The Left, the 2016 Election and the Cunning of History
Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination for president has fallen short, edged out by Hillary Clinton’s formidable organization and her deep ties to the Party’s establishment. The Sanders campaign offered a genuine alternative, funded by record-breaking amounts of small donations from ordinary people, promising to implement an agenda of progressive social, economic, political and foreign policy reforms. Many disaffected young people in particular were brought into the Party and helped Sanders win his share of caucuses and primaries. Still he fell short. And now as the Democrats pivot to the general election to defeat the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump, the critical question is whether those young folks and others who were so energized to vote for Bernie as a progressive alternative are willing to show up on election day to vote for Hillary.
Hillary is the first woman to ever be nominated for president by any major political party in the entire history of the U.S. It is quite a remarkable achievement and long past due. This is for many people reason enough to support her. Social science research has shown that when women get elected public policy becomes more progressive. Many others doubt this will happen much with Clinton as President. In another respect, she represents the anti-thesis of change, following her husband Bill Clinton on the road to the White House. As first lady, Hillary demonstrated a willingness to enthusiastically endorse Bill’s most retrogressive policies regarding cuts to social welfare, increases in mass incarceration, decreases in economic regulation, and a continuation of militarism even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Clintons identified as New Democrats who embraced neoliberalism in pursuing market-friendly policies while promising to make things better for ordinary people, which in practice did not always turn out so well for people on the bottom on the socio-economic ladder.
Many Bernie supporters would almost rather die than vote for Hillary, who they see as a corporate shill who puts a female-friendly face on continued corporate-domination of an increasingly unequal economic system. Some would actually rather die. Some are even willing to openly proclaim their intention to vote for Trump, even though it is increasingly widely known that Trump is a racist and liar who has conned his way to the nomination by taking advantage of the Republican party’s eight-year exploitation of racial division, which was exacerbated by white backlash to Barack Obama, the first African-American president in U.S. history.
Selected voices on the Left who championed Bernie’s campaign have vilified Hillary supporters who have warned of the extreme dangers of electing Trump President. They say that fear-mongering about Trump is just a cheap way of blackmailing people into translating their support for Bernie into votes for Hillary. Instead, they minimize the threat that Trump poses, or emphasize that Bernie polls better than Hillary against Trump.
While all that may be true, the irony is that it only furthers the possibility that the impossible might happen and that someone as dangerous to democratic aspirations as Trump will become President. It is what Hegel called the cunning of history. People exercising their free will ironically end up unknowingly enacting what the forces of history have scripted for them. Neoliberalism in fact became ascendant just this way. Jamie Peck has written incisively about what he calls “zombie neoliberalism,” where people, policymakers, interest groups, voters and ordinary people more generally, unreflectively enact a neoliberal marketizing approach to public policy just because it is the only real option made available once it became hegemonic. It becomes the default logic for making public policy and then gets reproduced, even by people who do not really benefit from it.
The Left today risks being zombie Trump supporters. Just by pursuing a failing electoral strategy, it can come to be complicit in making the horror of a Trump presidency as reality. While Hillary Clinton might not represent real change, and while if left to her own instincts she would pursue a neoliberal agenda, she is what stands between our ability to move forward and Trump, the most retrogressive force to ever come out of the major party nomination process.
Part of the problem is the Left’s misunderstanding of the relationship of political movements to elections. The political movement started by Occupy Wall Street and continued by Black Lives Matter has been successful putting the issue of growing inequality under neoliberalism on the political agenda. It has re-shaped the election, most significantly with the Bernie Sanders campaign. It will continue to have influence, especially if Clinton is elected. This is what political movements do. They rarely are able to overtake the political parties themselves and push their candidate and agenda all the way through to public policy implementation. Instead, they are an outside force that can disrupt, re-structure and significantly influence but usually not overtake the structure of power itself. And when a political movement does overtake a party, as with Trump riding to the nomination on wave of white resentment that began smoldering in the Tea Party movement, the party can be destroyed.
Many of the same Leftists that criticized Occupy Wall Street for lacking an organization and an explicit policy agenda have now criticized the idea that the Sanders campaign should be enfolded in the Clinton effort to defeat Trump. But this is how misunderstanding political theory leads to bad history. Occupy was not a failure for being disorganized and lacking an explicit agenda. It performed its role as a political movement, mobilizing the discontented and re-framing political discourse. The Sanders campaign will be continuing that good work by now turning to support Hillary. It will be doing its good work further by pressuring her from the outside to do what’s right once she wins the presidency. That is sound political theory in service of good history. Anything less, given the alternative is very bad indeed. And it would reflect the cruelest of ironies that come from the cunning of history.