The last couple of weeks in American politics have offered an interesting confirmation of some of the main themes I’ve discussed on this blog. For that matter, those weeks would have come as no surprise to one of the thinkers whose work has guided these essays since this blog started a decade ago, the philosopher of history Oswald Spengler. I can all too readily imagine the hard lines of Spengler’s face creasing in momentary amusement as he contemplates the temporarily divergent fates of those two candidates for the US presidency that, less than a year ago, nearly everyone insisted would be facing one another in the general election: Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.
Bush is in some ways the perfect poster child for the theme I have in mind just now. When he launched his campaign last year, it was a letter-perfect copy of the successful presidential campaigns of the last three decades. He lined up plenty of big-money sponsors; he assembled a team of ghostwriters, spin doctors, and door-to-door salesmen to run his campaign; he had a PR firm design a catchy logo; he practiced spouting the kind of empty rhetoric that sounds meaningful so long as you don’t think about it for two minutes; he took carefully calculated stands on a handful of hot-button topics, mouthed the conventional wisdom on every other issue, and set out to convince the voters that their interests would be harmed just a little bit less by putting him in the White House than by any of the alternatives.
That sort of content-free campaign is what got George Bush I, Bill Clinton, George Bush II, and Barack Obama onto the list of US presidents. What it got Jeb Bush, though, was a string of humiliating defeats. Some have suggested that his tearful exit from the race in the wake of the South Carolina primary was the act of a child who had been promised a nice shiny presidency by his daddy, and then found out that the mean voters wouldn’t give it to him. I think, though, that there was considerably more to it than that. I think that Bush had just realized, to his shock and horror, that the rules of the game had been changed on him without notice, and all those well-informed, well-connected people who had advised him on the route that would take him to the presidency had basically been smoking their shorts.
If anything, though, Hillary Clinton’s campaign offers an even clearer glimpse into the festering heart of the American political process. She did exactly the same things that Jeb did—it’s indicative that the two of them both splashed their first names across their equally banal campaign logos—and she also managed, as he never did, to get the apparatchiks of her party lined up solidly on her side before the campaigning season got under way. By the ordinary rules of US politics, she should have enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the primaries to the Democratic convention while Jeb Bush wrestled with his opponents, and then gone into the general election with plenty of money to spare, saturating the air waves with a deluge of advertisements designed to convince the American people that four years under her leadership would be ever so slightly less disastrous for them than four years under Bush.
This time, though, the rules have changed. Clinton is facing a spirited challenge from party outsider Bernie Sanders, and though she’ll still probably get the nomination—it’s a source of wry amusement that just now, the Democratic Party’s nominating procedure is significantly less democratic than that of the GOP—it’s pretty clear at this point that she’s not going to get it without a fight. Once she does, in turn, instead of facing another bland insider in a tepid race to the center that can easily be clinched by an ad blitz or two, she’ll be up against Donald Trump, whose popularity soars with every petulant denunciation the pundits of the privileged classes fling at him, whose take-no-prisoners style of bare-knuckle campaigning is exactly the sort of challenge that neither Clinton nor her lumbering campaign staff have shown the least ability to handle, and who is prepared to offer the voters something other than the very slightly lesser of two evils.
Now of course Clinton has made things considerably worse for herself by the way she’s approached the campaign. She’s got a whopping case of that weird mental blind spot I labeled, in a post that appeared here last year, “the delusion of control”—the notion, as pervasive as it is preposterous, that when a member of America’s privileged classes does something, the rest of the cosmos is obliged to respond to that action in a wholly passive, wholly mechanical manner. For a world-class example, watch the way Clinton’s handlers simply look blank each time they find out that most of the American people loathe and distrust their candidate, and try repeatedly to “reintroduce” her, as though they think they can just hit a reset button on the campaign machinery and start all over again.
For that matter, Clinton’s own attitude during the campaign so far reminds me of nothing so much as what happens when someone puts money into a defective vending machine. She’s fed the thing her quarters and pushed the right button, but the desired product hasn’t dropped to the bottom where she can get it. Now she’s jabbing the button over and over again, and in due time she’ll be pounding her fists on the thing and screaming at it because it won’t give her what she’s paid for. I honestly don’t think she’s ever, even for a moment, considered the possibility that the voting public isn’t simply a passive, mechanical mass that will spit up a presidency for her if she just manipulates in in the right way. I doubt it has entered her darkest dream that the American people might just up and decide to cast their votes to further their own interests rather than hers.
That analysis seems plausible to me for a variety of reasons, but high among them is the way that Clinton’s supporters among her own class-and-gender subcategory have demanded that all American women back the Clinton campaign. I’m thinking here particularly of Madeleine Albright, who made the news a little while back with a irate public statement insisting that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” That’s a common trope among a certain well-paid class of Second Wave feminists. It’s become controversial, and for good reason, among a great many other feminists, particularly in the partly overlapping sets of women of color and women in the wage class. Listen to them, and you’ll hear at some length how they feel about being expected to help rich and influential women like Madeleine Albright pursue their goals, when they know perfectly well the favor won’t be returned in any way that matters.
What, after all, does a Clinton presidency offer the majority of American women, other than whatever vicarious thrill they might get from having a president with a vagina? The economic policies Clinton espouses—the current bipartisan consensus, from which she shows no signs of veering in the slightest—have already brought poverty and misery to millions of American women who don’t happen to share her privileged background and more than ample income. Her tenure as Secretary of State was marked by exactly the sort of hamfisted interventions in other people’s countries to which Democrats, once upon a time, used to object: interventions, please note, that have already been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, and may yet—especially if Clinton takes the same attitudes with her into the White House—treat a good many American women to the experience of watching their kids come home in body bags from yet another brutal and pointless Mideast war.
The reaction to Albright’s public tantrum is in many ways as instructive as the tantrum itself. A great many American women simply aren’t buying it. More generally, no matter how furiously Clinton and her flacks hammer on the buttons of the vending machine, trying to elicit the mechanical response they think they ought to be able to expect, the voters aren’t falling into line. Trump and Sanders, each in his own way, have shown too many people that it’s possible to hope for something other than an intolerable state of business as usual. In the wake of their candidacies, a great many voters have decided that they’re no longer willing to vote for the lesser of two evils.
That’s a point of some importance. To my mind, it’s far from accidental that for the last few decades, every presidential election here in the US has been enlivened by bumper stickers calling on voters to support the presidential ambitions of Cthulhu, the tentacled primeval horror out of H.P. Lovecraft’s tales of cosmic dread. I’m sorry to say that the Elder God’s campaign faces a serious constitutional challenge, as he was spawned on the world of Vhoorl in the twenty-third nebula and currently resides in the drowned corpse-city of R’lyeh, and as far as I know neither of these are US territory. Still, his bid for the White House has gotten further than most other imaginary candidacies, and I’ve long thought that the secret behind that success is Cthulhu’s campaign slogan: “Why settle for the lesser evil?”
The reason that this slogan reliably elicits laughter, in turn, is that the entire rhetoric of presidential politics in the United States for decades now has fixated on the claim that one party’s pet stooge won’t do anything quite as appalling as the other side’s will, even though they all support the same policies and are bought and sold by the same corrupt interests. Over and over again, we’ve been told that we have to vote for whatever candidate this or that party has retched up, because otherwise the other side will get to nominate a Supreme Court justice or two, or get us into another war, or do something else bad. Any suggestion that a candidate might be expected to do something positive—that he or she might, for example, reject the bipartisan policies that have crashed the standard of living for most Americans, consigned the nation’s infrastructure to malign neglect, and pursued gargantuan corporate welfare programs, such as the worthless F-35 fighter, at the expense of anything more useful or necessary—is dismissed out of hand as “unrealistic.”
What the insurgent candidacies of Trump and Sanders show conclusively, in turn, is that the lesser-evil rhetoric and its fixation on “realistic” politics have just passed their pull date. There are very good reasons for this. The pursuit of the lesser evil means that the best the American people are supposed to hope for is the continuation of the current state of things—that’s what you get, after all, if your only talking points fixate on stopping things from getting worse—and for most Americans today, the current state of things is unbearable. Cratering wages and soaring rents, a legal environment that increasingly denies even basic rights to everybody but corporations and the rich, an economy rigged to load ever-increasing costs on working people while funneling all the benefits to those who already have too much—well, you can fill in the list as well as I can. If you don’t happen to belong to the privileged classes, life in today’s America is rapidly becoming intolerable, and the “realistic” politics that both parties have pursued with equal enthusiasm for decades are directly responsible for making it intolerable.
Thus the reason that a large and growing number of ordinary working Americans are refusing to accept another rehash of the status quo this time around is that their backs are to the wall. That’s a situation that comes up reliably at a certain point in the history of every society, and it’s a source of wry amusement to me that Oswald Spengler predicted the situation currently facing the United States—and, mutatis mutandis, the rest of the industrialized world as well.
Spengler’s historical analysis covers a vast amount of territory, but the point at issue here appears late in the second volume of The Decline of the West, where he sketches out the immediate future of what we call Western industrial civilization and he named the Faustian Culture. His theme was the way that democracies die. He argued that democracy suffers from a lethal vulnerability, which is that it has no meaningful defenses against the influence of money. Since most citizens are more interested in their own personal, short-term advantage than they are in the long-term destiny of their nation, democracy turns into a polite fiction for plutocracy just as soon as the rich figure out how to buy votes, a lesson that rarely takes them long to learn.
The problem with plutocracy, in turn, is that it embodies the same fixation on short-term personal advantage that gives it its entry to power, since the only goals that guide the rich in their increasingly kleptocratic rule are immediate personal wealth and gratification. Despite the ravings of economists, furthermore, it simply isn’t true that what benefits the very rich automatically benefits the rest of society as well; quite the contrary, in the blind obsession with personal gain that drives the plutocratic system, the plutocrats generally lose track of the hard fact that too much profiteering can run the entire system into the ground A democracy in its terminal years thus devolves into a broken society from which only the narrowing circle of the privileged rich derive any tangible benefit. In due time, those excluded from that circle look elsewhere for leadership.
The result is what Spengler calls Caesarism: the rise of charismatic leaders who discover that they can seize power by challenging the plutocrats, addressing the excluded majority, and offering the latter some hope that their lot will be improved. Now and then, the leaders who figure this out come from within the plutocracy itself; Julius Caesar, who contributed his family name to Spengler’s term, was a very rich man from an old-money Senatorial family, and he’s far from the only example. In 1918, Spengler predicted that the first wave of Caesarism in the Western world was about to hit, that it would be defeated by the plutocrats, and that other waves would follow. He was dead right on the first two counts, and the current election suggests that the third prediction will turn out just as accurate.
To a very real extent, Hillary Clinton’s faltering presidential campaign is a perfect microcosm of what Spengler was talking about in his cold analysis of democracy in extremis. Her entire platform presupposes that the only policies the United States can follow are those that have been welded in place since the turn of the millennium: more government largesse for corporations and the rich, more austerity for everyone else, more malign neglect for the national infrastructure and the environment, more wars in the Middle East, and more of the fantastically stupid policy of confrontation—there really is no gentler way to describe it—that has succeeded, against all odds, in uniting Russia, China, Iran, and an assortment of smaller nations against the United States, by convincing their leaders that they have nothing to gain from a US-centric world order and nothing to lose by challenging it.
Those policies have not brought any of the good things their promoters insisted that they were going to bring. Another four years of the same policies aren’t going to change that fact. Every American voter knows these things, and so does Hillary Clinton, which is why her campaign focuses so precisely on everything but the issues that actually concern the majority of American voters today. That’s what lends a savage irony to Madeleine Albright’s brittle demand that American women support Clinton even though, for all practical purposes, she’s offering them very little more than they got from George W. Bush. Albright’s is the classic voice of a senile plutocracy on its way down, demanding a loyalty from others that it has done precisely nothing to earn.
I suspect we’ll see plenty of the same sort of irony as the current election season lurches toward its end. No doubt Clinton and her flacks will keep on trying to reintroduce her to voters who already know her quite well enough, thank you; no doubt we’ll hear all sorts of encomiums about what a nice person she is—as though that matters one jot to people who know that four more years of the policies she supports may well land them out of a job and out on the street. For that matter, facile claims that everything is fine, the economy is booming, and the American people are happier than they’ve been in decades are already appearing in the mass media. No doubt things look that way if you live in a bubble of privilege, and take good care never to step outside it and see how the other 80% live; for that matter, it’s true that if you take the obscene gains raked in by the privileged few and average them out across the entire population, that looks like economic betterment—but those gains are not being shared by the entire population, and the entire population knows this.
For the connoisseurs of historical irony, there will doubtless be plenty of entertainment to be had in watching the Clinton campaign as it tries one tactic after another to get that vending machine to cough up the prize Clinton so obviously and desperately craves. None of those veerings matter in any broader sense, because Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have already demonstrated that rejecting the consensus of America’s dominant minority is a ticket to electoral success. It’s possible—indeed, I think it’s likely—that Clinton will manage to squeeze past Sanders and get the Democratic nomination by fair means or foul; it’s considerably less likely that she’ll be able to overcome Trump in the general election; but even if she does, others will follow where Trump and Sanders lead, and sooner or later one of them will triumph.
The more likely option just now, I think, is that the Clinton campaign will meet a crushing defeat at Trump’s hands, and the decline and fall of Hillary Clinton will also mark the end of the failed consensus that has dominated American politics for decades. That fact alone doesn’t guarantee improvement; no law requires that whatever policies replace the conventional wisdom must be better. Nonetheless, things will change, and it’s at least possible that some of the changes might remove at least a few of the worst features of the bleak era now stumbling to its end around us.