Despite impressive achievements, Hillary Clinton is grounded in an old style of politics that is ill-suited to the progressive strategy required in today’s America. This applies to both policy and politics. Clinton must transform her approach if she is to become the next President. Despite his hard left-wing politics, Sanders’ unexpectedly successful campaign provides some useful lessons for the future of a successful centre-left agenda.
My ideological disagreement with Hillary Clinton goes back to a series of policies she promoted in the 1990s that hurt the most disadvantaged Americans, in particularly vulnerable women and African Americans.
“Tough decisions” are not necessarily the right decisions. Experience is only advantageous if it demonstrates the desired attributes.
In particular, I object to Hillary Clinton’s personal advocacy of the Bill Clinton administration’s policy of throwing single mums off welfare. Whereas Australia reduced payments to single parents, Hillary Clinton supported throwing more than half of recipients off welfare altogether.
When the Bill Clinton administration abolished the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, he truthfully declared it would “end welfare as we know it”. It was the first time in American history that any government repealed a section of the Social Security Act.
Following the implementation of this ‘reform’, the number of American households with incomes of less than $2 a day more than doubled to 1.6 million. Today millions of poor American women have stories like this:
Rosa Pena, a 24-year-old single mom in Arizona, told the New York Times “I’ll do what I have to do,” to stay alive, including sell the groceries she buys with food stamps. Other poor women the paper interviewed in 2012 said they sell clothes for extra cash or reluctantly move back in with violent boyfriends. “One woman said she sold her child’s Social Security number … ‘I tried to sell blood, but they told me I was anemic,’ she said.”
The women and children hurt by this policy were thrown were under the bus for centrist cred. They are the poorest Americans, and disproportionately the victims of domestic violence and racial injustice. Hillary Clinton called them “deadbeats”.
Sometimes I compare my life trajectory to that of hypothetical American David, from a similar single mum background. There’s a reasonable chance my family would have wound up on the streets. It’s unlikely that I would have been able to earn good degrees, excel academically and work in relatively high status jobs.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting Hillary Clinton designed the welfare crackdown. But she does have responsibility for the arguments and rhetoric she put forward in support of one of the cruellest American policies in decades. She still stands by the welfare crackdown.
In addition, Clinton advocated “tough on crime” legislation that contributed to the human disaster zone that is American mass incarceration. She remains pro-capital punishment. In the USA, these policies are deeply intertwined with racial oppression.
And then there was disastrously wrong position on the Iraq War. But this is only one of a string of foreign policy failures, driven by her consistent identification with hardline hawks in the US foreign policy establishment. No this is not the norm for a right-leaning Democrat. It’s to the right of the right. Foreign policy judgment is Clinton’s centrepiece claim on the Presidency. Some questions here are obvious and reasonable.
Finally, Clinton has been a long-time supporter of Wall Street, including their push for financial deregulation. After the financial sector blew up the global economy in 2008, the USA needs financial reregulation. It is entirely legitimate to scrutinise Clinton’s strong association with financial elite, particularly when they comprise her major donors and key policy advisers.
None of the above issues absolutely disqualify Clinton for the job. We should acknowledge her impressive list of achievements. In particular, she deserves our deepest respect for punching through the political glass ceiling at a time when that was an even harder feat than it is now. Furthermore, the policies criticised above were to some extent part of the Zeitgeist of the time. That is some defence for a moderate politician. As Gough Whitlam said, only the impotent are pure.
But no one is above answering respectful questions about their history and values. That’s the point about a democratic contest. Unfortunately the best alternative candidate – Elizabeth Warren – did not stand. Bernie Sanders is more left wing than ideal, but it’s nevertheless in the interest of centre-left democracy that he stood up to put forward the “other side”. The Sanders campaign, I expected, would lose the vote but succeed in nudging Clinton towards better policy.
All expectations were that Clinton would emerge as clearly the superior politician. A strong centre-left leader can unify their party behind a compelling progressive vision. They project a certain gravitas that can acknowledge and respect concerns even when not acceding to them.
Instead, associates and supporters of the Clinton camp, and Democratic establishment, have waged a campaign of smearing people with legitimate questions as naïve, stupid, crazy, sexist, racist and/or all of the above. Yet while the Clinton backers deride average Sanders’ supporters as BernieBros, her support among young women has fallen into a death spiral. Within a few months, her share of young women’s voting intentions has collapsed from a large majority to a clear minority. In Iowa, 86% of young women supported Sanders – stronger than the young male vote. A growing number of African American leaders have defected from past endorsements of Clinton and joined the Sanders’ camp.
The ferocious hatred of Bernie Sanders from the establishment is hard to explain. The reality is that Sanders has led a good, honest campaign. Knowing Clinton would likely be the nominee, he has largely avoided strong personal attacks that would damage her in a general election. He defended Clinton on the email controversy, one of her great political liabilities. That kind of team loyalty is all too rare in politics. At the same time, he has energised young people and brought new recruits into the Democrat fold. That’s a model campaign for an outsider, and he should be applauded for it.
My fear is that the Sanders bashing may reflect an elitist mentality within the Democrat establishment and punditocracy. How dare an outsider put their hat in the ring?! Doesn’t he realise Clinton is the ordained appointment of the Very Serious Persons?! The temerity! If this is an accurate assessment, it’s a sad time for the global centre-left. Our mass appeal has always been rooted in an egalitarian ethos.
My inner bleeding heart feels that the instinctive kicking of an underdog is related to status hierarchies and the unjust exclusion of outsiders. My inner economist thinks it’s about an insider clique protecting their monopoly power, inhibiting the benefits brought by vibrant competition.
The Clinton camp talks a lot about “electability”. While they keep talking about it, Clinton blew a lead of approximately 60 percentage points, with Clinton and Sanders now neck and neck. Sanders has won over iconic Clinton demographics like young women by huge margins. It’s time to face up to the empirical reality that Clinton has been overrated as a politician, and Sanders underrated.
The pundit class suffers from a delusion that “electability” is about a simple midpoint on a left-right spectrum. It’s far more complex. First, personality factors such as “likeability” are at least as important as ideology. Second, unlike Australia, the USA’s optional voting complicates the centrist privilege. Motivating the base to vote is as important as appealing to the median voter. Clinton is obviously struggling with youth. A serious risk for Clinton is that young Democrats will not turn out in a general election. Older voters are more reliable, so Sanders does not face an equivalent risk.
Third, the public do not have a stable, unified political ideology as pundits would understand it. That’s some David Brooks/Paul Kelly hot bullshit. Rather, punters have an inconsistent mishmash of vague beliefs, some of which come to the forefront depending on the prevailing public discourse and socio-economic conditions.
The pundits have been wrong over and over on this. When Tony Abbott became leader of the Australian Liberal Party, the near-universal wisdom among the Very Serious People was that his right-wing social views were “unelectable”. He was indeed more right-wing than most Australians, but he could prosecute a relentless case on issues that mattered to Australians at the time. Pundits made similar bloopers over Margaret Thatcher.
Political success requires an ability to reframe public conversation onto desirable agendas and to build new alliances. Both Sanders on the left and Trump on the right have shown extraordinary success in this regard. It’s loosened the Very Serious Persons’ gatekeeper control of public discourse, and that is why the punditocracy hates them so much.
Clinton cut her teeth in “third way” politics. This movement is the compact disc of centre-left politics: innovative and popular in the 1990s, but largely superseded today. Indeed, some third way policies may have brought about problems facing progressives today. In particular, increasing competition and cutting the social safety net made life harder for the working class. Since this time, there has been unprecedented fall in the longevity of middle aged white Americans. No wonder there is rage.
Centre-leftists must bring back some of the blue-collar whites that have been lost to the right. Sanders is onto something with his old school populist talk about inequality and financial regulation. Although somewhat lacking in nuance, Sanders tirades against bankers are a vastly preferable direction of working class anger than Trump’s tirades against immigrants.
Evidence is still preliminary, but Sanders appears to be cutting through with blue-collar Americans. He has demolished Clinton’s lead among Americans with “High School or some college” levels of education, and among those with incomes of less than $25,000. Data from Iowa showed a strong lead for Sanders among drivers of trucks and station wagons. For a hard lefty, with staunchly socially progressive policies, this would be a remarkable achievement. Ponder this for a moment: Sanders’ base is shaping up as a unity of student liberals and truck drivers. That’s a holy grail left alliance that progressives across the world have been struggling to unite for decades. Maybe, just maybe, this guy actually has something going for him.
Despite Sanders’ strong performance, Clinton is still likely to win. Sanders is at a name recognition disadvantage in the southern states. Most of the super-delegates are locked in behind Clinton. The DNC is shamelessly rigging the contest.
If the Clinton campaign transforms its approach, it could benefit from the new recruits and energy that Sanders has brought to the party. Undoubtedly Sanders will be classy and throw his full support behind Clinton. Whether his supporters will follow depends on how Clinton plays her cards. The first obvious lesson for the Clinton camp is to stop relentlessly bashing Sanders with disingenuous attacks (see here, here, here, here). The Democrat base has seen through these old fashioned too-smart-by-half gimmicks. The attacks backfired, bringing Sanders wider attention and a surge in donations.
It’s also time to lose the tin ear, to stop derisively caricaturing Sanders’ supporters. Bashing the voters is mindbogglingly stupid. When people feel personally attacked, they tend to firm up their opposition to the attacker, and the attacker’s associates. That the supposed political geniuses in the Clinton campaign have failed to realise this elementary point is very concerning for their prospects in a general election. The Clinton camp must stop asserting her electability and start showing it.
Clinton should signal a clear break with policies of the past. She should incorporate some of Sanders’ economic populist rhetoric into her political toolkit and commit to rebuilding the social safety net.
Finally, the Democrat establishment must humble itself to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, Sanders has discovered an important component of a winning electoral strategy. They should quit their transparent rule rigging, which so far has succeeded only in leaving left egg on their faces. Perceived illegitimacy in a Clinton win will destroy morale among Sanders supporters and push them away from the Democrats.
Hillary Clinton has the potential to be a great and unifying Democrat President. It’s time for her campaign to show it. Until then, I am feeling the Bern.