Choosing Between Leukemia And A Brain Tumor: Clinton v. Trump In 2016

During the Balkan crisis in 1999, a reporter asked Alija Izetbegovic, then president of Bosnia, which of his two dangerous neighbors he preferred having to deal with--Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia, or Franjo Tudjman, the president of Croatia. Izetbegovic replied that it was like being asked to choose between "leukemia and a brain tumor."

A similarly unpleasant choice now looms before the American electorate--between Donald Trump, the xenophobic, nationalist demagogue, on one side, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the unrepentant militarist, Wall Street shill, and unindicted emailer, on the other. That a nation of 300 million people couldn't find two more qualified or credible candidates for the nation's highest political office is a sign of how pathetic our nominal democracy has become.

It didn't have to be this way. Some of my readers may still remember Bernie Sanders. Not since 1920, when Eugene V. Debs ran for president from inside a federal penitentiary (winning nearly 4% of the national vote) have working class and poor Americans had such a fierce advocate for their interests during an election season. Though never the revolutionary he claimed to be, Sanders nonetheless articulated a plausible alternative to the status quo--a vision of European-style social democracy in America. Sanders' proposals, like guaranteeing every American the right to higher education, affordable health care, and a livable wage, and taking more muscular action on climate change, were hardly radical, but they were sensible and just.

Had Democratic Party leaders been sensible and just too--rather than corrupt and venal--they would have made room for Sanders within their party and given him a fair shot at winning the nomination. Instead, they and their allies in the corporate press savaged and undermined Sanders, having concluded from the start that his brand of left populism posed an even greater threat to the party's long-term interests than the prospect of a Trump White House.

Throughout the campaign, Sanders supporters had suspected the Democratic Party establishment of secretly trying to destroy their candidate. Then, on the eve of the party's convention in the City of Brotherly Love, they found their suspicions confirmed, when Wikileaks released thousands of private emails from the Democratic National Committee showing that party officials had been guilty, as the New York Times bluntly put it, of "conspiring to sabotage" the Sanders campaign. Using smear tactics lifted straight from Karl Rove's playbook, DNC staffers sowed stories in the press depicting the Sanders campaign as a "mess," and they evidently played up Sanders' atheism in religiously conservative Southern states.

Though the Wikileaks scandal led to the swift and ignominious departure of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, it did not otherwise affect the outcome of the nomination process. By then, Clinton had amassed the delegate pledges she needed to win, and Sanders had already conceded. Sanders supporters still hoped, at that point, that their candidate would either rescind his endorsement of Hillary or even run under the Green Party ticket. But Sanders instead did something quite unexpected.

Sanders took the podium at the Democratic National Convention and lavishly praised his former rival, telling the world that Hillary would make an "outstanding" president. For those of us who had supported Sanders, it was heartbreaking to see--like watching newsreel footage from a show trial, of the moment when an enemy of the state is trundled out before the TV cameras to confess his phony crimes, before being led off to the gulag or firing squad. Sanders didn't merely cave. He recanted.

For months, Sanders had railed against socioeconomic inequality and the corruption of our electoral system by big money. American democracy had been bought and paid for; a political caste system had evolved to ensure that nothing would change. And Hillary Clinton, Sanders maintained, was part of the problem, not part of the solution--a corrupt politician beholden to the banking, finance, pharmaceutical, and military industries. Sanders criticized Hillary's elite fundraising parties, and he challenged her to release transcripts of her paid speeches to Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street titans. (Clinton never did, knowing that if she could just run the clock down on the primaries, no one after the election would remember--or care--that she had stonewalled. And she was right.)

For Sanders to praise Clinton at the convention, then, was not so much a repudiation of what his movement had stood for as an affirmation of what it had stood against. After Sanders' recantation, the wind went out of the sails of the grassroots movement he'd inspired. Perhaps it will roar back, in different form. But there is no question that it was a grievous blow to the political left.

With Sanders now out of the way, the Democratic machine predictably next went to work vilifying the millions of so-called "Bernie or Bust" voters who continued to resist the party leadership's cynical calls for unity. Part of this strategy has entailed strangling the presidential ambitions of Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president. Though Stein has attracted a number of disaffected Sanders supporters, she has no chance of winning the general election, having been subjected to a total media blackout for the last year. What Stein can do, however, is to siphon off critical votes from Hillary.

That, at any rate, is the message of DNC officials, who have been going around telling anyone who will listen that it will be Stein's fault if Clinton loses in November. In reality, though, it's far from clear that Democratic Party officials are unhappy having Stein lingering in the race. Stein's candidacy, provided it can be kept within careful limits, offers an insurance policy of sorts for the Democratic establishment, which blundered badly in rallying around an establishment politician--under active FBI criminal investigation, no less--during a year of populist revolt. It's useful to have a patsy around, in other words, if your own candidate happens to suck. Think of the way Democrats still blame Ralph Nader for Al Gore's loss to George W. Bush in 2000.

The problem for voters dissatisfied with the status quo, then, is that there really are no good options now. Some progressives will vote for Stein, even knowing that she can't win, in the hopes of sending an angry message to Democratic officials that they can no longer take the left-wing of their party for granted. Alas, that message was received at Democratic HQ back in 2000, to no effect. So whatever else a Trump upset might do, it is certainly not going to lead to any "soul-searching" on the part of the technocrats who control the Democratic Party. The latter don't have any souls to search, and they are prepared to run the nation and even the world into the ground, rather than to relinquish their hold on power. So we are headed into a ditch.