — an out-and-out fascist with a visceral contempt for the whole idea of representative democracy. The comparisons between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump are almost too obvious: the conscious construction of a cult of personality (Hitler declared himself the embodiment of Germany’s “racial will” and Trump said, about America’s crisis, “I alone can fix it”); the scapegoating of racial and religious minorities and blaming them for their countries’ problems (with Hitler it was Jews, with Trump Mexicans and Muslims); the pride not only in militarism but torture and the enthusiastic boasts that if elected, they would commit war crimes; and the thug-like behavior both Hitler and Trump encouraged their supporters to direct at protesters at their rallies.
The Hitler-Trump parallel goes not only to their personal styles — both described their countries as being in the middle of existential crises they alone could fix — but in their sources of support. Hitler came to power as a result of Germany’s defeat in World War I and the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, particularly the reparations payments that basically sank the German economy. Trump’s base of support is the white male working class, and his appeal to them is that he can single-handedly reverse the systematic de-industrialization of America and bring back all those lost manufacturing jobs to the U.S. (this while virtually every item of Trump paraphernalia on sale at his rallies and the Republican convention was made in some other country).
If you still think there’s no substantial difference between the Republican and Democratic parties, please go to http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-party-gap-20160729-snap-story.html and read the news analysis by Los Angeles Times writer David Lauter. “One night this week, the Democratic convention featured eight Black women whose children had died in shootings or at the hands of police,” Lauter began his story. “A week earlier, Republicans repeatedly paid tribute to law enforcement. In Philadelphia, the billionaire global warming activist Tom Steyer was ubiquitous. In Cleveland, Republicans put a spotlight on the plight of out-of-work miners and pledged to increase use of coal. A speaker needing applause at a Democratic convention can always praise teachers. Republicans can reliably criticize public employee unions.”
The “infantile” (Lenin’s term, not mine) Leftists who still cling to the notion that there’s “no difference” between the Republican and Democratic parties usually respond to arguments like that with plaints about how the Democrats aren’t really that progressive. They’re sometimes right, but that’s beside the point. It’s true that Democrats haven’t been as aggressive on combating climate change as they should be — but at least they acknowledge it as a problem, which the Republicans don’t. It’s true that Democrats have supported imperialist wars in the Third World — but other Democrats have led the electoral opposition to them. It’s true that Democrats take money from the 1 percent in general and Wall Street in particular — but other Democrats have led the opposition to Wall Street’s desires while Republicans have meekly lined up with them. I think Bernie Sanders got it right when he said the Democrats were “influenced” by Wall Street money but Republicans were “controlled” by it.
Yes, both the Democrats and the Republicans are capitalist political parties. They’re both committed to maintaining a system of private enterprise that inevitably produces major disparities in wealth and income. But they are committed to that in profoundly different ways, and therefore it matters which one we vote for even though we shouldn’t believe that desirable social change will come only from electing Democrats. The Republicans have taken an increasingly hard line that “the Market” should determine the allocation of wealth and resources, and any government interference with “the Market” is not only bad public policy but immoral because it takes money from the “deserving” rich and gives it to “undeserving” working-class and lower-income people. This is what 2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney meant when he said that the Democrats would always get votes from the 47 percent of people who “want government to give them stuff.”
Democrats haven’t always been as faithful or strenuous champions of workers’ rights as they could or should have been, but if you’re serious about challenging the inequality of wealth and income in the U.S., they remain the only game in town. As I’ve noted in these pages before, during the primary campaign Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had long and extensive arguments in their debates over whether the federal minimum wage should be raised to $12 or $15 per hour. Meanwhile, some of the Republican candidates were calling for abolition of the minimum wage altogether, and their eventual nominee, Trump, said U.S. workers were overpaid and needed to scale down their wages so the U.S. could compete with foreign countries in a global economy. (So much for Trump as the protector of the American working class against globalization, a fantasy that has driven a lot of American workers to vote for him.)
Building On — or Squandering — the Sanders Legacy
What’s more, thanks largely to the Bernie Sanders campaign and particularly the incredible outpouring of young people’s support for him and the dedication and commitment with which they fought against the odds, the Democratic Party is considerably more progressive than it would have been without them to push it to the Left. This year’s Democratic platform includes a $15 per hour minimum wage (and Hillary Clinton helped broker a compromise with the Right-wing Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for a $15/hour minimum in New York City and $12/hour upstate) and important proposals to free both current and future college students from the crushing lifelong burden of student-loan debt. It also commits the party to abolish the death penalty, reform the criminal justice system and guarantee a woman’s right to reproductive choice (while this year the Republicans adopted the most anti-choice platform in American political history).
Not that the platform is all it could have been. It’s fascinating that Hillary Clinton’s people on the platform committee gave in on the $15 per hour minimum wage and abolishing the death penalty but dug their heels in on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). What’s more, there were reports that delegates to the Democratic convention who held up anti-TPP signs on the first two days were threatened with expulsion if they continued — and whether those were true, you didn’t see any anti-TPP signs the last two days. It reinforced my suspicion that Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State when the TPP was being negotiated, once called it a “gold standard” for trade agreements and opposed it in the middle of her primary battle with Sanders, will, if she’s elected President, make some cosmetic changes to the agreement, announce that her qualms have been satisfied and be for it again.
But then the whole network of so-called “trade” agreements that began with NAFTA and is climaxing with the TPP and the analogous Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) the U.S. is negotiating with the European Union is too important an issue for the worldwide — not just the American — ruling class for them to allow the mere workings of representative democracy to derail it. Of particular importance to them is the concept of Investor-to-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), a mechanism in all such “trade” treaties that allows corporations to sue nations and force them to set aside laws protecting their workers or their environment. The secret tribunals, packed with corporate lawyers, that hear ISDS cases can’t literally force a country to get rid of its labor or environmental laws — but they can threaten to impose crippling fines and/or lock them out of the world economy if they don’t go along.
So Hillary Clinton is probably hedging her bets on TPP and waiting until she can seize a pretext to support it again. But I suspect Donald Trump is, too. Watch how fast Trump’s supposedly diehard opposition to TPP and other “trade” deals will evaporate once he actually becomes President (God forbid!) and he has to deal with his fellow U.S. and worldwide 1-percenters who expect him to deliver for them. The regime of “trade” agreements and the neo-feudal world they are designed to produce — in which corporations essentially rule and nation-states merely do their bidding — is one that will have to be stopped by a worldwide campaign, most of which will inevitably consist of activism outside the electoral system.
But then that’s true of virtually every issue I’ve discussed in this article. The reality is, as I’ve written again and again, is that working within the political system and electing people to public office is not enough to bring about radical social change. Neither is street activism — demonstrations, rallies, civil disobedience. It takes both. The gains the U.S. Left made in the 1890’s, the 1910’s, the 1930’s and the 1960’s came from the combination of electoral activism and street action. It also helped that, at least in the 1890’s and the 1910’s, there were progressive candidates and caucuses within both the Democratic and Republican parties, and therefore Leftists could play the major parties against each other and weren’t faced with the damnable “Democrats or nothing” bind they’ve been in ever since.
Bernie Sanders’ campaign has left the American Left a powerful legacy it can either build upon or squander. It will build upon it if it realizes that electoral politics don’t begin and end with the Presidency. A political movement aimed at building a truly mass Left in this country will have to run candidates for public office at all levels, from water districts and school boards to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. And, except for local elections which are legally “non-partisan,” it will have to do so using the ballot access mechanism of the Democratic Party because under America’s winner-take-all political system, people who aren’t Democrats or Republicans simply don’t get elected to office (with a few insignificant and quirky exceptions).
The American Left will have to pay particular attention to who runs state governments — governors, other statewide officials and state legislatures. And it will have to mount an especially intense offensive to contest these elections in 2020. The reason for that is, according to America’s quirky voting laws, elections in years ending in zero are especially important because those choose the representatives who will draw the district lines for the next 10 years. The Republican sweep in the 2010 elections gave Republican state legislators the ability to draw lines that protected not only their state legislative majorities but their U.S. House majority as well — so in 2012 Republicans kept control of the House even though more Americans voted for Democrats than Republicans to represent them.
The other thing the U.S. Left must do to build on the Sanders campaign is coordinate between its electoral and non-electoral activists. As late as the 1960’s we knew how to do this. Since then, however, it’s become a lost art on the Left. All too many Leftists engaged in direct action outside the electoral system believe it’s morally demeaning and wrong to participate in the electoral process. Likewise, all too many progressives who are involved in electoral politics are frightened by direct-action activists and worry they’ll jeopardize their “contacts” in high office.
In cleaning our clocks over the last three and one-half decades (ever since the election of Ronald Reagan), the Right has shown — or reminded — us of how social change can be achieved. First, the electoral and non-electoral activists of the radical Right remain in close contact and work together. Second, they categorically reject the siren song of building their own political party and thereby shutting themselves out of real political power. The people who started the Tea Party told their supporters again and again and again not to bother with forming their own party, but instead to run their candidates through the Republican party and ultimately take it over.
The legacy of the Bernie Sanders campaign will be squandered if the Left runs back into its little holes and maintains its stance of ideological “purity.” It will be squandered if the young people who were the bulwark of Sanders’ campaign decide after one setback that working through electoral politics is hopeless and therefore they’re not going to bother even to vote. It will be squandered if Sanders supporters continue to clog social media by harping on the deficiencies of Hillary Clinton, which are real but insignificant compared to those of Donald Trump. And, above all, the Sanders legacy will be trashed if Trump wins and answers the demands of impoverished and oppressed Americans with his foul brew of racial, religious and gender stereotyping and discrimination.