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The Failure of the Status Quo

I’ve been reading Hillary Clinton’s latest this weekend.  It’s quite an interesting read, both for what it says and for how everyone reacts to it.

First, the reaction. There was the insta-reaction, from leaked early copies, that immediately played up where she complained that Bernie Sanders had the temerity to run for office. This was a small part of the book, but her interviews on her book tour this past week indicate it’s not such a small part of her memory. There’s some irony here given the drama at the 2008 Democratic convention, where Clinton played the part of Sanders and “HillaryIs44” played the part of “BernieBros”, but re-litigating the primaries is, again, a very small part of the book.  (After all, there was the small matter of Donald Trump.) A great many reviews from the left side of the aisle have a difficult time getting past this. But I don’t think that’s really the larger point here.

Clinton is, to put it mildly, not particularly happy with the way the general election turned out (neither am I) and some of her rawest writing comes through when The Donald pops up. She points out, justifiably, how howlingly unfair a double standard she was held to, where her every phrase was parsed for meaning, subtext, and emotional honesty while Trump had a difficult time using sentences with vowels. She also points out, to a punishing and accurate degree, how much gender still played a factor in her treatment, both by the media and by the electorate (if nothing else, when a tape is found of a candidate bragging about being a sexual predator and that candidate is still elected, we have a few issues), which contributed to the sense that the entire election was Clinton’s Kobayashi Maru – at every point she was expected not to be the equal of her opponent, but perfect, to the point where a head cold turns into a conspiracy theory.

And yet, her book also makes it very clear how, in the circus of Annus Horribilis 2016, there was no way she could ever win. The Clintons of the 1990s come through many times, in some ways unintentionally (a paragraph about her longtime “housing manager” – aka house servant – is particularly jarring) and in some ways infuriatingly, such as when Clinton comes this close to proposing a Universal Basic Income system for the US based on shared returns from national resources, financial system taxes and carbon tax mandates (it even had a peppy name, “Alaska for America” based on that state’s oil revenue sharing) and then just draws back from the brink because it might be a little much.

What energizes Clinton’s fury, more than anything, is how unfair it all is. She’s the most qualified to be President – that was, literally, the reason she gave for running, and given her eventual opponent, it’s very, very difficult to disagree. Yet it drives so much of her animus with the media (which, she begins to realize, is feeding back and making her path to electoral victory that much narrower) – why don’t they realize that Trump is a joke and she isn’t? Why are they normalizing him? Why are people treating him seriously? Haven’t they listened to her? Haven’t they read her policy papers?

Or, as she put it:

And yet, people did treat him seriously – not a majority, but enough, where it counted – and here we are. Clinton failed. Which, to her credit, she admits, even if she doesn’t quite understand why.

As to why she failed, the answer, as always, depends on who you talk to – if you talk to the hard-core Trump supporters, it was because she was corrupt and Trump somehow wasn’t. (I know. I KNOW.) If you talk to Sanders supporters and points left, it was because she didn’t take risks and embrace full space communism. If you talk to Clinton supporters, it’s because James Comey is an idiot.

The real answer, in my view, is actually closer to space communism than you’d think, but a few points on the curve away – although that might be one of the eventual endings. One of the first writers who I’ve seen describe our current situation clearly is Chris Hayes, the MSNBC commentator who is basically the Lawful Good version of Tucker Carlson. As part of that, he writes decent, well thought out books – one of which is called Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy. His thesis is, essentially, that America relies on a technocratic elite to keep things running – the “adults in the room” – and for the past few decades, well, they’ve been really awful at their job.

Chris Hayes, naturally, notes the irony of his making this argument while being part of that technocratic elite. (A self awareness which for much of the time, sadly, eludes Clinton.) He drills deeper into the causes of this break – income inequality enforcing social separation, a justice system that is clearly different depending on which class you are a member of, and most critically an educational system that is designed solely to produce investment bankers and little else – and it’s hard to argue given the general state of, well, everything in American society.

Another view is from the British film maker Adam Curtis, whose film on the subject, HyperNormalisation, is readily available (and embedded below). It tries, sometimes insanely so, to find a unified theory of everything awful, to the point where Donald Trump and Hafez Assad exist in the same narrative in the 1980s. Yet Curtis’ point, at its core, is the same as Hayes’ – that, as Curtis puts it, the world became too complicated for the elites to understand, let alone run, so they, along with everyone else, retreated into a fantasy world of simplicity while everything around them collapses into chaos.

Chaos is not exactly a long-term solution. You can argue, as Clinton does, that the answer is more competence, to tinker with the edges and find common sense solutions – you can argue, as the left does, that the answer is to take steps back from our capitalist system and up-end our society since it’s fairly broken already – or you can argue, as the right does, that the answer is blood and soil.

When everyone’s a revolutionary, what’s a moderate liberal consensus builder to do? This is what I find to be the final takeaway from Clinton’s book. She tries to argue that the Obama promise, the Clinton promise is still there and still valid… that America is still “a good country, with good people,” and that the answers lie in individual responsibility – of course it does; that is the Clinton lodestone. If only everyone could find the bootstraps her housing manager helpfully left by her bedside.

  • Vetarnias

    While I have not the slightest intention to read Hillary Clinton’s book (which I consider a completely unnecessary sacrifice of trees), I have read enough excepts of it online, along with several reviews, to think you are quite correct. The same chronic tone-deafness she exhibited throughout the campaign was salient, and she is emblematic of a party that can see nothing wrong with what it did and would rather jump on any excuse — from Comey to Russia — to justify continuing to do as it always did, and lose more elections without ever realizing why. (I wonder, for instance, if Clinton ever mentions how her own party advocated propping up Donald Trump as a “pied piper” candidate, in the hope of promoting the fringe views inside the GOP and perhaps convince moderate Republicans to vote Democrat. Admittedly this was quite early on, in April 2015, but it backfired spectacularly.)

    The Democrats are a party with nothing to say. This was blatant in how their consultants couldn’t come up with a single catchy slogan during the campaign, and just a few months ago their choices for bumper sticker taglines included “I mean, have you seen the other guys?”. They can’t win anything if they forever hope to bank on “At Least We’re Not the Republicans”. The problem is that they’re not entirely wrong to think like this, at least at present, because there is no redeeming value to Donald Trump. None whatsoever. Trump is morally odious, mentally unstable, incompetent, ignorant, narcissistic, dishonest, venal, and he will bring the world to war, intentionally or not. He’s going to shaft his most devoted followers as thoroughly as his bitterest enemies, for no better reason than just because he can. I can’t see a single good reason to vote for him EXCEPT for what he represents — and he represents America in all its gold-plated splendor. (You alluded to this in your previous post where you mentioned “Dynasty”.) Trump was all image and no substance, so OF COURSE the substance-obsessed Democrats would not have seen him coming. Image wins elections; and if they don’t know that, what else do they not know?

    Therein lies the problem of the Democrats: if they are to win against Trump, they have to start destroying every myth that made Donald Trump possible. And you don’t do that by offering as your ultimate retort to Trump that “America is already great” or by wrapping yourself in American exceptionalism — which Trump so thoroughly destroyed on the world stage that only Americans still believe in it. Yet it’s a pattern I see emerging all over the Clinton circle: a cynical hardheadedness compounded by a cloying sentimentality, Swabian housewives on the Potomac with schoolgirl crushes on the likes of Macron and Trudeau. It’s not a coincidence that these people tend to provide the backbone of the Hashtag Resistance you see everywhere. If you pressed them to say what they’re resisting against, they won’t point to anything that gave us President Trump in the first place, and they won’t suggest any more meaningful action than winning the midterms and the 2020 election against him. And as I’ve been predicting some kind of Trump self-coup since even before he was elected, I think you can imagine my contempt at what they would do, should that happen: first they would say that he can’t do this, that there are laws, the Constitution blah blah blah (in the same tone they said he could never be elected), and then they would do nothing.

    The Democrats have no instinct, no imagination; even if they had any, they would to their utmost to suppress them, as they pride themselves on running on facts. And that new venture Verrit (inexplicably plugged by Hillary herself) is the reductio ad absurdum of this tendency: facts, or would-be facts, shorn of all context, supposed to stand for themselves, but all curiously reinforcing the Democrats’ own fantasy universe where everything works according to rational principles, where voters read policy papers, vote according to their interests, and can’t possibly see anything of worth in Donald Trump. It’s the kind of mentality where the Democrats would just sit there and would gladly tell people of color — if not for the terrible optics of doing so — that they’ve got no other choice (which they really don’t) than to vote for them, as the other party is led by a man who talks of the “very fine people” among white supremacists, likewise would do nothing more than remind the Left that the choice is between the Democrats’ incremental centrism and the Republicans’ robber barons triumphant. If Trump had played it smart — and if Trump had not been Trump — he could have completely wrecked their plans, by pulling something like “single-payer, but, oh, whites-only”, and they’d never have seen it coming. It was exactly the kind of scenario that I feared could happen, because most of the Left probably has no attachment to anything beyond material considerations; the self-proclaimed ‘Antifa’ crowd is probably a very, very tiny minority; the whining of the identity politics crowd can become extremely tiresome; and history is full of leftists who have gone fascist in their opposition to the liberal order of the day. It’s a good thing for you that Trump never bothered.

    Now, whither the Democrats? Until recently I thought they would fall for Zuckerberg’s obvious charade. He’s their kind of candidate. I could imagine them having that schoolgirl crush on him. He’s wealthy, which they might think could appeal to Republicans. He offers Silicon Valley bromides about connectivity and inclusiveness, which can easily rejoin the usual Democratic Party bromides. And they worship what they think is Silicon Valley’s technocratic rationality. This technocratic rationality is also, fundamentally, anti-democratic; but the Democrats are more likely to accept this Faustian bargain than we think. For all the Republicans’ obvious attempts at voter suppression, I could very well imagine Democrats being seduced by that Silicon Valley neoreactionary ideology, which is tailor-made to appeal to liberals, if it could mean their ideas would triumph forever.* (You should pay attention to this, because video games are part and parcel of this mentality, as a certain event about ethics in video games journalism made all too obvious, and made me completely disgusted of video games after years of being merely wary of them.) But now the Democrats probably see Zuckerberg as a facilitator of Russian Fake News who doesn’t care about anything his company enables, as long as it makes money. And it would appear that he’s not particularly well-known, unlike Trump. So at this point, until the situation changes, I can imagine the Democrats instead going for a Zuckerberg surrogate from within their own party. That would be someone like Cory Booker. He’s exactly what the Democrats are looking for, and he’s at the exact opposite of what the Democrats *should* be looking for. (Zuckerberg could still decide to run as an independent, to the disaster of the entire world. I’m already expecting that Trump will be re-elected — if elections are held, that is.)

    As for the Republicans, they can’t disown Trump, as they let him do his shtick because they get to push their own agenda, and will only dump him if they sense he’s become an electoral liability (or a Democrat). His only value to them right now is that they like to see liberals cringe. Or perhaps they fear his personal supporters – and were I in their shoes, I’d do too. They’re not going to go away after Trump. His damage is already extensive, and it will last for decades.

    *If you’re interested, you can always look up my latest Medium piece where I force myself to object to the firing of Google memo guy, while knowing all too well what he is.

  • chimpy

    I think she took the election result, and thus by extension the American people, for granted. e.g. calling half the country deplorables. She was so confident of victory that insulting a large swathe of voters didn’t seem a bad idea to her. The smug on her face as her audience applauded the insult was misplaced. I believe that voters saw this smugness across her campaign. Another example of alienating voters, this time by Hillary supporters, would be the “BernieBros” slur. A sexist slur designed to accuse others of sexism and shut them up.
    Die hard voters who vote the same side for life don’t win elections, wavering voters who change their minds each election do. Those flexible voters need to be wooed and motivated. Insulting people doesn’t make them want to vote for you. Insulting people doesn’t bring them closer to understanding your point of view.
    I also think Hillary’s health issues played a small part. The collapse where she had to be helped by minders into the car on camera didn’t do her any favours. The repeated denials that there was a health issue, only to be forced to turn around and admit the truth later, played poorly. I get that the health issue was a difficult one. You have to appear strong and fit, and if you have something minor and you can get away without people finding out, then it stops a distraction. Trump would probably tried the same under the same circumstances. But life played out the way it did, and those misogynist germs damaged her reputation for honesty at a time when her credibility was already under attack for her vast corporate connections.
    I’m curious. Does Hillary mention her health issues, or her deplorables comment in her book? Does she admit to her apparent belief that she had this one in the bag right from the get go?

    • chimpy

      To Devil’s advocate myself I do think Hillary got an incredibly raw deal on the FBI interventions, to the point where I would classify it as interfering in an election. If there was any genuine belief of wrongdoing then it should have been invesigated properly and with the same confidentiality as any other investigation. The public nature of the accusations during an election was unforgivable, and I believe illegal interference in the election.

  • About as fair of an autopsy of what happened: the polarization of politics has two extremes and the centrists/moderates aren’t only faced with the other party being their “enemy”, their own party eats them alive. The repeat of the 1980 President Carter self-destruction.

    Hillary couldn’t win, when Democrats refused to have anyone Left of Stalin elected (we learned 25% of the Bernie Bros voted not for Sanders … but Trumpster).