Disillusionment, Debate, and Strategy in the US Presidential Election

“From the reading, I say, of such books, men have undertaken to kill their kings, because the Greek and Latin writers in their books and discourses of policy make it lawful and laudable for any man so to do, provided before he do it he call him tyrant.” — from Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes

I’m reminded of the attempt at reform China underwent over the past years, transitioning in pieces from third to first world, and the miles it still has to go — reform is inevitable, but violence is not. Admittedly that’s a redundant comparison; I might as well have said that the sun rising is inevitable, but cantaloupes for breakfast are not… but this reminds me of what can and can’t be faked — for instance, Clinton’s political experience that has made her a listener — that makes her confrontational in some ways, and a woman of action in others; condescending in some ways, and approachable in others. Their personality and history will play out in a number of ways, mediated by social and political forces, and while sometimes it’s the force that really matters, other times, it’s the mediation.

On one level, election results will play out according to an intersection of the current degree of institutionally driven disenfranchisement, and social factors at play among the different demographics. This is almost a tautology, and would be in any other election; but I would argue that this is the key differentiating factor in this one that makes it comparable to the British referendum, political change in HK, and other first world current events. Keeping an eye on how the battle lines have been drawn under such polarized conditions yields a broad understanding of the current US political geography and its interaction with the political process at every level, as it aggregates in some ways and creates strange, new pockets in other parts of the fabric.

But on another, deeper level, there are many invisible forces underlying these trends that are coming to a head. Exemplified by the debaters and the media presentation of the debate, the way in which political structure determines political process, and thus channels the forces of change, have come to the fore. Most notably, institutions subjected to the public limelight have to resist the oldest emotional demagoguery in the same ways as ever, and for the same reasons that they are at all powerful: that is, discursively. At scale, the fluidity of discourse, arguably aggravated by increased communicative velocity (ie it would have been historically unthinkable to punish a candidate so much with a trifle word like “email” so singularly), means that proportional comparison — say, between the candidates — doesn’t exist. And it never did: this apparently utter decoupling of reasonable association to the choices we make for our future (ie voting) reveals, in a rather direct, perhaps uncomfortable way, that discourse, and its associations by extension, were fluid to begin with. Our ability to accept reason is structured by social forces (taking discursive concepts to heart by their literal meaning just because we can refer to them does not mean that by lieu of that, they exist, like you or I). At heart, what I’m referring to is how the systems to which we give power systematically channel aggregate desire/emotions in the production of change.

Thus, borrowing from Foucault, power is arterial, and productive.

What I would argue is that in this election, we are looking at a classic case of post-modern malaise, couched in the knock-on effects of neo-liberal policy. I would argue that what most people understand, at heart, is that a) attempts to reconcile individual power (eg wealth) with socially mediated kinds (eg the spirit of the law), and more broadly the neo-liberal project, have failed; and b) that discourse is fluid, and that individual power — even wealth itself — is, by aggregate definition, not fixed. Hobbes puts it well when he invokes our fear, because the “strongest” man has no power in reference to the state. But just because political power is fluidly produced does not mean that power itself (which at heart is a socially aggregated notion), or the change that it effects, is not real. Thus what appears to many to be irregularities are just redounding social forces, and the self-defeating effects of neo-liberalism taking their course in regards to the world are as mechanical and subject to the same cause-and-effect relationships as any change.

This too is interesting to a point. Those of us in the social sciences are all too familiar with the fading dawn of activism against the neo-liberal project, and underestimating the resilient presence of ideology decades hence. But neo-liberalism should not be used as a catch-all term for self-defeating change — sure, it’s the most relevant example right now, but in the case of Clinton’s campaign, it’s not the fluidity of discourse that kills her; it’s how the channels by which dominant institutions, of which she is an essential part, set play — her wealth that leaves her scrutinized; her compromising, bi-partisan policies that make her seem “weak”; her very name that makes her scandalous.

This all rolls up into an interesting (third) layer of implications for strategy (we are here for the business, after all). In a way, it’s because of the phenomenal amount she’s been able to achieve in her political life, that those gaps in the political fabric that she grasps, elided by the channels by which she drove change, can now be exposed and parried one by one. Her capability to engage in this war of patient versus reactionary logic; or presentation; or decision-making; it’s rooted in her decades of listening work, deep in the trenches of policy as a career politician — it is a function of the structure of who she now is because of her experiences. Again, some things can be faked, and some things can’t. This, I would also argue, is what she’s been building up to all along: using this experience to fight in every issue at every angle, in order to overcome them. And it’s the side she’s trying to show — that the nature of sweeping change has always been to happen little by little, and then all at once — and that she’s a model of success in that process. The only question is whether you think that will sell; whether you think she can slay her demons, or if you think they’ve already slain her. In terms of the debate, I, for one, doubt she put her best foot forward yet: anyone who watches sports (or in my case esports) knows that in a 3 game series, the first match is for testing the waters: you have a theory for what strategy will net you the win based on who you are, but you only put one foot in the water. And if that relatively low level use of her intellectual stamina (and I know it’s low; my godmum isn’t Hillary and she could’ve beaten him) to sweat policy and grind numbers was enough to turn the tide, then all she’ll have to do is keep trying.