Ted Grimsrud—August 1, 2016
It seems that the recently concluded Democratic Party convention (DNC) was a success. Clearly, the convention was orchestrated to show a direct contrast with the Republican Party convention the previous week—highlighting diversity, care for the poor, positive hope for the nation, and the like. And unity. The threat of major disruption from supporters of Bernie Sanders proved to be minimal—beyond some random “no more war” chants that were ignored by the people in charge. Sanders helped with his explicit support for Clinton.
Sanders’s speech was a model in how he affirmed Clinton’s candidacy going forward while he also reemphasized the core themes of his campaign. He received a kind of affirming echo from Clinton in her speech, as she lifted up many Sandersian points. Surely, the success of his insurgency campaign pulled her in his direction—and one can fantasize that Sanders and many others will help keep her to her word on many of the issues: vs. harmful free trade agreements, for economic justice, for greater access to higher education, for an increased minimum wage, for criminal justice reform, challenging the big banks, et al.
However, there was something crucial missing from Sanders’s speech—and he perhaps lost the one opportunity possible at the convention to challenge the worst of Clinton’s politics. Sanders said nothing about opposition to war and militarism. And, so, the empire continues to hurtle toward brokenness—and to take all of us with it. There are many angles one could take in decrying this lack of opposition—I write as a Christian theologian. Though it was indeed remarkable how visible explicit Christian faith was at the DNC, I take little comfort in a phenomenon I normally might have welcomed. This Christian presence runs the danger of being just another baptism of empire, even if “kinder and gentler” (ironic allusion to George H.W. Bush intended) than previous baptisms, if it won’t lead to an explicit commitment to “no more war.”
Clinton’s open embrace of warism
One of the big contrasts between Hillary Clinton and both of our most recent Democrat presidents (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) in their initial campaigns is that she openly advocates for more warism. Bill mostly stayed away from military issues in his first campaign, focusing on the economy (“it’s the economy, stupid!”). There is reason to think that he actually initially hoped to diminish the power of the military industrial complex (see James Carroll’s account in his book House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power) . But he wasn’t very committed to that and his relatively weak appointees soon gave up resisting militarism.
Obama, famously, exploited his opposition to the Iraq War to gain an advantage over Hillary in the Democratic primaries. And he early was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Like with Bill Clinton, though, he did little to resist the militaristic spiral and also came to accept warism as a definitive element of his administration.
Hillary Clinton, though, is not making any pretense at all. Her very first speech of her campaign against Donald Trump several weeks ago emphasized her “national security” bonafides, and struck a tone she will no doubt continue to play up—that Trump doesn’t really stand for a strong America (we see this just now in the hysteria about Trump’s link with Russia—with the implication that a rekindled Cold War is the best way to deal with Putin).
Though Hillary has made some nice gestures toward the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party on important issues, there was no hint of any lessening of her commitment to warism. This is terrifying to me. I suspect in part that this is a legacy of Obama’s warism. The “liberals” now, so pleased with the upbeat narrative concerning Obama’s legacy, are not interested in pointing out just how harmful this warism has been and will be.
The most important issue
It seems to me that there is no single issue as important to the well-being of the United States and the rest of the world as the issue of our nation’s militarism. Any other issue—climate change, racial justice, economic equality, the power of corporations—is made worse and often intractable due to our militarism. Not to mention the direct devastation caused by what our military does.
So, I have a feeling that a Hillary Clinton presidency will be disastrous in relation to militarism, likely even more than Obama’s presidency. Of course, a Trump presidency would be even more disastrous. As would a Pence presidency should Trump not complete his term. That seems certain. We’re in a mess, and I am more pessimistic about the future than I have ever been.
I’m thrown back to the basics: To say it theologically, trust in God and the way of peace, not in kings, emperors, or neo-liberal presidents. That is to say, simply disbelieve in the “national security consensus.” Do not give consent to that “consensus” in any way. Simply and directly say no. And do so as publicly and explicitly as possible. Recognize that a vote for Clinton is a vote for empire and warism. As is a vote for Trump.
To me, this is a call to explicit, self-conscious, well thought-through Christian pacifism. Others might agree with much of what I’ve said but not want to frame it this way. One of the appeals of pacifism to me though, recognizing many limitations to the term and what it stands for, is that it helps one better resist the tendency to sugarcoat something like Clinton’s warism. A person thinking as a pacifist, it seems to me, has no choice but to reject that part of Clinton’s agenda—and to recognize that it is indeed a major part of everything about her perspective.
What are the options?
So, then, what about voting. I do not find any kind of purity narrative attractive. I see nothing wrong with voting, and definitely plan to vote myself. But I haven’t decided how to vote. I think of four options:
(1) Vote for Clinton. I live in a swing state (Virginia). In 2000, Al Gore didn’t even bother to campaign in Virginia. Knowing how the electoral college works, I felt I would waste my vote if I voted for him, though I was horrified with George W. Bush (who was just as bad a president as I expected him to be already in 2000, but no worse). So I voted for Ralph Nader without qualm and would do so again under the same circumstances. Now, though, the stakes are different here. So I could vote for Clinton and commit myself to speak against her warism as much as I can—not seeing my vote as in any way a commitment to her but rather a simple way to keep things from being even worse.
One problem with this option in practice is that most of the people I know (and these are mostly progressive Christians) who advocate voting for Clinton seem to be doing so uncritically. It seems as if once one decides to vote for her, one feels some level of obligation (perhaps not even self-consciously) to paint her in as positive a way as possible. So, they celebrate the unifying DNC though it was warist and in effect, give Clinton a blank check. I’d respect this approach more if these people were more open in protesting her warism every step of the way.
This short piece by a former Sanders supporter illustrates my point. Clinton’s agenda is reduced to two themes—immigration reform and investing in infrastructure. I do hope for genuine immigration reform, but after seeing the absolute disaster of the Obama years where deportations have significantly increased despite humanistic rhetoric from the president, it’s hard to imagine Clinton turning very sharply in a different direction. I feel strongly in favor of infrastructure investment and actually if Clinton is indeed serious about this, it would be a good reason to vote for her. However, though the article is titled “The moral case for Hillary Clinton,” any argument in her favor that ignores her warism will strike me as profoundly immoral.
So, if I do vote for Clinton, it will joined every step along with way with as voluble a protest versus her warism as I can raise. Right now, I find myself increasingly unlikely to take this option. I am especially interested in emerging voices that challenge the narrative that questioning a vote for Clinton is luxury only available to privileged white males. Here’s an oral commentary by Mumia Abu-Jamal. And a written commentary by Morgana.
(2) Vote for Clinton and pair with someone in a non-swing state. They vote for Jill Stein even though they would otherwise vote for Clinton. Then I think of my vote for Clinton as actually being a vote for Stein—except it might also help Clinton keep Trump from winning.
(3) Vote for Jill Stein. This would be to reject limiting the choice to two corporate lackey militarists and to focus instead on a positive agenda—to help expand the reach of the Green Party, the only place right now where a consistent peace message is being voiced.
(4) Vote only on down-ticket candidates; skip the presidential vote. We have a genuine choice in my district for the House this year and an opportunity to defeat a longtime right-wing Congressperson who has been a point of darkness for quite some time. This option would include a recognition that the presidential choices are simply too negative; a vote for either Clinton or Trump is a vote for Wall Street and warism and a vote for Stein is irrelevant.
Eddie Gaude makes a case for this option. He’s clearly engaged and aware. He’s opposed to Trump. But he believes the neo-liberal agenda Clinton has embraced is so harmful that it simply can be supported, even as a “lesser evil.” See also this fascinating debate between Gaude and his fellow African-American progressive Michael Eric Dyson—Gaude voices many of my concerns and challenges Dyson for not being critical enough of Clinton.
A voting history
As I think about my presidential voting history, I can see a pattern. To describe it as follows probably imputes too much rationality on a process that has admittedly often been gut-feeling-driven. But for what it’s worth. Let’s give presidential candidates from the two major parties in the November vote a score—1 is terrible, 10 is excellent. Let’s say that a candidate with a “4” has deserved my vote. They will likely be more bad than good, but the damage they will do will be small enough that a vote for such a candidate (which is actually with that score more a vote against the other candidate) is appropriate.
But a candidate with a “3” will, in my estimation do too much damage to deserve support. This evaluation is not about purity, not about avoiding being complicit with “evil.” No, it’s pragmatic. At what point does the damage done by a potential candidate become great enough to where that candidate has to be resisted—even if on the infinitesimally small level of withholding a vote to that person.
Now, every Republican candidate since 1976 has been a “1”—not because they are Republicans (I happily voted for Mark Hatfield, a Republican US Senator from Oregon) but because of their ideas and practices. A few have been high “1s” and George W. Bush was a low “1.” But all have been “1s”. So, the question has been whether the Democrat would be a “3”—or better.
Based on my votes, Jimmy Carter in 1976 was a “4,” maybe even a “5.” He said many attractive things about bringing change following the excesses of Richard Nixon. He mostly failed, and by 1980 had started a sharp trajectory toward military expansion, voiced the disastrous “Carter Doctrine” committing the US to militarism in the Middle East, and had spearheaded the terrible boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. So in 1980 he was a “3” and I voted for a third party candidate. In 1984 and 1988, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis were both “3s” as well. I left the ballot blank one of those times and voted Green Party the other.
For me, Bill Clinton dropped permanently below “4” when he returned home to Arkansas during the 1992 campaign to oversee the execution of a convicted murderer so mentally deficient that he asked for the dessert that came with his last meal to be saved to he could eat it the next day. Clinton confirmed the validity of that low rating with his own warism, welfare reform, crime crackdown, and free trade policies.
Al Gore was a high “3” in 2000, but in the end I voted for Ralph Nader. A key point was that Gore conceded Virginia, so it seemed like a vote for him would be wasted—even though I knew Bush would be a disaster.
In 2004, the fact that Virginia seemed to be in play was enough to elevate John Kerry to a “4” (barely). I drank the Obama cool aid in 2008, and gave him a “5.” He disabused me of that by reiterating the warism of the latter Bush years and passing on holding Wall Street accountable for the financial meltdown. But still, in 2012 he was a “4,” given, again, that Virginia was by then a bluish swing state.
What to do?
I have not decided what to do this year. I think any of the choices one through four that I outline above could be morally responsible—and consistent with high ideals of pacifism, humanism, and faith. I’d certainly rate Trump a “1” on my 1–10 scale. I actually don’t think he is as dangerous as George W. Bush was (more on this in my next blog post), but he is definitely terrible. But what will I decide to give Clinton—a “3” or a “4”?
What makes me despair as much as anything, though, is that there is little talk at all about these problems among progressive who now seem to be all in for Clinton—hence, the “missing peace.”