In a speech in Florida yesterday, Hillary Clinton compared the situation in the Democratic primary to that in Zimbabwe, with herself as Morgan Tsvangirai. Hillary Clinton is a great American and would have made a good candidate and, if elected, a solid president, if Democratic voters had decided to nominate her. But they didn’t.
An analogy to Zimbabwe here is extremely misguided, as neither side in the Democratic primary campaign has been hiring thugs to beat its opponents to death; but in three narrow respects, one can be made. First, we have a candidate who has clearly lost an election, if by a disputed margin, but is trying to manipulate the voting procedures in order to maintain a chance at power. Second, we have a candidate who is refusing to stand down, despite rising choruses from the political class that continued resistance is pointless and is severely damaging the country. And third, and most interestingly, we have a candidate who appears to be unable to stand down because the political and sentimental interests of the candidate’s individual and institutional backers compel the continuation of the race to its bitter end.
This last point is I think extremely underappreciated as a factor in authoritarian and particularly African politics. Well, actually I take that back — it’s about politics in general but it becomes most brutally clear in authoritarian factional politics, and Africa tends to have a lot of those. Namely, politicians have what the Russians call “tails” and Hollywood calls “entourages”: long lists of supporters and backers whose welfare is intimately bound up with the candidate’s success and whom the candidate in turn relies on. Dictators like Mobutu, Mugabe, Nguyen Van Thieu and so forth tend to end their political careers in a spasm of last-ditch looting with their fingers locked on the levers of power in large measure because their entourages compel them to. Everyone from their families, cronies, entire clans and ethnicities or militias like the “revolutionaries” in Zimbabwe depends on the dictator for their meal ticket; and there’s also an irrational sense in which those who clearly identify as a member of the dictator’s faction can’t contemplate losing to the other side because it holds out the prospect of powerlessness, penury, or in the worst case actually being hacked to death by a mob. Nothing quite so bad is going to happen to Hillary Clinton’s supporters. But it’s pretty clear that there are no high-level posts available in an Obama administration for Terry McAuliffe. So in that sense it’s to some extent not Hillary Clinton’s fault that she is pushing her candidacy to the last extreme of decency: her supporters will likely accept nothing less.
But in this analogy — only a narrow one — Hillary Clinton is the Mugabe figure, not the Tsvangirai.
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