Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate who never connected with the whole of America. How do progressives make sure they get it right next time?by Sam Tanenhaus / October 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
The one enduring truth of American politics is that no one really understands how it works, which doesn’t stop many (me included) from thinking they do. A year ago the smart money was on Hillary Clinton to win the US presidential election in a big way. There was excited speculation of a redrawn election map, with longtime red (Republican) states turning blue (Democrat). “Could Hillary Clinton Win Texas?” the New York Times wondered two weeks before election day. (In the end she lost it by nine points—far better than Obama in 2012, but not close.) There were also hopes she might sweep in a fresh tide of Democrats in the national elections held on the same day. But she didn’t. Republicans held onto their small majority in the Senate and won the popular vote for the House of Representatives by 1.4m.
The worst misreading was of the main result. With less than a month to go, Clinton’s lead in the polls was nearing 10 points—landslide proportions. In the end, she did win the popular vote, by about two points—some three million votes. It was a small but decisive margin, but her biggest victories came in two giant states—New York and California—and weren’t enough to offset her narrow defeats elsewhere.
This strange and at times surreal election gave us the same muddled outcome US elections often do. And it pitted the same groups against one another. Democrats owned the coasts and the cities. Republicans ruled the heartland and small towns. The suburbs were up for grabs. If, in an electorate totalling 130m, 39,000 voters in three rust belt states (Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) had changed their minds, Clinton would be president today.
And oh, how different things would look. Or would they? Clinton’s new book, What Happened, a surprisingly un-bitter post-mortem, includes a tidy summary of her domestic proposals:
First, we need the biggest investment in good jobs since World War II. This should include a massive infrastructure programme… Second, to make the economy fairer, we need new rules and incentives to make it easier for companies to raise wages and share profits with employees and harder for them to ship jobs overseas and bust unions… Third, we have to modernise workforce protections with a higher minimum wage, equal pay for women, paid family and medical leave, and affordable childcare… Fourth, we can pay for all of this with higher taxes on the top 1 per cent of Americans who have reaped the lion’s share of income and wealth gains since 2000.
Most Americans support those programmes. So, for that matter, does Donald Trump—at least when he isn’t saying the opposite. The trouble is getting any of it done. Making policy is tedious and thankless. Just ask House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Trump’s embarrassed “partners” on Capitol Hill. Both have been repeatedly thwarted in their efforts to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (the current health-insurance programme known as Obamacare), and its 11,000 pages of regulatory fine-print. Unlike Trump, Ryan and McConnell are seasoned professionals, with 50 years of legislative experience between them. And each has a majority of legislators on his side. Yet neither has been able to budge the heavy oaken levers of a constitutional system built in the age of the cotton-gin and the guillotine.
The promise of Clinton begins in her mastery not of politics, but of government, which she has been “doing” for her whole adult life. Her detractors call her a phony and point to the celebrity schmoozing, the rented summer palace on Long Island, the selfie with Kim Kardashian, the campaign rallies starring Beyoncé, Chance the Rapper, Lady Gaga and (for the old folk) Bruce Springsteen. With each new report of Clinton’s Hollywood fund-raising, a seasoned journalist I know would say, “She’s just lost another thousand votes.”
But Clinton’s feminist champions get her wrong too, by depicting her as an ideological path-breaker when she belongs to a homelier tradition: the Methodist church, with its ethic of “social responsibility.” Gritting her teeth to make amends with the media she’s hated since it exposed her husband’s philandering, she tried (and failed) to “establish a more open and constructive give-and-take.” This is pure do-gooding Methodism. During the Democratic primaries, Clinton seemed most in her element with middle-aged African-American women—“church ladies,” as her generation (and mine) grew up calling them. It was a reminder that Clinton is a heartland American. She grew up in Illinois and spent her formative political years in Arkansas, where her husband was governor.
It was in the 1990s that the Clintons emerged as the nation’s most famous Baby Boomer power couple, personifying its crafty blend of self-advancement and good works. Bill met the doubts with a lascivious wink. Hillary, both victim and enabler, was convinced she had all the answers. In fact, she and her party do have many of them, but Americans are in no mood to listen. They equate Clinton with the “system.” To this day it mystifies her that she was attacked—most damagingly by Bernie Sanders—for her handsomely rewarded speeches to rich folk. “I didn’t think many Americans would believe that I’d sell a lifetime of principle and advocacy for any price,” she pleads. Clinton-haters will snigger and ask: “what principles?”
This is mistaken. In the current politics of hysteria, only a committed ideologue, like Sanders or Ted Cruz, is credited with believing in anything. Such figures are animated by the same spirit of dissent we saw in Tea Party protests in 2010, and then in street-democratic movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. In such a climate, the faithful believer in hardheaded policy invites ridicule—and rejection.
A telling moment in her book comes when an old friend reports back on his visit to “a certain country store deep in the Ozarks,” the central US mountain range. The store is a gathering place for locals, and the proprietor is one of many who had decided to evict the Democratic senator and elect instead a hard-nosed Republican. “The store owner was no fool,” Clinton writes. “He knew the Republicans wouldn’t do anything for him and his neighbours. But he thought the Democrats hadn’t done anything, either. ‘And at least the Republicans won’t do anything to us,’ he said. ‘The Democrats want to take away my gun and make me go to a gay wedding.’” Yet those same voters favoured an increase in the state’s minimum wage—a signature Democratic cause, which is anathema to Republicans.
How to explain the mixed signals? Clinton has an answer. “The politics of cultural identity and resentment were overwhelming evidence, reason, and personal experience. Brexit had come to America even before the vote in the United Kingdom.” This overlooks another possibility: the Ozark shopkeeper might vote against his own best economic interests to validly assert his selfhood. His behaviour was like those slum-dwellers who protest their conditions by tossing rubbish out of the window. Wouldn’t it make more sense to march up Park Avenue and hurl rocks at the windows of the rich? Logic of this kind means nothing to the arsonist. Once he lights the fuse, the blaze will spread and the mansion will go up in flames, too. It is happening now as Trumpist legions gather at rallies and marches, wave their Confederate flags and tell pollsters they are committed to their guy, no matter what.
How did we get here? The intellectual historian Mark Lilla proposes an answer in his new book, The Once and Future Liberal (Harper). Slim, assured, aphoristic, it expands on an opinion essay Lilla wrote for the New York Times just after the election, and which caused a small sensation. Lilla starts from an indisputable premise—Clinton failed with lower and middle-class white voters. For this, Lilla blamed not the prejudices of the right, but the legacy of the left, and its misconceived efforts to meet the individualism of the Reagan years with a counter-politics of “difference”—centred on race, gender and like-minded cultural attitudes. This infected the Democratic Party, Lilla argues. It shed its populist history, formed in club houses and union shops, and instead embraced a preening “pseudo-politics of identity.” Its leaders, including Clinton, talked about inclusion but never seemed to have a good word to say about the white working-class majority.
For evidence Lilla turns to the places he knows best—elite college campuses. He teaches at Columbia and previously was at Chicago. Both are high-powered urban universities with ambitious, fast-track students who arrive on campus having been told they already have much to say. For them “the personal is the political,” which really means the political reduces to matters of “personal meaning.” Meanwhile, their professors, who should be guiding students away from these narrow pastures, hand them a “scholastic vocabulary,” which promotes “fluidity, hybridity, intersectionality, performativity, transgressivity and more”—flashy jargon that insulates its users against the requirements of effective politics: compromise, trade-offs, bargains with the devil.
Is he right? Yes, to some extent. It’s true that the governing class, in America as in other democracies, looks outwards for its cues and language. A good example is Clinton, who invented the campaign “listening tour” and is an accomplished mimic. Her book, too, echoes other voices. “To make sure we built the most diverse team ever assembled by a presidential campaign,” she writes, “I brought in Bernard Coleman as the first-ever chief diversity officer, made sure women were half the staff, and hired hundreds of people of colour, including for senior leadership roles.” This sounds like political correctness. In fact, it is the same approach used in corporations.
But the managerial solution is itself hemmed in by presumption and prejudice. How often do diversity officers scour the Ozarks for new recruits? Bill Clinton, who knew this, pitched himself as tribune of the “forgotten man.” Hillary overcompensated with off-key literalism. “Democrats are the party of working people,” she said in her acceptance speech in 2016. “But we haven’t done a good enough job showing that we get what you’re going through, and that we’re going to do something about it.” If the Democrats truly are the working-class party, why do “you” and “we” seem, in this formulation, miles apart? So too in this, from the same speech: “I just don’t want you to be shot by someone who shouldn’t have a gun in the first place.” By someone, she meant the likes of Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock, our latest mass-murderer. But who is the “you”?
It is this confusion that persuaded voters in rural states that Clinton did mean to confiscate their firearms or make evangelicals attend same-sex weddings. Of course, she never said any such thing. But in voters’ minds she might intend them. Meanwhile, Republicans really will inflict pain on those same voters by sending their jobs abroad. Yet it is Democrats who are accused of having secret designs. Why?
The rhetorical problem Lilla describes is a partial answer. Clinton, he points out, sounded like a “campus liberal.” She kept slipping “into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded.” Being “constructive” is a positive good, but doesn’t always feel so to the constructed-upon. American progressives, said the literary and cultural critic Lionel Trilling, seldom acknowledge their own predisposition, “once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.”
Yet Lilla’s book tells only half the story. It leaves out the other rising trend-line of raw emotion and street democracy, namely Trumpism: the president’s relentless tweeting, the bluster amplified in talk-radio dithyrambs, the epithets shouted at alt-right rallies. And while Lilla praises the Republican Party’s “Principles for American Renewal,” he ignores the cruder enunciations of so many who form the party’s base.
They remain convinced that Obamacare was a give-away for African Americans and grateful that at long last we have a president who dares speak (however profanely) its “truth” about race in America: the parasitic immigrants and refugees, the criminals hiding out in “sanctuary cities,” the pampered African-American sports stars who flaunt their “disrespect” when they call attention to police killings of unarmed citizens. This is also identity politics. It is also “movement politics,” a term Lilla oddly applies only to the left, when the American right invented it long ago, all the way back in the 1950s, when conservatives took up the demagogic cause of Joseph McCarthy and defended apartheid in the Deep South. Now Republicans seek to enact voter ID laws meant to suppress the black and Hispanic vote. When Lilla points out that “elections are not prayer meetings,” he seems to forget that it is Republicans who often say otherwise.
Lilla has acutely dissected these matters in earlier books. But in omitting it this time, he has left himself open to attack, including from the left-wing polemicist of the moment, the African-American essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has built an enormous following on the very campuses Lilla wants to reform. Coates’s new book, We Were Eight Years in Power (Hamish Hamilton), an anthology of his Obama-era writings, includes an epilogue in which he excoriates white liberals, including Lilla.
“That Trump ran and won on identity politics is beyond Lilla’s powers of conception,” Coates writes. “Whatever appeals to the white working class is ennobled. What appeals to black workers, and all others outside the tribe, is dastardly identitarianism.” This is unfair. Lilla means not to champion angry “middle Americans,” but remind us of their latent power, and the appetite, once awakened, to accuse and punish.
When it comes to politics at its most concrete, Coates and Lilla disagree on very little. Both seem to favour Clinton’s to-do list, with perhaps an admixture of populist items on Bernie Sanders’s dreamier agenda (tuition-free college education, “Medicare for all”). What divides these two fine writers is rhetoric. But as another gifted journalist, William F Buckley Jr, the godfather of modern conservatism, wrote long ago: “Rhetoric is the principal thing. It precedes all action. All thoughtful action.”
One advantage of Trumpian anarchy is that it consumes only one party, the Republicans. Clinton’s narrow defeat may be an opportunity for the Democrats to figure out not what they want to do but how to talk about it. And a candid conversation among themselves is a good way to begin.