Courting the Right, Smearing the Left: The Ethos of the Clinton Campaign

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the American Legion's 98th Annual Convention at the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Aug. 31, 2016. (Photo: Andrew Harnik / AP)

Courting the Right, Smearing the Left: The Ethos of the Clinton Campaign

Throughout the 2016 Democratic primary, left-wing critics of Hillary Clinton, including Bernie Sanders, were repeatedly smeared as racists, sexists, and class-reductionists -- or some combination of the three -- by surrogates of the former Secretary of State, and by the former Secretary of State, herself.

Throughout the 2016 Democratic primary, left-wing critics of Hillary Clinton, including Bernie Sanders, were repeatedly smeared as racists, sexists, and class-reductionists -- or some combination of the three -- by surrogates of the former Secretary of State, and by the former Secretary of State, herself.

Clinton and her team, for instance, accused Sanders of making everything "about an economic theory," claimed that "black lives don't matter much to Bernie Sanders," and attempted to paint Sanders as someone who "perpetuates sexist and misogynistic stereotypes."

Nastiness in presidential primaries, of course, is nothing new. What was unique about this year, however, was the virtual unanimity with which the Democratic Party apparatus placed its weight on the scale in Hillary Clinton's favor.

And prominent figures within the so-called liberal media were happy to pile on. It was repeatedly implied by the pro-Clinton commentariat that the campaign of Bernie Sanders represented little more than a left-wing version of the Trump phenomenon: We were told by such luminaries as Joan Walsh that Sanders derived his support primarily from white males looking to reassert themselves in a rapidly diversifying society. Walsh warned that if Sanders continued his attacks on the Democratic Party and its standard-bearer, he risked becoming not the leader of a mass progressive movement, but "the messiah of an angry, heavily white, and male cult."

Critiques of this kind--and there were many--largely coalesced around the pernicious "Bernie Bro" narrative, and few attempted a good faith examination of Sanders's appeal from an ideological standpoint. They also, for obvious reasons, ignored Sanders's impressive support among young minorities and young women.

When the primary was ongoing and competitive, with Sanders doing far better than anyone predicted, such attacks could have been viewed as standard electoral politics: Despite the fact that the critiques were disingenuous, they could be rationalized as attempts by partisans to go to bat for their favored candidate.

But even after Clinton emerged victorious--indeed, even after Sanders (to the dismay of many of his supporters) formally endorsed Clinton--the attacks continued, and, in many ways, they intensified. Perhaps it won't surprise you that Joan Walsh is still doing her best to accuse "the anti-Clinton left" of "misogyny, homophobia, [and] transphobia."

Last month, adding to the archive of left-punching, conservative writer and ardent Clinton supporter James Kirchick enthusiastically denounced those he called "the Hillary Clinton-loathing, Donald Trump-loving useful idiots of the left."

"In this weirdest year," Kirchick wrote, "there may be no weirder phenomenon than the rise of the progressive Donald Trump supporter."

Among those apparently deserving of the label "progressive Trump fan" are Glenn Greenwald, Rania Khalek, Zaid Jilani, Julian Assange, Jill Stein, and Katrina vanden Heuvel, all of whom, according to Kirchick, are "captive to a crude and one-dimensional anti-Americanism."

The one sin that unites these progressive commentators, journalists, and political figures with Trump is, in other words, that they all dare to question the morality of America's use of force abroad.

By linking left-wing criticism of American foreign policy with Trumpism, Kirchick is attempting, as Eric Levitz has noted, to delegitimize ideas without having to put forward anything resembling a coherent argument. Instead, Kirchick dubiously portrays Trump as an anti-imperialist (which he's not) to smear actual anti-imperialists.

"For champions of the bipartisan consensus on issues of national security and globalization," Levitz writes, "Trump is an awfully convenient figurehead for challenges to the status quo."

Far from innovative, Kirchick's tactic of using Trump to dismiss legitimate critiques of Hillary Clinton has become commonplace within American political discourse. And shamefully, the so-called progressive wing of the Democratic Party has silently capitulated to this framework.

Such a state of affairs is immensely revealing, in several ways.

First, it demonstrates clearly the striking ideological bankruptcy of the Democratic establishment. As Neera Tanden, a long-time Clinton confidante, made clear in a recent interview with Politico's Glenn Thrush, loyal partisans are not at all concerned with addressing--or even acknowledging--the critiques of Hillary Clinton offered by independent progressives. Instead, they are concerned primarily with optics and deflection.

Tanden, while acknowledging that Sanders "brought a lot of really important issues to the floor," lamented that "Sanders was prosecuting a much tougher character attack" than the one Clinton faced in 2008. She also observed--contradicting the facts--that Sanders's attacks did "significant damage to Hillary's negatives," implying that Sanders is responsible for the perception that Clinton is dishonest and untrustworthy.

Of course, as Ben Spielberg has observed, "If legitimate critiques damage a candidate's approval rating, the problem isn't the person making the critiques."

But Tanden's narrative is consistent with the message put forward by the Clinton campaign throughout the primary: The very act of pointing to Clinton's record, the story goes, is tantamount to, as Clinton herself put it, "an artful smear."

Earlier this year, for instance, when Sanders released an ad denouncing Wall Street's pernicious role in the political process, Hillary Clinton's chief campaign strategist Joel Benenson declared that Sanders is "probably running the most negative campaign of any Democratic presidential a presidential primary season."

Conspicuously absent, still, is any attempt to engage with the arguments on their own terms. The reason for this is obvious enough: The Democratic Party is committed to candidates, not principles.

This is most visible in the party's approach to money in politics. Immediately following the Citizens United ruling, Democrats were adamant that money is a corrupting force, one that subverts democracy and places disproportionate power in the hands of the nation's wealthiest. President Obama himself has endorsed this view, noting in his memoir that money often changes politicians in ways that they, themselves, cannot detect in the moment.

But given the fact that their party's avatar has for years been an enthusiastic recipient of corporate cash, Democrats have been forced to change their tune: Now, as Lee Fang has noted, only evidence of blatant "quid pro quo corruption" is sufficient to warrant concern about money's influence on the political process.

Ultimately, supporters of Hillary Clinton refuse to take at face value the core argument of many leftists: That Hillary Clinton's record warrants, at the very least, fierce and persistent criticism. Instead, they are content to fish for ulterior motives, painting those who fight against corporate money in politics, American imperialism, and income inequality as Trumpism's useful idiots.

Meanwhile, Democrats have increasingly positioned themselves as the bulwark against anti-establishment sentiment, as the defenders of the status quo, as "the cosmopolitan elite party." Implicit in such a party is hostility to any agenda that threatens the established order.

Over the last several months, progressives have been lectured at length about the need to focus on defeating Trump in November; to criticize Hillary Clinton, it is often argued, is to distract from this objective. But despite Democrats' insistence that this is a tactical course, one required by political realities, it also serves a crucial ideological aim: It provides Clinton a blank check to continue, without meaningful dissent, courting odious billionaires and war criminals and espousing nationalistic rhetoric while taking progressives entirely for granted.

This short-sighted electoral strategy comes at the expense of the development of viable coalitions and grassroots organizing. Exemplifying this dynamic, Democrats have focused more on winning over the wealthier constituencies that are rapidly abandoning Trump than on consolidating support among younger, more liberal blocs that will likely form the ideological core of the party in the near future.

As Carl Beijer has noted, the Clinton campaign's strategy is quite helpful for a Republican Party looking to distance itself from Trumpism by portraying Trump as an anomaly to be denounced, rather than a predictable outgrowth of the conservative movement--and it also hobbles down-ballot Democrats looking to oust pro-Trump Republicans.

"There is plenty more to say about how Clinton and her surrogates have taken this election as their opportunity to attack leftist activists, positions, and priorities, but her campaign's relationship with down-ballot candidates is the clearest indication of how she will wield power," Beijer writes. "Given the opportunity to win back the House and Senate, overcome Republican obstruction, and advance an agenda--not just a leftist or progressive agenda, but an agenda of any kind--Clinton has chosen instead to consolidate her power and maintain the political status quo."

Rhetoric aside, the party Clinton seems intent upon constructing is far from a "party of the people." Rather, it is a party of the managerial class, a party of establishment hawks, a party of the self-styled "good billionaires." And it is a party that is, at its core, hostile to the ambitious aims of the nation's progressive movements.

If we take Clinton's messaging seriously, perhaps it couldn't be otherwise. "There's an old Mexican proverb that says 'Tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are," Clinton said in her much-lauded speech on the alt-right.

The question that should follow is an essential one: Who, then, is a candidate who counts Henry Kissinger among her friends and mentors and celebrates the endorsements of Republican billionaires and neoconservatives? And what does a party that touts such characters ultimately stand for?

Whatever it is, it isn't democracy, it isn't justice, and it isn't progress.

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