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Hillary's Either / Or

Campaigning in Kinston, North Carolina, Hillary Clinton drew the line:

"All I hear about is gas prices. Gas and diesel, everywhere," she said. "I want the Congress to stand up and vote. Are they for the oil companies, or are they for you?"

And, lest one think that was just another moment of ‘misspeaking', she repeated her point in Jeffersonville, Indiana:

"I believe it is important to get every member of Congress on the record. Do they stand with hard pressed Americans who are trying to pay their gas bills at the gas station or do they once again stand with the big oil companies? That's a vote I'm going to try to get, because I want to know where they stand and I want them to tell us--are they with us or against us?"

Asked by George Stephanopoulos to name one "credible economist" that agreed with her plan for a gas-tax holiday, she said, ""I'm not going to put my lot in with economists."

Rarely has there been such unanimity among economists across the political spectrum that the gas-tax holiday is a bad idea. Even Paul Krugman, who has basically been backing Clinton, called this proposal "pointless and disappointing." But he then adds, "Just to be clear: I don't regard this as a major issue. It's a one-time thing, not a matter of principle, especially because everyone knows the gas-tax holiday isn't actually going to happen." I agree that the gas-tax holiday is not itself a major issue, but the way Clinton is handling it ought to be. It is one thing if Clinton does not want to throw in her lot with economists--voters can then decide whether they want to throw their lot in with someone willing to make a policy decision in the face of all we know about economics. But her reaction to criticism is to turn this into a loyalty issue for lawmakers. According to Hillary, either you are "with us"--and the only way to show it is to jump on board this preposterous bandwagon--or you are "for the oil companies." One might think there ought to be a little wiggle room here--namely, for those who think their judgment ought to be influenced by the accumulated learning of economics. But, on Hillary's accounting you are thereby taking a stand for "big oil." Not only that, she has called for a public drama in which each member of Congress has to take a stand on the gas-tax holiday as the litmus test of whether they are "with us or against us." 

It is difficult to know what Hillary is up to here, so it is worth traveling down every interpretive route. Let's suppose she's serious. She really thinks the gas-tax holiday is a good idea and thinks those who don't support it really are supporting "big oil." She thinks this is an issue of such importance that one must require each member of Congress to take a stand. On this serious view, Hillary is someone who will not listen to the overwhelming mass of evidence when it points against her own judgment. Indeed, she seems to form her judgment independent of anything the rest of the world would consider evidence. And rather than cutting others some slack because they are trying to weigh the evidence, she sincerely categorizes them as "against us," "against you," "for big oil."  There is no room in this division for a person of integrity and good judgment who disagrees with her--and, on this hypothesis, she sincerely believes that. It is hard to see how anyone could think that a person who makes up her mind this way has the judgment to be a good president. So, let's go down the opposite road and assume she's not serious. Then we have someone who is cynically willing to play to her audience's fears, and to exploit the innate human tendency to divide the world into us and them. And she is willing to entangle her colleagues in Congress in a loyalty parade, all the while knowing that the issue is fake. She has made up the rules of who is in and out: an exhaustive partition of good guys and bad guys, drawn along the fault lines of the publicly shared anxiety of the moment. Remind you of anyone? 

One might think that serious versus not-serious cover all the bases, but in fact there is another interpretive option: she is operating in a realm in which the question of seriousness does not arise. This is like the realm of dramatic entertainment and make-believe, where we simply suspend the question of whether anyone is being serious about their claims. As the child psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott pointed out, parents intuitively know not to ask their children the question, "Are you really calling for a gas-tax holiday, or just pretending?" Even in child's play, it is hard to keep pretending when the question of whether one is pretending is explicitly raised. This interpretive option does have some advantages. It allows us to think ‘she can't really be serious' without having to flip over to the other side and see her as utterly cynical. If Election Campaign is the name of the game--the game of getting elected--then Hillary is just making moves within it. And it would explain her irritation about being called out by economists about the plan. From inside the game, it seems unfair for the ‘adults' to call her out on the reality of her proposal. No wonder she called them "elites" who are "out of touch" with the American people. Let us alone! Let us continue to play! This interpretation also gives insight into the name that Clinton's own advisors have dubbed the inner sanctum: Hillaryland. It is as though they acknowledge there is some degree of fantasy at work here.

But if we consider Hillary's either/or in terms of the structure of a fantasy, it is not a pretty sight. This is a world in which all ways of weighing available evidence in order to form a mature judgment have been suspended. Instead, there is a massive group, "the American people," and a leader (Hillary) who has the power to say who is "for us" and who is "against us," "for big oil." It is the leader who can draw up the litmus test that every other purported leader must pass or fail. Of course, one can find this kind of fantasy-structure on playgrounds across the country and around the world. It is a familiar structure of us-versus-them play. But when the playground is the battle for the Democratic nomination, it is hard to see this as anything other than exploitation of the very real fears and anxieties of voters about their economic and social futures. Hillary Clinton is, I think, correct when she says she is listening to the American people; but her response is problematic when it comes to exercising a leadership role. This, as opposed to the gas-tax holiday itself, ought to be a major issue.

--Jonathan Lear