Notes on a Dismal and Delightful Campaign

I’ve been posting about the presidential primaries on Facebook and Twitter, and neglecting the blog. I thought I’d gather all the posts here. Some notes on an often dismal—and sometimes delightful—campaign…

1. Amid all the accusations that Hillary Clinton is not an honest or authentic politician, that she’s an endless shape-shifter who says whatever works to get her to the next primary, it’s important not to lose sight of the one truth she’s been telling, and will continue to tell, the voters: things will not get better. Ever. At first, I thought this was just an electoral ploy against Sanders: don’t listen to the guy promising the moon. No such thing as a free lunch and all that. But it goes deeper. The American ruling class has been trying to figure out for years, if not decades, how to manage decline, how to get Americans to get used to diminished expectations, how to adapt to the notion that life for the next generation will be worse than for the previous generation, and now, how to accept (as Alex Gourevitch reminded me tonight) low to zero growth rates as the new economic normal. Clinton’s campaign message isn’t just for Bernie voters; it’s for everyone. Expect little, deserve less, ask for nothing. When the leading candidate of the more left of the two parties is saying that — and getting the majority of its voters to embrace that message — the work of the American ruling class is done.

2. This is what Greg Grandin can do on a shattered leg (he broke it in two places a few weeks back) and Percocet:

Over the last month, Bernie Sanders, in slowly cobbling together what might be called a ‘Bernie Doctrine,’ has introduced a radical concept into American politics: the idea that history matters, that every effect has a cause. It seems a simple point—that actions taken in the past reverberate into the present—but it’s not. For America’s militarized brand of malignant exceptionalism is founded on the idea that the United States transcends history. That statement—that America believes itself exempt from the law of cause and effect—seems especially abstract. But the belief has a very concrete expression: a refusal to recognize the reality of blowback…. I did a lot of work on declassified US documents, mostly memos and cables generated by the US embassy in Guatemala City during the worst of that country’s political terror. And I was always struck by historical stupor of most foreign policy officials. Occasionally there’d be a flash of insight, including the recognition that Guatemala’s death squads were in fact created and maintained by Washington policy. But then that official would be rotated out of country after his two-year post, with his successor was once again portraying the death squads as outside of US control. Beyond institutional amnesia, a rejection of causal analysis is the existential rock on which American Exceptionalism sits.

3. I’m getting tired of the argument that if you criticize Clinton, saying she’s bad for poor people or for black people or for other constituencies, that you’re somehow presuming false consciousness, that you’re somehow presuming you know better than those voters. Not only does that move defang any and all political argument and political critique; not only does it presume that we’re not talking to each other as citizens, that we can’t criticize each other’s opinions and judgments but are instead walled off from each other in hermetically sealed silos (an especially irritating notion to me personally: I mean, who are these people I’m getting emails from at all hours of night, violently disagreeing with me, from all points of the ideological spectrum, and why am I responding to them, if we’re not in a dialogue?); but it also is radically self-defeating, especially for the left. You don’t think, come November, that a fair bunch of working class people are going to vote Trump? Are we not allowed to say that that’s a bad move for them and for the rest of the country? People, it is possible to say two things at once: a) voters have reasons for casting the ballots they do, that they get something for their vote, that it’s not irrational; and b) that it’s still, all things considered, a bad move that they should reconsider. The only world in which you’re not allowed to say some combination of those two things is a world where you in fact believe that you are so radically different from your opponents that you can’t even enter their world to have a discussion or dialogue with them. I’m not sure what kind of world that is, but it sure as shit ain’t a democracy. Or even on the road to a democracy.

4. Speaking of which, Cedric Johnson cuts through a lot of the bullshit about South Carolina here:

Hillary Clinton’s firewall strategy worked. It was built on decades of campaigning in the state, and the widely held impression that a Clinton presidency has the capacity to deliver both substantive and symbolic benefits to supporters. As she’s said, she doesn’t need a tour of the White House. The Clintons are not Daddy Daley or Boss Tweed, but they’re about the closest version we can imagine in today’s national context. Their ground game is strong, decades in the making, and was just too much for the Sanders camp to surmount in the time it had. Remember: Sanders started out polling around 7 percent support in South Carolina. That he was able to more than triple that backing over the past few months is significant, but obviously inadequate. Exit polls during Saturday’s primary suggested that 72 percent of all South Carolina Democrats wanted to continue Obama’s policies, and only 18 percent wanted something more liberal than what Obama offered. In the same poll, only 43 percent of black voters identified as liberals.

5. This headline from the Austin American-Statesman

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 10.08.39 AM




made me think of this:

It may peradventure be thought there was never such a time nor condition of war as this; and I believe it was never generally so over all the world, but there are many places where they live so now. For the savage people in many places of America…

6. But when it comes to David Duke and the KKK: further research is necessary.

7. “‘She [Hillary Clinton] was asking every question you could imagine,’ Mr. Jibril [Libyan opposition leader] recalled.”

That’s a quote from the first of a two-part New York Times report on Clinton’s role in Obama’s decision to join the effort to overthrow Qaddafi. What’s so important and interesting about these articles, which you should really read, is that they show Clinton in all her virtues. She’s thorough, she’s careful, she’s prepared, she asks all the right questions and studies all the right angles. She’s everything George W. Bush and his advisers were not. And having made her mind up, she’s forceful and persuasive: “It was Mrs. Clinton’s support that put the ambivalent president over the line.” And yet…after all that care and study, after all those years of experience, after Iraq, she gets it wrong. Disastrously wrong: “The consequences would be more far-reaching than anyone imagined, leaving Libya a failed state and a terrorist haven, a place where the direst answers to Mrs. Clinton’s questions have come to pass.”

8. O, Michael Rogin, where art thou?

“He called me Mr. Meltown,” Mr. Rubio said. “Let me tell you something last night during one of the breaks, two of the breaks, he went backstage. He was having a meltdown. First he had this little makeup thing, applying like makeup around his mustache because he had one of those sweat mustaches. Then he asked for a full-length mirror. I don’t know why, because the podium goes up to here, but he wanted a full-length mirror. Maybe to make sure his pants weren’t wet, I don’t know.”

9. Hillary Clinton, NPR, 1996: “My political beliefs are rooted in the conservatism I was raised with….I’m very proud that I was a Goldwater Girl.”

10. At a town hall tonight, before a national televised audience, Bernie Sanders not only stands by his 1974 critique of the CIA as a ‘‘dangerous institution’’ used to ‘‘prop up fascist dictatorships.” He also cites its role in the overthrow of Allende as a reason for standing by that critique.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton stands by Henry Kissinger.

11. I had two responses to the announcement by the Senate Republicans that they would refuse to consider any appointment to the Supreme Court that Obama had to offer, that the Senate had to wait until the American people voted for a new president in November.

Here’s my first response:

Three thoughts. First, given the spirit of lawlessness that courses throughout these people, the sheer contempt for constitutional procedure that is the beating heart of the Republican establishment, I wonder how anyone can still maintain the fiction that Trump is somehow radically different from or alien to mainstream GOP conservatism.

Second, it was the illegitimate decision of the Supreme Court in 2000 that gave new life to these clowns—and legitimacy to an election in which the popular will did not prevail. It seems altogether fitting that the GOP would now attempt to block the democratic process from taking its course in order to hold onto the least democratic branch of government—all in the name of democracy.

Third, what will the Democrats do? This latest cycle of American politics began with an illegitimate election in which the loser took power through illegitimate means; the Democrats carried on. It continued with an illegal war based on lies and deception. The Democrats carried on (when they weren’t voting for said war). And now this: the obstruction of not just an appointment, but the very idea of an appointment, to the Supreme Court. That glittering prize that Democrats have been telling us for years is the most important reason why we need to vote for their candidates, the holy of holies, the golden chalice. What will they now do in the face of a party that simply says: this cup shall pass away from thee?

Here’s my second response:

In my earlier post, I mentioned a series of constitutional and legal crises that preceded today’s announcement by the Senate GOP that they will simply not hold hearings on any Obama nomination to the Court (not that they will reject a specific Obama nominee but that they refuse to accept the very idea of an Obama nominee). I focused on the 2000 election and the Iraq War.

But there may be an even more important precedent here: the way we’ve all normalized the notion that any piece of legislation, in order to pass Congress, must have a filibuster-proof majority. I don’t know exactly when this became the price of doing business in Washington—sometime in Obama’s first term, I recall—but the way in which everyone in the media, and a lot of people in the Democratic Party, essentially accepted this notion is not encouraging. Every time someone says, “Of course Obama couldn’t do x, he’d never get it past the filibuster,” no matter how accurate a description of empirical reality that is, whoever is tendering it is making that reality more and more normal, and more and more normative. It’s no longer enough to win the majority of the electorate in the two elected branches of government in order to pass a law; you now have to have a super-majority. That is a deeply conservative and anti-democratic position, but it’s become the rule of the day.

My fear is that, once again, we’re about to see an unprecedented, anti-democratic, anti-constitutional gambit by the GOP established as yet another new normal. I don’t have the answer or the solution, but it seems pretty clear that there’s no way to just game your way out of this. The Dems may emerge victorious come November—or perhaps the Republicans will manage to extract a nominee that’s just one degree short of their revanchist views (I doubt that scenario will hold)—but I’m hard-pressed to see how anyone will understand those electoral victories in November as punishment for what the GOP is doing now. The deepening un-democracy and anti-democracy that is the American polity increasingly seems to be something that the two-party system is incapable of challenging.

12. Since I became department chair, I’ve generally avoided media interviews. Not for political reasons; they just throw off my entire day. But I made an exception for David Parsons, a History PhD from the Grad Center. He’s one of the best interviewers out there, and I find conversation with him to be exhilarating rather than enervating. We talked about Trump, Clinton, and Sanders. I gave my short statement of a piece I’m working on about Trump, how he’s new and not new as a conservative. Cryptic preview of that piece’s punchline: “If Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination and then the general election in November, it will be a victory for the GOP—and a defeat for conservatism. Not because Trump is not a conservative but precisely because he is.”


  1. Roquentin March 1, 2016 at 11:28 am | #

    Re: #7, this fits narcissistic pathology pretty well. What I mean is this: it’s all about maintaining an image (the ego ideal), a grandiose self. It doesn’t matter if she ultimately made the right or wrong decision. As neurotic as it sounds, that’s almost besides the point. What matters is her image. Whether or not she appeared to be informed, careful, serious, and wise. Following this logic you can make all the wrong decisions so long as you look really good doing so. Vote for the war in Iraq? She “made a mistake.” Orchestrate the debacle in Libya? “She was so virtuous in how she did so.” I’d like to say this sort of rot is rare, but way, way too many people think this way.

    Also, I agree wholeheartedly that the HRC campaign in many ways boils down to “You’ll get nothing and like it.” Well, that and “The Republican barbarians are at the gate and they’ll give it to you even worse than I will.” This is the main thrust of the campaign, and it’s working. This is what we’ve been reduced to, how little we’ve been taught to expect. I was reading the comments section on another article and someone quoted Hannah Arendt about the mixture of “gullibility and cynicism” under totalitarianism. Doesn’t that sum it up? We know it’s a hideous farce, but rather than do something about it we feel satisfied that we knew all along…as if that somehow fixes a damn thing.

    • LFC March 1, 2016 at 5:54 pm | #

      I don’t think #7 has much of anything to do with “narcissistic pathology.” Haven’t read the NYT articles, but a relevant point would be to whom she was asking thorough questions. You can ask all the thorough questions in the world and the answers will only be as good as your interlocutors are. That said, I also happen to think the Libyan decision at the time was not a completely easy, open-and-shut, obvious thing. There were knowledgeable people who opposed it, and part of the problem might have been the range of people involved in the decision. (The wider the range of views considered, all other things equal, probably the likelier the decision will be a good one.)

      I’d also mention in this connection the Obama admin’s decision, taken in Dec. 2009, to ‘surge’ 30,000 more soldiers into Afghanistan. I now lean strongly to the view that was a mistake, that the cost in terms of lost lives and injuries (on all sides) didn’t outweigh whatever benefits there were. I use the word “lean” because I don’t feel I’ve followed the Afghanistan situation closely enough to be entirely sure. I recognize it’s debatable and that it wasn’t an entirely clear-cut, obvious thing at the time. (YMMV, needless to say.)

      (I also realize that the expression of uncertainty may not go down well on this site, where the majority of commenters seem absolutely certain of what they think and of their complete correctness on whatever question they’re talking about.)

      • Roqeuntin March 2, 2016 at 8:05 am | #

        Yet, here you are, using precisely the same logic arguing that the decision itself matters less than how you perceive the person doing so. You aren’t justifying the invasion itself, so much as the manner she went about choosing to do so. I could fire this question back: If the means you took to make the conclusion lead to the wrong decision, of what use were the means? If careful consultation with a few selected experts lead her to make that choice after careful consideration, was this the right path to take?

        Also, she’s the Secretary of State. She’s not some random person making comments on the internet. She is held to a higher standard. It is literally her job to know the right thing to do in those situations, and she failed. She failed on Libya and she failed on Iraq. Perhaps you identify with her. You feel like you were wrong on these conflicts and that if she can be forgiven for it, perhaps you can to. I don’t necessarily agree, but once again you aren’t running for the highest office in the nation.

        • LFC March 2, 2016 at 10:25 am | #

          She failed on Libya and she failed on Iraq. Perhaps you identify with her. You feel like you were wrong on these conflicts and that if she can be forgiven for it, perhaps you can to[o].

          I was not wrong on Iraq. I opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq from the start. (I wasn’t in the blogosphere in ’03 so I didn’t write about it online.)

          On the 2009 Afghanistan ‘surge’ and the 2011 Libyan intervention (mentioned in my comment above), my view was that it was a matter of weighing the considerations on each side. For the record, I did not say I was wrong on either. I said I now lean strongly to the view that the Afghan surge was a mistake; at the time I was somewhat ambivalent on it.

          Both the 2009 and the 2011 decisions occurred during the Obama admin when HRC was sec of state. These decisions are of course separate, temporally and otherwise, from the war launched by Bush and Blair in 2003 in Iraq, which was in my view wrong on all counts: illegal, unwarranted, and foolish. (Presumably your reference to Iraq rather than Afghanistan is an inadvertent error or typo, but it left me with no choice except to clarify.)

  2. troutsky March 1, 2016 at 11:51 am | #

    I sense the Chomsky/Herman confusion here: either there is a “democracy deficit” where people understand their interests but are thwarted, or there is “manufactured consent”, where propaganda structures the discourse.

    If we reject “false consciousness” and say “black and poor voters” are deducing their true interests, then how to reconcile the “deepening un-democracy and anti-democracy” that is the American polity”?

    I would suggest that a Constitution and voting are just the shallowest layers of democracy as such. And that a radical critique of the spectral capitalist state and the hollowed out sphere of “the political” is the first order of business or you just run aground on these contradictions. i think you have to look at ideology.

    • commonreader March 1, 2016 at 2:13 pm | #

      “I sense the Chomsky/Herman confusion here: either there is a “democracy deficit” where people understand their interests but are thwarted, or there is “manufactured consent”, where propaganda structures the discourse.”

      This seems like a false dichotomy. Why can’t it simultaneously be true that the bottom 80% have zero influence on policy, despite having less conservative economic views than both parties (, and that propaganda structures the discourse in corporate media? It seems to me that both are true.

      Historically, where the left has been the strongest, it has combined an organized grassroots politics with an alternative media sphere (the labor press, some African-American newspapers for the civil rights movement, indie publications for women’s liberation, etc.). The problem now is that the level of political mobilization is lower than the 1930s or 1960s, while the media landscape is more diffuse and complex. There are radical ideas circulating if you look for them, but working-class people are more atomized and have fewer institutions to turn to.

  3. jonnybutter March 1, 2016 at 12:42 pm | #

    there’s no way to just game your way out of this.

    This could be the reverse motto of the Dems, or their epitaph, or something.

    The Debbie Wasserman Schultz <a href="“Corollary to what HRC said in 1997 about pride in her Goldwater Girl turn, and how much her conservative upbringing informs her politics, is about how the modern GOP is no longer ‘recognizable’ as the party of Lincoln and Reagan. That’s right, you read right, Lincoln and Reagan. OK, I know what she was ‘trying to do’ linking those two, but it’s just…ick. The cliche ‘too clever by half’ comes to mind. Our Bullshitter In Chief kind of did the same thing in the 2008 primary, as we recall. sigh. Your Democratic Party, 2016: love Reagan and hate FDR.

    • jonnybutter March 1, 2016 at 1:43 pm | #

      At the risk of straying off topic….speaking of the intolerable DWS….

  4. Ben Johannson March 2, 2016 at 6:08 am | #

    Why would the parties wat to change the filibuster when it has worked so well as an out for delivering the changes both claim they support? You assure your voters of your desire for social conservatism or progressive reform and when your show-effort fails you blaim “the system.” This then frees you to pursue your real agenda, the one party elites on both sides actually intend to see become law.

  5. NM March 2, 2016 at 9:12 am | #

    What about Bernie Sanders’ failure to produce policies based on realistic numbers? Isn’t that a serious failing, esp. for a left candidate? To me, at least, that was a huge issue. I’d have loved a leftwing insurgent candidate with solid policies, and much regret that Warren did not run. Obviously I’d have voted for Sanders had he become candidate (and had I a vote), but given this fundamental failing, there is no way I’d have voted for him in the primary.

    On Libya: I opposed the intervention, and I not only marched against but helped organize occupations & sit-ins agains the Iraq war. Clinton’s vote for it was shameful. But the argument that Syria indicates that non-intervention in Libya could also have easily led to a drawn-out civil war far deadlier than the general chaos that seems to have engulfed the country since G.’s fall would seem to become more valid by the day. So I’d be increasingly inclined to argue that Clinton should get a pass on that one. It is simply to early to tell.

  6. jonnybutter March 3, 2016 at 4:59 pm | #

    I don’t know why Corey’s blog attracts trolls like it does, but wow, does it ever.

    • LDH March 3, 2016 at 11:59 pm | #

      I’ve read through all the comments here and, while I disagree with some of the points folks have made, I didn’t notice anything that struck me as so provocative or inane that one would describe it as trolling. So, I’m asking genuinely, what looks like trolling (disagreement? or pro-Clinton tendencies?) …or were the posts you are referring to removed?

Leave a Reply