In 2008, I was confused by my immigrant father’s devotion to the Hillary Clinton campaign. In 2016, I can understand it better. In politics, Dad reserves his respect for paranoid anti-liberal or even radical types like Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong who take no prisoners and brook no dissent. Dad enjoys a whiff of authoritarianism; Hillary Rodham Clinton’s demeanor makes the Chinese immigrant feel right at home.
In 1983, when I was home on spring break from sophomore year at Yale, Dad and I had fights about race. Armed with liberal arts-infused arguments and ideas, I thought the first step to “raising his consciousness” was to point out to Dad that he held racist views. He threw a stainless-steel plate at me from across the living room and it smashed, Frisbee-like, into my upper arm. I had a bruise for weeks.
Yet during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Dad himself was victim of countless racist snubs, or what we would call today microaggressions. In Taiwan, he had been a brilliant young man, full of energy and promise. In New York City, he was a short Asian man with a heavy accent. Even though he succeeded in the U.S. beyond his wildest dreams by landing a job as a translator at the United Nations, negotiating the simplest aspects of American life with Americans of any race has not been easy for him.
Dad likes to protect himself against the vagaries of fate and the casual racism of white America by holding on to the things that make Asian immigrants feel safe: money in the bank, internationally recognizable brands, and winning sports franchises (Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers and the 1970s Oakland Raiders). Clinton represents a powerful political brand: She can lay claim to an aura of progressiveness that masks the reactionary attitudes that she and her wing of the Democratic Party hold. Her candidacy promulgates the fiction that America is always getting more progressive: We just had a black president and now we are getting a woman. A comforting story, but such stories not only mask the reality of neoliberalism, they also help to sustain it.
In fact, since the 1990s, with the double blow of welfare reform and the North American Free Trade Agreement, the US government has been treating entire swaths of its population as if they were disposable. Now we have the statistics to prove that the class war from above has been devastatingly effective. Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Ann Case have shown that death rates for working-class white Americans between the ages of 45–54 have risen dramatically since 1999. Not since the collapse of the Soviet Union has an industrialized country seen such a significant rise in death rates among adults. Economic policies attacked the working classes and the poor while benefiting the wealthy. Economic despair and social isolation and the collapse of unions and social safety nets have consolidated the misery of working-class Americans of every race.
For Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, poor Americans are probably just not entrepreneurial enough. When Thomas Frank attended the 2015 Clinton Foundation “No Ceilings” celebration of global microloans, he found Chelsea and Hillary, with the help of Melinda Gates, oohing and aaahing over “Third World” women who had recently become microloan debtors. A Hillary Clinton presidency will provide us with a never-ending spectacle of the ruling class disguising its neoliberal profit extraction as do-goodism. Her billionaire’s solutions to poverty have strengthened the very financial institutions that have produced increasing levels of economic polarization. Since 1990, the percentage of American children living in poverty has risen from 16 to 22%: Thirteen states where higher-than-average percentages of children are living in poverty are located in the South. The Obama administration, despite its lofty rhetoric, has done nothing to stop the deterioration of life prospects for working-class people in the United States. Americans are justifiably angry about our "Third Worldization," but the Democratic Party would like to hold us hostage with threats of a right-wing populist revolt.
In 2008, I supported Barack Obama and my father displayed a signed 8 x 10–inch portrait of Hillary Clinton that she “sent” him after he contributed to her campaign. Well into his eighties, sharp of mind and impervious to arguments about gender equality and racism, my immigrant father was devoted to Hillary. It becomes clear now that my father admired the Clintons for their ambition and ruthlessness. For him, politics is not a place for idealism and the Clintons embodied a cold-blooded willingness to consolidate power to which all his political heroes, from Kissinger to Mao to Nixon, could lay claim. Yes, there were Bill’s sexual scandals, which should have repelled the puritanical immigrant, but for Dad, that was just part of the game. Like Henry Kissinger, Hillary Clinton has been on a relentless quest for power; like Richard Nixon, she complains constantly about being persecuted by implacable enemies.
In 2016, it is clear that Hillary is about consolidating her power. Hillary’s political strategy in the Senate was to do as little as possible while courting Republican allies. There, Hillary Clinton took a page out of Cosimo de’ Medici’s playbook, remaining strangely passive while amassing a great fortune. The pure political inertia whereby inevitability reproduces itself as inevitability might work in 2016 to send another Clinton to the White House, but let us have clear eyes about what Hillary Clinton represents — an authoritarian neoliberal status quo. There is nothing revolutionary in her trajectory, despite all claims to the contrary.
To consolidate her political position, Clinton never hesitates to call upon her record of anti-racism to cement her progressive credentials. For some reason, the mainstream media follows her lead. Instead of arguing against the accepted nostra, let’s examine through the lens of Adolph Reed’s critique the inadequacy of anti-racism as a political program. Reed writes:
... as the basis for a politics, antiracism seems to reflect, several generations downstream, the victory of the postwar psychologists in depoliticizing the critique of racial injustice by shifting its focus from the social structures that generate and reproduce racial inequality to an ultimately individual, and ahistorical, domain of ”prejudice” or “intolerance.”
Bill Clinton’s New Democrats promoted the values of neoliberal anti-racism by playing on the “politics” of representation and visibility, ignoring structural contradictions in favor of struggles over self-cultivation, self-control, and self-esteem. During Clinton’s presidency, "multiculturalism" and “diversity” were cosmetic concepts, strategically promoted by liberal institutions. The Clintons vacationed and played golf with rich African-Americans on Martha’s Vineyard while the president destroyed welfare and dismantled the Glass-Steagall Act, which limited commercial banking activities.
American exceptionalism is founded on the idea of meritocracy, a social order that rewards the truly talented and innovative. While “meritocracy” was a satirical term used by British socialist Michael Young to describe postwar oligarchies, overseers of the neoliberal order like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair celebrated it. Like Obama, Hillary Clinton is one of the meritocracy’s golden children. Under meritocratic rule, American exceptionalism tells us that we do not need systems of social welfare, because we are a nation uniquely capable of leveling all playing fields and creating equality of opportunity for an astounding array of people of all races, sexualities, and, more recently, all gender identifications. American institutions are meant to reward intelligence and hard work and punish stupidity and idleness. That the Clintons are building dynastic forms of power and wealth linking private foundations, shadowy nonprofits, billionaires’ fortunes, and young bright ambitious people willing to take on the unvetted agendas of Eli Broad or Bill Gates does not, it would seem, discredit the myth of the meritocracy.
Economic polarization among every group of Americans is increasing, while economic segregation defines urban and suburban growth. Jennifer Silva’s study Coming Up Short: Working Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty is a poignant examination of the lives of young working-class adults in the face of enormous economic and cultural adversity. Silva found that working-class people of all races and genders struggle to achieve the stability necessary for building meaningful relationships, much less establish families. Often one paycheck away from homelessness or destitution, they seek solace in the hyperindividualistic language of self-help, trying to adjust to difficult and even impossible situations by focusing on positive visualizations or self-esteem. When they fall short of the social and economic expectations that define adulthood and individualization, they tend to blame themselves. Rather than addressing economic and political policies that have relegated 47.5 million Americans to lives of material and psychic deprivation, the political class seizes upon technology in the classroom, school vouchers, and regimes of assessment and educational measurement in order to train the imaginary “workforces of the future.”
To add insult to injury, Hillary Clinton’s platform has expropriated the political power of feminism to promote her presidential candidacy as the realization of more than a century of political struggle for women’s rights. What does Hillary Clinton’s political progress tell us about contemporary politics in the United States? We cannot understand her presidential race and possible presidency without understanding how she and her husband have been able to consolidate a powerful strain of neoliberal ideology. They have successfully reframed the political project of the Democratic Party as a series of highly rationalized, new media- and new technology-friendly protocols of “personal responsibility,” self-improvement, accountability and assessment regimes, and, failing those, punishment. Bill Clinton ended welfare as we knew it. He did so with alacrity and in the spirit of building a new brand for the Democratic Party. Seen as being soft on poverty and in favor of soul-sapping big government, Democrats had suffered under the endless reiterations of fake bootstrapping promoted by Ronald Reagan against anything that smacked of socialism or safety nets. In 1996, after years of Republican demonization of the poor, Bill Clinton increased his political capital by showing that Democrats could be equally vicious to the most economically marginalized and exploited people in our country.
Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party he reshaped did not simply deregulate financial institutions and slash federally funded programs for the poor: He also prepared the ground for the growth of a new oligarchy. Most economic historians agree that the rampant speculation and profit-taking it enabled directly drove widespread financial malfeasance that has still largely gone unpunished. Bill Clinton was able to combine post-1968 institutionalized cultural-identity politics with a fervor for fiscal policies that made the wealthiest Democratic Party donors as happy as their Republican counterparts.
Economic issues must be front and center again for any movement that really wants to change the way politics and economics are organized. Race and gender inequality are entrenched in unjust economic policies that punish the poor. Gallup polls have shown that the majority of people of color prioritize economic issues as an area of concern — a “concern” that can be mobilized to have greater social impact than campus-based “diversity” initiatives. A vote for Hillary Clinton will not be a vote for any kind of progress: The Clintons are of the Old Regime, sharing private jets with billionaires and centa-millionaires and using the suffering of others to prop up their monstrous foundation.
While people like my father find neoliberal authoritarianism and the extension of the Clinton dynasty comforting, most Americans, especially young Americans, are angry about their broken dreams and diminished horizons. In fact, most Americans are furious about the status quo. My father, however, is indifferent to the economic situation of the U.S. He likes free trade because it benefits China: He likes meritocracy because my family’s success is a sign that nothing is really wrong with our country. He doesn’t feel that he can afford to care about the increasing numbers of people left behind by economic and political policies designed to distribute wealth upwards. A vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for doing nothing in the face of massive suffering and deprivation. My father’s generation grew up in a time of profound political and social upheaval: from World War II to the Cold War, to the fall of Communism, to the rise of the New Economy. He holds on to a cynicism about change that is astonishing for someone who has seen so much of it in one lifetime. In the Clintons, my father sees political stability. He wants more of the same: cunning political and cultural compromises to mask intensifying economic polarization. I don’t.
Excerpted from Catherine Liu’s “Neoliberal Fictions: Hillary Clinton, Harper Lee and my Dad” in Verso Books’s False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton, forthcoming June 2016.
Catherine Liu is Professor of Film and Media Studies and Visual Studies at University of California Irvine. She is the author of American Idyll: Anti-Elitism as Cultural Critique (University of Iowa Press, 2011) and Copying Machines: Taking Notes for the Automaton (University of Minnesota Press, 2000). She is also the author of the 2012 novel Oriental Girls Desire Romance. She has recently completed a memoir of middle-aged emancipation titled Panda Gifts.
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