Worldwide there is a tendency for state security forces to intervene in elections, through intimidating citizens, disrupting campaign rallies, or the like. This is a feature of the broader ‘democratic recession’ (Diamond 2015) that is occurring in the early part of the 21st century; a tendency that the United States has greatly contributed to, and now suffers from.
This kind of intervention can be illustrated by the recent actions of the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey. Four months after the conclusion on an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server whilst she was Secretary of State—and for which he did not recommend pressing charges—Comey issued a supplementary letter to the US Congress eleven days before the 2016 US election. He indicated that “the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the [Clinton] investigation.” Accordingly, he was taking “appropriate investigative steps,” but was not yet in a position to “assess whether or not this material may be significant” (FBI 2016).
While off-the-record interviews and leaks revealed these emails pertained to an investigation into Anthony Weiner (Goldman and Rappeport 2016), the damage was done: Vagueness allowed distorted readings which fueled already existing reactionary narratives that Clinton should be indicted and incarcerated. #lockherup trended. Indeed, the media firestorm reminded people that Clinton had once been under investigation. Naturally, Trump’s faltering campaign ruthlessly exploited the news, suggesting that Clinton acted dishonourably and so did not have the integrity to be President of the United States.
At best, Comey was guided by the presumption that Clinton was assured the presidency and so he was being thoroughly prudent in exercising an abundance of caution. However, his decision received bipartisan condemnation. That former Attorney Generals Alberto Gonzales and Eric Holder agreed on the matter is telling, while press reports seem to indicate then Attorney General Loretta Lynch also questioned the judgement (see Perez and Brown 2016). Moreover, the good faith argument cannot easily explain why Comey withheld information about Russian cyber-espionage until after the election. So prima facie the case for prudence is weak.
Rather it appears Comey released the letter for maximum political effect. Clinton alluded to this duplicity when campaigning:
I’m sure a lot of you may be asking what this new email story is about and why in the world the FBI would decide to jump into an election with no evidence of any wrongdoing with just days to go. That is a good question. (Clinton as cited by Salaky 2016)
Nate Silver’s (2016) polling analysis indicated that this event “produced about a 2-point swing against Clinton.” The Princeton Election Review’s analysis concurred: “Opinion swung toward Trump by 4 percentage points, and about half of this was a lasting change. This was larger than the victory margin in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin” (Wang 2016). For reference, Clinton lost in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania by 0.22%, 0.76%, and 0.72% respectively.
In rehashing these events, the point is neither to pardon nor berate Clinton for her career or campaign. Rather, I think the Comey letter offers a useful case study of discretionary law enforcement to trace some of the evolving undercurrents in the American political formation. To me this is less about Clinton herself and more about norm erosion in the liberal order, what Corey Robin (2017) describes as “the slow delegitimation of American national institutions since the end of the Cold War.” In this line, I offer two observations on gender and the state, and then suggest for what this might mean for a radically oppositional politics rooted in anti-oppression and anti-exploitation principles.
The first observation concerns the rhetorical function of ‘dishonour.’ Emerging from literary scholarship, Laura Gowing describes the concept as encapsulating a rhetoric that has a double movement:
Honour has generally been conceptualised as one of the means by which standards of behaviour and social relations between men and women were regulated. Insults to honour had their effect by shaming people into conformity.
Dishonour was far more than a threat that could be pressed into service to order social relations; it could be an active, disruptive process in which shame dislocated relationships and hierarchies. (1996, 225)
In these passages, Gowing indicates that ‘dishonourable actions’ threaten the prevailing social order, but also shift it. I would like to suggest that Clinton’s election was norm eroding in the second function; that it would be a ‘disruptive process’ which would ‘dislocate relationships and hierarchies’ thereby inverting the script of female conformity and supplication.
As a result of the work just reviewed, it is possible to generate a reading where Comey’s letter pursued the first function. By employing gendered tropes to signal to Clinton that her presumed election, while path-breaking, Comey asserted that she would nevertheless have to abide by the agenda set by the security state. Much like Obama had to kneel and flatter the military to preserve his rule, so Clinton’s public dishonouring foreshadowed how she would have to govern with the interests of the security state at the forefront of policy agenda, simply because they play an outsized role in regulating and reproducing that rule.
The second point revolves around Clinton being the epitome of the liberal order. Backed by conglomerate media, Wall Street, and SuperPACs it was rumored that she had more funds at her disposal than Barack Obama in 2012. For these groups, and arguably for most of the ruling class, it was assumed Clinton was the natural successor to the presidency. Given her experiences as a Senator and then Secretary of State where she aided and abetted the increased scope of the security state, plus her realist foreign policy agenda, one would have presumed that she had duly cultivated the support of the security state cluster too.
That Comey believed that he was in a sufficiently strong position that he could revert the script to ‘dishonour’ Clinton, a major stalwart of the liberal order, indicates the extent to which these agencies have greatly increased their power in the early 21st century. It also underscores the extent to which state agencies mediate gendered violence and subordination.
While things like the Snowden files have helped with a forensic rubbing of the contours of the security state, one must not overstate this intelligibility nor suggest that we have a full understanding of their politics. That said, it appears likely that the various security apparatuses now constitute an estate with sharp elbows and high aspirations, whose politics can even negate the democratic will to elect Hillary Clinton.
If this is discouraging, it is worth remembering that the security state is not a monolithic entity—different agencies may advance different practices and visions of state functioning—while its intervention into social life is uneven, if omnipresent. So it remains important to attend to divergences between agencies as it provides space for movement that activists, organizers, and advocates can exploit. Efforts of this sort will be important given the dark clouds gathering on the horizon of the post liberal order.