Wednesday, February 24, 2016

HRC and the Hermetically Sealed Box

Let me start with all my cards face-up on the table.

HRC, like all women (and especially women in American politics) has been and continues to be the target of sexist attacks. She has been and continues to be especially vilified by a Republican party which seems to have wholly internalized the idea that it is the only party that represents American ideals, and so any candidate who challenges them is to be destroyed without pity. Given this baptism by fire HRC has become a formidably smart, tough, and able politician, and is a strong candidate to be our next president.

Nevertheless, I will be voting for her opponent in the primary, and I urge others to do the same.

The reason I am supporting HRC's opponent is very simple: she is too close to Wall Street and the other monied interests that are destroying our democracy. Her opponent is running against this vast, powerful, and interconnected system of interests and actually running quite well against it, all things considered.

It's hard for me to imagine any reasonable person acquainted with our politics denying this is a serious problem. My view is that when a presidential candidate comes along who unambiguously names this problem and vows to address it you owe him or her your vote. We can never change this corrupt system if we constantly vote for candidates who refuse to challenge it. It really is as simple as that.

And yet . . .

Not long ago former president Bill Clinton was campaigning for HRC in New Hampshire. He accused his wife's opponent of focusing too much on big banks and the economy. Then the former president--one of the most skillful politicians of our generation--said the following:
Hillary's opponent has a different view. It's a hermetically sealed box. It's very effective. The system is rigged against you by the big banks, and both parties are in the thrall of the big banks. Anybody who takes money from Goldman Sachs couldn't possibly be president.
Take a moment to let the full force of the utterly tone-deaf quality of this statement wash over you. 

First, there is the unambiguous ridiculing of the notion that our politics has been thoroughly corrupted by big money. Yet this "notion" is fact, and one that no serious person denies. But that last sentence . . . let's savor its bitter, arrogant, mocking tone again: 
Anybody who takes money from Goldman Sachs couldn't possibly be president.
We would do well to ask ourselves what a person like Bill Clinton would have to believe to utter such a sentiment? 

We might imagine they had utterly forgotten about the financial collapse of 2008 and the role that banks like Goldman Sachs had in bringing that catastrophe about. We might conjure up the notion that they are completely comfortable with the revolving door that exists between government and industry, and the increasing oligarchical character of our politics. We might imagine they have somehow lost all empathy for the slow death our our middle class, and are now simply unmoved by the enormous upwards transfer of wealth that has occurred in this country. We might even suppose they think we should simply elect the head of Goldman Sachs to the presidency since for all intents and purposes the nation's economy has been run for the exclusive benefit of its corporate class and other members of the 1% over the last thirty years, and so who better to be its steward?

And yet the HRC camp is seriously flummoxed as to why it's having such a hard time running against a life-long self-identifying democratic socialist in these primaries? 

We should at this point ask the obvious question: who are the ones living in the hermetically sealed box?

That's really it, isn't it? The Clintons and the rest of the titans of the donor class are completely clueless as to how a socialist could have any political appeal in these United States. And the only way they could be this clueless is that the reality they now walk in is completely divorced from the reality of the other 99% of the country's inhabitants.

The Rolling Stone's very excellent Matt Taibbi nicely captured this disconnect in a recent article that begins with Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein lamenting the apparently unfathomable popular discontent with Wall Street, as manifested by the Sanders candidacy. "This has the potential to be a dangerous moment," Blankfein darkly intones, and then goes on to suggest that the widespread animus toward his kind is completely causeless and irrational, a mysterious but collective mood swing in the national psyche.

But the most relevant bit of the article relates the quandary faced by the president of Warburg Pincus Timothy Geithner when he was treasury secretary under Obama and faced widespread discontent with the taxpayer bailouts he engineered to make the Blankfeins of the world whole again. On Geithner's account he sought advice from the former president Clinton, who counseled him that he ought not to take the public anger too hard. "You could take Lloyd Blankfein in an alley and slit his throat, and it would satisfy them for about two days," Clinton said. "Then the blood lust would rise again."

And so there you have it. The millions of people who had the economic foundations of their lives destroyed by Wall Street fraud don't have legitimate grievances; they're just mindless beasts whose blood lust must be sated.

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and HRC
In light of all this is it any wonder that the Clintons would believe there is nothing at all unseemly about a presidential candidate taking enormous speaking fees from the criminal element of the financial sector? HRC and her husband have raked in literally millions of dollars giving speeches to some of the nation's most reckless bankers, with HRC taking in $675,000 from Goldman Sachs for three speeches alone. When confronted with this HRC has insisted she can't be bought even while she refuses to release the transcripts of the speeches in question. But during a weak but honest moment at a New Hampshire town hall meeting, she lamely admitted she took whatever Goldman Sachs was willing to pay.

Well, that more or less says it all, doesn't it? And doesn't it also explain why HRC's good friend and benefactor Lloyd Blankfein made no mention of her as part of this "dangerous" political moment?

This is not to say that there is any direct and dirty quid pro quo for any of these payments. No, it only works that way in situations where political corruption is illegal. When you legalize such corruption as we have under the euphemism "campaign finance," the effect is far more subtle. The money buys access for your new well-off "friends" whom you carefully refer to in public as your "constituents," and eventually by dint of social proximity their views and values become your own, as their "donations" slowly elevate you to similar heights. Imagine the exhilaration of the Clintons, who escaped the small time hothouse politics of Arkansas to scale the heights of power to cavort among the kingmakers! Of course the Clintons are not unique; the capital is awash with people like them. All of them slowly sucked into the box of corruption and then hermetically sealed in. In this warm and comfortable box one can no longer "feel the pain" of the people (in the former president's saccharine phrase), or barely even hear their cries of distress.

Of course when you emerge from the box to ask for the votes of the people outside it a great deal of filthy lucre is stuck to you. And since politics is a dirty business, in such a situation you have no choice but to dirty up your opponent, in this case a crusty little democratic socialist from Vermont. The problem for HRC and her supporters, however, is that the good senator from Vermont is officially a political independent who only caucuses with Democrats and so could hardly be further removed from the corrupting heights of DC politics. As a general rule, Wall Street bankers don't cozy up to unapologetic democratic socialists, and neither do the representatives of big oil, big pharma, etc.

So a good amount of the dirt thrown hasn't left much of a mark on Mr. Sanders. In many cases it's actually been pretty pathetic; an inconsistent vote here, a misspoken phrase there, some campaign official somewhere didn't get an FEC report in on time. Then there are the vague allegations that Sanders is insufficiently sensitive to racial matters, though the record shows he has been consistent in his support for racial equality throughout his political life. The really big gun surrogates are now being rolled out: the venerable John Lewis has pronounced Sanders MIA during the civil rights era despite the contrary testimony of the historical record; Paul Krugman has deemed Sanders's economic policies unrealistic despite the fact that they are realities in many parts of Europe; and on and on. There's even a ridiculous smear that holds that Sanders supporters are uniquely rude--only Sanders supporters, mind you--and so voters should punish the candidate accordingly.

I've run across my fair share of, shall we say, passionate HRC supporters who have said some things that could be considered quite rude. Madeleine Albright's warning that there is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women immediately comes to mind, or Gloria Steinem's condescending remark that young women are flocking to Sanders's campaign because they're boy crazy. Younger women quickly and loudly rejected the idea that they should vote their vaginas, and both statements were eventually walked back. Profoundly stupid statements both, but I wouldn't hold them against HRC the candidate. This is politics. People get involved and get excited. This is the rough and tumble of the democratic process we claim to celebrate.

I will say, however, and with great fear and trembling, that it seems with female HRC supporters of a certain age a whiff of entitlement floats in the air. The thinking seems to be, "Look, we wanted HRC eight years ago. We didn't get her. We supported Obama. You owe us. And this time we won't be denied."

Of course it will sound condescending when I say yes, a woman president is long overdue. But need the first woman president be one who has shown she's just as corruptible as any of her male predecessors? Would that really be a bright day for the women's movement? Especially when the phenomenal Elizabeth Warren stands in the wings?

Before you launch your slings and arrows, stay your hands for a moment. The conventional wisdom since Sanders's defeat in the Nevada caucus (53%-47%) says that identity politics will spell the end for his campaign, as African-American voters there stuck with Clinton. Apparently this signifies that the Sanders campaign is too white (or whiter than HRC's?)--whatever that means--and that John Lewis's disappointing slander of Sanders's civil rights record was deployed to good effect. Those of a certain age will recognize the cynical strategy deemed Clintonoid "triangulation." It's really just a more refined version of "divide and conquer."*

I should bring this all to an end by saying that despite my severe misgivings about HRC as a candidate I will work mightily to elect her president should she indeed win the nomination, and I strongly urge all other Sanders supporters to do the same. A Republican presidency, given the current dysfunctional state of that party, would be a catastrophe. Though a President Clinton would give no more than lip service to Wall Street reform, her veto pen would protect what remains of women's tattered reproductive rights and keep the more savage impulses of the GOP at bay.

But this year I will look back on my primary vote with fond memories, as one of those rare votes that wasn't cast for the sake of choosing the lesser of two evils. If casting a vote outside the hermetically sealed box cannot at this time bring about the possibility of the real, systemic, political change we so desperately need, perhaps it will at least sustain my soul until it can.

*The legal scholar Michelle Alexander has created an excellent catalog of the wages of "triangulation" and what it has cost the African-American community.

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