By Eli Zaretsky
According to Hillary Clinton, her defeat was caused by two interventions by James Comey, Director of the FBI. The first, eleven days before the election, announced the discovery of a new trove of emails. The second, two days before it, stated that they did not change his original view that Clinton should not be indicted. This explanation is reminiscent of historians who say that World War One would not have occurred if the Serbian carriage driver had continued past the pub in which the Archduke’s assassin was sitting. It erects a minor factoid into an explanation, at the cost of thinking historically and structurally about an epochal event.
Clinton’s shallow, instrumental, and non-reflective response exemplifies the thinking of American elites and intellectuals at the present time. It is not only that every columnist or so-called expert predicted the election incorrectly. More importantly, they had no idea of what was going on in the country. Paul Krugman described the Obama Presidency as a smashing success that had eliminated poverty and saved the economy. Charles Blow and Frank Bruni described the country as moving toward a multicultural, multiracial democracy, white people as an out-of-fashion retrograde minority. In general, all the commentators on the so-called progressive side seconded Obama and Clinton’s theory of “baby steps,” constantly repeating that the President can’t do much. Now just wait and see how much the President can do.
The fact that a fairly ignorant amateur like Donald Trump had a better sense of where the country was at than columnists and reporters reflects the dramatic weakness of the public sphere. Most striking is the absence of any critical or historical perspective — any understanding of where the US is at in terms of the history of the twentieth century and the dynamics of world capitalism. The New York Times — supposedly the national paper — has done many terrible things before, such as legitimating the war in Iraq, but they set a new low in their coverage of this election. They simply functioned as a mouthpiece for Clinton; nearly every headline for a year was a putdown of Trump’s personality or business record, in terms quite similar to those of her campaign, based on the idea that Trump had a bad temperament. This tactic, which proved dramatically ineffective, replicated the news coverage provided by MSNBC — supposedly the progressive answer to right wing talk radio and FOX news — which invariably spun its coverage of any news into a moral lesson of how stupid the right was.
The ignorance of the supposedly progressive elites reflected the transformation of American intellectuals in the 1970s. Earlier organic intellectuals, to use Gramsci’s phrase for intellectuals who performed a function within the capitalist system, had been critics of capitalism from within the system. But the rise of identity politics was associated with a rejection of the tradition of the left and an embrace of an essentially moralistic emphasis on language and behavior to the neglect of impersonal, structural forces. The leading force in the new emphasis on identity was the women’s movement. To be sure, the emergence of women’s liberation and gay liberation has been a signal advance of our time, but these movements are no substitute for a left. Naomi Klein has observed brilliantly that the defeat of Hillary Clinton should not be taken as a defeat of feminism, since Clinton was a Davos-centered neoliberal to whom most women could not relate. Yet the marriage of 70s feminism to neoliberalism was no accident and is only now beginning to be effectively undone by socialist-feminist women.