Douglas Adams may have made the most succinct commentary on the unedifying theatre of American politics when he observed, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made president should on no account be allowed to do the job.”
The US presidential race is an 18-month spectacle that works awfully well at distracting both the press and the population at large from the actual workings of government. The whole thing resembles a vastly overblown, terribly expensive episode of Blind Date in which various unsuitable candidates compete to assure the American public that they are the one person who can make all their lives complete, who can give them hope and meaning and who definitely won’t wreck everything they still own as soon as they’re let inside the White House.
Like any co-dependant, they’re looking for answers in the wrong place: just as no one person, however much you love them, can save you from overwhelming circumstances, no one president can save American politics. Not when the problem is a creaking, crushingly right-wing legislature that has proved perfectly willing to hold the entire world to ransom to shore up its racist, anti-woman, climate-change-denying, catastrophe-capitalist agenda. In the middle of all this, Democrats are being faced with the one choice that can be relied on to rip liberalism right down the middle: Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton? Principle or power? Feminism or socialism?
On many levels, the choice is a symbolic one, the conversation as much about where your ideals lie as which candidate you prefer. Sanders has always been a politician of principle who stands firm on economic justice and the rights of working people to organise and win a fair deal. Much like Jeremy Corbyn, he is taking on his party’s heir apparent with the staggering tactic of actually saying what he thinks and sticking to what he believes.
Yet feminists aren’t the only ones wrestling over whether to support a socialist candidate who would surely be savaged by the cult of Donald Trump. Especially when that is weighed against the symbolic value of a woman in office, even one marred and marked by the gauntlet any female person needs to run to get to that position in the first place.
Hillary is a caricature of the compromises ambitious women have to make to attain any sort of standing. I will follow the example of the American press and refer to Hillary by her first name, less a sign of disrespect in this instance than a polite avoidance of the fact that she is still identified, in the minds of many, as the wife of a former president. If Hillary had had her druthers, she’d still have been Hillary Rodham – but she was advised to take her husband’s name to help him win an election more than three decades ago.
Even her name is a compromise, but it is hardly the most damaging one Hillary has made. She claims to stand for women, but was instrumental in leading the Democratic Party to the right on economic justice, standing firmly behind Bill’s disastrously successful mission to “end welfare as we know it” – and condemning millions of single and working mothers to a lifetime of poverty. Since her student protest days she has always chosen power over principle, through law school and her work supporting Bill on his way to the White House, and continuing in her role as one of the most active and engaged first ladies in US history. And from the start, she has faced a campaign of intimidation, humiliation and hatred based not on her record, but on her gender.
Ambitious women cannot win, even when they do. Do it all right, play by all their rules, make sacrifice after sacrifice, and they’ll still come for you. They will attack you for the very ambition and ruthlessness that they admire in male politicians, for the steely-eyed focus on the prize, the determination, the staggering sense of entitlement. These things make men look presidential but they make women look like bitches. There’s a large helping of unexamined misogyny in the liberal and left response to Hillary, as opposed to the open misogyny of Republican campaigns. Her record stinks of hypocrisy – but so does the sexism of her opponents.
Luckily for me, I don’t have to decide whom to vote for, because I’m British. So Bernie v Hillary remains a pure thought exercise and, in that spirit, I choose: both. Why not? It’s obvious after watching about five minutes of one of the Democratic debates that they belong together. Hillary has always bent to the warm winds of political expediency, and she’s far better with a
raddled socialist attack dog snapping at her heels, forcing her to assure the American public that she is not, as she once claimed, merely representing “Wall Street”, that she truly cares about the prospects of the ordinary working people she once helped throw off the welfare rolls. And Bernie is far better when he’s standing next to someone who sounds like she can actually do the job, however nasty it gets.
I believe that Hillary will take the Democratic nomination, but like most millennials I’m not excited about that prospect – though I rather look forward to seeing her mash Donald Trump into a smear of hair tonic and bigotry on the floor in the first presidential debate.
The choice facing American liberals is the same false binary that has been laid before the left for decades in the hope that we’ll grab it with both hands and rip ourselves apart. Feminism or socialism? Power or principle? Americans who don’t want their country to descend further into violence and inequity will need to work for both – whichever candidate they select.
This article appears in the 27 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?