Reflections on the Clintons: “Hillary Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”
In his chapter entitled “Hillary Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” Ben Fountain, in his book, Beautiful Country Burn Again, considers in some depth the public life of Hillary Clinton, her strengths and her weaknesses. While he doesn’t exactly put it this way, it seems fair to say that he considers Bill and Hillary to have failed politically because they proved incapable of or unwilling to engage in statesmanship. And they failed at statesmanship because they could not or would not recognize and confront the contradictions confronting the United States in our time. Rather, they chose, as most politicians do, to “go with the flow” in order to win elections, to gain power and the status that goes with it.
The Clintons knew that the Democrats had, by 1988, lost every presidential election since 1968 with the exception of Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, following the debacle of Watergate. They also knew that the Republicans had won all those elections except of course the one in 1976. From this they concluded, along with others, that to win presidential elections the best thing to do was to mimic the Republicans. And, viola, the “New Democrats” were born, led by the creation of the Democratic Leadership Council – which Jesse Jackson dubbed the “Democrats for the Leisure Class.” This was to be, according to the Clintons and others, a “third way;” that is, not the old New Deal way nor, allegedly, not the Republican way, although it did reflect much, very much of Republican agenda economically, socially, and internationally. It would involve in a wonderfully empty phrase “reinventing government.”
This was perhaps a good strategy for winning presidential elections, although the results in 2000 and 2016 make this unclear. But it was not a good strategy if one wanted to build a decent, just, and resilient political order; that is, build the kind of politics that revolved around the proposition – as Lincoln called it – that all human beings are created equal and thus should be treated as such in a political order that does not favor one social and/or economic class at the expense of others. To embrace such a politics, however, it is necessary to recognize and confront the contradictions embedded in a corporate capitalistic economic order, viz., that such an order undermines the equality that is desirable by allowing or facilitating the creation of great wealth, increasingly lodged in a relatively few hands. Now, wealth is a good, as is equality. But because the two often contradict one another, it is necessary to confront these contradictions and resolve them as best one can.
To rise to the level statesmanship, a person must recognize and confront the contradictions between capitalism and, let me call it, republicanism. But in order to win elections, the Clintons – as well as other Democrats – pretended there were no such contradictions, just as the Republicans had been doing for decades. The Clinton’s shortcomings in this regard are well illustrated by Hillary’s blind spot regarding the millions of dollars she took from Wall Street firms as “speaker fees.” The same phenomenon arises with regard to the Clinton Foundation. The Clintons, it would seem, believed they could take huge sums of money from wealthy capitalists without it compromising their republican bona fides. But ordinary people knew or sensed that this was not possible because they knew or sensed that the prevailing capitalistic arrangements and those who wielded power therein were screwing them over. They, the ordinary people, the 99%, felt their shoes pinching and they knew who had sold them their shoes. And the people were right, just as Jesse Jackson was right to dub the DLC “Democrats for the Leisure Class.”
The Clintons and others tried to meet these objections with rhetoric such as “We feel your pain.” Ordinary people being squeezed are not all that impressed by rich people saying that they, the rich people, feel their pain because (a) it isn’t true and (b) it isn’t what the squeezed people want or need. And it is especially annoying when those rich people beg off by saying they are sorry it took them so long to recognize the plight of the less well off – while collecting millions of dollars in “speaker fees.” But the important point is that it was not simply distrust of Hillary that was visible in the 2016 presidential election. It was also recognition that her politics was not geared to help those most in need of help. She needed a new kind of politics but that was impossible so long as she – and other Democrats – refused to focus on issues like fairness, the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth in the nation, or the increasing burdens ordinary people faced regarding education and health care. And these are precisely the issues that the “Democrats for Leisure Class” cannot address and will shut down anyone, like Bernie Sanders, who tries to address them.
Statesmanship, that is, building a decent, just, and resilient political order, requires recognizing and confronting the contradictions built into any social and political arrangements. By ignoring these contradictions, it is possible, as Bill Clinton demonstrated, to win elections. But sooner or later, “the chickens will come home to roost,” as they did in 2016 when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.