Yves here. For worthy critique of the Clinton defenders’ crackpot realism, see Steve Waldman’s Your theory of politics is wrong.
By Nathan Tankus, a writer living in New York City
Despite the title, this isn’t exactly about Hillary Clinton. It’s about the liberal pundits who defend her at every turn. Their preening attitude is best illustrated in this tweet from a journalist at Vox. Incidentally, is there no phrase that represents self satisfied modern liberalism more than “tweet from a journalist from Vox”?
Hi, I’m 23 years old & I once read a blog post about how Hillary Clinton forced welfare reform on the country. I’m here to lecture you.
— David Roberts (@drvox) February 6, 2016
You see, critics of Hillary Clinton are children who only recently became politicized that should just shut up. This attitude is peculiar for a few reasons. First, during election season there’s nothing that pundits love more than to denounce young people for not being interested in politics and voting more. Now that they start to pay attention it’s time to shut up and stop being so interested in discussing politics. Pundits evidentially want young people to help get elected the person that “adults” have already selected, not actually have any influence over the political process. Second, the supposed strawman Roberts is beating up on is actually not wrong! You’d think when making fun of “millennials” it would be wise to pick something more negligible than throwing millions of people into crushing poverty. But to the liberal commentariat that was so long ago and her agency was (and is) small.
Some of these same pundits will object to the claim that they “defend her at every turn”. They will point to some mildly critical article they wrote or an interview they did with Sanders seven months ago as evidence of their “objectivity”. These comments comically miss the point. First, the amount written taking Hillary Clinton’s self image as a realist and “serious politician” is leaps and bounds greater then the writing critical of her or supportive of sanders. Even Vox criticism of her reads like PR consultations. Second, ardent defense isn’t measured in how much you write on “each” topic. It’s measured in the tone and attitude pouring through all your writing and in this case it’s overwhelming. To take but one example (again from Vox), here is Ezra Klein writing at the end of January:
Clinton’s theory of change is probably analytically correct, and it’s well-suited to a world in which Republicans will almost certainly continue to control the House, and so a Democratic president will have to grind out victories of compromise in Congress and of bureaucratic mastery through executive action.
In this piece overall there’s allusions to the criticisms leftists have of Clinton and a few nice words for Sanders but the overall message and tone, best expressed in this quote, is “Clinton is serious, Sanders is unserious and we need seriousness”. Even Krugman who coined the phrase “Very Serious Person” is chiding people because they “don’t want to hear that they’re being unrealistic”. One gets the feeling that the Iraq war was a personal affront to Krugman because he couldn’t help but be on the wrong side of mainstream punditry of the time and now that both the war and the great financial crisis he can finally return to his proper role as a conventional commentator.
The most bizarre thing about these desperate calls to realism is our modern context. In what possible way is it “realistic” to continue voting for the lesser evil when we have an ongoing climate catastrophe no mainstream Democrat or Republican is willing to discuss, let alone actually do something significant about? During Obama’s first term he even pressured environmental groups to stop or tone down their discussions of climate change. Each lesser evil candidate just happens to be a greater evil than the last one. Each of their politics are unimaginable even as one is in the throes of the attacks on basic human decency engendered by the last one. The slogan of the Democratic party is “it could always be worse” while the promise is “it will always be worse”. When your realism involves supporting a trend that could quite realistically mean the end of human civilization forgive me for holding you in contempt.
In crackpot realism, a high-flying moral rhetoric is joined with an opportunist crawling among a great scatter of unfocused fears and demands. In fact, the main content of “politics” is now a struggle among men equally expert in practical next steps — which, in summary, make up the thrust toward war — and in great, round, hortatory principles.
Charles Wright Mills writing nearly sixty years ago captures this dynamic perfectly. Whereas then the steps towards war could be apocalyptic because of nuclear annihilation now the steps towards war seem more like a distraction while we sink into greater economic doldrums and come closer to social death. But not only does all this ignore the existential threats, it completely misses how American politics has evolved for over four decades. To the liberal commentariat the status quo is irrevocably right wing and politicians like Obama and Clinton are simply “grappling” with this reality. As Klein said “Clinton’s theory of change is probably analytically correct”.
What they miss is these right wing Democrats have profoundly shaped this status quo. Bill Clinton’s treatment of poor people was unimaginable before him and par for the course after him. Obama’s treatment of ordinary homeowners would have been a preposterous fictional story of campy villany. Now it’s just how the world works. Sanders (for all his faults on issues like Israel and immigration) is actually looking to push the center to the left for once and is hoping to galvanize ordinary people to do it. It’s the realism of the psych ward that says we’ll solve climate change, help ordinary people and build a workable economy by supporting an endless series of politicians who care less and less about the issues that matter and exploit hopeful supporters more and more cynically. Admonishing young people for both not voting and desiring anything other than a debt-crippled, climatologically-unstable future feels more like admonishing serfs for being insufficiently pious and for caring about what happens to themselves or their children on this plane of existence. In short, realism is just a code word for “shut up, sit down and be quiet”.