Skip to Content

P.J. Podesta: Keeping the Devil at Bay

Why the Left should be asking for more

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/DSCN7791.jpg
Image courtesy of the author

by P.J. Podesta

For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.
—James Baldwin

I was a zealous Obama supporter in 2008. I campaigned for him in Ohio and Virginia and even organized a small fundraiser. On the night he was elected, I took a photo of some of his iconic posters in streetlight on a construction wall in Washington, DC. The image blurred, and I couldn’t quite grasp why this man who would “create a new kind of politics” and “change the world” was represented as somehow false (in duplicate) and fallen (blurred). So electric were those days following his win.

But Obama did fall: he deported more immigrants than any previous president, extended an enemy-generating drone war beyond what Bush could have imagined, touted toothless climate deals as progress, and filled his office with advisors from Goldman Sachs and Citi. His own Pentagon thwarted his plans to close Guantanamo. His signature Affordable Care Act could only be passed because it was written by and for the insurance and drug companies.

So great is our fear of Donald Trump that all that matters is stopping him.

Others had been paying closer attention during his campaign: e.g., to the money pouring in from Wall Street and Big Pharma. The late Alexander Cockburn noted at the time:

Public funding of his campaign? A commitment made becomes a commitment betrayed, just as on warrantless eavesdropping. His campaign treasury is now a vast hogswallow that, if it had been amassed by a Republican, would be the topic of thunderous liberal complaint.
In substantive terms Obama’s run has been the negation of almost every decent progressive principle, a negation achieved with scarcely a bleat of protest from the progressives seeking to hold him to account. The Michael Moores stay silent. Abroad, Obama stands for imperial renaissance. He has groveled before the Israel lobby and pandered to the sourest reflexes of the cold war era. At home he has crooked the knee to bankers and Wall Street, to the oil companies, the coal companies, the nuclear lobby, the big agricultural combines. He has been fearless in offending progressives, constant in appeasing the powerful.

With Hillary Clinton the narrative of the Democratic establishment has changed. With “hope” no longer so compelling, our expectations are to be lower. There will be no universal healthcare at far lower cost than our current 18 percent of GDP. There will be no massive infrastructure and jobs project. There will be no meaningful action on climate change. So great is our fear of Donald Trump that all that matters is stopping him. We decide on a hunch that only someone from the height of the establishment could do the job. It would be too good to be true that a movement to take control of government from the wealthy few would keep Lucifer at bay. We tell ourselves that asking for less than Bernie Sanders will somehow yield better results against entrenched GOP opposition in Congress.

So we’re willing to pretend that Hillary is sincere—that she must no longer be for mass incarceration (as she takes in money bundled by for-profit prison lobbyists), no longer for financial deregulation (as she takes in money from Wall Street), no longer for worker-crushing free trade deals (that she previously advanced), no longer for a decrepit welfare system (that she helped gut). Trump’s evil is too great for the recent history to matter.

The way out—the only one—is in opening the book of recent history, in accepting that we ourselves have been complicit in ongoing wealth concentration, global war, and rising sea.

It’s the perfect conspiracy theory: Trump plays the Devil; Clinton plays the strong, centrist hand that can stop him. And the sparks are so bright we forget that the Democrats’ neoliberal centrism—their betrayal of the working class—was essential to the very rise of Trump.

There is a way out of the neoliberal continuity from Ronald Reagan to now. It’s not in Bernie Sanders himself. Regardless of whether he somehow takes the presidency, the way out—the only one—is in opening the book of recent history, in accepting that we ourselves have been complicit in ongoing wealth concentration, global war, and rising sea. We’ve let it happen, by our reliance on the lesser evil in the name of pragmatism. Fear of Trump—that he will put all non-whites in prison camps and blow up everything beyond his Great Wall—makes for a convenient argument that we should look no further, that we should envision nothing beyond the politics we’ve known, that we should support the long-established candidates who have sold off the public sector and sold out the people bit by bit, all while promising they’re fighting for us.

Sanders-sympathetic Clinton supporters point to GOP entrenchment in Congress as they say: Well, we have to put forward someone more toward the center, someone with experience. But the longer we fail to look squarely at the experience of those in the Democratic establishment, accept what this experience actually consists of, and organize accordingly, the worse the Trumps will get, buoyed by even-greater resentment emerging from even-deeper despair; the farther right the GOP in Congress will move; the easier time the “realistic” and “serious” self-professed liberals will have doing less and less for we who are blackmailed into electing them.

If Hillary wins the presidency, she will continue to speak the language of progress while serving corporate interests and waging endless war. We will be told that she had to change course on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (back to her previous support), that we had to keep bombing civilians in the Middle East and North Africa, that there was no economically viable way to draw down fossil fuel consumption to a point that would stop the ongoing mass extinction. Wealth will continue to concentrate at the top. The poor will grow in number. We will be told it’s the best that could be done given the circumstances.

Bernie Sanders is no messiah. His candidacy is a slim chance to install an ally for the essential work ahead, which is the work of uniting movements—for the end of mass incarceration, for economic justice, for education, for our ecosystems, for peace, for much more—and taking control of government at all levels from the wealthy few. Regardless of the election outcome, we should take heart that most of us want sanity and justice: a campaign finance overhaul, universal health care at far lower cost, action to stop climate change, a fairer distribution of wealth. The question is whether we will coordinate myriad campaigns to wrest power from those who pretend to serve us—or use the Devil as an excuse to wait.

P.J. Podesta’s work has appeared in Salon, Slate, The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @pjpodesta.

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

Tagged with:

You might also like

Leave a comment




Anti-Spam Quiz:

Subscribe without commenting