Skip to main content
Read page text

4

POLITICS

and Strom Thurmond in the same party unravelled. But Democrats were not prepared to give up a historic stronghold. Between Harry Truman and Barack Obama, only one Democratic president – John F. Kennedy – came from outside the South, and even he owed much of his victory to his Texas-born running mate, Lyndon B. Johnson. When Democrats carried the South, they won national elections. When they couldn’t, they lost – which they did, frequently.

“It was soul crushing to watch Democrats lose every single presidential election between 1968 and 1988 except one”, writes Hillary Clinton in What Happened, a reckoning with her own soul-crushing defeat in 2016. Decades in the public eye have smoothed Clinton’s rough edges, leaving only the blandest fragments of her former self behind. But this memoir of a woman without qualities bears reading precisely because of its lack of individuality. It is the record of a generation of Democrats who, in the name of pragmatism, embraced a politics that ultimately led to the grand absurdity of a Trump Presidency.

Before her ordeal in 2016, Clinton’s most searing defeat came in 1972. She spent much of that year in Texas, working alongside her future husband Bill in George McGovern’s campaign against Richard Nixon. That race ended with Nixon carrying forty-nine states; in Texas, he crushed McGovern by thirty-three points. The Clintons were in their early twenties at the time, and scars from that year have stayed with them for the rest of their careers. Naivety became their unpardonable sin. In a country that delivered landslides to Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Democrats did not have the luxury of innocence.

From years of electoral thrashings emerged a strategy based on the assumption that Democrats could win only if they had something to offer everyone. As Clinton writes, they had to “be pro-growth and pro-environment, probusiness and pro-labor, pro-public safety and pro-civil rights”. This conviction underpinned her 2016 campaign, which began with her announcing that under her watch there would be “higher growth for the economy, higher wages for workers, and yes, bigger profits”. In short, “everybody will have a better time”. Sceptics argued that by putting her faith in the magic of the market Clinton had substituted one kind of naivety for another. But she had good reason for making this bet: it was the same one that had twice made her husband President.

Bill Clinton had won by maintaining the party’s strength with blue-collar whites in the South while peeling away suburbanites in previously Republican strongholds such as New Jersey. In 2016 Clinton was relying on a different group of voters to put her in office. President Obama had shown that in the twenty-first century Democrats could put together majorities by targeting what the political journalist Ronald Brownstein termed the “coalition of the ascendant”: racial minorities, millennials and college-educated voters of all ages and races. The increased significance of the welleducated was especially telling. When Bill Clinton first ran for President, 60 per cent of self-identified Democrats did not have a college degree; by 2014 the proportion had fallen to 35 per cent. This was a cohort, Hillary Clinton believed, primed for an optimistic message about a country that was stronger together – a message that had the benefit of appealing to the major donors whose backing she needed to fund her campaign.

Clinton now acknowledges that such optimism put her on the wrong side of voters in both parties who did not think America was already great. But she attributes her biggest failure to “optics”. The country wanted an outlet for its rage, and she offered a programme to improve rural broadband. Her problem, she continues, was exacerbated by a stubborn realism that prevented her from putting forward proposals she deemed unrealistic. “I’ve learned”, she writes, “that even the best plans and proposals can land on deaf ears when people are disillusioned by a broken political system and disgusted with politicians.” This argument, of course, assumes that she had the “best plans”. That Clinton could not explain why she wanted to run for President might have come as a warning sign. In her book, she attributes the decision to her conclusion that she “had the most relevant experience, meaningful accomplishments, and ambitious but achievable proposals, as well as the temperament to get things done in Washington”. However admirable those virtues might be on a cv, none of them said anything about what she wanted to do in office.

On the eve of her announcement speech, Clinton still hadn’t found a satisfying answer. With the plaintive cry of a technocrat being dragged outside the briefing room against her will, she said to her advisers, “I was really running for President to make the economy work for everyone, and why didn’t we just say that and be done with it?” Even she recognized “something was missing”; she just couldn’t figure out what.

Dwelling on matters of style lets Clinton avoid grappling with the more painful question of whether it was her policies – fashioned with exquisite care by a phalanx of staffers in Brooklyn working under a sign reading “Wonks for the Win” – that betrayed her. Time and again in What Happened, she assures herself that she was the only serious candidate in the race. Poor Sanders “didn’t seem to mind if his math didn’t add up or if his plans had no prayer of passing Congress”. And Trump “didn’t care about policy at all”.

But could Clinton pass her own test? Late in the book, she muses on what her policy agenda could have been. An infrastructure programme funded by increased taxes on the wealthy would have been top of the list, followed by immigration reform to open up a path to citizenship for the undocumented, criminal justice reform to reduce the nation’s swollen prison population, and a public option for health insurance that would bring the US closer to universal health care. There’s a word to describe this agenda: fantasy. If 70,000 votes had gone the other way in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Clinton would still have been faced with a GOP-controlled House and Senate filled with Republicans terrified of facing Trumpist challengers in their next primaries. Two years of gridlock mixed with uninterrupted scandal-mongering from congressional Republicans would have further outraged conservatives and demoralized her supporters. And then the next presidential campaign season would have kicked into gear.

Clinton writes that she was reluctant to commit herself to ambitious policies because she worried that failing to deliver on her promises would disillusion voters. But a politician’s broken promise is the least pressing concern for Americans scrambling to keep up with the rising bills for health care, childcare and care for the elderly while their own incomes have flatlined. Clinton needn’t have worried about disillusioning those voters. American democracy had already taken care of that for her.

Ihave always believed that asking the right questions was far more important than giving the right answers”, Sanders writes in Our Revolution, his memoir of the 2016 campaign. Clinton portrays Sanders in What Happened as an ideologue fixated on the exaggerated depravities of the billionaire class to the exclusion of all other ills. But the questions that Sanders asked in the campaign had less to do with economics than with politics. He could take for granted that capitalism was failing. The puzzle that concerned him was why Americans hadn’t done anything about it.

That something had gone very wrong was evident to Sanders before he entered the race. “I’ve been going around the country and talking to a lot of working-class audiences, and people are angry”, he told a reporter in October 2014. Our Revolution offers his fullest explanation for that anger. Although Sanders traces the origins of this discontent to the widening gap between the rich and poor, he argues that this has been magnified by a corrupt political system catering to the needs of an elite that has become fatally detached from its fellow citizens. “For the vast majority of Americans, there is a huge disconnect between the reality of their lives and what goes on in Washington”, he writes. That divide has turned politics into a black box, severing the link between the vote they cast every few years and the decisions the politicians who are supposed to represent them make after taking office.

Sanders believes that campaigning provides one way of restoring that lost connection. The contrast with Clinton on this point is striking. For Clinton, elections were a trial to be endured so that she could turn her white papers into legislation. For Sanders, rallies and town meetings are the essence of democracy. When people from diverse walks of life meet up to support a cause, whether it’s in a high school gym or a stadium that seats thousands, “something unforgettable and extraordinarily powerful” happens. “They are not alone. They are part of something bigger than themselves. They are part of a movement.”

The hard-bitten persona that Sanders adopts when discussing the 1 per cent melts away when he turns to this aspect of campaigning. “What I always knew in my heart”, he writes, “is that the most important part of any successful campaign is the message.” As Clinton learned in 2016, crafting an effective message for a campaign is either extremely simple or all but impossible. A message has to flow out of a candidate’s biography, tying one person’s life to a vision of social change that resonates with the electorate. That fit between personal and political cannot be manufactured if the material isn’t there, no matter how many consultants are brought in. “For me, that was the easy part”, Sanders writes. “It was the same message I had been delivering my entire life” – a message about how ordinary Americans could take their country back from a corrupt ruling class.

A resurgent Left was already gathering force in the United States well before Sanders’s unexpected success supplied a crucial success to the nascent movement. An Elizabeth Warren can-

didacy might have posed a more serious threat to Clinton’s nomination – Clinton herself certainly felt that – but the experience of backing Sanders helped to push his supporters, especially the younger ones, towards a more radical politics. Where baby boomers like Clinton were shaped by the trauma of McGovern’s 1972 rout, millennials saw a popular socialist narrowly lose against an establishment candidate whose supposed electability was one of her most compelling assets – and then saw that candidate selfdestruct in the general election, all while polls consistently showed Sanders easily beating Trump. This was nothing like 1972, but it did look a lot like 1976, when the establishment favourite Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter after beating the conservative darling Ronald Reagan in the Republican primary – a defeat that set the stage for Reagan’s triumph four years later.

Whatever Sanders decides for 2020, his campaign has already done an enormous service for his cause. The results of the 2016 race were a disaster for the country but the best of all possible outcomes for the Left. Trump’s win dealt a devastating blow to a Democratic Party establishment that was already struggling to retain credibility with activists, and it gave Sanders supporters the luxury of claiming that Bernie would have won without having to worry about how he would have governed.

That optimism about the future amid the despair over the present runs through current assessments of where the Left should go from here – assessments that are notable both for the uniformity of their goals and the fuzziness of their policies. In No Is Not Enough, Naomi Klein writes with relief about the first American presidential candidate in her adult life whose world view matched her own. The Guardian columnist George Monbiot goes further in Out of the Wreckage, writing of Sanders’s “remarkable” campaign whose combination of old-fashioned political mobilization and new-fangled social media savvy has the potential to revolutionize politics.

Klein and Monbiot also share an interpretation of Sanders’s place in the grand sweep of modern political history. The past century, they argue, was defined by the rise of social democracy in its first half and the breakdown of that movement in the face of a neoliberal onslaught in its second. Today the neoliberal order is fracturing, which has opened the status quo to radical challenges from two different sides of the ideological spectrum. The challenge for the Left is to find a common vision that can unite its diverse constituencies while speaking to basic values elided by third-way technocracy.

The outlines of this diagnosis have won endorsement in some surprising quarters. Mark Lilla makes it abundantly clear in The Once and Future Liberal that he has no time for radicalism. “The age of movement politics is over”, he writes. “We need no more marchers.” But put aside the differences between an author whose heart is in the streets and another more comfortable in the seminar room and Lilla’s diagnosis starts to look a lot like the emerging conventional wisdom on the Left – not that either side would appreciate the comparison. Lilla has different labels for social democracy and neoliberalism – his preferred terms are the Roosevelt and Reagan dispensations – but the timeline and logic are the same. He, too, believes that Democrats need to

TLS F EBRUARY 9 2 0 1 8

My Bookmarks


Skip to main content