How Hillary could split the Democrats in two

Clinton’s anti-elitist rhetoric won’t help her become president. But it could make Obama’s defeat at the hands of McCain more likely.

Guy Rundle

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‘Every economist has said the gas tax holiday is a bad idea.’ So said former Clinton White House staffer-turned-pundit, George Stephanopoulos, to Hillary Clinton, during a high-profile interview on ABC’s This Week. ‘Oh well, elite economists can say what they like’, Hillary shot back.

The interview, conducted in the days before the North Carolina/Indiana primary, had a ritual, kabuki air about it, a public encounter between two people who had had hundreds of private political arguments in the 1990s. The game now, as before, was: ‘How far can you go?’ How willing would Hillary be to track deep into Republican territory in an effort to outflank Barack Obama in the last big primary showdown? The answer, as if one needed to ask, was ‘all the way, baby’.

Hillary, the anti-elitist from the political elite

Ever since the withdrawal of John Edwards, who had made poverty and the union movement his focus, Hillary had moved her rhetoric, if not her programme, to the left. But she hadn’t abandoned her essentially technocratic pitch of ‘solutions’ for America – the idea that what is required is not the airy inspirational rhetoric of Obama, but the application of the best people and ideas after eight years of wilful stupidity from the Bush administration.

With the ‘elite economists’ remark, that all changed. Last night, she was celebrating a 40 per cent victory margin in the West Virginia primary, to which that attack on the pointyheads had undoubtedly contributed. Though this sort of campaigning is unlikely to win the presidency for her, it is not impossible that it will lose it for Obama.

Weeks earlier, the leaking of the Obama ‘San Francisco’ tape – in which he spoke of poor Pennsylvanians as victims, rather than subjects, and their enthusiasm for guns and fear of immigrants as a set of symptoms rather than values in themselves – established a distinction between Obama and Clinton’s attitude to the people they were campaigning amongst. John McCain’s suggestion of a ‘gas [petrol] tax holiday’ in summer gave her the opportunity to set the division in concrete, running the elite/populist divide right through the middle of the Democratic Party. If, ultimately, it didn’t do much for Hillary, as the Indiana polls would suggest, it demonstrated how limited the application of the left/right spectrum is to American politics now.

The tax holiday – it’s a gas

Whatever one’s feelings about consumer taxes, the gas tax holiday was a stunningly bad idea. The proposal was to suspend the 18.5¢ in the gallon tax on petrol during the high summer period. The move would do little to alleviate the real problems working Americans now face from rising gas prices – in particular the increasing cost of the morning commute, or of basic shopping in suburban areas. As Obama noted, the total average saving over the summer would be $30. Nor does the holiday act as a spur to business by lowering costs over any significant amount of time. Instead, it would increase cost uncertainty and undermine the ability to plan ahead – would it be extended, would it be increased?

Initially proposed by John McCain, who gave it a symbolic swoosh by declaring that he wanted it to run from ‘Memorial Day to Labour Day’ – the two holidays that bookend summer. McCain knew that there was no chance that the proposal would make it through the Senate, but the gas tax holiday was meticulously designed to appeal to the rather forlorn hope that the escalation of gas prices was not the mark of new conditions in which increasing global demand had made cheap gas a thing of the past. It was also intended to contrast with the Democrat’s call to seriousness and acknowledgement of the need to address deep structural problems. Forget the mopers, McCain’s proposal seemed to say, it’s still morning in America. Sure, there are issues to address, but let’s enjoy the summer. On the other hand, it stopped short of saying that everything was fine. It was diluted Reaganism, combining reflexive optimism with popular tax-cutting.

Somewhat amazingly, McCain had this initiative taken away from him when Hillary not only endorsed it, but also added an anti-corporate spin to it by suggesting that it was about time the oil companies started paying. There was no accompanying suggestion about how they would be prevented from passing that new cost on to the consumer without more stringent price controls, but since she had no suggestion about how the actual proposal could be brought to fruition, that didn’t seem to matter. Effectively, McCain and Clinton had carved up the populist territory between them, offering to let their policy be guided by general acclaim, rather than its role in a more comprehensive programme, each giving a right or left spin to add political branding.

Obama: the construction of a candidate

Obama had come out swinging against the gas tax holiday, less out of political courage than a lack of options. The proposal not only ran against the grain of Obama’s appeal to Americans to face the challenges of a changing world; he was also never going to win a populist petrol pissing contest against a crusty old vet.

By the time the gas tax proposal hit, Obama’s San Francisco speech had thoroughly positioned him as an elitist member of the executive class, an image reinforced by his gawky performance on the campaign trail. While Hillary downed shots in bars, and scarfed down whatever meaty Germanic-derived treat the Pennsylvanians could offer up, Obama came across as the nerd at the beach party, emerging blinking from the library into the sunlight. It was not that Obama spurned the ritual of modern campaigning, he just did it appallingly badly. Faced with the famed ‘Philly cheesesteak’ – a roll oozing chopped meat and melted cheese – after a day sampling various wursts, he couldn’t handle it, but promised to ‘come back for it later’. Chowing down on a breakfast waffle later, he attacked it with knife and fork daintily enough to impress any finishing school.

Hitherto, Obama had avoided the familiar Republican charge of ‘elitism’, largely due to the originality of his political rhetoric – his near-total avoidance of any of the standby themes of American liberalism, of state programmes and issues of race and gender. This was partly because the wilder fringes of the right were going after his unusual background – Kenyan father, schooling in Indonesia, middle name Hussein – but also because he simply didn’t fit any handy class mould. His mother was a free-spirited anthropologist, his father a Third World grad student, his stepfather Indonesian – Obama knew both poverty and privilege, post-60s hippiedom and old-fashioned protestant application.

His memoir, Dreams From My Father, is an account in part of the process that arose from that – his essential self-construction, from Barry Obama, the stoner kid in Hawaii, through a conventional American postmodern leftist education at Occidental College, to a substantially different approach to politics on the south side of Chicago. In that process, Obama had understood how unreal the identity politics of academic radicalism was, that is, the translation of the social movements of the 1960s into a meticulous unpicking of dominant ‘discourses’, a disregard of class, and a demonisation of white, working-class males above all.

What was new about his pitch, for someone from the Democratic left, was its universalism, his argument that practically everyone, aside from the wealthy, has been marginalised by the system regardless of their identity. The right could do little but attack its airiness, its lack of content – a difficult move, since the Bush administration has been the epitome of lackadaisical ennui for the past two years.

The will to power

Obama’s canny strategy hid an obvious fact – he was both a member of the elite and an elitist, by virtue of his political practice. His political path seems to have been set by a period in New York in his early 20s when he read deeply in a variety of deeper sources – religious texts, the classic existentialists, Nietszche. With the exception of the last of these, such writings had fallen out of favour among the young American left of the 1980s, and particularly the category of the will, of making meaning. Even Nietzsche’s texts were regarded purely as proto-deconstruction, discourses on the meaninglessness of systems, rather than an assertion of the will to live and act in the world.

Obama’s distinctiveness seems to have arisen from applying such thoughts to the diminished state of American left politics in the 1990s. His move into the world of community organising was the proverbial ‘leap of faith’, in this case, into a context he was not of, but that he wanted to transform. Joining the organisation created by the founder of community organising, Saul Alinksy, Obama effectively took on a form of activism whose principle is the transformation of the people being organised. Community organising, as practised in areas of the US devastated by factory closures and neighbourhood decline, combined a series of techniques drawn from psychology and sociology to address the loss of given frameworks and sense of identity provided by working life.

For Alinsky, change came when people had reached a point of despair, when the loss of an old world had become undeniable. At this point, community organising was as much a process of reconstructing will and individuals’ self-belief. Every activist or organisational process reflects on its own processes and techniques, but community organising in particular abstractly reflects on the manner in which it rebuilds, or applies, a sense of meaning and process. It is no exaggeration to say that Obama’s primary campaign has been an application at the national level of the techniques applied in the south side of Chicago.

The political dangers of populism

But there is no way of being in a such a relationship to people without being willing to frame their values and attitudes as ‘symptoms’ in a false consciousness model. Thus to the wider public, Obama’s public positions – ‘hope, change, we are the people we have been waiting for’ etc – sit ill with the fairly old school new leftism of the San Francisco speech:

‘You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.’

Liberal commentators have criticised the mainstream media’s focus on the San Francisco speech, as if it were on a par with the disinformation campaign around Obama’s alleged Muslim childhood, madrassa and all. Yet they are obviously entirely different matters. Voters, whatever their material circumstances, are hardly deluded if they choose their leaders based on a candidate’s attitude to the values that give their lives meaning and express their cultural identity.

Hillary’s decision to go full bore with the notion of ‘elitism’ was thus doubly opportunistic – exploiting not only the gulf that had opened up between Obama and his desired projection of himself, but also willing to employ the full irrationalism that Republicans have marshalled in other areas such as the early stages of Iraq – Rumsfeld’s ‘stuff happens’ shrugged comments, for example, as the place began to fall apart – in intelligent design in the classroom, abstinence-based sex education and a host of other areas.

Hillary, who had marshalled a huge brief of economic reasoning against the Bush tax cuts, was willing to construct the argument over a gas tax holiday as a battle of the pointyheads against the NASCAR set. Given the extreme likelihood that Obama will be the Democratic nominee, such a deep division not only drives the populist division down the middle of the Democrats, it is effectively an argument to a section of Hillary supporters that they might be better represented by McCain.

Populism was hitherto a style that appeared on both sides of the left-right divide. Once those formations start to lose their sway, the axis of division swings around – to experts versus the people, abstract versus concrete, theory versus experience. Older-style political movements based on an idea about the world, an account of how values relate to facts, are capable of maintaining a relationship between experts and rank and file within a movement, based on the trust arising from a shared project. In that sense, Hillary’s desperate attempt to throw the switch on what remains of Democrat unity is a measure not merely of her desperation, but of the attenuated nature of the party itself, at least among its elite.

Indeed, she took it further in the wake of the Indiana result, with a remark about being the only one who can appeal to ‘hard-working white people’ – an adjectival combination with a very nasty edge. Though much of the criticism of her has centred on the very fact of her continuation of the contest, a healthy party with clear boundaries around its beliefs should be able to bear a vigorous contest for the leadership, even such a public one as the US primary process. Forget God and guns – it’s Hillary who is less the cause than the symptom of a politics that has lost much of its meaning.

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor and is covering the US election campaign for the independent online media service Crikey. He will also be writing on-the-ground coverage for spiked. Read all of his Crikey election reports here.

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