Three Thoughts on the Nomination of Hillary Clinton

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.

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26 Responses to Three Thoughts on the Nomination of Hillary Clinton

  1. Western Dave says:

    I appreciate your viewpoint but I think your analysis is off-base. Clinton is a “responsive” politician, who tends to move in the directions she’s pushed (this was especially true in NY). If the Sanders bodies can unite with the left-wing street thinkers that tended to support Clinton, she can be moved left into real action. We got Social Security because of Share Our Wealth and Huey Long. The Wagner Act was as much about gaining labor peace as anything else. Kenney has, so far, turned out far better as mayor of Philadelphia than anybody a right to hope for. I’m hoping that Hilary is going to operate on that model.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Reasonable enough. I don’t think action in this conventional sense is what’s needed at this conjuncture of world history.

  3. Thomas Malaby says:

    Perceptive and far-reaching as always, Tim. I guess a piece that I would want to include is the generational/demographic one. That is, I find it difficult to fear the rise of a slicker (therefore scarier) Trump in the future because the content of the appeal, and its audience, are so specific to an era of American history. If I’m right, then a bunch of factors in the above change, and Sanders is more the harbinger of a populist movement and leader to come, and that one would be far less likely to be founded on ethno-nationalism.

  4. Sherief says:

    Professor Burke, wanted to thank you for that really insightful post. I graduated 8 years ago and this made me miss Swarthmore. Your identification of the general problem as you put it, being the failure of the liberal nation-state failing to deliver on its promises, rang very true to me. Indeed many of the other problems you’ve identified could be described to be symptoms of that core issue. What does a failed state in fact look like, feel like?

    I also wonder if you feel as though there were meaningful examples of states that demonstrated a sustained admirable vision? Perhaps a country that has transformed its energy sources in a generation, or one that provided reasonably high quality education to its citizens at low cost, or do liberal Americans idealize these exemplars?

    Thank you

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Sherief, I think the tricky thing from the perspective of the present is that the best examples of states living up to the more far-reaching dreams of high modernism are often projects that we today regard as having been pursued with undemocratic high-handedness, were often follies or mistakes in some fashion, and sometimes had bad unexpected consequences. James Scott’s Seeing Like a State is a pretty thorough indictment of many such projects by both autocratic and democratic states from the late 19th C. through to the 1970s. Much as I’m sympathetic to Scott’s critique (and criticism by many similar intellectuals), it’s hard not to feel some longing for the capacity of high modernism to envision, command and create many large-scale projects, some of which we depend upon today. I think it would be fair to say that the gap between envisioning something like rural electrification and the Tennessee Valley Authority in the New Deal and actually doing it was smaller than many similar gaps between conceiving of undertaking something for the public good and doing it now might be. This is also not to idealize some of the complicated processes by which many high modernist initiatives were actually implemented–there was political maneuvering and backroom deals then too. But for the most part it just seems silly today to say something like, “Federal, state and local authorities will work together to provide a highly effective and coordinated nationwide updating and improvement of our aging civil infrastructure”. Left or right, we all know that not only would the funding needed be denied (and the funding required would be much more in real dollars than it took to build that infrastructure) but that there wouldn’t be coordination, that some of the money would disappear into things like “the bridge to nowhere”, that various contractors would get sweetheart deals, and so on. The Homeland Security funds after 9/11 are a good case in point of that–provided almost without oversight, they were applied for by towns and communities that had zero need for becoming more prepared for terrorism and were used to buy military vehicles and weaponry largely for the ego of local law enforcement.

  6. Heather says:

    I think this is an incredibly thoughtful analysis and I thank you for writing it. I would only say that it is Hillary, the DNC, and the media who would be responsible for Hillary’s loss to Trump (and not her supporters). As an ardent Bernie Sanders supporter, I think there’s been too much vilifying the voters in a country whose institutions have become ripe for manipulation, coercion, and misinformation. The media has “manufactured” the narrative a la Chomsky, and propped up a weak, establishment candidate in a year when people have reached their limit. The media apparently succeeded in the end to convince voters that Sanders was unelectable or “too radical.” And yet pitting her against Trump seems like a risky move (unless of course they know they’ve got it all in the bag, a proposition that reeks of conspiracy but is beginning to seem not all that farfetched). Looking at Austria’s recent election, it seems plausible that only another anti-establishment candidate can beat an anti-establishment candidate in this era of unrest caused by neo-liberal excess. You’ve been generous with Clinton, not allowing yourself to be overly negative about her (as I am want to do). Unfortunately, her record speaks for itself. She has no interest in making reforms that would empower the middle and working class, it’s all this empty woman rhetoric (that frankly as a woman insults my intelligence).

  7. Jim says:

    What an excellent post, Dr. Burke. Thank you for this.

  8. NickS says:

    Fascinating, thought-provoking post — it’s surprising to see you writing in such a world-historic tone. I think that, as is inevitable, your diagnosis of the problem is more compelling than the steps that you propose, and I disagree with some of your conclusions; but I don’t know that I have a better answer.

    My first thought, however, is that you misunderstand the nature of the presidency, and that asking any president to lead the story of transformation and re-imagining of American politics that you want, is unlikely. For example, when you say

    “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.”

    That is (1), not a new complaint (IIRC, that was the basic premise of Why Americans Hate Politics (1991)) and (2) not something that politicians are well-positioned to address. Politicians may be too cautious and limits in their vision but, at the same time, the limits that they see are not purely in there imagination. There are strong incentives for politicians to frame everything in blandly familiar terms.

    Secondly, one lesson that I took from The Clinton Tapes (which I highly recommend; despite finding it tedious in places) is that the president has very little time or ability to put sustained creative and intellectual energy into any one concern — that they are in a near-constant state of being interrupted by the news, or of having to respond to attacks. Perhaps Bill Clinton is not representative — he is famous for his tendency towards interruption — but after reading the book, it was hard to imagine any president doing significant intellectual work (as distinct from political work) while in office, and I think your vision would require that.

    Your call for a politician to, “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.” Reminded me of the Bill Moyers book: Listening to America: A Traveler Rediscovers His Country written, not coincidentally, after Moyers was no longer working for Johnson.

    One final example. You dream of, “appointees who bring a mixture of fresh thinking and meritocratic skills to executive leadership.” That immediately makes me think of Obama’s decision to hire Van Jones as both something good, which future administrations should emulate, and an example of the difficulty of doing so. Refreshing my memory from wikipedia, Jones resigned after 6 months, and it’s hard to believe that it turned out the way that either Obama or Jones hoped (and wikipedia quotes Jones as saying, “when they asked the question [would he like to work for the White House], I burst out laughing because at the time it seemed completely ludicrous that it would even be an option.” Which is just to say, again, that the constraints which make it difficult to bring in people from outside the “pool of Democratic stalwarts” are real. Worth pushing back against, but not imaginary.

    All of which is just to say that large intractable problems are difficult for a reason. I don’t intend this to be more than a cautious defense of the political status quo. But it’s worth saying that it’s _hard_ to visualize a way out of the mess and that career politicians do have a role to play in trying to make the current system work while we, collectively, peer desperately ahead, trying to figure out what can come next.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    NickS, maybe it’s not the President who ought to lead this conversation. But the thing is, if someone doesn’t do it, it’s going to be a problem of retail politics in the most everyday sense. I think it already is. Meaning we can keep waiting for someone in civil society (or many someones) but for reasons of pure self-interest, of the “I don’t want to die or end up imprisoned” kind, the political class in this and other countries have got to take an interest. That’s the one analogy from Weimar that’s relevant–if you just keep thinking about the retail politics of next month when you have on your doorstep a game-changing transformation of the political economy, the social mood, the political system, the rules and codes of what is permissible and what is forbidden, you’re not only screwed yourself, you’re screwing everyone else. There are moments when it’s just not enough to think about the next move, you have to think about the whole game. I think this is one of those moments, and I think Hillary Clinton is the wrong player at the wrong moment.

  10. NickS says:

    Hmmm, I originally thought that I agreed with your premise but disagreed with your conclusions. Now I’m not sure that I agree with your premise, if it is that, “I think this is one of those moments [when you have on your doorstep a game-changing transformation of the political economy, the social mood, the political system, the rules and codes of what is permissible and what is forbidden]”

    In terms of political economy (for WEIRD countries), I’m more inclined to anticipate a slow slide, rather than a sudden transformation* — assuming that Climate Change doesn’t impose significant transformations. I could be wrong; I understand why you would have the feeling of precipice, but that’s not my assumption.

    * Depending on what timeframe you mean by “on your doorstep.” I’m thinking of the fact that it was nine years ago that ogged quoted this:

    In 1970, the United States was ruled by a corrupt Republican regime; it is hard to suppose that there was substantially less institutionalized racism at that juncture then now. Nonetheless, it seems likely from here that, had the same event happened then, New Orleans would have been well en route to a rebuilt renaissance by 1972. This is a fairly simple economic deduction: that infrastructural repair and reinvestment would have been a lot easier to come by before the long economic downturn that began in 1973. Or, to rephrase the matter in terms of Giovanni Arrighi’s Braudelian analysis of the United States’ “long Twentieth century,” wherein he holds that the peak of the US cycle of accumulation was 1973: the seemingly singular decision not to rebuild New Orleans is exactly the mark of an empire in decline. It’s structural, not singular at all. The abandonment of a great city to time and tide is indeed both symptom and mark of empire on its downhill slide; it bears noting as well that pathetic, delusional and desperate regimes are equally an indicator of this decline.

    That New Orleans was the first city to go (or was it Detroit?) means, among other things, that it won’t be the last….

    I feel like the issues you’re talking about in this post are similar to those, and that it is part of a long process. But there are certainly aspects of US politics that feel like they are rapidly approaching the point of, “If something cannot go on forever it will stop.” And it’s hard to know what that will look like.

  11. Strawman much? says:

    “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.”

    Or, maybe, some of us voted for her because we regarded her as closer to our personal values, and felt that she would be a more effective leader.

    I’ve been hearing the more ardently liberal talk about how they were going to build a grassroots system for decades now to tear down the neoliberal system, and where has that gotten you lately? Remember how the Greens in 2000 were going to make a real movement, just you wait? Now the Green party doesn’t even want Nader (which is too bad, I don’t actually hold any ill will towards him).

    Here in CA I’ve heard plenty from the Berniecrats, but none of them has seemed to take the effort to bother and promote any major down-ballot folks. Steve Stokes got what, 2% of the vote for senator? I see Joe Fetterman there in PA did better, but didn’t break 20%. (Apt article in Slate: “A Member of “Bernie’s Army” Is Still Waiting for the Candidate’s Help”).

    Meanwhile the Tea-Party seems to have done a bang-up job at actually getting people into Congress. I hate their results, but I can’t argue with their success.

  12. Strawman much? says:

    John Fetterman, not Joe Fetterman. Sorry for the misnaming.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Strawman, one thing I regret both in terms of my personal participation and in general is that I think some Hillary supporters have felt inhibited about defending her actual policy positions within social media because they have many friends who disdain those positions from the left. I would rather that people with basically liberal or liberal-moderate convictions feel that it is perfectly normal to articulate those convictions (and to support a candidate who embodies them). I myself have some views that are not nearly as left as I sound at the moment, and I think that there’s a reflexive, unthoughtful side to much progressive rhetoric.

    However, I also feel that frankly some Hillary supporters either declined to support her based on agreement with her stated or demonstrated politics or attempt to downplay or ignore some aspects of her stated and demonstrated politics. It would be better if we could all have some frank discussions about US military action abroad, for example, where every variety of left, liberal, moderate and even conservative understandings of it were on the table and prepared to listen to one another’s underlying premises as well as specific propositional views of what the US should be doing in the world. But from Hillary and some of her most prominent public supporters I do not think such a conversation is in the offing–certain critiques of US military action simply aren’t even admitted into the conversation, let alone taken seriously. This is often defended in the name of pragmatism–either the pragmatism of electoral politics (“she can’t talk about that now”) or the pragmatism of US policy (“come on, grow up, we can’t just leave terrorism alone”).

    So maybe to have conversations where candidates are defended affirmatively based on what they really think and are really going to do (as opposed to defended on criteria like “more electable”) we all have to decide how large the “circle of we” really is. If your circle includes people who are strong critics of the security policies of the last 15 years, and you are prepared to defend Hillary’s likely continuation of those policies, you’ll have to step out in front and make that argument, with the likely cost of being roundly disagreed with–and you would be entitled to demand the right to disagree roundly in turn. I think if that happened it would be good for Hillary and good for liberal-left collaboration.

  14. Barry says:

    I strongly disagree with your argument, Tim, for as far as I read (which, to be honest, wasn’t long, because it wasn’t a good agument).

    What we’ll get with a Clinton administration is what we got with an Obama administration – mostly competent government which is general tries to help people, facing a weakened but viscious nihilistic and frankly disloyal opposition.

    We’ll have a court system which is Democratic majority (from top to bottom) – for the first time since the 1980’s. We will dread far, far less seeing SCOTUS decisions in the healines, and enjoy the right howling in agony.

    As for the personnel in her administration, I’ll bet you that they’ll be far more diverse than for Dubya, or for Clinton I. And possibly more diverse than under Obama, if for no other reason that Clinton will harvest Obama’s sowing.

    And in the meantime, the Confederate percentage of the vote will decline a bit; the rest of us will have more votes – and will be able to actually vote more.

    We will make some progress on global warming – probably not enough, but enough to help a lot of people. We are IMHO getting closer to the point where renewables will be a flourishing industry, and not a few plant carefully protected in a greenhouse.

    That is the revolution. Talk to political science professors and history professors at Swarthmore – take them out to lunch in 2020. Bring them in to lecture your students on just what shape the US (and world) was in back in the Long Long Ago Time of 2008.

    And all through this the Greens and the Naderites and their ilk will be talking big sh*t, but mostly not getting people elected. Even with the example of the Tea Party in front of them, they aren’t working to pull the Democratic Party to the left like the TP did to the GOP (they might be excused by the fact that there are far fewer billionaires backing them).

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    Basically, yes, we disagree. I think liberal governance and the nation-state are in crisis everywhere for some similar underlying reasons–fundamentally, that it is proving nearly impossible to keep political elites from using the state as a means of extraction and from allowing the state to be used by capital for similar ends, and that the ties people feel to their governments are everywhere fraying or devolving into pure client-patron relationships. I think this is turning the entire field of social relations within states into winner-take-all affairs, and leading to an ever-waning interest in any idea of a public sphere or public goods in which one might feel that an immediate benefit to other people might ultimately be a benefit to all.

  16. Barry says:

    ” that it is proving nearly impossible to keep political elites from using the state as a means of extraction and from allowing the state to be used by capital for similar ends, ”

    I partially agree with you there – when Coopers Union was looted, a commenter said ‘how did we ever *build* things?’ . On the other hand, looting has a long and prominent place in the history of the USA. Indian, blacks, and whites all got f*cked.
    People don’t realize that the American Middle Class was really a product of a single generation.

    BTW – if the black part of New Orleans was destroyed in 1970, does anybody really think that we’d have rebuilt it? From what I’ve heard, the better off parts of New Orleans are doing OK; the decision was to abandon the lower-income parts.

    and that the ties people feel to their governments are everywhere fraying or devolving into pure client-patron relationships. I think this is turning the entire field of social relations within states into winner-take-all affairs”

  17. Barry says:

    “…and that the ties people feel to their governments are everywhere fraying or devolving into pure client-patron relationships. I think this is turning the entire field of social relations within states into winner-take-all affairs…”

    Sorry, I hit ‘post’ too soon. Again, I think that you’re taking a rosy view of the past as reality. since when has government not involved a lot of client-patron relationships?
    They might be hidden, but they are there.

  18. Vivian Perry says:

    Exactly this “it is proving nearly impossible to keep political elites from using the state as a means of extraction and from allowing the state to be used by capital for similar ends”

    or as a more direct friend texted me on Wednesday morning ” congrats, CA, on allowing Wall Street to continue its exsanguination of the American middle class”

    Change is going to come…

  19. SLS says:

    “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.”

    This sentence, and the rest of the paragraph into which it leads, seem to describe a situation of decline, and fairly profound decline. I remember well (and was strongly affected by) a post on this blog from several years ago in which you took issue with narratives of decline as too often being based on false (both willfully and accidentally so), incomplete, or unrigorous accounts of the past.

    As I read this post, it seems to imply some moment in time prior to now when the problems you describe were smaller or at least had a better chance of being solved by our elected officials, and I wonder if a broader and more careful reconstruction of the recent history of this country might not show that you are falling into the trap of the “declension narrative” here, to some extent. Or, on the other hand, do you think that, all things considered, we are living through a genuine period of decline or a recession from a high-water mark of the liberal, technocratic state that poses a real threat to the liberty and quality of life for citizens of the United States and other wealthy, democratic nations? If so, the historian in me wants to see more concrete evidence of it.

    To my mind, I see climate change and nuclear proliferation as perhaps the existential threats/problems that seem to be getting legitimately worse year after year, but thinking broadly about social, political, and economic trends, I just don’t see much evidence that things are deteriorating across the board. I’m willing to believe that we may be heading towards some inflection point that harbors the potential for dramatic change, but it’s hard for me to frame that change necessarily in terms of decline.

  20. Timothy Burke says:

    I think here I might buy a narrative of decline, though it’s not a simple journey from “great” to “terrible”. The specific decline I have in mind is this: the modernist state was capable of coordinating large-scale projects of construction and administration that current states (all around the world) seem largely incapable of carrying out, and it was capable of speaking in confident, progress-embracing terms about a better future, a way of speaking which the political class seems largely uninterested in today. The part of that change that isn’t simply a case of going from good to bad is that those modernist projects were often destructive or at least mixed in their impact and they required some profoundly undemocratic strategies for ignoring, overriding or compelling the action of communities affected by such planning.

  21. I made a late comment on this over at Crooked Timber here.

  22. Peter T says:

    “the modernist state was capable of coordinating large-scale projects of construction and administration that current states (all around the world) seem largely incapable of carrying out”

    Well, China is still in that game (see high-speed rail), but I think you are basically right. I think of it in terms of levels of organisation – the resources are not there to maintain the current level, let alone build to the level necessary to use technocratic tools to address global issues (most notably environmental ones, but many others are intertwined).

  23. sibyl says:

    This is the best piece of writing I’ve seen on this subject in quite a while: comprehensive and succinct. Thank you, Tim.

    I agree that Secretary Clinton is very unlikely to be the person who leads the transformation of the state. All of her achievements have occurred within the framework of neoliberal technocracy and she’s not about to change now. The best we can hope for is that she will keep the train on the tracks and running long enough to hand off the problem to her successor. (As opposed to the presumptive Republican nominee, who would certainly send the train off the tracks and hurtling into the abyss.)

    I am not sure that a sitting president or senior legislator can lead such a transformation, because any efforts would inevitably be filtered through the lens of retail politics. But I also don’t think that a transformation can be led outside government either, because change would have to be grounded in practical politics. Who does that leave? A post-presidency Barack Obama? Henry Kissinger? Bernie Sanders? It may have to be someone who would use the transformation precisely as a vehicle for increasing their success in retail politics, someone with the stature of, say, Nikki Haley or Cory Booker – not those people exactly, necessarily, but someone who has enough of a track record that you can’t dismiss them entirely, and yet not so successful that they are already in thrall to the structures that have to be changed. In other words, a retail politician who recognizes the retail-politics challenges and opportunities of the collapse of the nation-state.

  24. In the provinces says:

    Is it actually true that states “around the world” are incapable of carrying out large-scale infrastructure projects? There’s the Internet, you know, fiber optic networks and cell phone systems–all results of the last quarter century. I was recently in Spain, one of the more screwed-over European countries, but the high-speed rail service between Madrid and Sevilla was extraordinary, and the Barcelona airport state of the art. You might also think of the very impressive expansion of renewable energy production in northern Europe since 2000. This is all without even considering East Asia, for the last three decades the economically most dynamic region of the world. What probably is true is that in the US large-scale infrastructure projects have lately been more difficult to carry out. This is in part the result of a long tradition of anti-statism (Antbellum Democrats were busy denouncing Whig efforts to build canals and turnpikes, and guarantee railroad-construction bonds), a post-1960s legacy of grassroots democracy, which leads to massive opposition to any infrastructure project in anyone’s back yard, generally assisted by a slow-moving, Byzantine legal system, and a political opposition party, which incorporates anti-statist traditions, has lately been carrying them to lunatic extremes and is also deeply invested in an effort to foil anything proposed by the governing party, partly out of cynical political calculation and partly out of libertarian fanaticism. Projecting these distinctly American conditions on the rest of the world is problematic.

  25. Timothy Burke says:

    I think the EU has its own kinds of bottlenecks–which may be an underlying issue hiding underneath the nativism of the Brexit vote. I also think the Internet is almost a counter-example, and explains well the kind of libertarian bent of a lot of Silicon Valley folks, much of that infrastructure was established in record time despite the state rather than because of it. (That’s certainly true in much of the developing world, where land line installation had long since stalled out because of state involvement.) I think the infrastructure that has been built is the exception rather than the rule.

    Though I do think China, Japan and Singapore are interestingly different, and it is worth considering why that might be (albeit in ways that hopefully don’t invoke stupid racialized theories of difference).

  26. jeff snavely says:

    Hillary Clinton is “possibly the most unpopular, polarizing and vulnerable Presidential candidate in American history”.

    I voted for that sellout Obama, but the democrats are not getting another vote for their center right BS candidates. Fear monger over Trump all you want. I’m going to vote for him to spite the democratic leadership that put the most hated woman in recent history on a presidential ticket.

    Will she win? Probably. Corporatist GOP will be rooting for her. After all, nobody can dismantle democratic policy with impunity than a democratic president.

    Quick. Name me one piece of positive legislation that Bill C. advocated. You have nothing to say if you’re neither a conservative or a neoliberal democrat.

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