11.06.2016
  • United States

The Art of Spin

How Hillary Clinton backers deployed faux feminism and privilege politics to divert attention from her destructive policies.

Hillary Clinton campaigning at Carnegie Mellon on April 7, 2016. Nathaniel F / Flickr

The 2016 presidential election is widely regarded as a contest between the two most unpopular candidates in a generation, if not all time. The lion’s share of the attention has focused on the spectacle of Donald Trump, the wealthy real-estate mogul and television personality who has succeeded in capturing the Republican Party nomination in large part due to his capacity to manipulate a mass media system that has long favored sensation over substance.

In doing so, Trump has contributed to an unprecedented debasement of the national political discourse. His incoherent ramblings and lack of substantive knowledge, along with his predilection for explicitly sexist and racist appeals, outright lies, scathing personal insults and threats directed against his opponents and their supporters, and not least, sexual assault, have brought the bar to a new low. Yet, remarkably, his core supporters remain undaunted. They have bought the spin from the Trump campaign hook, line, and sinker and rationalized their decision to vote for him.

Clinton supporters like to believe that they are above such spin. However, this is not the case. On the one hand, Trump has been a dream come true for the Clinton campaign, which has happily focused the bulk of its efforts on the self-destructive Republican in an attempt to distract attention from Clinton’s serious flaws.

On the other hand, the campaign and its supporters have produced an impressive array of bite-sized, disingenuous, and specious claims designed to silence their leftist critics, guilt possible waverers, and win over Bernie Sanders supporters. Propaganda and misdirection have been deployed to great effect in 2016.

Warding off the Critics

In a skillful and opportunistic appropriation of feminism and identity politics, the Clinton campaign and its supporters have effectively smeared Clinton’s critics with the charge of sexism. This began during the Democratic primary with attacks on “Bernie Bros” — men accused of using their white, male privilege to target Clinton and her female backers.

In a recent column in the Guardian, Van Badham, a self-proclaimed socialist, has continued this line of attack, asserting that beleaguered women have had to form secret groups so that they could praise Clinton without being badgered by “brogressives,” “brocialists,” and “manarchists.”

It is true, of course, that Clinton has long been the target of often vicious sexist attacks from the Right (lately fueled, in no small measure, by the astounding misogyny of her opponent, Donald Trump), and it is no doubt true that some leftist critics of Clinton are also guilty of sexism.

But the campaign and many of its supporters make a much stronger claim — that all opposition to or criticism of Clinton, including on the Left, is driven to a significant degree by sexism. This even extends to women, who in failing to support another woman (Clinton) have earned a “special place in hell,” reserved for them by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

This argument, however, is illogical on its face, given the obvious fact that Democrats themselves do not support all women. Indeed, they automatically reject Republican and third-party women candidates (even when they compete against men) and often go so far as to subject them to vitriolic attacks (as in the case of 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and 2016 Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein).

Hence, they draw distinctions among women as a matter of course, ostensibly on the basis of their policy positions and track records, if not simply because of their party affiliations. If in rejecting some women candidates, Democrats are not themselves ipso facto guilty of sexism, then it is illogical for them to claim that anyone on the Left who opposes Hillary Clinton is necessarily motivated by sexism. In fact, as it turns out, there are very sound reasons to oppose Clinton, including — if not especially — from a feminist perspective.

Many feminists have offered extensive critiques of Hillary Clinton’s record, notably Zillah Eisentein and the authors in False Choices, the anthology on the faux feminism of Hillary Clinton edited by Liza Featherstone. The arguments are too numerous to repeat here, but consider one example: Walmart.

When Clinton was brought onto the board of Walmart, the company was facing serious problems of gender discrimination. At every level, women were paid less than men, leading to the largest sex discrimination class-action lawsuit in history. As Featherstone wrote, while “Clinton’s presence on the board helped to make the company look like a better place for women, there is no evidence that she took any measures as a board member to address Walmart’s systemic sexism.”

This example captures the essence of neoliberal feminism — the placement of women in leadership positions of institutions dedicated to maintaining unequal, sexist, and discriminatory practices. While it is sold as a “trickle-down theory,” in reality, women in these positions — Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Carly Fiorina — only serve to reproduce the unjust and unequal institutions they head.

Building on the buzz of corporate feminism spurred by women like Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, the Clinton campaign has masterfully deployed feminist tropes and identity politics to promote Clinton as a feminist icon. However, Sandberg’s claim that conditions for all women will improve as women enter high-level positions is simply not borne out by reality.

While it is a travesty that a woman has never been president of the US, the accession of just any woman to that office is not in and of itself a victory for feminism, as the cases of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Indira Gandhi in India, and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan clearly illustrate.

As feminist scholar bell hooks put it, explaining why she cannot support Hillary Clinton, there are “certain things that I don’t want to cosign in the name of feminism that I think are militarist, imperialist, white supremacist.” Quoting James Baldwin, she urges us to ask an important question: “who are you and what do you stand for”?

When we ask that question of Hillary Clinton, we find that rarely has there been anyone so deeply connected — and committed — to the interests of corporate America, Wall Street, the oil and gas industry, the military-industrial complex, and US empire. Clinton personifies everything that the Democratic Party has become in the neoliberal age. Her supporters point to small gestures she has made towards improving the lives of women and children, and then proceed to erase her larger record, one which has been devastating for millions of vulnerable people (especially women and children) both at home and abroad.

It is worth emphasizing here that what matters is not Clinton the individual but rather the kinds of alliances and compromises that she has been willing to make (indeed, in most instances, had to make because of the nature of the US political system and the prevailing balance of social forces) in order to rise to the pinnacle of her chosen profession. Her rise to the presidency is not a triumph for feminism.

An Exercise in “Privilege”

A more general charge, of which sexism is a specific manifestation, is the claim that leftist critics of Clinton are guilty of exercising “privilege.” The basic contention here is that only privileged people (by virtue of their class position, race, gender, legal status, or sexual orientation) have the luxury of criticizing or opposing Clinton, ostensibly because they are immune to the harmful effects that taking such a position will have on the most vulnerable members of society.

However, like the charge of sexism, this universal claim ignores the reality that large numbers of vulnerable people oppose Clinton, and for very concrete and substantive reasons. It also marginalizes prominent black and Latino critics of Clinton, such as bell hooks, Michelle Alexander, Marc Lamont Hill, Donna Murch, Cornel West, and César Vargas, effectively lumping them among the “privileged.”

By discounting these voices, and ignoring the vast harm that the policies and interests that Clinton represents have done to vulnerable people, aren’t these Clinton supporters revealing their own privilege? Not so coincidentally, it is often white people who have been most aggressive in accusing others of “white privilege” for failing to support Clinton.

Looking back, we might also ask, is it a “privilege” to want to hold the Clinton-Gore administration accountable for throwing millions of poor women off welfare, for throwing hundreds of thousands more black and brown people into prison, for killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, for passing the Iraq Liberation Act (and thereby making regime change in Iraq official US policy and laying the groundwork for Bush’s bipartisan invasion and the deaths of hundreds of thousands more)? Is it privileged to condemn Madeleine Albright for stating that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children resulting from US and UN Sanctions was “worth it”?

A typical retort to these and other criticisms of Clinton-Gore policies is “Bill Clinton isn’t running for President,” implying that Hillary Clinton had nothing to do with her husband’s administrations. This not only flies in the face of the historical record, but also undermines a principal justification for her presidential run — the claim that she is the most experienced candidate running (ever, according to Obama), by virtue of her public service over the last forty years.

However, the first twenty of those years were as first lady to Bill Clinton, initially in Arkansas and then in Washington, DC. Moreover, the primary reason she was able to build a subsequent political career as a senator and secretary of state was precisely because of her unconventionally deep involvement in her husband’s administrations. Indeed, during his 1992 run for the presidency, Bill Clinton bragged that by electing him, Americans would be getting a “two-for-one.”

She also served as a highly outspoken advocate for his administration’s landmark policies, in some instances notoriously so, as when she defended the 1994 crime bill by insisting that it was necessary to bring young, black “superpredators . . . to heel.” Finally, as a presidential candidate herself, she has strongly defended her husband’s policies, offering them as an indication of what her future administration would portend.

For Clinton’s supporters to deny the relevance of this history while simultaneously using it to tout her extensive experience and qualifications is a transparently disingenuous attempt to have it both ways.

Furthermore, where were the critics of “privilege” politics when the Obama administration, in which Clinton served as a high-ranking cabinet officer, deepened the Bush administration’s national security/surveillance apparatus, by, among other things, prosecuting more whistleblowers than any in history, expanding the drone program, and accelerating the erosion of civil liberties? Where were they when the administration (and Clinton herself during her campaign) called on Muslim Americans to engage in self-surveillance, thereby making all Muslims culpable for the actions of a few?

The False Equivalence Claim

Confronted by these criticisms of recent Democratic administrations, Clinton supporters’ typical fallback is the so-called “false equivalence” claim — the assertion that anyone who opposes both Trump and Clinton must, by necessity, believe that the two are identical.

On occasion, this straw-man argument is coupled with the sexism charge, as in the following tortured construction by the otherwise astute Laurie Penny: “if you truly believe that there is any moral equivalence between centrist soft-liberal feminism and an outright swivel-eyed billionaire despot with an army of gurning [sic] trolls at his disposal then you may want to take a look in the mirror and ask yourself, truly, if you might not be a little bit sexist.”

Aside from the overly charitable characterization of Clinton, it isn’t clear to whom Penny is addressing this statement, for one would be hard pressed to find people asserting such an absurd equivalence.

But perhaps more significantly, what the false equivalence claim obscures is the reality that someone is capable of simultaneously opposing both Trump and Clinton for different reasons, seeing them as distinct threats. That is, of course, the claim’s intended goal — to stoke fears of the threat posed by Trump in order to distract attention from the threat posed by Clinton.

And like the charges of sexism and privilege, the false equivalence claim exposes an illogical double standard. In rejecting not just Trump but also Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, and others, do Clinton supporters view the latter as identical to Trump?

In reality, the false equivalence claim is simply a mask for the timeworn “lesser-evil” argument. Often repackaged as “harm reduction” these days, the lesser-evil argument has contributed enormously to the vicious downward spiral that has characterized the US political system over the last forty years. Since at least Carter’s initiation of what later came to be known as Reaganomics in the late 1970s, the Democrats in office have at best represented one step forward and three steps back, while the Republicans have represented three steps back; it is the former that has made the latter possible.

The Democrats have played an indispensable role in perpetuating the long rightward shift of the political system by enabling the Republicans to become more and more extreme. With every rightward move the Republicans make, Democrats argue that we must do whatever it takes to keep them out of office, including following in their footsteps, because the alternative would be so much worse.

This steady rightward shift plays into the hands of the Clinton campaign, which, having realized its dream of facing an opponent like Donald Trump, is then positioned to blackmail the Democratic Party’s voting base into supporting its potent mix of neoliberalism and neoconservatism by raising the specter of the increasingly extreme Republicans. And as the Democrats move further to the right, they enable the Republicans to go even farther down that road, intensifying the downward spiral.

Unfortunately, because of the limitations and long-term dynamic of our two-party system, harm reduction is simply not a viable option on the ballot this year. A Clinton-Kaine administration will generate great harm, and in so doing, will create the conditions for the emergence of even greater future threats emanating from both parties, just as the harm caused by Clinton-Gore and Obama-Biden contributed enormously to the awful political choice we face now.

How the Downward Spiral Works

This pattern is particularly evident with respect to Trump’s signature issue, immigration. Those who oppose Trump insist that the Democrats will not be as bad, but the unavoidable truth is that both Democratic and Republican administrations have combined to cause vast human suffering.

With the implementation of NAFTA in 1994, for example, the Clinton-Gore administration helped to destroy the livelihoods of millions of Mexican peasants, who having been rendered landless by the dumping of cheap US corn, were forced to migrate to Mexico’s northern border to toil in the maquiladoras (sweatshops), or over the border into the US, scraping by in low-wage, precarious jobs.

Subsequent administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have only intensified the pursuit of neoliberal policies in Mexico and Central America, keeping the great majority of the region’s population in poverty and triggering ongoing migration.

Similarly, building on the Clinton administration’s Plan Colombia, both Democrats and Republicans have waged a brutal war on drugs in the region (through the so-called Mérida Initiative) that has cost tens of thousands of lives and provoked the biggest wave of refugees since the Central American civil wars of the 1980s, including tens of thousands of unaccompanied children.

The response to the immigration provoked by these neoliberal and drug-war policies has, in turn, been nothing short of appalling. Both parties have engaged in mass deportation, but the Obama administration has set new records, deporting more immigrants than any in US history (2.5 million) — more than the sum of the nineteen US administrations from 1892 to 2000.

Obama has compounded this violence with its illegal Plan Frontera Sur, which provides tens of millions of dollars to the Mexican government to prevent Central Americans from finding refuge by fleeing across Mexico’s southern border.

Finally, the Obama administration’s proposal for “comprehensive immigration reform” was closely modeled on a Bush administration proposal, designed first and foremost to meet the needs of corporations for cheap labor in exchange for the promise of a long, torturous, and nearly impossible path to citizenship.

Donald Trump’s overt attack on immigrants is thus not a xenophobic and racist anomaly. It is fully congruent with the history of past administrations, and draws political legitimacy from that history. As Olga Tomchin, a lawyer at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, put it, “Trump is just verbalizing what Obama is already doing.”

The fundamental problem at the heart of the lesser-evil (or harm-reduction) argument, then, is that it is informed by a type of fear-and-loathing-induced short-term thinking that sees politics as an essentially static process and leaves little room for any kind of strategic or historical analysis.

To the degree that it does look beyond election day, it either embraces a deeply cynical political vision whose highest aspiration is to slow down the rate at which things deteriorate, or engages in a form of cognitively dissonant wishful thinking that ignores the pattern of past elections and policy outcomes. Either way, it generates a self-fulfilling downward spiral, intensifying the very harm it ostensibly seeks to prevent.

The Russians Are Coming

One other disingenuous and even dangerous tactic introduced by Democratic spinmasters in the last couple months is worth mentioning. Confronted by embarrassing revelations in the hacked emails of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, the Democrats have desperately sought to distract public attention from the content of those emails by insisting in turns that they are forged, that they constitute a serious invasion of privacy and threat to US democracy, and that they were illegally obtained by the Russian government.

To date, no proof of the emails’ inauthenticity has been offered, which in any case is incompatible with the objection that they were illegally obtained and constitute an invasion of privacy. Moreover, the latter complaint is transparently hypocritical, given that the campaign and its supporters expressed no concern about the illegal acquisition and release of Trump’s 1991 tax return, but instead celebrated it. Even more significant is that, as secretary of state, Clinton was a high-ranking member of an administration that systematically violated the privacy of millions of Americans.

But perhaps most disturbing of all, by casting blame on the Russians as a means to distract attention from the content of the emails, the Democrats have engaged in a modern-day version of McCarthyism, implying that anyone who takes the emails seriously is a Russian dupe. This is an especially reckless attempt at misdirection, given the heightened tensions with Russia in Ukraine and Syria and the Clinton camp’s proposals for an aggressively militaristic foreign policy in those areas of the world.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Despite concerns about a new cache of emails, a new Clinton administration will, in all likelihood, be inaugurated in January. While we can expect a continuation of attacks from the right, we can also expect that the new administration and its supporters will continue their attack on the Left, seeking to deflect criticisms of the core policies and interests it represents by making use of the same forms of propaganda that it has deployed so effectively during the election. If Obama faced vicious racist attacks, Clinton will continue to face sexism and even misogyny. In turn, all who criticize Clinton will be branded as sexists, “brocialists,” or “unrealistic purists” who discount the ongoing threat posed by the followers of Donald Trump.

In the meantime, structural racism and sexism will remain unchallenged. Just as the Obama era offered the false promise of a new “post-racial” world, Clinton’s election will inaugurate a “post-feminist” era. But the reality on the ground will remain one in which a small wealthy elite continue to enrich themselves at the expense of the great majority, especially the most vulnerable among us.

The challenge for those who seek to advance an agenda of social and economic justice will therefore be to cut through this propaganda, fighting the new administration’s crimes tooth and nail and building the groundwork for a genuine left alternative.