After Doug Henwood’s My Turn, you’ll be well equipped to go up against liberals desperately circling the Hillary wagon right now. It’s strength is partly that it doesn’t require you to support a particular candidate. You just have to harbour suspicions about Hillary Clinton’s record. And the prospect of a Clinton dynasty does not inspire much enthusiasm.
As a socialist economist, Henwood stands out as a rarity in American political discourse. He’s also one of the few voices on the radical Left to have first hand experience of right-wing politics.
As a student at Yale, Henwood joined the Party of the Right, in which he was a free-market libertarian, after becoming besotted with conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr. In Henwood’s own words, those days were marked by “a higher class of reactionary” than Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage.
Another key to the book’s pertinence is the obvious factor of the 2016 election. The long race to the vote has been stranger than any commentator anticipated. Initially, it was taken for granted that Hillary Clinton would seize the reins, just as Jeb Bush was seen as the obvious choice for the GOP. This was a picture of political entitlement. It was business as usual. In other words, the race looked unspeakably boring. It now appears a Clinton-Trump face-off is much more likely.
Against this background, My Turn is necessary reading. This summer, Liza Featherstone, Henwood’s partner, will be bringing out False Choices, a book taking part Hillary’s record as a supposed feminist candidate. If Clinton wins the nomination, the liberals will circle the wagon with greater zeal than they already are doing to fend-off Bernie Sanders, who is nothing more than a interloping social democrat. Yet what we might call the Featherstone-Henwood thesis will be of tremendous value in the years ahead.
Wall Street Democrat
The Democratic Party was never a working-class party, in the sense of a labour party. Rather it is the historic party of slavery and white reaction, whereas the Republicans were the abolitionist party. In the past century, the Democrats and Republicans have come to represent a liberal-conservative dichotomy. Yet in actuality they just represent different sections of capital. This is the only serious presupposition for a hard-going critique of Third Way politics.
Doug Henwood emphasises the significance of Reagan in reshaping the American right and its hold on the terms of debate. In contrarian vein, Henwood points out that Reagan appropriated progressive language to achieve regressive ends. He even recited the words of Tom Paine as he defended ‘trickle-down’ economics. This was born out by the endorsement from the American Autoworkers Union, as well as support from the corrupt Teamsters boss Jackie Presser. President Jimmy Carter lost the election by his appeals to austerity.
The era of deregulation and monetarism was initiated by Paul Volcker under Carter only to be intensified by the Reaganites. This was also true in foreign policy terms. Later, Bill Clinton then triangulated this programme in 1992 to take the White House. This picture, however inconvenient (at least for American liberals), is conveyed well in My Turn. However, the target of Henwood’s pamphlet is the symptom – namely, Hillary – of the problem of a society born as a capitalist enterprise. And he’s well aware of this.
Indeed, Henwood clarifies that the roots of the problem go back to the founding period and the narrow framework erected to limit the reach of popular power. James Madison and George Washington envisioned a political system which would protect the wealthy from the poor (let alone, the slaves and the natives). The system still remains far from democratic in spite of the struggles to overturn its worst elements.
Elsewhere, Henwood has made the point that the great pushes for change often come out of conditions of relative affluence and prosperity. This was certainly true of post-war social democracy. Progressive reforms opened a space for further dissent. Once you have secured higher wages, welfare provisions and social security, you can raise more radical demands. So this is not the same argument as articulated by the much maligned Susan Sarandon.
Today, Bernie Sanders is the only candidate standing up for the New Deal tradition. Far from a socialist, Sanders stands as a reformer. It’s a good start, but it’s ultimately not enough. By contrast, Clinton isn’t even a modest reformer. The problem is the illusion of Hillary as a great progressive. Not the attempt to debunk her claims. In the absence of any progressive alternative, it is foolish to sneer at the people who will withdraw their support from Clinton.
America’s Extreme Centre
Henwood lays out the record for all to see – it should make any liberal squirm. Not only did Hillary support the 2003 invasion of Iraq, she did so on the nutty grounds that there were connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. She was busily pushing for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan to be extended once she was working in the Obama administration. Hillary was also enthusiastic for the bombs to start falling on Libya and Syria. This aggressive streak runs deep in her political worldview.
As Secretary of State Clinton backed the 2009 coup d’etat against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. Zelaya belonged to the so-called ‘pink tide’ of populist and left-wing leaders across the region. He raised public spending and cut deals with Hugo Chavez. Like clockwork, Zelaya was forced into exile and a fraudulent election was held to legitimate the putsch. At this time, Latin America appeared to be moving away from the decades of military intervention in politics. The overthrow of the Honduran government reminded many that this period may not be over.
This is not an isolated case in US foreign policy. Nor is it in Hillary’s record. The Clintons, whose first date involved the crossing of a picket line, enjoyed a honeymoon in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Years later President Clinton helped bring Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power on the tiny, poor island. The Clinton administration got to pretend it was supporting democracy, while it pushed Aristide to ram through IMF reforms. More recently, Hillary would support Michel Martelly’s claim to the Haitian presidency following fraudulent elections, where most of the voters could not take part due to the devastation wrought by the 2010 earthquake.
As for women’s rights, the Clinton record is questionable (need we look further than the case of Juanita Broaddrick?). Even at the level of abortion rights, Hillary has not been consistent. Both Featherstone and Henwood have pointed this out. One moment she is fully behind the right of women to choose, the next minute she’s expressing sympathy for anti-choice fanatics who would ban it even in all circumstances. So if you want to defend Hillary Clinton on feminist grounds, you need more than biology to justify it.
One of the main themes of the Democratic race has been identity. Clinton hopes to be received as the candidate for people of colour, women and queer people. This is after running from the right in 2008. Hillary’s appeal is meant to transcend the class politics of the Sanders campaign. In Henwood’s eyes, Clinton is triangulating around the issue of class. It’s far from the case that African Americans and Latinos don’t have economic interests. This went as far as the attempt to co-opt the Black Lives Matters cause.
In characterising Hillary’s political approach, Henwood deploys the phrase ‘left-wing neoliberalism’. This phrase comes from Adolph Reed, who uses it to designate a certain kind of identity politics. Although Bush would represent the right of the same spectrum, you are ruled by a wealthy elite either way. Clinton is concerned with political optics. It’s all surface. It’s all show. And that’s certainly the case when it comes to her identitarian footwork. If you’re accused of being reactionary on class issues, it’s a helpful distraction.
If there is a lesson here, it’s that the politics of class and race (let alone gender and sexuality) can’t be separated for convenience. As Henwood argues, the redistribution of wealth and power, as well as ending police violence and reversing mass-incarceration, is a necessary part of any seriously radical agenda. Sadly, Sanders may be a long way from what the US needs, but it’s evident a vote for Clinton is a vote for more of the same.
Photograph courtesy of DonkeyHotey. Published under a Creative Commons license.