The Reaction to Hillary Clinton’s Prison Labor Usage Illustrates the Failings of Politics as Fandom


Not a day goes by without some sort of Twitter controversy/shitfight any more, and while that very fact probably means that most of these 140-character slanging matches aren’t worth covering, they can occasionally illustrate a wider point that is worth discussing. So it goes with the argument that erupted earlier this week about Hillary (and Bill) Clinton’s use of prison labor during Bill’s period as Governor of Arkansas.

The controversy was sparked by a passage in Clinton’s 1996 book It Takes a Village, which was exhumed and posted on Twitter in the wake of Bill Maher’s “joke” about being a “house nigger.” In the passage, Clinton describes how local prison inmates were put to work at the governor’s mansion, “a longstanding tradition [that] kept costs down”:

The use of unpaid labor is, indeed, a longstanding tradition in the south. It is one that persists today because of the 13th Amendment, which provides, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” (Italics mine.)

These days, this convenient little exemption is used to “keep costs down” in all sorts of ways. Prison labor is used by government departments throughout the country, and also more and more in the private sector. As Mother Jones‘s Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn explains in an excellent piece from last year:

In 1979, Congress created a program that gives incentives to private companies to use prison labor. Currently, the federal prison industries program produces items ranging from mattresses to prescription eyewear. Some inmates are employed as call center operators (“It’s the best kept secret in outsourcing!” says the program’s website.) Last year, federal inmates helped bring in nearly $472 million in net sales—but only 5 percent of that revenue went to pay inmates.

This is, to put it bluntly, a fucking disgrace. The manner in which private companies and government bodies alike have been able to budget and build on the assumption that they will have free or almost-free labor available is morally reprehensible. The history of the 13th Amendment is a topic for another essay, but America’s economy prior to 1865 was based on slavery, and this amendment means that the use of captive labor is alive and well 150 years later. The whole rotten system fuels the prison industrial complex, providing a huge and ongoing motivation for this country to maintain a large prison population from which labor can be drawn.

Perhaps most egregiously, prison labor these days is often reframed as an “opportunity” for prisoners. By working for nothing, they might gain experience in a field wherein they might work for a pittance when they get out of jail! What an opportunity! Who could possibly say no? Well, no-one, as it turns out: these programs are often “voluntary,” but if your choice is between working for free in the governor’s mansion or staying in a prison where conditions are some of the worst in the developed world, that is no choice at all.

All of which brings us back to Hillary Clinton. As someone whose political views have slowly moved leftwards since her time in Arkansas and the White House, perhaps she saw nothing wrong with prison labor back in the 1980s. Perhaps she did and nevertheless submitted to “tradition.” Maybe she and Bill had a screaming row about it. We’ll never know. Regardless, for someone so apparently committed to criminal justice reform and ending mass incarceration, the use of workers who are essentially modern-day slaves is a bad look, to say the least.

If nothing else, the controversy around her happy recollection of the prison labor program in Arkansas has, for a brief moment, put prison labor back in the headlines. Sadly, though, it’ll no doubt just as quickly be displaced by whatever godawful thing that Donald Trump does next, and America will go back to happily consuming products made by modern-day slaves. If nothing else, though, you might think that the reaction of both Clinton and her supporters to this piece of her history might be along the lines of, “Damn, this is fucked up, I’m really shocked at this and I hope it’s something she looks back on with regret and disgust.” I expect if you asked Clinton herself this, you might well get that exact answer.

Her most avid supporters, though? Nope. On Twitter over the last couple of days, there’s been an awful lot of this:

Or this:

And so on.

This isn’t the reaction of all Clinton supporters, of course, but it does characterize what I really want to talk about in this essay: the idea of politics as fandom. Responses like those above are the sort of thing you’d associate more with the support of a sports team or a favorite artist than a politician. They indicate a world view wherein everything your favorite does is somehow explicable or excusable, and everything their opponents do is worthy of virulent condemnation.

This goes both ways, obviously: the people on Twitter who jump all over every perceived Clinton wrongdoing as evidence that she is some sort of evil witch who should be locked up forthwith are gleefully milking this for all it’s worth. For the record, in this writer’s opinion, those people are just as obnoxious as those who insist on presenting Hillary as some sort of flawless avatar of virtue.

In any case, it’s a natural reaction to root for whoever it is you root for, whether it’s in sport, or music, or politics, or whatever else. It’s also natural that we often support the politician with whom we identify most — especially in the context of a US Presidential primary or election, given the personality-focused nature of those contests. And god knows there’s been enough shit thrown at Hillary Clinton over the last couple of years. It’s understandable, then, that her supporters feel somewhat protective of her.

When it comes to politics, though, this kind of devotion is a reaction that we absolutely need to be conscious of and try to transcend. Politicians are not celebrities. They’re not people of who you become fans. To some extent, the politics of fandom is an extension of celebrity culture: politicians are presented, first and foremost, on the basis of their personalities. We saw the nadir of this with last year’s Republican primaries, wherein Donald Trump basically spent all his time shitting on his opponents’ perceived personal failings. If he discussed policy at all, it was only in the sense of vague promises that he’d get around to it at some point.

But politicians are the sum of their policies — nothing more, and nothing less. The politics of fandom is both asinine and dangerous. It invites people to judge politicians as “good” or “bad” depending on who they are, not what they do. It allows us to cast the people we don’t like as cartoonish figures who are entirely good or entirely evil, when in virtually every case — there are, of course, exceptions — politicians are an amalgam of good and bad. This is at least part of the reason for the polarized landscape of American politics, I think — if you think your opponent is flat-out evil, how can you engage with him or her?

In this case, if it was Donald Trump who’d been enjoying the prison labor of Arkansas, it’s not hard to imagine those defending Clinton to be just as enthusiastically condemning Trump. If it was Bernie Sanders, some of those condemning Clinton would be defending him. And so on. In every case, a situation that pretty much any liberal (or compassionate human being) would agree is objectively fucked up is presented as somehow OK because of the people involved.

But look, we have to be able to discuss issues — issues that might relate, however tangentially, to Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders, or Donald Trump, or whoever — without those issues devolving into partisan shitfights. In this case, there are some people who are still salty at Clinton because of either the Democratic primary or the Presidential election and will use something, anything, like this to jump all over her. There are other people who think Hillary must be defended to the hilt over anything, even something as self-evidently indefensible as this.

The rest of us, hopefully, can get away from the idea of politics as fandom and say, “Damn, look at this passage from HRC’s book. Isn’t it terrible that penal labor is used in the goddamn governor’s mansion in Arkansas? Doesn’t that show how pervasive this awful system is? Maybe people should be talking about it!”

Clearly, a world in which people are able to calmly and objectively evaluate a politician’s policies, without recourse to personal sympathies or the lack thereof, is an impossible ideal. Humans don’t work that way. But it’s nevertheless an ideal toward which we should strive. Until we do, we’re doomed to an eternity of Twitter fights, and god knows that no-one deserves that.