Suggested listening: “Might Not” – The Weeknd
Let me be straightforward: #ImWithHer, but my hopes for America’s bright future—my youthful optimism about the possibility of a Leftward shift—died with Bernie Sanders’ campaign. In Sanders’ endorsement of Hillary Clinton we witnessed a public hollowing-out of the fiery socialist we saw during the primary, a forced, through-the-teeth kind of “support.” Once it became clear that Sanders would lose the primary, everyone saw this uncomfortable concession coming (except, apparently, Slavoj Žižek), but its sad significance is clear only now, in retrospect.
Voting for Her, we are told, is the only way to Stop Trump, and every sensible person agrees we must Stop Trump. Aren’t you just so inspired by this bold vision of a peaceful, sustainable, and egalitarian future?
Perhaps the apotheosis of this do-your-dismal-duty argument can be seen in The Atlantic’s decision—not undertaken lightly, they made abundantly clear—to lend the weight of their brand to Team Clinton, but only as a means of Stopping Trump.
Yes, Trumping Trump is the name of the game, and it’s one that hardly any American Leftist or liberal could reasonably decline to play (myself included), especially given Trump’s disgusting attitudes toward women.
* * *
Let me also be clear: Electing a woman to our nation’s highest office would be a good thing, full stop, and I wouldn’t fault any feminist for voting Clinton on this basis alone. But (there’s always a but) I, at least, cannot pretend to believe that Hillary being a woman makes her possible Presidency any more likely than Bernie’s would have been to result in policies that will actually serve the interests of working- and middle-class women (many of whom will vote Trump, by the way). There is ritualistic, symbolic, and practical value to be gained in electing a woman President, but this shouldn’t blind us to Clinton’s broadly conservative platform—e.g., her military hawkishness, war-on-terror fear-mongering, complicity with Wall Street, insincere-or-late-blooming support of LGBT rights, and status quo-preserving incremental-reformism on issues from immigration to education. It’s easy to see that a Clinton win would represent a victory for feminism—especially compared to a Trump win—but it’s equally easy to see that, policy-wise, Bernie Sanders was the feminist candidate.
This was the semiotic double-bind the Left confronted this primary season: Pick Clinton and you perpetuate a harshly anti-feminist agenda while striking back at the cultural hegemony of American politics (brought to you by The Patriarchy™); pick Sanders and you give the Presidency back to yet another straight white male whose agenda would nevertheless represent a major feminist victory in policy terms.
Feminists themselves were divided about how to answer this question, largely along generational lines. But I believe—as did most Millennial women—that feminist changes in public policy ultimately matter more than merely (“merely”) electing a woman. I mean, let’s be candid: Would you, dear female readers, really have voted for, say, Carly Fiorina over Bernie Sanders just to see a woman in the White House? True, the question of the exact point on the ideological spectrum at which the balance tips in favor of woman-qua-woman is near-impossible to resolve, but the difference between Sanders and Clinton was substantial.
* * *
What’s more, there is a candidate who offers a logical escape route for progressive feminists: Jill Stein. Put aside the extremely widespread misinformation about Stein’s position on vaccines (hint: she’s a medical doctor), and put aside whatever you heard in John Oliver’s bizarrely aggressive anti-Stein rant, and put aside the misguided attempts to ridicule her for being kind of a hippie, and there can be no doubt that Stein should have been (“should have been”) the go-to feminist candidate this election, at least for those on the Left. (Elizabeth Warren could have filled a similar role, but perhaps believes her moment will come in 2020 or 2024.)
But if Stein solves the semiotic problem, why is there no enthusiasm for her? Why is Stein—a peace-loving left-wing hippie-feminist with an M.D., an advocate for books over bombs, saving the planet from global warming, and redistributive taxation—not able to run as a Democrat? Are these values not mainstream enough? What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding in 2016?
The lack of mainstream support for positions like Stein’s is a stark reminder that much of the (nominally) feminist support for Clinton is really based on ideological support for Clinton’s neoliberal, hawkish policies, awkwardly stapled to a Gramscian sense that her identity as a woman matters in and of itself.
* * *
The problem with Stein, of course, is the obvious one: Stein, as a third-party candidate facing down an electoral system designed to exclude third parties, simply cannot win. Third parties in America face a mountain of structural disadvantages: Our first-past-the-post voting system, gerrymandered voting districts, exclusionary system of public debates, corporate-financed elections, and electoral college ensure that purportedly radical candidates like Jill Stein, however benevolent their intentions, will always stand a snowball’s chance in hell of actually winning as candidates from third parties. Faced with pressure from voters who are willing to form coalitions that comprise approximately 51% of the electorate (or enough of it to get 270 votes in the electoral college, at any rate), third parties in America must resign themselves to repeatedly losing (as Stein evidently has) in an arguably vain act of protest against The System.™
It’s sad, but it’s true. The idea known as Duverger’s principle looms large over our politics, though ironically, one of the most powerful counterforces to Donald Trump’s dominance of this election is Gary Johnson’s presence in it. The Ron Swanson wannabes, it seems, have gone their own way, perhaps fearing the white supremacists with whom Trump asked them to be bedfellows. They will never vote for a Big Government Liberal like Leslie Knope Hillary Clinton, but are also smart enough to realize that their fantasies of unlimited personal freedom and U.S. isolationism are incompatible with Republican politics. Were Johnson suddenly to drop out, a Trump victory would be significantly more likely. In fact, assuming Trump could capture most of Johnson’s supporters, he’d be winning the popular vote.
* * *
So, what’s a girl to do? How do we unwind the political mechanisms that prevent left-wing feminists from taking state power?
The best hope, I believe, is a strategic takeover of the Democratic Party from within, one modeled on Sanders’ campaign but helmed by a woman, ideally one with significant political experience (paging Senator Warren!). This could allow the Left to set new ideological goals for the party, placing vastly more emphasis on ecological sustainability, socialist economic policies (financed by increased taxes on the wealthy and reduced military spending), open borders, legal and social equality, criminal justice reform (especially drug legalization), the dismantling of state surveillance, and the redress of historical discrimination and violence, among other, more mainstream-liberal goals.
However, as widespread support for Clinton among the wealthy and powerful makes clear, this kind of party makeover may not be possible anytime soon. Many influential Democrats, in other words, are active supporters of an essentially neoliberal program; to them, Clinton’s hawkishness (for example) is a feature, not a bug.
As such, Leftists might do better by seeking to reform the structural rules that prevent third-party candidates like Stein from gaining traction. The idea would be to foster a strong green-socialist third party, one capable of menacing the Democratic Party’s chances at electoral victory, with the aim of forcing concessions on policy from centrists, perhaps in exchange for party reconsolidation (or at least enough votes to get past the proverbial post). In other words, let the Left hold the centrists hostage with the threat of a Republican victory in the same way the centrists have always done to the Left.
However, as Stein’s meager support suggests, this strategy is also unlikely to succeed. Thus, it seems we will be repeatedly bludgeoned by neoliberal forces eager to continue pursuing their hideous ideological goal of global capitalism backed by extensive military power—a masculine fantasy run amok. If you’re a young woman feeling happy about the prospect of Hillary, recall that, in a hypothetical re-do of this election in which only young women could vote, Bernie Sanders would be President.
Again, I don’t question the validity of a feminist Clinton vote based solely on her identity as a woman, but again-again, I don’t think most feminists actually endorse that kind of naked identity politics. When the Bernie dream died, so did the last best hope for turning America in a left-wing feminist direction. A moment of silence for that.
* * *
Okay, enough, who should I vote for? We find ourselves at a moment where, for the Left, there is no real alternative to voting Clinton, even though her platform can be accurately described as Center-Right (at best). This holds especially true with Stein polling at less than 1%, such that hopes for future funding for the Green Party (triggered at 5%) are not even in sight.
But the supposed glory of Stopping Trump is, at best, a way of papering over the dismal reality of an election that represented a major defeat for the Left. Trump would have been so horrible that we can feel good about vanquishing him, right? And let’s hang tight to that feeling as we watch Clinton spend billions on F-22s that should be spent on renewable energy development and improvements to our public schools. God bless America.
* * *
Let me, though, be fair: Coupled with a Democrat-controlled Senate, a Clinton win could allow for some policy reforms that will have positive effects on American lives, no doubt. She’s great on abortion and gun control, for instance. But let’s not forget that her coronation involved mercilessly crushing one of the best left-wing candidates to emerge in recent memory, a male who feminist women could feel good about endorsing. The only sane choice on Tuesday is still one that should fill our hearts with sadness.