1. This is simple. If Hillary Clinton loses the election to the possibly the most unpopular, polarizing and vulnerable Presidential candidate in American history, I will not blame her. I will, however, blame her supporters, aides and the Democratic party leadership. If she were to lose, it would not be because of her gender or even because of her own relative personal unpopularity. If she were to lose–and I hope very much and believe that she is going to win–it will be because her party is structurally hamstrung and continues to nominate uninspiring technocrats whose main electoral virtues are that they are not the Republican candidate and that they are competent and well-trained. In this sense, gender notwithstanding, Clinton is pretty much the same as Kerry, Gore and Dukakis. (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are somewhat similar in their actual governance but at least have a more charismatic style of leadership.) If Clinton were to lose, then it is not the Republican Party that is over, but the Democratic Party: that would be a sign that the one major usefulness of the party is finally exhausted. If she loses, we all have a nightmare on our hands, but I for one intend to pause just long enough to remind her supporters that just about the only thing they had to offer was her alleged electability.
2. It is not the loss of Clinton that I fear most, though that prospect is so terrifying that it barely bears thinking of, because I don’t think she’s going to lose. It is her victory that worries me.
Let’s imagine a best-case scenario in which Clinton wins in a landslide, the Democrats regain the Senate, and the House shifts to a near 50-50 balance. A situation not that far off from 2008. What do I think we can anticipate as positive outcomes in that situation?
First, the leaders of the Republican Party will have finally gone off the cliff in their three decades-long game of chicken with populist anger. That might well interfere with their ability to block or constrain the kinds of useful policy leadership that Clinton is capable of providing. The logjam at the Supreme Court and in other appointments might be broken. Some modest and incremental attempts to address income inequality might be in the offing.
Second, Clinton will continue the use of the executive branch as a kind of spoils system for the political class, meaning that she primarily will not look all across the country for appointees who bring a mixture of fresh thinking and meritocratic skills to executive leadership but instead pull from the same pool of Democratic stalwarts who already know to pitch their ideas within the confines of what the party leadership and its chief pool of financial backers are prepared to consider. That approach often gets competent and admirable people for government, but it also prevents the White House or the Congressional leadership from considering both new specific policy ideas and more fundamental challenges to their entire way of thinking about the nation’s (and the world’s) problems.
Third, this lack of freshness will be particularly evident in national security policy. America’s unending war will continue uninterrupted, and our intelligence and law enforcement agencies will largely have carte blanche to do as they see fit with little to no meaningful oversight.
So that’s not that bad compared to the alternative, certainly. Some good things will happen, some bad things, but none of the upper bound of the bad is anything approaching Trump’s possible upper bound of transformative disaster. Why am I so worried about four years of Clinton?
It is not enough. Because I think Clinton and all the people surrounding her are very nearly incapable of recognizing, let alone responding to, the actual crisis they will be facing. That crisis is not Islamic militants. It is not political stalemate or Republican obstructionism. It is not police brutality and the scourge of racism. It is not income inequality or a lack of financial regulation. It is not even or only the structural transformation of the global political economy through technological change and social reorganization. All of those seemingly disparate things are only symptoms of a general problem.
The general problem is that the modern liberal nation-state and its characteristic institutions are simply no longer capable of delivering on their baseline promises and possibilities to any national population anywhere. Even in nations that appear by most measures to be successful, the state withers due its lack of vision. Liberalism cannot handle the extension of its rights to all who are entitled, and its major alleged champions increasingly endorse depraved forms of military and economic illiberalism in the name of its defense. The brief moment of reform in which capital seemed to be harnessed to social democracy is very nearly over, and the difference between illicit and licit economies now seems paper-thin at best. Very little policy gets made because it’s the right thing to do; most policy is about transfer-seeking. Every dollar is spoken for. Every play is a scrum in the middle that moves the ball inches, never yards. Political elites around the world either speak in laughably dishonest ways about hope and aspiration or stick to grey, cramped horizons of plausibly incremental managerialism. Young people all around the world recognize that there is little hope of living in a better or more comfortable or more just world than their parents did, and their grandparents must often live every day with the possibility of losing whatever they’ve gained, that they are one lost job or sickness away from falling without a safety net.
In the United States, what this all means in a more immediate sense is that Donald J. Trump is only the beginning. He may have a peculiarly American cast to his authoritarian populism, but he has his counterparts elsewhere in the world, many of whom have enjoyed or threaten to enjoy similar electoral success or other access to power. We reach out for analogies, fascism most prominently, but those are useful only in suggesting the dangerousness of our moment.
So I worry about a Clinton Presidency because it is at best likely to be a stalling action in the face of this gathering storm, and at worst may well accelerate and aggravate its arrival. Trump is only the herald; his successor will likely be a more fearsome, skillful and dangerously plausible version who will speak directly to the spirit of desperation in the hearts of many. Clinton doesn’t understand what’s out there in the world. She will allow herself to be lulled by the notion that the election of a woman on the heels of the election of an African-American is progress and that all opposition to them is just the dead-end reactionary impulses of a dying order. Her vision will be clouded by a swarm of blandishing pundits whose understanding of social change and political challenge is confined to horse-race predictions and the delivery of favors and services to various clients.
3) Let’s be optimistic and suppose that Clinton turns out to have depths I don’t suspect, or that the leadership of the Democratic Party and various liberal supporters don’t just spend two years schadenfreuding themselves about the Republicans and then start to panic when it becomes clear that Trump and Sanders voters were the canaries in the coal mine, a sign of profound alienation from the way things are. What could she actually do if my description of the scale and character of crisis were real?
The first thing she or other leaders could do is simply start talking honestly and straightforwardly about these problems–with a bit of real passion and anger mixed in. No more polling. No more Bill Clinton-style searching for small but popular initiatives that can get a favorable day or two in the news cycle. Only connect. That would be the first revolution. It’s what they don’t do at Davos or G8 meetings. It’s what they don’t do in Brussels or inside the Beltway. Start talking about what’s really going on out there and start talking to people in ways that are about what’s really going on.
The second thing she could do is talk about and explore, again with passion, anger and fearlessness, how a system of checks and balances has turned into a system of chokepoints and barriers. It’s not just Republican obstructionism, though that has contributed mightily. What we need is a genuine investigation of and national conversation about how thinking about the future turned so small and cramped, unless it’s jackass billionaires who want to be immortal and live on Mars. When people voice their frustration with the political system and register low approval ratings for almost the entirety of the political class, that’s what they’re responding to: that everything that requires a mixture of vision, will and competency gets sandbagged and obfuscated by people who either have something to gain from inaction or who are hoping to capture any action to their own exclusive advantage, whether that’s crafting a response to the Zika virus, dealing with crumbling infrastructure, or rebuilding an economy that works for most people. Most of us can see plainly what needs to be done on a variety of fundamental challenges in front of us–only a few of them are genuinely and irresolvably difficult in both moral and technical terms. The mystery, which a real leader might explore and confront, is what stands in the way of the doing. In many cases, it is the very systems that we presently believe exist to solve problems.
That’s all. I don’t expect magic solutions from anyone, especially Clinton. But I think visionary leadership now might simply be speaking to the scale and nature of the human crisis of the 21st Century, rather than trying to beat a few more years out of a queasy admixture of technocratic managerialism and a sort of insincere, half-hearted invocation of New Deal liberalism shorn of all passion or promises. It’s enough to recognize the crisis and speak to it. That alone is startling, and accounts in some measure for both Trump and Sanders having the success that they’ve had.
Just being in charge for the next four years? That’s enough to guarantee losing control of the future entirely, I fear.