Why Clintonism Failed
The most popular explanation I see thrown around for why many people continue to side with leaders or institutions that work against their interests is cognitive dissonance, the phenomenon of humans shutting out facts when they contradict their beliefs. This is a good enough diagnosis, but the term cognitive dissonance has another definition that applies to this situation: the phenomenon of our brains having to confront ambiguity.
And ambiguity is a good way to describe one’s experience in this era of collapse. The specter of a gradually changing landscape as the planet gets warmer has often been perceived as eerie, and the same applies to every other aspect of the current decline; as buildings and infrastructure deteriorate from economic dysfunction, cultural norms drift toward authoritarianism and unreason, and larger factors like world events and the climate destabilize, the effect is one of a slow and haunting transformation into dystopia.
Some respond to this decay by going into self-destructive fantasies. Others choose to face it head-on. And then there’s the truly most cognitively dissonant facet that simply ignores the encroaching hubris of society’s bad decisions, that views any suggestion to overhaul the system as absurd annoyances and ignores all signs that the system is failing. Such an outlook has always been present in arrogant and unsustainable empires like our own. But Clintonism is an appropriate term for it in this instance, as its namesake is the one who brought about its ultimate, disastrous consequences last year.
This isn’t a thesis against Clintonism, because it’s already dwindled to something too scarcely accepted for that to be necessary. For all of David Brock’s scheming, Clintonism is no longer able to gain much electoral power, and it’s no sure thing representative democracy will survive to 2020 anyway. But as we wait for things to become too overwhelmed by war, authoritarian spasms, and economic disaster for Clintonism’s remaining adherents to be able to focus on things like Bernie Sanders’ tax returns (which, it’s apparently necessary to say, he did release), let’s take another look at its story. Because that’s how we can learn not to repeat it.
As I said, there’s nothing special about the perpetrators of American collapse-they’re as self-focused and detached from reality as the elites of any failed historical empire. (They’re just in charge of by far the largest empire in human history). But it’s interesting to point to where they really started to lose touch, which in America’s case was around a half century ago.
Alarming power grabs had been going on for decades up to that point, mainly in the unparalleled expansion of U.S. military power after World War II. It was at a certain point, maybe not coincidentally a full generation after the power structure gave its partial concession with the New Deal, that the takeovers began to escalate-the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, the return of then outmoded practices like solitary confinement, and the neoliberal turn of the Democratic Party and politics in general all came during the seventies.
The elite’s decision to do these things supposedly involved many factors, but what it came down to, as we’re all suspecting, is the overconfidence one can get while leading a seemingly collapse-immune empire. The fact that fatal actions were being taken must also have been distracted from by how those actions varied within the two major parties, with Democrats having fallen into appeasing their narrow new base in the professional class and Republicans having become an almost openly hostile force towards the poor and people of color. The empire was declining, but at least its factions could satisfyingly spar with each other.
Underlying all of this was a sense of contempt and condescension for those being victimized by the new economic system. While bland efforts were made to claim serving the wealthy would benefit everyone, disdain for the poor and authoritarian allegiance to the rich was naturally one of the tactics the neoliberals used, such as with the demonization of “welfare queens.” This rhetoric, which was less openly embraced by the Democrats who helped Reagan pass his tax cuts and deregulations, stung the downtrodden in the nastiest way possible. This was illustrated in how by the late eighties, trust in government had gone from around 75% since its peak twenty years before to around thirty points lower than that. (It’s now around 20%.)
And no matter that this resentment was starting to manifest in darkly cathartic outlets like white supremacist groups, which notably grew in the corporatism-pummeled Rust Belt during the Reagan recession. Now it was time to look to the Clintons for assurance that a dynamic of late stage Rome-level inequality was only sensible. While Republicans grew further detached from reality in the early nineties with their new campaign against environmentalism, the left was made largely complicit with the progressing corporate coup. Liberals idolized Clinton as he expanded neoliberal trade, exploded mass incarceration, consolidated the media, deregulated Wall Street, and overall crushed anything resembling a sensible political presence. With a self-appointed center like that, it’s no wonder many were turning to backwoods militia groups and bizarre far right conspiracy theories around that time.
While this form of Clintonism was especially noxious, having created a facet of self-identified progressives that to this day vehemently deny or even excuse the corporatist and militarist actions of their leaders, the intense focus I’ve put on it throughout my writing career has been somewhat overkill. Something like it was to be expected when the empire started on a downward spiral, and it’s mainly been just the enabler of the even more radically destructive things the Republican right has done.
By the time the Bush administration (with the help of a crucial amount of House and Senate Democrats) had invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, begun to build a surveillance state, and further normalized authoritarianism under a tapestry of government lies and post-9/11 nationalism, people were for some reason feeling angrier than ever. More than a third of the country was below the poverty line, nearly one in a hundred Americans were incarcerated, and everyone was in some way feeling the effects of a historic imperial binge and a planet that had warmed by almost one degree Fahrenheit.
All as elites continued to beat down on and openly mock the concerns of this dynamic’s victims. This was demonstrated by countless statements from conservatives about poverty always being the fault of the poor, and post-2004 election dispatches from Clintonism’s architects about how those who’d been pummeled by recent Democratic policies should stop complaining and accept the “future-oriented” Clintonist ideology.
And no matter that the downtrodden were reacting to this by embracing wild conspiracy theories, looking to end times preachers, and accepting the Islamophobic and anti-immigrant turn that conservative politics had taken. Then was the time to expand on the ruling class’ propaganda machine by forming a coordinated neoliberal Democrat echo chamber. Then to respond to the crisis Clinton’s deregulations had created by propping up the neoliberal system with one trillion dollars. Then to pour Wall Street cash into the exciting 2008 iteration of a deteriorating social order that kept itself amused with partisan competitions.
When the fun was over, we had to finally confront the seismic fractures that had appeared below society’s facades, particularly the one that involved how we no longer had enough real capital to keep extracting the resources behind our industrial living arrangements. And only a few of us did. The rest preferred to focus on things like the president’s birth certificate, scapegoats for the president’s failures to bring change, and pretty much everything else related to the personality that most had just foolishly assumed represented a solution.
So the collapse carried right on. By 2014, the official poverty rate had become nearly half, with the big banks controlling more of the economy than ever and the administration’s tax cut extensions, corporatist health care reforms and neoliberal trade deals granting elites the largest upward wealth transfer in history. The oligarchs also had unprecedented control over law enforcement and public discourse, with corporate executives having been directly colluding with America’s intelligence agencies since 2005 and the CIA having been able to send psy op agents as of 2013. Yet in the last few years, many Silicon Valley and Wall Street billionaires have been preparing for some kind of doomsday event, with them building luxury survival bunkers, staking out rural land, and stocking up on essential materials.
And the populous shared their worries, though from a very different angle. The outpour of activity in reactionary groups, craving for the messages of far right pundits, and often unconstructive hatred for established institutions that’s happened throughout the 2010’s didn’t appear because demagogues were suddenly much more skilled. This is what happens when people, after being driven in large numbers to drugs and suicide by the destitution the system has put them in, are told by elites that they have nothing to complain about.
Those elites’ response to this all boiling over was predictable. Even the beltway media material that acknowledged the masses’ mood was presented in a glibly sterile fashion, like the cable news quip at one point that there was “deep-seated resentment.” Otherwise the consensus was that the masses were mislead into rebelling by overly pessimistic rhetoric, as was grumpily assessed by the Washington Post during the height of its attacks on the Sanders campaign. (This meme was reinforced by the like-minded establishment Republicans that joined team Hillary after Trump was nominated, who can be considered Clintonists as well in that they too favor the old political paradigm).
Conventional academia served as another outlet of comfort for establishment loyalists who were staring their hubris in the face. Such types liked to cite that neoliberal trade was supported by the “overwhelming majority of economists” (also taken from the Post) and that a study showed most Trump supporters weren’t technically lower class (yet economics, as the Trump Rust Belt victories ultimately proved, didn’t seem like such a small issue).
The other affirmations that nothing threatening was going on came from within the oligarchical palace itself, particularly the Clinton campaign. “Donald Trump Thinks America is a Third World Country,” read one of the bulletins on HillaryClinton.com in proud disagreement with the studies which show that for most Americans, third world is indeed the new normal. Then there was the slogan of “America is already great,” which was unlikely to persuade the mentioned majority.
It’s no surprise that the only way this affair could survive past spring 2016 was by having Clinton allies in the state Democratic parties and governments quietly suppress or flip Bernie Sanders votes in numerous primary contests. Nor that the Clinton camp’s fallback after WikiLeaks revealed just one small part of the heist they’d pulled to get the nomination was a shift towards elaborate and unhinged McCarthyite rhetoric. The political establishment’s year-long fixation on Russia, in addition to of course serving as a propaganda tool and a springboard for ousting the independently imperialist Putin, represents a nation that’s preferring to put the blame for its looming failures on an old and handy scapegoat. And as we’ll continue to see, the nation’s failures have caught up no matter where the blame is put.
When judgement day came, the Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan voters who were being falsely polled to want to win the election for Clinton found themselves in a situation where reason didn’t seem to matter so much anymore. In the past few decades, they’d seen their neighborhoods fall to pieces because of the economist-approved trade deals. They’d seen many in their area lose family members or come from overseas with crippling mental and physical illness because of the wars that Clinton supporters liked to ignore their leader’s role in. They-by which I mean not just those who voted but those who declined to vote-had seen things strain to a breaking point from the order that Clinton represented, and they saw that she and her allies had no intention of taking responsibility.
Stop complaining. Listen to the experts. None of your concerns mean anything. You need to get with the program and stay in line. This was what were hearing from Clintonism, and then there was the promise of at least some kind of change. What do you think could have happened next?
Do I share some of the blame for the story’s conclusion? Perhaps, since in mid-October last year, at the point where Trump’s victory seemed like an impossibility, I wrote a piece called Why Clintonism Will Fail. A detailed chronicle of my catastrophic expectations for the inevitable Hillary Clinton presidency, it turned into my most widely read article at the time and probably flipped a few votes against Clinton-despite its tepid conclusion that a Trump presidency would be worse.
Was I right in such an assessment? That’s the question people will seemingly be debating for as long as the 2016 election is brought up. In either case we’ve entered a new paradigm since then. While we aren’t so far in the post-apocalypse that was expected for a Trump presidency, a lot has changed when you add it up: some Muslims if not all Muslims are banned from traveling because if their religion; cameras and disfavored journalists are barred from White House press conferences, which have lately taken to letting in white supremacist reporters; immigration officials are now encouraged to take on unusually aggressive and cruel tactics in detaining the undocumented; several states are having the personal information of their voters examined by the administration for reasons not hard to guess; and there’s a general effort from Trump and his aides to strong arm their way to ever more power.
And while the times of successful uprising in response to these developments are fun while they last, we all know what’s coming next: at some point there will be a large terrorist attack on the U.S, or the sudden start of a war, or an economic crash (perhaps set off by the epic debt ceiling reckoning we seem to be headed for this fall), and the administration will use it to seize total authority while wildly destabilizing world events. The “shock doctrine” of exploiting dramatic occurrences for political gain has always been used by aspiring dictators, and the Trump team seems to be happily waiting for a chance to do so on a large scale. This must be one of the reasons Trump, for all his neoliberal zeal, wasn’t favored by most of the ruling class; with Clinton, the elites wouldn’t have to move into their bunkers so soon.
Speaking of whom, I think I’ve figured out why so many are still attacking Hillary: it’s because she was the nail in the coffin, the final factor in our declining empire’s path to fascism and collapse. Yes, the arrogance and elitism of the political establishment she hailed from is what got the plurality of the population to accept a nasty fight to the societal death.
But while she and the rest of the establishment need to take responsibility, so, in a sense, do the rest of us. They wouldn’t have been able to ruin things in the first place if more ordinary people had stayed engaged and active in civic life, instead of waiting for things to reach the current crisis point to start doing so. There will always be corrupt lame-os that try to take oligarchical control, and we can stop the Hillarys of the world from doing further damage by creating a culture that centrally encourages political action.