Sunday, February 7, 2016

Haunted by the 1990s

In case you don't follow presidential politics (on Twitter, especially) as much as I seem to, this is what's happening lately in the Democratic race.

Some people can't stand the idea of electing Hillary, mostly because of her hawkish foreign policy history and role in the 1990s' move to mass incarceration and welfare "reform." These folks honestly feel these misgivings or dislikes. People in this camp: Michael Moore, New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, education writer Nikhil Goyal, and poverty researcher Matt Bruenig. All people I like.

These folks like Bernie better because he's principled and not dirtied by being a mover and shaker in government for decades. Unfortunately, there are other Sanders supporters, referred to as Bernie Bros., who keep attacking Hillary in ways that are sexist instead of substantial. Not everyone who opposes Clinton is a sexist, believe me.

Some other people think Bernie is unelectable because of the socialism thing. Even though they often share his beliefs, they think the treatment he'll get from the Right (and the media) in a general election will make the swift-boating of John Kerry (a bonafide war hero!) look like a kindergarten playground. And they think Bernie won't be able to accomplish anything even if he does manage to get elected, between the Right's domination of Congress and his lack of a track record on compromising.

People in this camp: Gloria Steinem, Doug Muder at the Weekly Sift, comedy writer Frank Coniff, and Dave Roberts at Vox. Roberts went on a tweet storm yesterday on the topic, compiled here:

First, to be super-clear: welfare reform was terrible policy that has had catastrophic effects. It was bad, bad, bad. Ungood. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that the effects of welfare reform were crueler than even its critics at the time expected.

The politics at the time were complicated and fraught. Clinton faced a GOP Congress and the Gingrich Revolution. It was widely agreed (by Dems) that liberalism was on the ropes, the "era of big government" was over, and Dems had to triangulate to survive. The public had soured on welfare and was terrified by rising crime. (Back then, it was actually rising, unlike now. It was a grim time for the left.

On welfare, Bill Clinton viewed himself as trying to prevent Congres from doing *much worse*. Not sure people appreciate the siege mentality back then. And it was justified! The scale and viciousness of the attacks were insane.

Could Clinton have done better? Could he have battled off the GOP without this terrible compromise on welfare (which he now regrets)? It's legitimately hard to say. Books have been written about it. There are good-faith arguments on both sides of the question.

In *retrospect*, having seen the suffering wrought by welfare reform, I'm sure Clinton would do it differently if he had another chance. The political landscape is different now, as are the dangers and opportunities. The Clintons, like everyone else, have changed with the times.

Now, however, all that sense of history and context are being lost. To the Bernie Bros, Hillary, not Bill, is the master schemer behind reform. And she did it because she loves the taste of poor children's blood when she sacrifices them to Mammon. And it was totally voluntary. If she'd wanted to, she could have passed the No More Poor Children Act, but she hates poor children, so.

The frustrating thing for Clinton supporters is that *none* of them like the after taste of the welfare reform compromise (and others). They wrestle with ambivalence, with how to properly weigh and assess various compromises in their historical context.

Meanwhile, Sanders was tucked away in a politically unique situation where he had to make very few compromises. Where there was political threat — as on guns — Sanders *did* compromise, including some votes he now likely regrets.

Which is fine! I know Sanders would like to do more on guns, but had to accommodate political realities. Such is politics.

Unlike Sanders, Clinton has always been under political and ideological siege, right in the thick of things. She never had a safe bubble. It is entirely possible to lament Clinton's choices, even condemn them, while *still keeping a sense of historical perspective*.

She is a politician. Her record is a messy outcome of her values colliding with shifting political winds.

Bernie Bros, however, concede none of this. To them Clinton made poor kids suffer because she's Evil. She can't wait to sacrifice more. They acknowledge no extenuating, or even complicating, circumstances. They don't even acknowledge that it *was* a compromise. To BernieBros, you either condemn Hillary as a monster or you share her hatred of poor children. Context, perspective — these are all just excuses.

The same goes for the crime bill and all the other (by now numbly familiar) examples Bernie Bros pluck out of context. If you wanted, you could pluck the many, many positive things she's done (especially for women and children) similarly out of context and use them to characterize her as a saint, just dismiss all the other stuff. But that would be stupid and unfair too.

The fact is, it's complicated. Given her gender, her history, the political circumstances she faced, nobody has had to compromise more.

If that disgusts you, if you're looking around for another untainted messiah who will conjure a revolution and never compromise, fine. But waving around welfare reform, out of context, like it's an open-and-shut case, is just demagoguery.

Clinton supporters are aware of her compromises. All too aware. They're also aware of her experience, intelligence, and talents. It's a complicated, messy package. It does Bernie Bros no favors to treat it like a comic book. 
(That was 34 tweets, by the way. He got hundreds of responses. What a way to spend a Saturday.)

I find it hard to remember the '90s in the kind of detail Roberts marshals. I was in grad school and then parenting a young child. I remember the super predator panic, of course, and Hillary was part of that. But as some note, Sanders also voted for the crime bill. The Congressional Black Caucus members generally voted for it, too. I knew at the time the welfare reform bill was bad news, but there didn't seem to be much I could do about it after Gingrich made his Contract on America. (Yes, it's supposed to be Contract with America, but I always changed that preposition.)

It was a weird era: the post-Reagan/Bush years, the time when crime was still heading toward its peak in most places. It was a case of social contagion, fueled by media, I imagine. So easy to see now and impossible to see then, for most of us in white supremacy-based America.

So whom do I choose, the candidate who rolled with all of that or the one who mostly stayed out of it, but didn't prevent it, either?


Michael Leddy said...

To me, it's the difference between voting for a candidate I'm expected to vote for and voting for a candidate I want to vote for. I early-voted for Bernie Sanders in the Illinois primary. Chips, fall where you may!

Daughter Number Three said...

I suppose that's basically how I feel. Not sure why I'm letting it get to me so much. I'm just a sucker for idealists.