Hillary Clinton Is a Centrist Liberal and an Establishment Politician: She Is Not the Enemy
To my friends on the Left
I am uncomfortable with political labels, especially as applied to me. But to most people in the world, I would be considered someone on the left. I am a Contributing Editor of Dissent magazine; I recently edited a new edition of The Communist Manifesto to which I contributed a rather sympathetic essay; through the early summer I was a supporter of the Bernie Sanders campaign, and published a number of pieces seeking to explain and to (critically) support this campaign. Only after the Democratic convention did I decide to support Hillary Clinton, which I explained in a July 26 piece entitled “Why I Support Hillary Clinton for President: A Letter to My Friends on the Left.” Since that time I have been a strong Clinton supporter, because I believe that her centrist liberalism is strongly preferable to the neo-fascism of Donald Trump; because her neoliberal feminism and multiculturalism is strongly preferable to the anti-feminism, racism, and xenophobia of the Republican party; and because I believe it is a good thing, symbolically and practically speaking, for the US, for the first time in over 200 years, to elect an establishment woman who is a feminist to the Presidency rather than an establishment man who is a misogynist. Clinton is not running against Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren — who both strongly support her. She is running against Donald Trump.
I never thought that Sanders could be a viable Democratic candidate for President; I doubted he could win the primary, I doubted that he could survive a red-baiting general election campaign, and I was skeptical of some of the claims to having mobilized a mass movement in support of “political revolution.” But I supported him, and had he won, I would be supporting him now. Alas, he lost. Clinton won. She won because she had more power and money and resources and she used these things to win. That is politics.
I have many friends on the left, and many of them are to my left by any stretch of the imagination. They are smart people and good people, and among them, unsurprisingly, there exists a range of opinion on Clinton and whether to support her. But most of them — most of you — have made clear that they strongly oppose a Trump presidency, and that while they do not like Clinton, they intend to vote for her, even if they have to hold their nose while doing so. This sentiment was perhaps most cleverly and also intelligently summed up in the piece by Adolph Reed bearing the title “Vote for the Lying Liberal Warmonger: It’s Important.” I understand and respect this position. At the same time, this kind of language — “Lying Liberal Warmonger” — has made me uncomfortable, even if it is intended in a tongue-in-cheek manner — and I am not sure that it is. Because it is so excessive. Perhaps some consider this justified. I don’t. And the firestorm that has erupted in the past two days in response to FBI Director James Comey’s letter to Congress, announcing that the FBI will be evaluating the e-mails of Huma Abedin found on the laptop of her estranged husband Anthony Weiner, underscores why: because in this electoral contest, right now, it is very important for intellectuals on the left to help get out the vote to defeat Trump and elect Clinton, precisely so that, as a recent Nation editorial states, the left can continue to best advocate for greater social justice.
That right-wing witch hunters such as Jason Chaffetz would immediately jump all over this is no surprise.
But I have been taken aback by the responses of some (not all) of my friends on the left, who have basically said “I told you so. We always said that Hillary was flawed and corrupt and that she was vulnerable to these accusations and now it is all coming to pass and her corruption is going to result either in a Trump Presidency or four years of Congressional investigation of her corruption. You should have listened to us when we supported Bernie instead of supporting Clinton. Now you are reaping what you have sown. Your candidate has fucked up everything, like we knew she would.”
I understand this kind of indignation, though I do not share it in this case. But I urge my friends to consider that while moral outrage has its place — and in the end only each individual can decide for themselves what this place is — at this moment, less than two weeks before a very consequential Presidential election, such indignation serves no good consequence. Even if you say “of course I’ll vote for Hillary, because I hate Trump, but she is a Lying Liberal Imperialist and I hate her and she deserves everything she is getting,” what you are doing, it seems to me, is giving credence to all of those young people — who read you, respect you, and learn from you, inside the classroom and outside of it — who cannot bring themselves to vote. At this moment, when it is so important to support Clinton and to encourage others to do so with their votes, your words are conveying a different message.
Behind the reaction that concerns me lay two premises. One is that Sanders would have been a stronger candidate against Trump. I do not believe this is true, but it is also a moot point, because Sanders lost, and conceded his loss, and while the Clinton campaign worked very hard to undermine Sanders and to defeat him — this is what Presidential campaigns do — defeat him they did. Clinton is the candidate of the Democratic party because she was the insider candidate and she had the resources and the organization and she won the primary by getting both more votes and more delegates. It makes perfect sense to keep one’s eyes on the prize of further reforming the Democratic party and supporting the forces of Sanders and Warren. But right now, the Democrats have a candidate, and it is important to support this candidate.
The second premise is that Clinton is a uniquely flawed and corrupt politician whose record cannot stand serious scrutiny, and who has brought these troubles on herself by being such a wheeling, dealing, corrupt individual who plays fast and loose with the rules.
It is this premise that I wish to question here.
And my basic reason is simple: I honestly don’t understand why so many of my friends on the left, who are so adept at employing the powers of critique to challenge conventional wisdoms and to uncover forms of power, are so willing to accept at face-value the version of Hillary Clinton that has so assiduously been developed, purveyed, and prosecuted, for decades, by her right-wing opponents in their pursuit of power.
I do understand the reasons why serious people of the left would oppose much of what Clinton stands for and would struggle for a more left platform — indeed, the current Democratic platform is such a platform! But I urge my friends to reconsider their animus toward Clinton, especially at this moment.
First let’s consider FBI Director Comey’s letter.
Comey’s letter is very disturbing, and many people, myself included, have responded with annoyance and even outrage to this “October surprise.” The immediate response of some of my friends on the left to this outrage has been a kind of defense of Comey. On this view, Comey was compelled to send the letter, and in doing so he was simply following standard procedures of investigating a corrupt and possibly criminal wrongdoing.
Perhaps. But why lend such credence to the self-justification of the Director of the FBI in this case? Why ignore what is known — that Comey has conservative ties; that when he publicly “exonerated” Clinton months ago, he did so in a very awkward and troubling manner that raised questions about his professionalism; that he had clearly placed himself in an odd position with Republicans legislators hoping for a different outcome, and he might clearly have psychological reasons to seek to ingratiate himself with these legislators by sending them a letter like the one he just sent? Such things are part of the political situation that surrounds Comey, his letter, and the way that it was predictably seized upon by the Republic right and the Trump campaign. And yet some seemed inclined to simply take his letter at face value.
Only hours later, it is now clear that the FBI has had access to Weiner’s computer for some time, weeks if not months, and yet still has not analyzed the e-mails in question; that the e-mails in question had nothing to do with Clinton’s e-mail account or her e-mail server, and at most regard the judgment of Clinton’s aide; that the Comey letter itself was very awkward and misleading, because in fact the only information it conveyed is that the FBI has some other e-mails that may or may not have anything to do with Clinton (there is always “something else” that “may or may not” be relevant; how often does the FBI Director send letters to Congress about such things?); that Comey’s letter, like his earlier press conference, was contrary to Justice Department policy; and that Comey had actually been instructed by his superiors at the Justice Department not to send the letter that he sent anyway. This is all quite stunning and suspicious.
One response to the entire e-mail “scandal” is the one offered months ago by Sanders during the primary debates: it is a side issue, and it has been extensively investigated and no criminal wrong-doing has been shown, and while Clinton’s judgment in this case might be questioned, what she did was little different than what her Republic predecessors Condi Rice and Colin Powell did, and it is time to let it drop as a matter of investigation and inquisition, and to focus on the issues at stake in this election, which is not a contest between Clinton and Trump.
A second response is the one adamantly expressed by the Trump campaign and by every Republican elected official: Hillary is “crooked,” and this must be investigated (and litigated) ad infinutum, and the slightest shred of “information” even remotely connected to Clinton ought to be treated as an occasion for further outrage and further scrutiny of Clinton and the matter ought never to be left to rest.
Comey apparently decided to lean toward the second response, and through his own very questionable judgment, he has thrown red meat to the Republican sharks eager to prosecute Clinton and to defeat the Democratic ticket in the upcoming election.
This entire matter is a prime example of the many ways that the Republican leadership continues to play “hardball” with the Obama Administration and with the Clinton campaign — about the Supreme Court, about all legislation, about everything. The Republicans are about attack and obstruction.
This seems obvious. Why treat it as if it is about the corruptions of Clinton when it is primarily a Republican effort to frame Clinton as a criminal? Why treat it as a matter of individual personality when it is clearly a matter of politics?
In this light, let’s give a second thought to Clinton herself, this supposedly corrupt woman whose corruption, it would seem, exceeds all bounds of normal politics and warrants special investigations. I have to confess, it is the animus expressed by some of my friends, including women friends, about this, that most perplexes me. For in almost every way that matters, Hillary Clinton is nothing more and nothing less than a successful professional woman like most successful professional women we all know and that we often like, and that indeed many of us are.
*She preaches and practices a kind of “lean-in” feminism that valorizes meritocracy and the professional success of elite women like herself and her daughter.
Is this really different from the way most professional women, including left academic women, proceed? The university is as much a corporate institution as is a corporate business or a government bureaucracy. Do we fault our colleagues, our friends, for seeking prestigious research grants that give them course release, and for asking their famous friends to write letters of recommendation or to organize book panels promoting their work? Do we fault our colleagues for being preoccupied with publication in the officially sanctioned journals, so that they can build records of accomplishment sufficient to earn tenure and promotion, and the privileges these involve, privileges that are not available to most women in the work force? Do we cast suspicion on our friends who do everything possible to promote the educational performance of their children so that they can be admitted into elite universities? In her pursuit of movement up the career ladder, and her valorization of this approach to success, is Clinton that different than most of us who, honestly, belong to the “professional managerial class” as much as she does, and who work through its institutions in the same way she does?
*She has achieved positions of leadership in hierarchical corporate institutions, where she has traded on connections, and has mixed with members of a power elite with access to money and power.
In this, is she any different than women colleagues who become Distinguished Professors, and department chairs, and Deans and Provosts and College Presidents? I have many friends — feminists, leftists — who have achieved such positions, and who have embraced them. These positions are obtained by “playing the academic game,” by cooperating with others in positions of institutional authority, by compromising on their ideals in order to get something done in a conservative bureaucracy, by agreeing to manage programs and personnel, i.e, colleagues, by agreeing to fundraise from wealthy alumni and corporate donors, and to participate in events that please such alumni and donors so that they will support you and your institution. Is Clinton’s “game” really that different?
*She uses her professional connections for personal advantage, making connections that can benefit her in the future, accepting side payments in exchange for her services. Is this that different than colleagues in the academic bureaucracy, who accept the salary increases and bonuses and research and travel accounts and course release that come with this kind of work? I am a Distinguished Professor at Indiana University. I enjoy these things. Many of us do, including many wonderful scholars to my left who really dislike Clinton. But is she really so different than the rest of us? Really?
In some ways, the differences are obvious. Clinton has succeeded largely through public institutions. She has succeeded on a much larger scale. She has benefited financially on a much larger scale. She is a woman of great power and influence and wealth, who has sought out a degree of power and influence and wealth that greatly exceeds the norm for anyone and especially for any woman. And she is on the public stage, so that every aspect of her action, and her self-promotion — and her e-mailing — is potentially subject to public scrutiny. But is this a sign of her personal corruption, or simply a sign that she has learned how to play the establishment political game and to win at the highest levels? What man who has ever served in the US Senate or been Secretary of State or has been elected President of the US has behaved otherwise than she has?
Hillary Clinton may be more insular, self-protective, awkward in public, etc., than most politicians — but how many of them have been Hillary Clinton, the first woman to endure this level of scrutiny in the history of the United States, and someone who also had to endure eight very public years as the First Lady of a philandering husband, and whose husband was impeached for this philandering? Might this not generate a level of insularity and suspicion in any woman?
She might surround herself with a very insular group of trusted confidants, at the expense of transparency — but don’t all politicians do this?
She might have gained great wealth from her connections — but does this distinguish her from any other powerful person?
In short, Clinton is a successful political leader who is also a woman in a man’s world. And, as Plato taught us millennia ago, political leaders tend to be loved by their friends and hated by their enemies.
And Clinton’s principal enemies are clear: partisans of a Republican party that is led by Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and a cadre of right-wing extremists, that selected Donald Trump as its Presidential candidate, and that seeks to turn back the clock on decades of progress for women’s right, civil rights, the rights of minorities, and the (already very attenuated) rights of workers.
Clinton is a centrist liberal, not a socialist or a social democrat. She is a liberal feminist, not a socialist feminist. She is a foreign policy hawk, but within a bipartisan mainstream. She is an insider and an experienced operative in an oligopolistic two-party system, and not a radical or participatory democrat. These are the reasons she is the Presidential candidate of a major political party in the US, which is not Sweden! It is true, on every one of these dimensions she comes up short when judged from the left. On every one of these dimensions of politics and policy, she deserves criticism. This was true before, it is true now, and it will be true if she wins the White House.
But this does not make her an evil or an irredeemably corruption person, and it does not make her a political enemy.
Her opponents on the right have demonized Clinton for decades. They have succeeded in raising her to a level of distrust and opprobrium in the eyes mass public that exceeds any reasonable sense of proportion. Mike Pence is now saying that she has a “criminal scheme” to take over the US government. Donald Trump calls her a “criminal” and he promises to jail her. The Republican Congressional leadership is pledged to either defeat her or to dedicate four years to a legislative politics of inquisition modeled on the Bengazi hearings.
She is being attacked by the right wing because the right wing hates her, and the right wing hates her because she is a liberal and a feminist and a woman and because she supports the things that most anger the right wing: gender equality, reproductive freedom, equality for gays and lesbians, gun control, racial equality, and civil rights.
These things that she supports are the things that we support.
The things she supports have their limits. She has her limits.
But she is not evil, and she is not an enemy.
In the next ten days leading up to Election Day, Clinton will be subjected to a list-ditch barrage of attacks from the right.
She does not “deserve” these attacks. And while the attackers target her, what they attack is much of what is valuable to you. To us.
Let us not exult in her travails. They are undeserved. And such exultation does no good in any case.
Let us defeat a Republican neofascist by electing a Democratic neoliberal feminist.
And then let us treat that Democratic neoliberal feminist, once in office, the same way that any President ought to be treated: with suspicion and critical scrutiny and a determination to press forward an agenda of greater social justice and political responsibility.