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Donation Politics: Worse than Hypocrisy

1 Aug

[PREFATORY NOTE: This post is a modified and revised version of an opinion piece publish under a different title by CounterPunch on July 29, 2022.]

Donation Politics: Biden’s Global Hypocrisy Starts at Home

Photograph Source: Palácio do Planalto – CC BY 2.0

Donation Politics: Worse than Hypocrisy

A few days ago, among the many solicitations for funds to support Democratic candidates around the country in the 2022 elections came one that caught my eye because of its obviously phony seductive line “I’d like to give you a call, Richard.” Reading the next line, none other than the U.S. President apparently with much time to waste, was supposedly eager to learn my views on what government might do better to meet my needs and uphold my values, purporting even to be on a first-name basis with me despite the utter absence of any prior contact. To dumb down the President for the sake of a hypocritical pitch struck me as distasteful, but also eroding of trust, already compromised, between the state and the citizenry upon which the viability of democracy crucially depends.

This manipulative hucksterism became even more personal a day or two later when the same lure line was attributed to Jill Biden, herself cast in the demeaning role of a political party team player. The First Lady went on to expatiate upon the cynical view that Democrats are so desperate for a chance to interact with the President that they would fall for any come on, however absurdly misleading. In her supposedly revealing words that struck me as utterly contrived: “Throughout the years, I’ve learned that there are at least three things that can make Joe smile from ear to ear: Our kids and grandkids, chocolate chip ice cream, and getting to talk one-on-one with Americans like you, Richard.” And she goes on, “Having the chance to hear your hopes and dreams grounds Joe and motivates him to keep fighting the hard battles. That’s why Joe would love nothing more than to give you a call soon.” 

Then come the unsurprising hooker, really what motivated the message and explains its atonality —nothing more or less than a crass appeal for money coupled with a delayed ‘admission’ that, after all, actually receiving a call from Biden was as unlikely as Donald Trump committing civil disobedience as a consequence of becoming an ardent anti-nuclear activist. I didn’t have to read much further for these suspicions to be crudely confirmed. The price of admission to Biden’s specious ‘inner circle’ of solicited political feedback dupes was disclosed. It turned out if I wanted to be among those who were now to be MERELY informed they MIGHT receive such a call, all I had to do was ‘to chip in’ as little as $7 to get on a list from which a fraction were selected to receive a call from the President. The only puzzle left to solve is whether the chosen one were picked at random or because they had donated the most or hailed from swing states. This more plausible interpretation of this offensively personalized  message no longer resembled in feeling and substance what was claimed on Biden’s behalf when he initially reached out to me, which had I been less jaded, I would have interpreted as expressing an unconditional wish by a conscientious leader who was, however foolishly, sincerely interested in learning my views on national policy issues, and was not just another snake oil salesman sending me an email in the form of a hook baited for donations.

Surely, if calls directly from Biden were up for sale, surely they would be priced much higher if indeed swallowing the donation bait was all that was required. Such a  bargain price sent an unmistakable signal that I would wait until at least the age of 90 before I could expect the phone to ring and be thrilled to discover Biden waiting on the other end impatient to begin ourconversation. If the price of admission had been pegged at $10,000 or more, I would have interpreted the appeal as a somewhat imaginative ploy to reach authentic  ‘good Democrats,’ that is, not the thinking kind but the contributing kind. In any event, for those remotely in the know, party politics had long been preoccupied with chasing ‘rich Democrats’ while relying on robocalls and mass digital mailings to gather donations from presumed sympathetic political loners like myself, not knowing or caring that I was almost as alienated by what the Democratic Party establishment had foisted upon the country than by the evil doings of the radical right. In my case some overworked party hack must have misread my political profile if he added me to the DNC rolodex for donor prospects.

When it became clear that this was just a somewhat different, and deceptive, way to plead for small donations, the mysterious prospect of actually receiving the phone call actually took a prominent place in a  zone of extreme improbability. This was a discrediting revelation being conveyed to prospective donkey donors like myself by not so subtly letting us know that only after receiving a donation would we became eligible to receive the phone call, and even then only fools would hold their breath in anticipation. I now understood that my donation would have resulted, at most, to adding me to what I assumed to be a lengthy list. Perhaps during a lull in Biden’s presidential activities, a few contributors would be chosen to fulfill the literal commitment of the solicitation. In effect, you were being asked to buy a million-to-one lottery ticket with a tiny fraction of a chance of being chosen, and even this might be fanciful as I doubt that even Biden would find himself so at loose ends as to risk receiving a harangue from someone like myself. This disarming personalized solicitation was always about money never about soliciting views. Given the dependence of many valuable civil society initiatives on public funding and private trust, the Democratic Party should be ashamed to be giving responsible appeals for support a bad name associated with deception, contempt for the intelligence of grassroots supporters, and an unscrupulous manipulative ethos.

To be honest about my own feelings, I would not have welcomed such a call if by some dark twist of fate I had received it, nor would Mr. Biden have liked what I had to say given this rare opportunity in the spirit of talking truth to power. It would lead me to express my deep forebodings for the future of America as a peace-oriented constitutional democracy reinforced by an extensive social protection available to all of its residents as part of a national commitment to human security. My skepticism about such an affirmative future for the country arises from the lethal passivity of the nominally pro-democracy political forces in the U.S. The anemic response to the growing strength of a pre-fascist violent movement on the extreme right is convincing evidence, activating memories of the fate of Weimar Republic, and the drift toward world war.

Of course, the cynical depths of appealing for political funds on the basis of an entirely contrived intimacy and a false claim of wishing to gain valuable feedback from representative ‘good Democrats’ is more than a cheap shot to empty the pockets of gullible folks many of whom have little cash to spare. This type of ‘donation politics’ offers us an apt metaphor for the overall debasement of electoral politics by shining its Madison Avenue spotlight on the essential source of societal corruption—namely money and profits. What is conveyed to a concerned citizen or permanent resident is that the quest for money even in miniscule amounts is the core reality of what politics has become. As a result it destroys the trust of those who truly wish for a more participatory process joining state and society. This would truly induce a presidential leader to make serious efforts to find effective ways to take account of the views of ordinary citizens, rather than expend their energies on doing the bidding of special interests who have earned the right to unlimited presidential access and responsiveness solely as a result of their sizable donations. For instance, the majority of Americans favor a more balanced approach to relations between Israelis and Palestinians instead of as agenda set by AIPAC, or less military spending and a host of other issues that Biden would certainly rather not hear about from disgruntled citizens. 

If he had the personal misfortune to receive this sort of angry response, rather than fulsome praise about how well he was doing, it would quickly replace Joe’s supposedly big smile with an angry smirk. Whether it is Wall Street or defense contractors, it is no secret that the citizenry wants less inequality and more social protection, but whether public preferences of this sort will be respected in coming years seems ever more in doubt. It is, at best, a perilous time to champion a politics of planetary liberation. Yet without such a politics, the country and the world will continue to experience dysfunctional global governance.  

Writing so shortly after Biden’s clumsily mismanaged mid-July visit to Israel and the Saudi Arabia makes this conjecture of dysfunction more than an abstract fear. Biden’s telling gesture of ingratiating himself to his Israeli hosts by proclaiming himself as a non-Jewish Zionist bonds him with the only prior such public affirmation of which I am aware, that of the white supremist, Richard Spencer [See Tony Greenstein’s extraordinary, scrupulously researched comprehensive critique of Zionism for confirmation: Zionism During the Holocaust: The Weaponization of the Holocaust (expected publication, 2022).] I am not intending to imply that Biden is at all sympathetic with white supremacist ideology, but that this pathetic attempt to ingratiate himself by identifying so ardently with legally, morally, politically and spiritually dubious claims to Jewish supremacy in Israel. In context, it was rightly perceived as even more extreme than such an affirmation, given Biden’s silence about Israeli apartheid so authoritatively documented during the last two years and considering the ordeal inflicted on the Palestinian people by the Zionist Project for over a century. 

If this is what being a ‘good Democrat’ in America has come to mean, then the Democratic party may be in worse shape than even I imagined. Of course, Biden would disavow such association with extremism, but his hyped identification with Israeli ethnocracy should be deeply disturbing to every American, regardless of party, who affirms the fundamental aspirational identity of the United States as a multiethnic democracy.  The only future with any hopes of national recovery from the horrors of January 6th and a Supreme Court that foists the regressive views of the voting radical right majority on the American people. There exists enough evidence of Biden’s vanity to be confident that he would have hung up the phone long before I got to my most severe political complaint of all: That by opening more widely the portals of political extremism and geopolitical confrontation Biden is being derelict in his presidential performance at a time of multiple planetary and species crises.

At least Nero made music while Rome burned. I prefer a leader who fiddles to the Biden hucksterism of the soft sell. We need to ask ourselves with a sense of urgency, ‘where is the outrage?’ and ‘why are the streets empty?’ Bob Dylan’s message of the sixties rings truer than ever: ‘The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind.”

The Bipartisan Demise of American Democracy

16 Sep

There are several fissures in the democratic fabric that exhibit the domestic facets of imperial decline. The Republican Party contempt for liberal American values, traditions, constitutionalism, the findings of science and truthfulness, became routine features of the presidency of Donald Trump. This radical style of right-wing politics became more flagrant during the long aftermath of Trump’s defeat in the November elections, going to bizarre lengths of trying to foment a violent insurrectionary event in the U.S. Congress on January 6, 2020 after a series of legal challenges of the election results in state courts on the basis of ‘stolen votes,’ ‘conspiracy theories’ and ‘warped fantasies’ of fraud. Such pervasive posturing by demagogic leader should scare the anti-fascists among us, especially as almost half of Americans voted in favor of such an sustained assault on democracy. Shamefully, most Trumpists have yet to abandon this unprecedented threat to the political identity of the country.  

And yet the alternative mainstream vision of democracy, while a relief, is disappointing, especially as it tries to appeal for support on the issues and in statewide elections. The Democrats offer the citizenry such a demeaning, tedious, and dangerous sense of an alternative political style as to demobilize all but diehard liberals and movement radicals. Is it any wonder that the Democrats are poised to do poorly in the 2020 midterms despite this dark long shadow of Trump hanging over the future of the republic. Trump, part demagogue, part entertainer, at least while President kept us politically attentive, if only to wonder what would be his latest mishap or to learn about fabrication of the day. With the Biden presidency, we switch channels out of boredom, even when his sentiments are decent and compared to what passed for leadership in the preceding four years, seemed mostly sensible. But being ‘sensible’ compared to Trump is hardly an achievement. I attribute this dramatic downturn in the quality of American democracy mainly to the interaction between the elite political structures of the two main political parties, its removal from the needs and desires of the citizenry, and a distorted sense that it is money, not ideas, that wins elections. The effect of this incessant badgering for donations for the sake of political ads is to reduce the electoral process to cash on hand.

On any given day I get upward of a hundred emails soliciting funds to support candidates or legislation that Democrats favor, and are generally deserving of support. But the approach adopted in these electoral pleas are so cheaply demeaning, disingenuous, and even degenerate as to be alienating. Instead of support, I find myself pushing the delete button frustrated and disgusted with the tenor of the appeals. First of all, I don’t like being called by my first name by automated strangers; this faux intimacy is a definite turnoff, especially when it is followed by admonishing tone—donate, or else. It is, as well, a metaphor for a cynical politics of manipulation.

Secondly, our attention is grabbed by idiotic exaggerations such as ‘STUNNING update-Amy Klobuchar just broke McConnell’s heart,’ ‘H.R. 1 Miracle—We’re weeping with joy,’ ‘Richard, humbly asking,’ ‘HUMILIATED Arizona—Donald Trump CRUSHES Mark Kelly,’ ‘desperate plea—Rep. Val Deming is in BIG trouble,’ ‘Rush a donation now to TANK the filibuster and pass H.R. 1,’ ‘Shocking Report—Obama SLAMS McConnell..YES RICHARD,’ and on and on. The uniform bottom line for these urgent inflated appeals has to do with pleas for donations. Typical of the hyped rhetoric: If we don’t hit our $100,000 goal by midnight, we’ll never have the resources we need to fight McConnell’s Filibuster, which is RUINING H.R.1’s chances of becoming law. Can you chip in just $100 now to help us make our next ad payment?”’

It is true that the Democrats are more dependent on grassroots funding than are the Republicans who can rely on super-rich donors and big ticket fundraising extraganzas to finance their campaigns to a much greater extent. Yet this does not validate the cheapening of the political process as the Democrats have done where their hysterical language about the ups and downs of their candidates or legislative projects. Although ‘the system’ is primarily to blame, and needs fundamental reforms, in the meantime politics in America seems destined to be stranded indefinitely at low tide.

We can assign some blame to social media for making it seductively easy to do mass messaging, symptomatic of the wider phenomenon of the overall dumbing down effect of the digital age. Digital successors to the sinister, cynical mavens of Madison Avenue are now using crude algorithms to bend our thoughts, empty our wallets, and deprive many of sovereignty over their own mind. It is rot at the core of American political life that unapologetically equates politics with money. We are made to think that ideas, character, and past performance matter less than fundraising acumen. The corrupting impression is powerfully implanted in the citizen that the side with more bucks deserves to get the win.

Of course, the messaging is about power, and this means that mainstream media and social platforms reflect the wishes of Wall Street and the Pentagon as much for Democrats as for Republicans. Pacifying the citizenry so that markets and militarism can continue their dirty work is an assignment accepted by both political parties, and backed up by the most influential media platforms. As the infrastructure of the country falls to new lows, the bloated military budget remains sacrosanct. Billionaires roam the solar system as if planning their getaway from a failed planet, exploring new terrains as they peer down on an overheated, burning planet unwilling to risk their fortunes for the sake of species survival.

My objections to this ultra-materialist and hyped style of political campaigns can be summarized:

1-elections for Democrats have become primarily about fundraising capabilities, not qualifications, values, ideas, performance;  

2-hypocritical gestures of intimacy in this monetized culture of political appeals are deemed necessary to induce in ordinary citizens the illusions of ‘participation’ and even personal access to the candidates;

3-Beyond the hypocrisy, secondary efforts seek to make recipients feel guilty because they have not contributed, or not responded to rhetorical requests for support or opposition; I find myself daily scolded for not responding or accused because of not donating of supporting the dreadful Republican alternative;

4-There is an impression created that only ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ matter, and thus devotion to one side should unconditional, and more or less unquestioning, although the Democrats are more naïve, preaching ‘bipartisanship’ and ‘national unity,’ which is the last thing the Trump extremists want.

Such a decline of democracy is strongly reinforced by the reactionary unwritten ground rules of mainstream media, which dutifully exposes the citizenry to a spectrum of opinion that stretches from the dead center to the extreme right. The progressive left, whether socialist or ecological, is erased, as if it has nothing to add to the marketplaces of ideas and interpretations. The media dominated by large corporations and billionaires is willing to self-censor to protect the capitalist consensus being eroded or just challenged.

Perhaps it is time to try something different, starting by ending the three-ring circus of private funding of political campaigns. Of course this will not happen until the Achilles Heal of capitalism and militarism are found and struck with decisive force, which would almost certainly be the result of an empowering nonviolent movement, which unlike its Pentagon variant, is genuinely over-the-horizon.

Should We Vote for Hillary Clinton? A Meditation

14 Apr



It seems now almost inevitable that Hillary Clinton will be the candidate for the Democratic Party in November. This inevitability came about by a combination of ‘a Southern strategy’ (where incidentally the Democrats have virtually no chance in the national elections), some close wins in large industrial states in the North, and above all by that peculiar twist in practical democracy known as ‘delegate logic’ (the party state by state rules as to how delegates are allocated among the candidates to reflect primary results, and for the Democratic Party, the pernicious add on of 719 superdelegates, 469 of whom are already announced as committed to support Hilary, while Bernie has garnered a measly 31). ‘Super’ in name only being members of Congress (11% approval rating) and party officials (often ‘hacks’).


This process of delegate selection is problematic from many angles and seems stacked against the guiding idea that purpose of the primaries is to determine as fairly as possible who people identifying with a particular party prefer to have as their candidate. As has been alleged by Bernie Sanders, and for the Republicans, by Donald Trump, the system is rigged: the outcome of the vote is shaped by rules that can be manipulated by a skilled ‘ground game’ to deliver a disproportionate number of delegates compared to what would be expected given relative popularity with those who voted in the primary election.


Aside from this disturbing delegate mystique there is the question of money. As has been obvious long before the outrage of Citizens United, big money acts as a formidable vehicle for special interests, exerting a pernicious influence on the entire governing process, deforming policy on a wide range of public issues including guns, coal, and pharmaceutical drug prices. In this regard, once again, Clinton’s far from innocent connections with Wall Street, with a superpac, and with all kinds of special interests from fracking to Israel, should be enough to alienate all but the most blindfolded of citizens.


An assortment of insiders defend party control over the primary process through the selection of delegates. They argue that it helps keep so-called ‘insurgent’ candidates from stealing a nomination from a candidate who has passed through the authenticating filters of party loyalty. Policy wonks point out that if the Republican Party had superdelegates, Trump would be out, and likely Cruz too, and thus it is claimed that the party credentials of the superdelegates provides a hedge against extremism or a triumphant maverick, whether from right or left, or even from Hollywood.


Tom Hayden, always clear and with a long record of progressive engagement in the American political process, comes down in favor of Clinton on the basis of several mutually reinforcing arguments: the need for unity among Democrats to assure the defeat of whoever the Republicans put forward, Bernie’s lack of a thought through and politically attainable agenda, and most of all, Hilary’s overwhelming support among African Americans and Latinos, including both the Cogressional Black Caucus and the Sacramento Latino Caucus. Hayden emphasizes that his links to these minorities are personal as well as ideological, through marriage and paternity, suggesting that his identity and private life creates an affinity that takes precedence over other considerations. Along the way, he affirms Sanders call for social justice in a number of particulars (student debt, universal health care, tax policy, minimum wage, trade policy), as well as his more moderate stand on foreign policy when compared to the interventionist past of Clinton. I wonder about this reasoning. Should we not ratify the Sanders movement that has excited the young across the nation as an urgent call for change? What we do know is that Clinton even if she delivers on some liberal reforms will not change the fundamentals of American political life, which urgently need changing: the plutocratic control over policy, the kneejerk deference to Pentagon budgetary greed, the unquestioning indulgence of the predatory ways of Wall Street, and the slavish acquiescence to Israel’s defiant militarism.


Of course, there is a serious liberal side to this debate that deserves to be considered. It is a matter of ensuring the victory of a Democrat in November coupled with the belief that Clinton is far better situated than Sanders to ensure such an outcome. Clinton is almost certain to appoint empathetic jurists to the US Supreme Court and other federal courts, she will uphold and advance the rights of women, and she will steer the ship of state with a steady and experienced hand.


Even granting the above, there are some limits on this liberal position that should not be pushed aside. On foreign policy, there is no doubt that Clinton is experienced, informed, and reliable, more so than Sanders. At the same time her judgment and instincts seem as untrustworthy as those of Henry Kissinger, the foreign policy guru whom she has unfortunately singled out for praise. Kissinger has favored every failed intervention that the US has undertaken in the last half century, including even Vietnam and Iraq, encouraged the 1973 military coup in Chile against the democratically elected Allende government, and was positive about the genocidal approach taken by Indonesia toward the resistant and oppressed indigenous population in East Timor. With this in mind, I would greatly prefer Sanders’ qualities of judgment to Clinton’s record of experience.


Against this background, I am left with is a choice between ‘red lines’ and ‘the lesser of evils,’ or as most liberals prefer to put it, ‘the glass half full,’ regarding Hillary as the best choice among those available, and in many respects impressive in ability and achievement. Beyond this, she would be the first woman to become president, and if we are lucky, she might even fashion a memorable legacy around climate change, environmental policy, health, women’s rights, student debt, an enlightened judiciary, international trade regimes, and more.


What troubles me, even with a keen awareness of the dangers and antipathies associated with a Republican presidential hopeful, almost regardless of who it ends up being, is the belief that there are certain deficiencies of character or lapses of judgment that deserve to be treated red lines, which once crossed are decisive. Clinton has crossed some lines that are bright red in my eyes. I find it hard to overlook her Iraq War vote back in 2003, her continuing admiration for Kissinger, her lead role in producing the Libyan disaster, her push toward intervention in Syria, and her fawning AIPAC speech delivered during the present campaign. The latter is in some respects the most disturbing of all, being purely opportunistic while exhibiting zero sensitivity to the long ordeal of Palestinian captivity and abuse. Despite her nuanced mind, Clinton comes across as a crude opportunist. For me the thought of Clinton’s fingers close to the nuclear button is hardly reassuring, although less scary than the prospect of Trump or Cruz exercising such an absolute power over human destiny. 


Of course, we can try and convince ourselves that most of the bad stuff is behind her and that the really good stuff lies ahead. We can firm this hope up with an expectation that Sanders will use his considerable leverage effectively, nudging her left on economic policy and making her more cautious about intervention. But it is a gamble at best, and once in the White House, special interest and bureaucratic pressures will put the Sanders agenda on a distant back burner.


I recall that the Nader third party candidacy, which I at the time supported, seems to have cost Gore the presidency in 2000 due to the outcome in Florida, and if Gore rather than George W. Bush had become president there probably would have been no attack on Iraq in 2003. Initiating a regime-changing war against Iraq was a neocon priority, but never on the agenda of moderate Republicans, much less Democrats. Yet counterfactuals can be misleading. Without the failure of Iraq there might have been a far greater disposition to intervene elsewhere, maybe Ukraine or Syria. As Madeline Albright a stalwart Martian supporter of Clinton memorably reminded us some years ago, ‘what’s the use of this great military capability if we never use it.’

Thinking back to the 2000 makes me hesitate before voting for a third party candidate, although there is a case to be made. The election of Jill Stein, the admirable Green Party candidate, would likely lift our spirits, enhance human security, and make us safer by departing from the cliches of national security. It is sad when the person with the most relevant vision and impeccable character, with nary a blemish, should be marginalized because of the folk wisdom embodied in the saying ‘the best is the enemy of the good,’ or more accurately in this case, ‘the worst is the enemy of the mediocre.’

Despite these doubts, prudence suggests swallowing hard, and voting for Hillary Clinton with eyes wide open. I have not yet decided, although leaning, yet still pondering some questions. Isn’t it time to hold politicians accountable for past wrongdoing? Doesn’t Clinton seem like an unprincipled opportunist, tacking to the left in the primary campaign to take some votes away from Sanders, but probably ready to move right once he is safely out of the way so as to lure independent voters and disaffected Republicans, and later, to govern effectively?


Isn’t Sanders right to contend that the problems of America require ‘a social revolution,’ and shouldn’t citizens of conscience stop acting as if incrementalism will address the fundamental challenges facing the country? From such an outlook, it is tempting to withhold support and forego political participation until a national candidate arrives on the scene who gives real promise of seeking the changes we need, or at least enough of them to make it worthwhile. At this point, I am unable to resolve the dilemma posed by this clash of prudence and principle.


Maybe in the end Tom Hayden’s approach is the only humane way to cut the Gordian Knot of this presidential dilemma: vote for Hillary Clinton in solidarity with African Americans and Latinos as someone who has stood more in their corner than almost any active politician, and surely more than any present candidate, including Bernie Sanders. Solidarity with the racially and ethnically abused, reinforced by lesser of evils reasoning, may be the best we can do at this point, while hoping that Sanders surge is more than a flash in the pan and becomes the sort of transformative movement from below that alone can restore national confidence in a sustainable and humane future. Should feelings of solidarity and revolutionary patience outweigh a principled refusal to go along with militarist opportunism?


Three Unshakeable Pillars of American Foreign Policy

3 Apr



It deserves to be noticed that it is only the two anti-establishment candidates who have challenged the foreign policy consensus that has guided American politicians ever since the end of World War II: consistently express unconditional support for the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Israel (especially since the 1967 War).


Bernie Sanders has been the first serious presidential aspirant for several decades to challenge directly and unabashedly at least one of these pillars by way of his principled and concerted attacks on Wall Street, on the billionaire class, on the exploitative 1%. Although moderate overall, Sanders has been respectfully deferential to the other two pillars, Pentagon and Israel. Because he has mobilized an intense following among all categories of American youth there has been a media reluctance to assault his substantive views frontally, except to offer a variety of snide remarks that cast doubt on his ‘electability.’


Such a dismissal pretends to be pragmatic, but the polls indicate that Sanders would do better against likely Republicans than Clinton. This leads me to interpret the refusal of the corporatized mainstream to take Sanders seriously, at least so far, as a coded ideological attack, basically a reaction to his anti-Wall Street stand that can be viewed as the opening salvo of class warfare.


Donald Trump has encountered a somewhat different firestorm but with a similar intent. At first, when the cognoscenti dismissed him as a serious candidate, he was welcomed as a source of entertainment. When his popularity with primary voters could no longer be overlooked, he was challenged by a steady flow of condescending rebukes that question his competence to govern (rather than his electability) or to be a commander in chief. Again his cardinal sin, in my judgment, is not the extraordinary mobilization of a proto-fascist populism that relishes his anti-Muslim immigration stand, his xenophobic call for a high wall on the Mexican border paid for by Mexico, and his proposed revival of torture as a necessary instrument of anti-terrorism. Most hard core Trump supporters have been long hiding out in a closet until The Donald stepped forward with aplomb and a strident willingness to be politically incorrect. As with Sanders, but seemingly more capriciously and less convincingly, Trump has agitated the guardians of all three pillars, unlike Sanders with a programmatic assault, but more obliquely with provocative comments here and there. He manages to convey, although by way of his many off hand and unrehearsed asides, a heretical state of mind with respect to the received wisdom that has been guiding the country since World War II regardless of which party’s president sits in the oval office.


Of the Pentagon, his heretical views seem spontaneous challenges to settled policies. Trump appears to look with some indifference, if not outright approval, at the prospect for further proliferation of nuclear weapons, specifically in relation to Japan and South Korea. Such a comment is regarded as imprudent even if never meant to be acted upon as it makes the so-called ‘nuclear umbrella’ seem leaky to those accustomed to its protection, and more importantly, casts some doubt on American global commitments around the world.


Similarly, casting doubt on the role of NATO in a post-Cold War world, asking for the Europeans to pay more, is seen by the Beltway wonks, as both an unacceptable public rebuke to allies and an even more unacceptable failure to take seriously the threat being posed by a newly belligerent Russia that flexed its muscles in the Ukraine, and then Syria. Trump’s skeptical attitude toward NATO was particularly resented as it seemed insensitive to the bellicose slide toward a new cold war that had been gathering bipartisan momentum in Washington.


Beyond this, Trump showed little appreciation of the way the Pentagon community views the war on terror. Although war planners likely welcomed the Trump promise to rebuild America’s armed forces so as overcome their alleged decline during the Obama presidency. What bothered the Washington policy community was Trump’s skepticism about such mainstays of American foreign policy as military intervention and regime-changing missions. At one heretical high point Trump even hinted that it would be a good idea to divert Pentagon dollars into infrastructure investment here in America. Annoyed listeners among the guardians might have detected in such a sweeping assertion a disguised, if confused, nostalgia for a revival of American isolationism.


Of the Wall Street pillar, Trump is perhaps more seriously worrisome, although not at all in the Sanders’ mode. Trump trashes the international trading regime that has been such an article of faith at the core of ‘the Washington consensus’ that gave substance and direction to neoliberal globalization in the latter stages of the prior century. His views of the world economy clearly favor the nationalist sort of protectionism that is widely held responsible for the Great Depression. Beyond this, Trump seems intent on challenging the terms of trade with China in ways that could expose a disastrous American vulnerability to Chinese countermeasures, especially given their enormous dollar holdings. Although the foreign policy approach to China endorsed by the guardians is ready, if not eager, to confront China on the island disputes in the South China Sea, it does not want to disrupt the enormous economic benefits and continuing potential of orderly relations with the Chinese market. From this perspective, Trump’s aggressive deal-making approach to global economic policy is viewed as highly dangerous.


Trump has even made the Israeli pillar quiver ever so slightly by suggesting at one point that he favored neutrality in approaching the relations between Israel and Palestine. He sought to override this unwelcome and uncharacteristic display of judiciousness, by making a fawning speech at the AIPAC annual conference. Yet Trump’s willingness to follow the intimations of his gut must have probably made ardent Israeli advocates yearn for the likes of Clinton and Cruz who have mortgaged what’s left of their soul on the altar of subservience to the lordship of Netanyahu and his extremist cohorts.


The candidates who pass the litmus test associated with the three pillars approach are clearly Clinton and Kasich, with Ryan on the sidelines waiting to be called if gridlock ensues at the Republican Convention. Cruz would also be treated as an outlier if it were not for Trump preempting him by this assault on the three pillars. Cruz is hardly the kind of candidate that the guardians prefer. His evangelical religiosity is outside the political box, as is his imprudent stance toward engaging international adversaries, crushing enemies, patrolling Muslim communities, and endorsements of waterboarding. It is not the sort of image of America that the guardians wish to convey to the rest of the world.


Sanders is grudgingly admired for his authenticity, but grounded politically for assailing Wall Street and cruel capitalism in ways that threaten the established economic order (universal health care, free public university tuition) with initiatives popular with many voters.


For months the guardians assumed that Trump would self-destruct but instead he kept dominating the field of presidential hopefuls among the Republican ranks. Unlike the Clinton control of the Democratic Party machine, the Republican Party bureaucracy has been ineffectual in stemming the Trump tide. For this reason media and establishment reinforcements were called upon, and even President Obama joined the chorus of Trump detractors, not because he overtly opposed to the activation of fascist populism but to relieve pressures on the three pillars consensus.


The voters in Wisconsin and elsewhere still have an opportunity to push back. If Sanders should win by double digits on Tuesday, it will create a quandary for the guardians. To have to depend on Clinton’s support among the super delegates for the nomination would be such an anti-democratic rebuff of the Sanders’ constituency that not even Sanders could effectively control the backlash. Many of the Sanders’ faithful would sit out the election no matter what their leader urged, rejecting the lesser of evils plea.


If Trump should prevail, even narrowly, it looks as though the Republicans will find themselves swallowing hard while being forced to select a candidate unacceptable to themselves. Such an outcome would also probably mean kissing goodbye to any hope of regaining the White House, leading the main party effort to be directed at holding on to control of Congress.


Actually, this primary campaign reveals a dismal underlying situation: in a healthy democracy all three pillars should long ago have been shaken at least as hard as Sanders is currently challenging Wall Street. This benevolent challenge mounted by Sanders is a sign that America may be finally getting ready for a genuinely revolutionary challenge, although the grassroots strength of the Trump legions creates the menacing alternative possibility of a fascist counterrevolution. Such radical options are at this point no more than remote possibilities. The persisting probability is more of the same, most likely under Democratic Party auspices. In this respect, the three pillars seem secure in their dysfunction for the foreseeable future. We who lament this can only wish that this dysfunction does not achieve political maturity in the form of global catastrophe.


I have not dwelled on the lesser of evils argument that makes Clinton seem a vastly preferable alternative to a wannabe reactionary like Trump or Cruz. Even if we fear Clinton’s warmongering past, we could at least expect better judicial appointments, more positive initiatives on health care and women’s rights, and more informed and balanced assessment of foreign economic policy. Whether this is enough to overcome our distaste for Clinton’s wanton opportunism and instinctive militarism, is something every citizen will have to ponder on her own if the choice comes down to this next November.                            

Two Ways of Looking at the Race for the American Presidency

12 Mar

[Prefatory Note: This is a rewritten and partially modified version of what posted to hastily yesterday.]


#1: as an incredibly dumbing down of the political process, turning the presidential campaigns for the nomination as heavily financed shadow shows, hiding special interests and money management, all about selling the candidate by boast and bluster;


#2: as pre-revolutionary ferment, mobilizing the young, and confronting the established order, finally, with non-establishment choices between the radical right of Trump & Cruz and the moderate social democratic left of Sanders.


This tedious struggle for political prominence and historical name recognition is being played out against a backdrop of the three pillars of America’s global role: the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Israel. No candidate has managed to shake the pillars, although this time around Sanders has at least launched a genuine attack on the Wall Street pillar, and Trump has gestured toward what might turn out to be a mild push against the Israel pillar. This alone makes Sanders and Trump the first outsiders to compete seriously for a mainstream run at the White House. Of course, since Sanders has done so much better than expected, Clinton has taken to making some noises as if she too is ready to take on Wall Street, but as the unreleased transcripts of her mercenary talks at Goldman, Sachs undoubtedly confirm, no one think she means it, and she doesn’t; this is her way of harmlessly sparring with the man from Vermont until she locks up the machine-driven nomination, and then we might get a hint of the real Hilary, that is, unless she worries about alienating the Sanders’ supporters when election time comes in November.


When we look at the candidates from a Hollywood central casting point of view, we have to wonder who is running the show, especially on the Republican side. Senator Ted Cruz appears to be a credible reincarnation of Tomás de Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor of Spain (1484-1498), grimly ready to deal harshly with the infidels whether within the country or without. Like Torquemada he is sincere, personally austere, and reflective of God’s will. He also seems to have an incidental fondness for ‘carpet bombing,’ and all out war with ‘the enemies’ of the United States wherever they might be in the world, and looks to Netanyahu as the sort of leader he would like to be.


Then there is Marco Rubio snapping at the Cruz and Trump heals as if a scrappy dog seeking an evening meal. Rubio reminds one of a high school debating champion, articulate and self-assured, yet so lacking in political gravitas as to be irrelevant.

 And I almost forgot John Kasich that redoubtable former governor of Ohio who repeatedly tells his audience in a conversational monotone that he has already solved all of America’s problems in microcosm while he brilliantly managed the public life of Ohio from the state capital in Columbus. He pledges to do the same for America as a whole once in Washington, and puts himself forward as the only candidate with the right experience and track record to take up residence in the White House. It is not surprising that there is a tendency to forget Kasich as he has so far managed to stay on board the train only because he has become the default candidate of that endangered species, ‘moderate Republicans.’

 Trump 2Trump

Then there is Donald Trump who, whatever else, is hardly in danger of being forgotten. He is leading the pack into some wild terrain of which he seems only dimly aware. Trump’s idea of how to do international politics boils down to hard driving real estate deal making backed by an larger, all powerful military machine and tax breaks for American multinationals. Without exhibiting much command of the political domain Trump offers some mildly encouraging, even sensible, takeaways that are almost lost in the bigoted noise—his skepticism about regime-changing interventions, opposition to neoliberal international trade agreements, and even casting a smidgeon of doubt on the special relationship with Israel. Of course, it is not these sensible asides but the Trump thunder that excites his followers and energizes his crowds. He wins his mass following by demonizing Muslims and Latinos, promising to end all Muslim immigration, deport 11 million illegals, and build that high wall along the Mexican border, and then send the bill to the Mexican Government, and, get this, restore American military might. His reputation for repudiating what liberals espouse as ‘politically correct’ earns him a reputation for talking right-wing nonsense to power, and being perceived by his followers as deliciously politically incorrect. The Trump appeal is based totally on the politics of emotion, tapping into resentments, prejudices, and racism, unleashing a venomous tide of proto-fascist activism that should be, but isn’t yet, scaring Americans as much as it seems to be frightening and startling the rest of the world.


The Democrats seem to be doing a little bit better, but only in comparison to the current crop of Republican alternatives.Hilary Clinton, running needlessly scared as frontrunner, seems to have that ‘deer in the headlights’ look every time her ‘core beliefs’ are probed or challenged. The unclassified, yet disclosed, truth, is that she doesn’t seem to have any, or at least not yet. Or maybe she had, but lost track, and now can’t find them or lost them along the way or will rediscover them if necessary. Ever an ambitious opportunist par excellence, it seems that her least laundered credential is her steadfast realization that the three pillars are absolutes in American politics, maybe better represented as ‘sacred cows.’


Hence, Hilary is fully credible when promising to improve upon current U.S. relations with Israel and can be trusted never to let down either the Pentagon or Wall Street, or to go wobbly when given the opportunity to champion a new military intervention. What more could the Democratic Party establishment want from a candidate, and this is the point that has seemed to resonate so strongly with the so-called superdelegates (elected officials and party luminaries who can vote for whomever they wish, neither being selected by voters or pledged to a particular candidate) who mostly stand shoulder to shoulder with Clinton and virtually extinguish the slight hopes of Sanders however many Michigan style upsets he manages to pull off.


And then there is Bernie Sanders, as genuine a proponent of a decent American society as the political system has produced since FDR, and maybe more so, but he only knows how to carry melodies with only a single note, and while it is a high note, pushing hard against the Wall Street pillar, it exhibits too narrow a grasp of the American political challenge to make him qualified to lead the first global state in human history. His views on the other two pillars seem unthreatening to the mainstream, he goes along, perhaps reluctantly at the margins, seeming to accept the defense budget except some quibbles, as well as existing alliances and alignments, and raises no awkward questions about continuing unconditional support for Israel. Of course, shackling Wall Street while universalizing health care and providing free public education at college levels would give the country a vital breath of free air, but given the U.S. global role, it is not enough to validate the claim of delivering ‘a social revolution.’


Let’s ask where all of this leads? The probable short term result is probably Trump versus Clinton, with either Trump navigating the ship of state through turbulent waters fraught with danger and unpredictability or Clinton sailing full speed ahead as if Barack Obama was still serving as the real president, but somehow has grown more macho in the process of aging. Either outcome is, of course, problematic. If Trump, the beast of fascism slouches ever closer to Washington; if Clinton, the gods of war will be dancing through the night.


There are a few silver linings that may be merely wishful thinking. It is possible that the Republican Party will implode, or reemerge for what it is becoming in any event, that is, the party of discontent and revenge, shedding its pedigree as the sedate sanctuary of privilege and big business. For the Democrats, the Sanders defeat might give birth to a break with party politics on the part of its young and progressive contingent, who leave discontented, adopting an anti-three pillars agenda that expands upon what Bernie so resolutely initiated. It is this possibility that seems plausible given the extraordinary strength of Sanders’ support among voters 18-25 who will be bound to feel more bitterly frustrated than ever by the dynamics of ‘normal politics.’ The country can again become hopeful about the future if such a progressive vision of a better America prevails among the young and is sustained by a strong consensus giving rise to a militant nonviolent movement for drastic change at home and abroad.

Of course, I may be wrong, my imagination remains trapped in what now seems most likely. It is possible that Trump will be stopped and Sanders will prevail, or that some kind of third party will be insinuated in the political process to save the established order from shipwreck. If it happens, then the  shape of the future will be different from what is conjectured here, but I doubt that I will have to eat many of these words. 

At another level, the political soap opera that seems to be entrancing the American people at present can be seen as an epic battle between ‘the politics of emotion’ (Trump), ‘the politics of sentiment and values’ (Sanders), and ‘the politics of reason and knowledge’ (as variously represented by Clinton, Cruz, Kasich, and Rubio). 




A Postscript: Campaign for Bernie Sanders

15 Jul

Opposing Hilary Clinton: Supporting Bernie Sanders


As a result of several astute comments, I became aware that my prior post on why Hilary Clinton had crossed a red line that could not be erased by invoking the amoral rationale of the lesser of evils, was seriously incomplete. It overlooked the presence of Bernie Sanders as a rival candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Sanders was present in my mind while I was writing the post, but I wrongly jumped to the conclusion that he was sure to lose out to the Hilary juggernaut that has already captured huge campaign contributions (reportedly over $70 million) and has the backing of the Democratic Party bureaucracy and leadership, and hence not worth the effort.


What I did not take into account is the importance of Bernie’s campaign, win or lose, in raising for Americans in ways that are substantive and progressive issues involving the 40 year decline of America’s middle classes and poor, and the massive transfers of wealth to the top 1%. Clinton is addressing these issues rhetorically but her policy minders and political instincts are Wall Street crafted (without policy bite) and in the end quite compatible with the rapacious practices of hedge fund operators. The United States desperately needs a genuine attack on predatory capitalism and its increasing success in replacing republican democracy with proto-fascist plutocracy. Perhaps, Bernie Sanders will not go this far by way of critique and prescription, but his campaign deserves the full support of progressives, and hopefully his presence in the political arena will contribute to the belated awakening of more American citizens to the variety of internal dangers (racism, gun culture, collapsing infrastructure) confronting the country, developments that cannot be separated from the geopolitical militarism and geoeconomic neoliberalism that Clinton espouses.


My encouragement, then, is for hard campaigning on behalf of Bernie Sanders, and if he should after all lose the nomination to Clinton after putting up a good fight, a message of gratitude as well as a principled shift to the second most worthy candidate on the presidential stage, Jill Stein of the Green Party. If the Democratic Party faithful goes ahead and chooses Clinton over Sanders it should expect the defection of all those of us who insist upon a precautionary approach to climate change and a repudiation of neoliberal capitalism, as well as a genuine embrace of racial justice, immigration equity, and the sexual/gender liberation agenda. Being less distasteful on these litmus issues than the Republicans is not sufficient to warrant support.