Regular readers of my blog can follow the evolution of my views on the US presidential elections. I have been an ardent Bernie supporter (Liu 2016a), and then opted for abstention (Liu 2016b), then for any choice (Liu 2016c), and now a month before the general election, where people have to choose between Trump, Clinton, Johnson (Libertarian), Stein (Green) or abstain, I endorse Hillary Clinton for the US presidency. Let me justify in as clear terms as possible why I endorse Clinton rather than any other option.
Donald Trump is actually a horrendous choice for the American people. I had previously argued that while he may be a bad choice, he would shake up the system as an anti-establishment politician. But if we consider his positions carefully, Trump is more than willing to cut Social Security, give tax breaks to rich people like himself (he does not even pay any taxes, as reported leaks show), and harm the interest of the working class, whom he pretends to support. His pivot for the working class has been his stance on trade, which is to rip up trade agreements, and impose tariffs on foreign imports. But it is questionable how many jobs can be brought back, especially since automation has contributed mostly to a reduction in manufacturing employment. More important than trade (most jobs are in the non-tradeable sector) are robust minimum-wage, public job creation and social insurance schemes (especially a universal basic income) to help working people, but he clearly has no support for these policies.
Trump is also a bigot, who is not afraid to bash another group of people that look different from him, whether it be minorities, immigrants or women. It is ironic that his most ardent supporters love him even more when he says outrageous things, because they take it to mean that he is authentic. But authentic about what? Authenticity is a rather neutral trait and can only mean something positive if the policies that he pursues will benefit the ordinary person. To be an authentic bigot is TV entertainment at best, and social discord at worst. This bigotry and throwing tantrums will then be the permanent sight when he is in the White House, which might be great for the ad revenues of the big TV stations, but bad news for people that are hungry for better economic policy.
Hillary Clinton has many progressive positions on her campaign plank. One of the reasons why Clinton has been counted to the establishment was because of Bernie Sanders running to her left. During the primary season, she counted herself as a moderate candidate, who would get done “realistic” things, which most progressive people understood to mean the preservation of the status quo. Given that the status quo is not helping people with significant college debt, medical bills and low-wage jobs, there is no reason why ordinary people should support Clinton. But when the primary was over, Clinton realized that she had to unify the Democratic Party by bringing the Bernie-populist wing into her camp for the November elections, so she has shifted on some political positions. On health care, she now supports a public option. On higher education, she would institute free college tuition for the bottom 83% of the income distribution. On the estate tax, she would bump up the top tax rate to 65%. Her social and economic plans will, therefore, bump up the weak welfare state, while paying for it with surtaxes on the wealthy.
Not even Bill Clinton would have gone this far. In an interview with Charlie Rose, he admitted that the Hillary platform is way to the left of the 1992 Democratic Leadership Conference platform on which Bill Clinton ran on. But political realities shift, and so do the Clintons.
Cynics might counter that there is no reason why Clinton would have to carry out a progressive agenda once she gets elected. We might think that all she cares about is to channel the Bernie-voters to turn out for her, and then return to the status quo once elected. When the progressive base is angry and disappointed, she will all blame it on a Republican opposition, which is still controlling Congress. Let us not forget that government gridlock tends to benefit the forces of the status quo, which includes the powerful lobbyists and the wealthy. That will serve the Democrats and Republicans very well. We know that Clinton receives enormous lobbying money from the banks and the corporations, and to assume that she is not influenced by this money is ridiculous.
That makes it all the more necessary for the progressive base to hold her accountable, but that is even beside the point here. Because in the presidential elections, we have a binary choice between Clinton and Trump, and all that matters is that the crazy candidate does not win. It is an existentially stupid choice to have, but the 2016 elections confine us to two non-optimal choices.
The challenge will naturally be how to convince the angry white working class that is backing Trump to shift their allegiance to Clinton. That is unlikely to happen. An interesting ethnography by Arlie Hochschild (2016) reveals that Tea Party and Trump supporters have this strange ideology that the political establishment is betraying them, and that the government is to blame for helping out poor welfare recipients. Rather than blaming the whole political economy that rigs the economy in favor of the rich, the Trump supporters are more likely to blame Muslims, immigrants, welfare recipients and other marginal groups. They seem to be saying that they don’t have much, but they don’t want that little to be taken by these other marginal groups. To have to say that in the richest economy of the world is pathetic. One is reminded of the comic with the banker, the Tea Party supporter and the trade union member. The banker takes 19 of the 20 cookies and tells the Tea Party supporter that the union member wants to take away the last remaining cookie.
What is ultimately ironic is that the average Trump voter will be worse off with Trump at the helm. His vice presidential candidate is Mike Pence, one of those Republican governors, who when in Congress supported this awful Paul Ryan budget, which intended to savage the social programs. That is what Trump will be after as well, even though he cleverly blinds his followers with his insistence on trade policies.
Now, what about Johnson and Stein? Johnson is a libertarian, who wants to eliminate income and corporation taxes and replace it with a value-added tax, which is quite regressive. He wants coal and nuclear power plants, which is the energy policy of the past. He wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act and wants a “market” based health care system, whatever that means. These are all policies, which are going to increase income inequality, so he is not a good choice. Stein is a member of the Green Party, and pushes different progressive policies, like better social policies, a single-payer health care system, tuition-free colleges, a 15 dollar an hour minimum wage and many other positions that make sense. It would be natural for progressives to support Stein.
But the problem in this calculation is that unless over 50% of the people can be convinced to vote for Stein, she won’t win the elections. There is tremendous inertia in the US political system, which makes it unlikely for her to win. Winning is really what matters. Stein has the potential to absorb a portion of the hardcore Bernie supporters, who would otherwise have backed Clinton. If there are enough progressives, who either stay home or vote for Stein, then Clinton could lose the elections, and Trump will win the elections. Bernie Sanders has made this point too in recent interviews.
The American people will make a momentous choice in November. There will be no guarantee that the policies will change when Hillary Clinton becomes president, but there is a shot for it if progressive pressure continues on her into the next years. There will be no shot at all for any progressive policies when Trump becomes the next president.