I’m probably not voting for Hillary Clinton, but I hope that she wins. I agree with the argument that the lesser of two evils is, by definition, less evil. But my claim here is not about evil versus evil, it’s about organizing and building mass movements: the left will do better with Clinton in the White House than with Donald Trump. It’s Democratic presidents that heighten the contradictions of the political-economic order, not Republicans — and certainly not a brazen white nationalist demagogue like Trump. Establishment liberals demonstrate the limitations of establishment liberalism while Republican administrations obscure just that, pushing most anyone left of center to embrace a mantra of “anybody but Bush” and maybe, because nightmares do come true, “anybody but Trump” in 2020.
This has held true in recent decades. After taking office in 1992, Bill Clinton worked to align the Democratic Party with corporate elites and to appeal to white voters at the expense of poor black people. The result was NAFTA, the expansion of mass incarceration, and the destruction of welfare as we knew it. I have nothing nice to say about this policy disaster, or about Hillary Clinton’s participation in it. But what’s also true is that in the late 1990s, the left, after years of defeat and disarray amid post-communist neoliberal triumph, began to put itself back together in the movement against corporate globalization.
The spectacular shutdown of the 1999 WTO meetings in Seattle, and the mass protests that followed in Quebec City, Washington D.C. and at the major party conventions in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, represented a big and bold new movement that united students, environmentalists and union members. Soon, that incipient movement sputtered to a halt.
George W. Bush’s two terms, and the September 11th attacks that defined his administration, were an absolute disaster for most everyone, including for the American left. Prior to the attacks, IMF-World Bank meetings were scheduled in Washington D.C. for the end of September 2001, and protests were planned against them. After the attacks, both were cancelled. And so, by and large, was the movement. What followed was eight years playing defense as two wars were launched (with Democratic backing), Guantanamo Bay became an extra-constitutional prison camp, the right-wing solidified its power on the Supreme Court, and labor rights and environmental protection were shredded — and so on.
Instead of focusing the left’s attention and organization, the horrible state of affairs under a right-wing president obliterated both. The anti-war movement, marginal at the dawn of the Afghanistan War, did spring to life in opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Yet in a few years that movement fell apart as both wars continued unabated and much opposition was absorbed into the meekly-protesting Democratic Party’s effort to retake Congress. Under Clinton, the left had been able to highlight its key points of opposition to the ruling Democratic Party elite and mobilize a broader constituency against them. Bush sent left-leaning liberals running for shelter into the arms of pretty much any Democrat.
Radicals stayed radical. But there was little forward progress, and no broader swath of the American public to win over to left-wing politics. The overriding focus under Bush wasn’t to challenge or change the Democratic Party but simply to fight Bush. The horizon for possible change shrunk.