This week, California’s long-time senator, Dianne Feinstein, announced her bid for re-election in 2018. Coverage revolved around how Feinstein polls with Californians, and focused in particular on two issues: whether or not Feinstein’s age will prove to be a liability; and whether she will be challenged from the left of the Democratic Party.
Most of the talk surrounding a challenge from the left dealt with Feinstein’s understated and perhaps dangerously naive approach to dealing with the Trump administration. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, Feinstein only last month declared her hope that Trump “has the ability to learn and change. And if he does, he can be a good president. And that’s my hope.”
Feinstein is undoubtedly trying to strike a different tone from Republicans in 2009 who entered a new Congress rooting for the failure of President Barack Obama. However, Obama had not campaigned on a platform containing the essential policy and stylistic components of classic fascism, and he did not spend the opening months of his presidency delivering a devastating salvo against Americans’ fundamental civil and political rights while demonstrating horrific disregard for the social and economic welfare of Americans, and engaging in systematic corruption. In light of these very different circumstances, Feinstein’s hopes sound outright delusional, and unlikely to form a sound basis for a defense of either Californians’ rights or those of the broader American public.
What has been neglected in the ageist focus on Feinstein’s seniority, is the kind of senator she has been. One of the spaces where Feinstein has carved out significant expertise and sought to establish considerable authority, is in the realm of national security. There, however, Feinstein has demonstrated systematically and spectacularly bad judgment. I would argue that this, more than anything, should call into question her fitness to serve Californians.
In 2001, Feinstein offered her support to the dangerously rushed and ill-considered Patriot Act, provisions of which we live with today in part thanks to her 2005 support for the extension of the Act. Feinstein supported the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, without requiring that the Bush administration set out clear political goals and commitments, with the result that the U.S. has remained mired in a poorly-defined war for sixteen years.
In 2003, Feinstein supported the illegal war of aggression against Iraq, declining to use her considerable powers in the senate to question the Bush administration’s transparently disingenuous abuse of intelligence, the broader logic of a preventive war, or the refusal to plan for the aftermath of the catastrophic consequence. If this vote had been an aberration, that would be one thing, but like other neo-conservative Democrats, the vote for Iraq fits a pattern.
This vote was particularly catastrophic because not only did the war in Iraq lead to the deaths of thousands of Americans and at a minimum hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. It also--as British intelligence warned in 2002 and 2003--led to the proliferation of international terrorism, Iraq’s descent into a civil war with regional ramifications, and ultimately to the emergence of ISIS as a deadly and destabilizing force.
As whistleblower Edward Snowden shed light on the abuses and civil liberties infringements of the U.S. security state in 2013, abuses and infringements enabled in part by Feinstein, the senator defended the head of U.S. national intelligence, even as he was found to have lied repeatedly to her colleagues in the senate about his slow erosion of Americans’ rights and aggrandizement of unchecked power for the security state. She denied in the face of evidence to the contrary, that the NSA’s activities constituted “spying.”
Thereafter, Feinstein worked carefully to derail efforts at serious reform of the security state, demonstrating once again that between her constituents and the post-9/11 rogue national security state that emerged under President Bush and continued to flourish under President Obama, her loyalties are with the latter. Feinstein also made or supported a series of deeply disingenuous claims about the “successes” of the U.S. security state designed to pressure the public and her colleagues into backing away from serious reform.
Feinstein’s support of the security state is particularly significant because of the role of this episode and the subsequent attacks on whistleblowers played in eroding the trust of the public in the state. In successive elections, disingenuously given their own history, Republicans were successfully able to conflate the mystery of the security state and its well documented abuses, with the broader efforts of the federal government to work for citizens. Through her support from a position of power in the senate of the Bush administration’s wars, and the Bush-Obama expansion of the security state, Feinstein played a not-insignificant role in facilitating the mistrust in the state that led to the rise of Donald Trump.
Later in 2013 when President Obama contemplated an undefined, unresourced, and uncommitted attack on the Syrian regime, driven by the impulse to “do something, anything!” no matter whether intervention stood any success of helping Syrians, Dianne Feinstein was among those senators trying to influence the president to intervene. Feinstein sought to bludgeon her colleagues into supporting an attack on Syria by circulating distressing images of gassed citizens, while refusing to ask hard questions of the administration--or answer any herself--about precisely how a muddled series of airstrikes would have halted the depredations of the Syrian regime.
She dismissed the serious reservations of her constituents, remarking condescendingly that “they have not seen what I have seen or heard.” Nor were they likely to, thanks to her refusal to offer evidence of her claims or a basis for thinking that intervention would work in either the short or long term. But what constituents could see was the emergence of a pattern wherein their senator could not be trusted to accurately represent intelligence, the activities of the national security state, or to exercise good judgement about those things.
Nor has Feinstein offered more than the barest indulgence of democracy in her home state, systematically declining to debate primary or general election opponents and long disdaining the town hall and other mechanisms that allow voters to directly interrogate their representatives. Instead, she and her husband, a former chair of the Regents of the University of California who worked to privatize that institution by stealth, wall their deeply political activities off from public scrutiny.
Now, the Democratic establishment is stepping to Feinstein’s aid as she faces a challenge from the leader of California’s senate, Kevin de Leon. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently told a fundraising crowd, with reference to the prospect of a Democratic primary opponent, that “this cannibalistic approach, that somehow we should be at each other’s throats right now...is wrong for Democrats and what California should be doing right now.”
The political primary, an important layer of democracy in our country that allows voters to influence parties and their ideas, is apparently regarded as a destructive nuisance by leading Democrats as they defend a senator with a track record of putting a rogue security state’s power ahead of the rights and interests of her constituents. In equating a debate about ideas and direction and policy to “cannibalism,” Garcetti and those who share his mentality are demonstrating deep contempt for Californians and a troubling streak of “we know best” elitism that will rebound in one fashion or another to their deep disadvantage and that of their constituents. Fear of debate by incumbents in power should always be read as underlining its profound necessity.
Another influential figure from Feinstein’s wing of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, wrote in a recent memoir, that the “progressive” approach to welfare, involving piecemeal, targeted reforms, has been proven to be inadequate, both in terms of creating robust and sustainable policy, and in terms of providing the basis for a civic national identity in contrast to the racist one fomented by Trump and his party (Clinton, What Happened, 238). Clinton acknowledged that as a matter of both opportunity and urgency, the moment has arisen to embrace social democracy in the U.S. In order for this to occur, California will need to send a senator with a different sensibility and a different ideological commitment to the senate.
California state senate leader Kevin de Leon needs to think hard about his own approach should he wish to represent California in the senate. He recently threw his fellow legislative leader in the Assembly under the bus by backing a regularly recycled universal healthcare bill from the ‘90s in California. Under de Leon’s stewardship, the commendable desire in the senate to develop universal healthcare legislation was not matched by commensurate effort to develop legislation with a firm funding source. The disinclination to work with the Assembly also indicated a laziness about the hard work of building consensus and harnessing expertise, suggesting that this effort in California was more about show than substance.
De Leon and others should realize the disservice they would have done their cause if they had passed such deeply flawed legislation, the failure of which would then have delivered a national setback to the push for universal healthcare. The decision of California Democrats to tackle something as massive as healthcare without first dealing with the state’s mangled tax system--a legacy of 1978’s Prop 13 and decades’ of failure to come to grips with its consequences--that would be charged with sustaining the new legislation, is symbolic of the deep cowardice of the state’s elected officials.
From Governor Jerry Brown (who presided over the failure to head off Prop 13 in 1978) on down, California’s Democrats have refused to understand that they are reduced to ineffectual tinkering unless they tackle the state’s constitution--broken as it has become by Republicans and their financial backers--and the straitjackets it imposes on legislators and their ability to muster serious revenue.
When Californians vote for a new senator in 2018, I hope that they will ignore the anti-democratic blandishments of the most entrenched Democratic powerbrokers, and leave Senator Feinstein to a retirement more dignified and less violent than her tenure in office. That tenure has been tragically marked by destructive interventions in the realm of national security that have led to global violence and instability, played a part in the rise of Donald Trump, and have diminished Americans’ civil liberties. Californians should then ask hard questions of the alternatives. But they should look hopefully for candidates from the left who understand that social and economic rights should take their place alongside the civil and political rights valued by Americans. And they should look for candidates who promise to do their best to chart a new direction in U.S. foreign policy that is informed by the same values underpinning the desire to create a more fair and just country.