Hillary Clinton recently made headlines around the globe with her strong insinuation that current Democratic presidential nominee Tulsi Gabbard was a “Russian Asset” during an interview. She declared "I'm not making any predictions, but I think they've got their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She's the favorite of the Russians.” When her team was later asked directly if she was referring to Gabbard, her aide responded “If the nesting doll fits.” Gabbard quickly struck back, tweeting “Thank you Hillary Clinton. You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain."
This rapidly escalating war of words reveals deeper fault lines within contemporary U.S. politics. Progressives, even those who do not support Gabbard, criticized Clinton for perceived to be unsubstantiated fearmongering. Centrists, for their part, hailed it as a brave defense of U.S. democracy against the threat of foreign interference. Clinton was framed either as a paranoid conspiracy theorist or a courageous whistleblower.
Beneath the surface of this controversy, however, resides a deeper truth. U.S. democracy is being corrupted from the inside by an even more fearful external power. Yet it is not Russian assets we must most fear but corporate assets like Clinton and Trump. They are the agents most responsible for destroying democracy at home and abroad.
A defining event of modern U.S. politics, particularly for liberals, was the anti-communist witch hunts of the early 1950s led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was born out of a wider “red scare” fuelled by the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that was just then heating up. McCarthyism is historically held up as a potent reminder of the dangers of ideological fervor and jingoism to democracy, freedom, and rights.
It is therefore a profound historical irony that the rebirth of McCarthyism has come from the very liberal establishment that previously decried it so strongly with a passion. While not (yet) reaching the levels of mass hysteria, it follows a familiar pattern of finger pointing and insidious enemies lurking in the shadows. The fact that Russia certainly has sought to interfere in U.S. elections and politics does make this Liberal McCarthyism any less troubling. Indeed, simply because something is pathological does not mean it is not true and simply because it has some truth does not mean it is not ultimately pathological. Clinton’s call out of Gabbard reveals the level of obsession that this has reached—showing in full display a mainstream political culture that would rather blame anyone but themselves for the sorry state of the country and the world.
These sensational charges, even if they contain a kernel of truth, distract attention from more serious internal threat to U.S. democracy. Many commentators have pointed out how such scapegoating sustains the status quo by allowing so-called “centrist” politicians to ignore their own shortcomings. Equally so, it allows these same figures to tap into feelings of righteous anger, pretending that they are committed to protecting our democracy rather than their real aim of supporting the status quo.
The rise of Liberal McCarthyism may smack of the absurd—to paraphrase Marx, it was first tragedy and now borders on farce—but it is deadly serious in the danger it poses to 21st century freedom, justice, and equality. It points the finger at a familiar enemy—those evil Ruskies—so that the rest of us can remain utterly blind in our fear and anger to the corruption of our actual leaders.
The Threat of Corporate Assets
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The attempted reboot of the “red scare” returns politics to conventional dividing lines—the war between both nations and ideologies. The U.S. stands as a heroic country seeking to protect all that is just and right in the world. Russia and its villainous ruler Vladimir Putin represent, by contrast, all that is evil and tyrannical. It is certainly worth condemning Putin, just as it is necessary to point out that Clinton and other centrist Democrats such as Biden are historically closer to being “corporate warmongers” than they are staunch defenders of freedom and democracy. Yet this Russian scapegoating fundamentally seeks to shift political debate from the need to end oligarchy to fighting foreign “bad guys.” The revolutionary moment is diverted into a real life Hollywood remake of the “Manchurian candidate.”
Such fantasies, however, also reflect a potentially more truthful and radical way to percieve modern politics. The idea of the “asset” is quite telling and in fact very well put—even if its present focus is tragically misplaced. It is worth remembering the the notion of an “asset” is traditionally and still popularly associated with economics. It refers primarily to a “corporate asset” defined as the resources and things owned and which benefit a company. This can include cash, inventory, and machines as well as more intangible resources such as copyrights, brand names, and even goodwill.
The corrupt influence of corporations and rich donors in U.S. democracy is well known and long lamented. Politicians from both major parties are regularly derided as being little more than corporate shills for whoever is funding their next re-election campaign. It is not a far leap then to see them for what most actually are—corporate assets. They are human resources for companies and industries doing their political bidding and promoting their political interests.
It is telling that Clinton supporters were quick to distinguish between an “agent” and an “asset.” The former knowingly undermines a country or government while the latter can do so unwittingly. Similarly, much of the power of capitalist elites comes in their ability to “brainwash” voters and politicians into thinking that not only do they have a right to exist but that they are absolutely necessary for maintaining a free and prosperous society. Those who would dare challenge these “truths” are mocked as idealists or more insidiously as working for an external force trying to destroy our way of life. In decrying the threat of “Russian assets” Clinton has revealed herself first and foremost as a still dangerous corporate asset.
Protecting Democracy from the Threat of Corporate Assets
A common refrain of our times is that a “foreign power” has interfered with U.S. democracy. Russia is singled out as the beating heart of a global network of political manipulators and meddlers. Trump is merely their deplorable patsy—put in place to sow civil discord and promote Russian hegemony from the seat of our country’s highest elected office. This narrative, or course, conveniently ignores the U.S. government’s own long history of overthrowing democracies around the globe when it suited our imperial interests. It also disregards the fact that for all his other contemptible personal and political faults, Trump has actually been quite aggressive in his relation with Russia. What this perhaps most dangerously closes our eyes to is who is really most responsible undermining our democracy—is it Russia or multi-national corporations with their willing corporate assets like Clinton and Trump?
The real question that must be posed to any politician is whether they are a citizen or an employee? Committed to democracy or simply a corporate asset. Clinton is right that this issue is so much more important than simple differences in policies or parties. It is a concern of where a politician’s allegiances really lie. Is it for our shared common good or their corporate paymasters bottom line?
Trump and Clinton may seem like polar opposites in every way. Yet they share an abiding commitment to maintain a business friendly status quo—using different rhetoric for this same political end. While they speak to separate audiences and propose different policies they are both “corporate assets” selling a similar political product of a bought and sold democracy that works for the benefit of an elite few rather than the majority. There is no evidence whatsoever to support the idea that Gabbard is a Russian asset. Yet, even if she were, her crimes would be working for a foreign subsidiary rather than a home grown corporate destroyer of U.S. democracy. If we are serious about protecting democracy at home and abroad, we must safeguard it from the threat of corporate assets, seeking to erode it from the inside out for their own profit at all of our ultimate expense.