Article Preview: Within certain circles of the US business and political establishment Hillary Clinton has been a figure to abuse and revile. This began during Bill Clinton’s first term of office, when she was targeted in response to her health care reform advocacy. Attacks on both Clintons by Republicans and right-wing hate groups intensified thereafter as part of a concerted effort to prevent passage of progressive legislation during the years 1992 – 2000. It was a precursor to the more vicious attacks on Barack Obama, pursued with a similar purpose of inhibiting even the mildest progressive legislation.
The Washington Socialist: Midsummer 2016
By Kurt Stand
Within certain circles of the US business and political establishment Hillary Clinton has been a figure to abuse and revile. This began during Bill Clinton’s first term of office, when she was targeted in response to her health care reform advocacy. Attacks on both Clintons by Republicans and right-wing hate groups intensified thereafter as part of a concerted effort to prevent passage of progressive legislation during the years 1992 – 2000. It was a precursor to the more vicious attacks on Barack Obama, pursued with a similar purpose of inhibiting even the mildest progressive legislation.
Yet Hillary Clinton is very much a part of the political establishment with close business and personal ties to the corporate world. The Clintons have supported militarist foreign policy, repressive criminal justice, anti-worker trade agreements, and welfare restrictions that have had a devastating impact on poor women. More to the point, every reform measure either has advocated points away from universal social insurance programs in favor of market-based public-private initiatives consistent with neoliberal ideology. Although the corporate right condemns Hillary Clinton, she is supported by centers of power from Wall Street, the high tech, media and retail industries – and important elements of the Pentagon and US foreign policy apparatus.
The predominant leadership of labor, of women’s groups, civil rights and immigrant rights organizations also support Hillary Clinton, proclaiming her as an ally even though Sanders has been a more consistent supporter of social justice struggles. Partially this reflects the extent to which such groups function within the framework of institutional politics and are unwilling or unable to imagine a challenge to the limits of contemporary political discourse permitted by corporate neo-liberalism. Being part of the system, some recoil at a challenge to the system.
Such reformism, however, has a broad base of popular support; the widespread support for Sanders has not dislodged the widespread belief that radical politics will inevitably fail. The loss of stable jobs and the weakening of the social safety net have left millions feeling insecure and powerless. Conservative assaults on previously existing rights – be it a woman’s right to control her own body, the right of an immigrant to live in peace or the right of an African-American youth to live without fear of police violence – alongside government assaults on civil liberties and corporate attacks on unions lead many to prefer the comparative safety of a limited Democratic liberalism as compared to the dangers of reaction if a progressive agenda is pushed too strongly.
Those fears are particularly strong in the black community and help explain why Hillary Clinton has done exceptionally well among voters whose needs are greatest. The language of the Republican primaries, and the emergence of Donald Trump as the presumptive nominee, give weight to such concerns. In addition, there is a section of people who experienced – up close or at a distance — the radical movements of the 1960s and ‘70s and believe that the internecine war within activist circles at the close of that era not only destroyed the possibility of progressive change, it also led to the country’s right-wing turn. Thus the preference for Clinton as against pushing forward with an agenda that might open the wounds of difference.
Though not everyone accepts such self-limitation. Those who have come to support Bernie Sanders have done so because of the clarity of his political principles and because of the vision that lies behind that clarity. His call for universal health insurance confronts the reality that access to medical care for working people and the poor remains expensive or out of reach; his call for free college education confronts the reality that those who graduate from universities face substantial debt alongside uncertain employment prospects; and his support for a living wage confronts the reality that the jobs that have been created are low-paid, part-time and precarious. And Sanders’s opposition to neo-liberal “free” trade agreements and his insistence that climate change is the principal national security issue facing the United States stand as an indirect critique of militarism and proactively address the existential crisis facing humanity if corporate greed ever and again outweighs human need.
Tying these issues together is Wall Street power – power made visible when the Supreme Court decision equating money with speech allowed for unlimited corporate spending on elections. Sanders’s denunciation of big banks and the inequality that inevitably grows from the massive transfer of wealth from working people to the “1%,” grows out of and reflects the continuing dynamism of the Occupy movement – and speaks to a legacy of the American Revolution (albeit one generally ignored or suppressed) which insists that democracy, freedom and equality are interdependent. All are needed if any is to flourish. That is the same equation central to the socialist tradition, which has deeper roots in US history than is generally apparent. Sanders’s willingness to proclaim that socialism openly is more important than the narrow definition he gives it because of his accompanying message: a more inclusive society will be possible only when power is taken from the plutocracy and returned to the people.
The notion that economic justice and political democracy will enable people to find a place in an otherwise uncaring and unfeeling world is the vision that has animated Sanders supporters beyond his program. His call for a “political revolution” is particularly appealing to the young who have less to lose and thus feel less vulnerable (or perhaps are less fearful of their vulnerability) than many of their elders who are supporting Clinton. But it would be wrong to view the divide between Sanders or Clinton supporters only in generational terms for it is a divide within the women’s movement, immigrant communities, amongst African-Americans, and other groupings.
This internal contest is perhaps nowhere as sharply drawn as within the labor movement – for as much as Sanders’s campaign has appealed to young people, Sanders has also attracted the engagement of militant unionists on an almost unprecedented scale. This stems from the active support Sanders has always provided unions, be it during strikes, organizing drives, campaigns to stop plant closings, legislative battles over workplace and union rights. So while it is true that more unions are supporting Clinton than Sanders, it is also true that many locals and rank-and-file groups have taken an independent stand and are actively organizing as “Labor for Bernie.”
Moreover the unions that have officially endorsed Sanders embody his campaign’s linkages. The United Electrical Workers and the West Coast longshore union are two survivors of Cold War anti-Communism and have never abandoned their militancy or their broader progressive and anti-war programs. The Postal Workers and two transit worker unions are engaged in struggles for increased government social investment that Sanders has championed as part of their defense of members jobs and wages. The National Nurses Union is one of the most engaged campaign supporters, based on a shared commitment to universal health care; the NNU has also taken leadership of building a broad movement for democracy and social justice to continue after the elections no matter who wins. So too is the Communication Workers – now [at the time] on strike against Verizon, the largest work stoppage to take place in the US for many years. CWA is in the forefront of support for formations such as Jobs with Justice and the Working Families Party and other labor-community initiatives. The extent of such activism is the reason the AFL-CIO itself has remained neutral between Clinton and Sanders.
And yet it is not enough. Sanders’s broad support notwithstanding, millions support Clinton, millions support Trump, millions remain on the sidelines convinced that elections are irrelevant to their needs. All this matters because, as Sanders himself makes clear, change won’t be won by his election, won’t be achieved through congressional compromise. He insists that only mass mobilizations can force neo-liberal Democrats and Republicans to bend to the popular will. That, however, presupposes a wider, deeper level of public engagement than has been achieved. Sanders’s strength in focusing on corporate power and the growth of inequality as measured between the rich and working people as a whole – true and principled and radical as it is – will fall short unless the need to establish economic justice and social security for all working people is joined to the movement against particular forms of injustice which cause some segments of working people to suffer relative to others. The call for jobs should include speaking against mass incarceration’s impact on unemployment amongst blacks and Latinos, the demand for universal health should include the demand for measures to protect women’s reproductive health, advocacy of free college tuition should include proposals to ensure that poor children from communities of color receive an adequate primary education.
Failure to make linkages led to George McGovern’s defeat in 1972 by Richard Nixon’s “law-and-order” racist appeal to white workers – and was followed by Jimmy Carter’s retreat from labor-backed economic policy and the collapse of reform Democratic Party politics. Bill Clinton later used the language of social equality to mask the substantive inequality produced by his neo-liberalism – and stood as a repudiation of the linkages between social justice communities developed within Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988. Clinton’s retreats created the basis for today’s Republican congressional ascendancy. Ralph Nader’s one-dimensional presidential campaign failed as an alternative, unable to build linkages due to independence not only from Democrats but also from social justice movements. Unresolved contradictions from the past culminated in the loss of opportunity to bring about the substantive change briefly possible when Obama was first elected as he prioritized placating Republicans and corporate Democrats over mobilizing his base.
Today, addressing economic justice alone provides space for the racist demagoguery of people like Donald Trump who speak to class anger for whites only. Addressing class inequality abstractly enables Wall Street liberals like Clinton to separate the struggle against particular forms of social injustice from economic injustice. Only when discrimination and exploitation are attacked in their specificity and their linkages can the opportunities created through Sanders’s campaign be grasped.
Shortly before his 1973 assassination, Amilcar Cabral, the leader of the liberation movement in Guinea and the Cape Verde Islands, remarked to a group of Howard University students in Washington DC that the United States, is “… still forging a nation – it is not yet not completed … Several things have contributed to the forming and changing of this country, such as the Vietnam War, though unfortunately at the expense of the Vietnamese people.” That is to say, the disparate communities in the US, held together by bonds of oppression and inequality as well as by bonds of shared history and development, can develop an organic unity only through a mutual struggle for justice. Opposition to the fragmented, imperial country the United States has become is the path socialism needs to take to overcome division and realize the egalitarian promise of what the nation could be.
Sanders’s campaign used the Simon & Garfunkel song, “America” to great effect in an early campaign video – a wistful song that expresses a yearning for society to make sense, a yearning for meaning. The challenge is to build upon that yearning during the rest of this election cycle and in the months and years ahead.
So I looked at the scenery,
She read her magazine;
And the moon rose over an open field.
“Kathy, I’m lost”, I said,
Though I knew she was sleeping.
“I’m empty and aching and
I don’t know why.”
Counting the cars
On the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come
To look for America,
All come to look for America,
All come to look for America.
Note: A version of this article appeared in Ossietzky magazine (#13) in June.
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