(or Why US Politics Turns Ordinary People into Drooling Morons)
The problem, in a nutshell, is this: when people decide to support a prospective candidate in the US primary races they are putting themselves in the position of defending the indefensible. The very nature of this politico-Darwinist death match means that once you pick your chosen leader you must reject all criticism and suppress all doubt. You must become aggressively defensive and you must, above all, prevent your own wayward brain from thinking those bad thoughts that weaken the image of the immaculate leader. Any chink in their armour will be exploited by the enemies that surround them. Loyalty must be automatic and unconditional. Vigilance must be constant.
Triumph of the Ill
Gloria Steinem caused some kerfuffle this week by saying:
“Women are more for [Clinton] than men are. Men tend to get more conservative because they gain power as they age, women get more radical because they lose power as they age.
They’re going to get more activist as they grow older. And when you’re younger, you think: ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.’”
When you let it sink in the implications of what Steinem said are quite stunning in their utter stupidity. Here is a feminist icon suggesting that young women support Sanders only to impress or be with “boys”. As some have pointed out, this is a sexist generalisation that is disrespectful, demeaning and disempowering of young women.
Steinem apologised for being “misinterpreted” and clarified her position by contradicting herself entirely: “What I had just said on the same show was the opposite: young women are active, mad as hell about what’s happening to them, graduating in debt, but averaging a million dollars less over their lifetimes to pay it back.” Because she is not retracting her repeated contention “women are more conservative when we’re young and we get more radical as we get older” she seems to be quite happy to believe two contradictory things and just pick whichever seems right for the occasion.
Steinem also tacitly declares that supporting Hillary Clinton is an act of radicalism. This is demonstrably false. Clinton is a former First Lady, former US Senator, and a former Secretary of State. Clinton and her spouse are among the richest people on the planet and have been paid $153 million in speaking fees. Her own personal income for 2014 was $30.5 million. Clinton is arguably the most “establishment” person seeking candidacy – even more than J. E. Bush the (wannabe) Third.
So what makes Gloria Steinem spout nonsense and contradict herself? Aside from the general human idiocy in which we all partake, it is that most glorious of institutions: US presidential politics. More specifically it is the bipartisan electoral process which is formally and informally constituted of tribal factionalism, cult of personality, manipulative marketing campaigns, dog-whistle invective, incendiary rhetoric, buzzwords, patriotism, sentimentality and many other components. These components all have one thing in common; they bypass thought. They direct decisions and impel action through impulse, emotion and herd reflex. US Presidential electoral politics is the epitome any such electoral process. It is like other elections, but even more so. It is dominated by deception, manipulation and sentiment.
Throughout the history of politics, popular appeals have been divided into appeals to reason and appeals to unreason. Technology, scale, and the narrow control of mass media have conspired to bring a moment of near total triumph for unreason. The individual voter will be profiled and targeted with anything from the scale of the tear on the cheek of a pretty 5 year-old girl, to the roar of a stadium of roaring mass fervour. The result of such mass unreason is, among other things, an ostensibly political electoral system that is devoid of substantive politics. But it is also a totalising ideology. It tells people that it represents the entirety or near-entirety of the legitimate political spectrum. People in countries with multi-party elections for central government seem universally to accept that the breadth of political ideology is largely represented by the competing parties and that the space between the two (or more) camps is the ideological “centre”.
In reality, regardless of the political system, political elites are inclined to be elitist and authoritarian. They like to think of themselves as more enlightened and progressive than the reactionary masses, but by nature their “centre” is to the right of popular sentiment, sometimes drastically so.
We don’t have to settle for defining left and right in relative terms set by political elites. The left/right division has a clear historical basis and can be defined in absolute terms. In these terms we see that each person, each party and each ideology has left and right elements. There is no pure Left or pure Right out there. We can also see that Republicans and Democrats have always been broadly right-wing. (In other countries there were once broadly left electoral choices in Labour, Socialist or Social Democrat parties, but these have all since embraced broadly right-wing liberal/neoliberal policies, along with military nationalism and Western interventionism). Electorates are regularly presented with two right-wing alternatives, one of which is falsely labelled as “left”.
The Authoritarian’s Dilemma
There is incessant propaganda screaming over and over at people that if they do not partake in the electoral process they are deficient and delinquent and it is their fault that the government is crap. In the US, where everything apparently needs to be taken to self-parodic extremes, this spawned the “Vote or Die” movement.
Small wonder then, that people get involved in electoral politics. But instead of choosing a person who actually represents their own interests blended with their own sense of what is morally and ethically right, people choose according to irrational criteria. Citizens are lured by many things, but mostly by the deliberately fostered delusion that a particular candidate will in some way embody and be responsive to the will of that citizen. They are led to believe that the candidate wants what they want, sees things as they do, and will make the same choices that they would. Their candidate is a version of themselves, but a superior version. It is a sad and pathetic spectacle. It gets even sadder when a candidate takes office and the citizen must continually reassess their beliefs because the former candidate makes choices that must be right because they know and understand more.
People like that are referred to as “right-wing authoritarians”. This is a description used by some psychologists for a group of inter-related psychological tendencies which add to a desire for authoritarian leadership in politics, in the workplace, in religion, and in the domestic sphere. Obviously such people tend to be attracted to right-wing politics, but they can also be attracted to authority in left-wing or ostensibly left-wing politics. These people are authoritarian followers. They seek the certainty of strong leadership.
Party politics, or any form of popular politics, will always attract authoritarians. But in our time, if you are not an authoritarian you must become one just to participate. If you choose to support Clinton, for example, there is a ton of baggage that comes with it. Her wealth, her power, her history of warmongering, and the blood on her hands are a much bigger burden to her supporters than to her. Clinton is a media-trained expert hack who only ever faces comparative softball questions. Her supporters might find themselves asked to give real answers to justify Clinton’s record, and there are none. Judged by the standards of ordinary mortals she is pondscum and a war criminal. The best moral justification you can give for her is that she is deranged by power and hence has diminished responsibility.
Can anyone actually give a real defence of her actions in helping to bring war to Libya? She has the blood of thousands on her hands. Daughters, sons, fathers, mothers – real people who suffered and died, for what? So she could gloat like a demented crime boss: “We came, we saw, he died”? Would it be okay if it was a failed attempt to do good (if anyone can believe that), or was the plan destroy Libya and create yet another failed state of lingering suffering, violence and death so that US oil hegemony remained unchallenged by any strong nationalism or anticolonial internationalism? Murderously incompetent and arrogant, or murderously power-mad and Machiavellian? Either way, she cannot be defended if someone is willing to put things in those terms
Hillary supporters cannot even defend Hillary to themselves. They must lash out by delegitimising opposition. Steinem’s now retracted criticisms of of Sanders supporters were pure ad hominem of the vilest sort. She created a caricature, a generalisation about those who felt differently by imposing on them a personal trait. This is a technique used against feminists so often that you might think her scruples would have stopped her.
To take another example, it is impossible in moral and legal terms to justify the support that Hillary Clinton has given to Israel. Bear in mind that this is not solely about Israel’s 1967 occupation of land and its illegal settlements. As a UN signatory that shares responsibility for the initial 1948 seizure of Palestinian property and flight of Palestinians from the self-declared state of Israel, the US is obliged to find a “just and lasting settlement” to the plight of 1948 Palestinian refugees. Because the state of Israel is dependent on US support it can be argued that high-level US politicians are actually more culpable than high Israeli politicians without even having any false justifications of an “existential threat”. Clinton is responsible for Israel’s crimes in a very real sense.
This brings me to Bernie Sanders. He too is responsible for Israel’s crimes. As Thomas Tucker wrote in August 2014:
“Let’s not be fooled by any politician appealing to high ideals when they are in the business of war and empire.
Sanders not only defends military contracts that benefit his constituents in Vermont, he also joined the 100 to 0 vote in the Senate to give unalloyed moral and political support to the state of Israel during its most recent bombing campaign against Gaza.”
Someone also pointed out that criticism of Sanders foreign policy record is only half of the story. On domestic issues he voted “for continuing intelligence gathering without civil oversight; opposing local attempts in Vermont to impeach Bush II (however he advocates prosecuting Snowden in some capacity if he returns to the US!); …against ending offshore tax havens and promoting small businesses; …for legislation that extended and, in some areas, made fourteen provisions of the Patriot Act permanent and extended the FBI’s power to perform roving wiretaps and access certain business records; …repeatedly against the Brady Bill that mandated waiting times and background checks for firearms purchases.” What a guy!
How do you defend such a record? The same way you defend Clinton’s record. You yell. You employ ad hominems. You employ the “appeal to consequences”, another fallacy which goes something like this:
Q: How do you justify Sanders‘ bloody militarism, pork-barrel cynicism, support for war crimes, support for restricting liberties and complicity in Israel’s occupation of Palestine?
A: Donald Trump!
March Of The Swivel Heads
Speaking of Donald Trump, everything I have written so far is about Democrat supporters. Would anyone be so silly as to think that Republicans are any better? In some respects Republican supporters have less need to be defensive of their chosen candidate because Republicans don’t try to hide their warmongering and racism, they simply embrace it with a patriotic exceptionalism beneath which is an unstated thuggish sensibility that says we are strong and we will crush those who transgress against us (transgression being subject to broad interpretation).
Republicans have the same situational factors shaping them into right-wing authoritarians, but the Republican Party has been quite a home for right-wing authoritarians for years, so in a way the fact that this has worsened to any degree is not much of a story in itself. The reason that we should fear the spread of right-wing authoritarianism is that once an authoritarian has chosen their leader they will be loyal regardless of any actions that leader takes. The structure and the discourse of electoral politics in the US (which is setting a standard for other countries) are such that people are forced into the position of becoming mindless shambling followers of each Great Leader.
People who support Obama, for example, have become as immune to reason and evidence as any George W. Bush supporter in 2008. Obama attracted those supporters with a very personal charismatic style, and his policy messages were overtly about emotions of hope and belief rather than a coherent platform based on an articulated ideology. (You won’t get anything different from US politics: Bernie, for example, has substantively replicated the style, shape and colour of Obama’s “Change We can Believe In” placards to create “A Future to Believe In”.) This is all great fertiliser in which to cultivate uncritical worship and obedience, but I think the real kicker is the way people have been conditioned to reject criticism of Obama by the constant unprincipled, unfair, untrue, hyperbolic and hysterical criticisms levelled at him by Republicans and other right-wingers. This ranges from the “Birther” movement to simple blatant and hateful racism.
The same can be said of Hillary Clinton. The whole Benghazi issue was turned into a type of fake witch-hunt against Clinton. This not only gave her a much need new layer of Teflon, but helped to conceal the stunning blatant illegality of US government acts that went far further than just Clinton and the State Department. Partisan badgering, real or fake, creates the sense that the person that supporters place their hope in is constantly under siege. Under the siege mentality it begins to feel dangerous to question anything about the Leader. Any admission against them can be exploited and abused and so you must steel your mind to perfect unquestioning loyalty.
Because it is a bipartisan framework and not a dictatorial one, this regime of leader worship differs in many ways from historical Fascist or Communist “cult of personality” regimes. The US regime blends aspects of that nationalistic “One Leader, One People, One Empire” style with a more fragmented style of right-wing factionalism akin to a milieu of organised crime interests that may co-operate, compete, or fight.
The Price of a Special Place in Hell is Worth It
Linked to the Gloria Steinem story has been a prominent story about Madeleine Albright. Albright once said that she thought that the “price” of 500,000 dead Iraqi children was “worth it”. She is also the Godmother to a cluster of humanitarian interventionists and liberal imperialists dominated by Clinton that is linked (by revolving door) to NGO’s such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Regarding support for Clinton, Albright said: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” She used exactly the same words in 2008, for the same candidate. In fact she claims she has used the phrase for 40 years. That does not change the fact that she was equating failure to support Hillary with betraying one’s own gender, as if the election was a giant job interview and women had an obligation to give poor Hillary a shot. The extreme and hateful implications stand regardless of how “lighthearted” Clinton says they were.
Like the extreme rhetoric of Republicans, Albright’s words show a distinct lack of any brain activity. I am the last person to suggest that political elites are actually stupid, but they are deeply out of touch with normal life. Despite all of their focus groups and messaging specialists, politicians at this level are as tone-deaf as any inbred 18th century aristocratic dandy. Albright has angered people on many fronts, in many ways. The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz tweeted the blurb from a book specifically exploring the immense harm done to Iraqi women by the sanctions that Albright supported. She is damned by her own words, so to speak.
Albright and Clinton being who they are, much of the angry reaction has suggested that electing an elitist warmonger is not feminism if the warmonger happens to have internal genitalia and wear skirts. Rania Masri put it thus: “Feminism demands a critique of U.S. policies, both domestically and internationally. It demands a critique of all wars and all hegemonies and of all structures of oppression.”
Independently engaged people get angry, but most people blind themselves to the gulf that separates them from their political masters. The system continues because people foolishly believe that they have to choose within the candidates of the major parties, or they are effectively disenfranchised. The fear of one side makes people stampede into the other camp. Once again they are avoiding the process of thinking when making the decision to commit. They end up in positions that are morally and intellectually indefensible, but they can get away with it by only associating with like-minded fools and by snarling viciously at the unrealistic people who point out the immorality and/or foolishness of their choice.
When they have safety in numbers; when the harsh light of reality will not intrude; believers may debate within accepted bounds of disagreement. They are thus secure in the knowledge that no one will point out that they are all backing different naked emperors who are engaged in an unflattering unclothed brawl that is just as revolting in actuality as my metaphor suggests. That is when they say really stupid things. For example, in response to the fact the policies under Bill Clinton had a terrible impact on black people Madeleine Kunin said that “Bill Clinton was called ‘the first black president.‘” She followed by saying of Hillary “she’s been voted the most admired woman in the world, year after year, because people respect her.” I am not sure what world she is referring to, but it is not the planet Earth. In fact she is probably referring to a Gallup poll that asks “Americans” which woman they admire anywhere in the world. Kunin probably doesn’t understand the difference.
Not to be outdone Kunin’s debate opponent, Ben Jealous, said that “on the issues that Dr. Martin Luther King referred to as the ‘giant triplets of evil’—racism, militarism and greed—Bernie is the clearest and the most consistent.” Not only is that only true if you preclude third party candidates, but there is a piece of authoritarian lunacy hidden there in plain sight. If you care about what Dr King believed in, why endorse someone that he would never have endorsed? King might have forgiven the banal ways in which Sanders has soiled himself in the pits of DC muck, but he would never have tolerated Sanders‘ embrace of militarism and empire. Perhaps the scariest thing is that people do not see this immediately. People seem to have forgotten what it means to have principles around the same time they forgot what it means for their country to be at war.
Kunin and Jealous would probably feel a need to pick a prospective winner because they are immersed in this sort of politics. “Relevance” is capital to such people, but ordinary folks are also drawn to power. People want to feel they are part of something. The fervour of manic Trump supporters is really only the shabby and slack-jawed version of the credulousness of Democrats who are seeking to be part of “history” by supporting the first woman president or the first black president. The mania is the same regardless of how noble the pretext.
Women who support Clinton in the belief that it is somehow feminist or will advance the cause of women in general are zombiefied. They brainlessly shuffle through an undead parody of a political process, immune to the ample evidence that in actions, rather than rhetoric, Clinton is not a great supporter of women’s rights. Nor can Obama supporters process the reality that his administrations have deported more immigrants than any others in US history; have slowly reconstituted the wars he was supposed to end; and have carried out the largest international assassination programme in history; and numerous studies over the years show that the vast majority of his victims are civilians.
Third Party Insurance
My concluding advice to US voters: vote for a 3rd party candidate in any election that you can. People mistakenly believe that votes do not count if your candidate is not elected. That is stupid. How many elections come down to just one vote? More to the point, how responsive to the voters are people once elected? Studies have shown that elected officials do not carry out the will of voters and that “mandate theory” is empirically invalid. A vote is only good as an official statement of your belief, so it is not “tactical” to compromise on beliefs. Quite the opposite. Voting for a 3rd party in the US (assuming that votes are recorded honestly) is a message to your fellow citizens. If enough people do it, then the usual plutocrats will be weakened when they campaign in 2, 4, or 6 years because they will have to forestall any emerging alternative. Furthermore, they are so entrenched and decadent that they may fail to quell a growing alternative despite the resources at their command. Then you will have a real choice.
Be smart. Do not put your faith in elected leaders. Vote 3rd party, then continue to fight for democracy in other ways. The current electoral process is not real democracy, it is the dance of the dead – the Nazi Zombie Shuffle.