I generally resist labeling my own ideological commitments. (Why that is so is a subject for an entirely different post.) But when writing on the subject of Hillary Clinton and the current presidential election, I reluctantly find it necessary to do so. The reason for this is that people like and dislike Secretary Clinton for so many different reasons. Some think that she is not devoted enough to national security, others that she is too hawkish. Some think that her cavalier handling of classified information should put her in jail instead of the White House, while others find her too secretive. People object to her from both sides on a surprisingly large number of issues. Thus a mere declaration of support for, or opposition to, her candidacy is simply not very informative.
I come to this election, as I have come to every other one, from the perspective of a liberal as I understand the term. That particular word has been rendered all but meaningless by the American political discourse of the last several decades. Since the Reagan Revolution, conservatives have been quite successful in painting Democrats as irresponsible enablers of the pathologies of the poor, recklessly risking our safety while arrogantly destroying the traditional cultural bonds that have held us together as a nation. Democrats generally responded to this by distancing themselves from liberalism in both name and substance. Today, a liberal is a warmed-over centrist who is nonetheless pilloried by Republicans for an alleged attachment to Leninist sentiments. While journalists and pundits still speak of liberalism in describing Democratic officeholders and policies, politicians themselves never use that term to describe themselves. The sad fate of the word has culminated in the situation that today people who would once have been described politically as "liberal" have had to start calling themselves "progressives" in order to distance themselves from the mainstream of the Democratic Party.
But let us stipulate that liberalism represents an actual public philosophy that is greater than the sum of the actions of particular politicians. In this sense, it is the expansion of the ideas embodied in the New Deal. Modern political liberalism is the belief that the development of the modern economy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fundamentally changed the nature of social engagement. While Thoreau's aphorism that "that government is best which governs least" might have been a good guide to protecting political freedom in the early part of the nation's history, the larger threat to liberty in the twentieth century and beyond came from a concentration of economic rather than political power. The Great Depression made clear that, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, "equality of opportunity as we have known it no longer exists." If unaccountable concentrations of power are a threat to our liberties, and if we are committed to keeping those institutions that give rise to these imbalances (a point which separates liberals from socialists), then we have no choice but to empower government to represent the people's interests as a counterweight to those forces.
Liberalism took its cues from the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Liberals were slow to recognize that their creed also entails a guarantee of racial, gender and sexual equality. But eventually they acknowledged this, and now the protection and expansion of civil rights stands alongside a commitment to economic justice as a centerpiece of the liberal legacy. Social Security, Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, the (failed) Equal Rights Amendment and Obamacare are all expressions of these basic ideas.
Moreover, liberalism requires a contribution from all of us. If the modern industrial and post-industrial economy changed the game to allow for an unprecedented scale of winning, then we all owe a substantial part of any success—and any failure—to the conditions that made it possible. That means that there is no longer any such thing (if there ever was) as the "self-made man" and that those who are fortunate enough to win have an obligation to those who were unlucky enough to lose. This idea was most influentially articulated by philosopher John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice. "There is no more reason to permit the distribution of income and wealth to be settled by the distribution of natural assets," he wrote, "than by historical and social fortune.” Even today, Democratic politicians occasionally articulate this idea. In 2011, Elizabeth Warren made headlines when running for the U.S. Senate by pointing out that "there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own." She argued that "the underlying social contract" requires the economically fortunate to "take a hunk of that [success] and pay it forward to the next kid who comes along." Later than year, President Obama got into trouble for uncharacteristically bungling the delivery of the same idea. "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen." While Obama did not actually mean that people did not do the work that created their business enterprises, he did mean that they did not do so alone. And he was right.
Those are my own commitments: to liberalism as I understand it. And throughout my entire adult life the Democratic Party's engagement to that public philosophy left me completely underwhelmed. And few have embodied my disappointment more completely than have Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Beginning in the 1980s, the success of the conservative movement and the large-scale defection of southern white working-class voters to the Republican Party, a generation of erstwhile liberal politicians felt that they needed to become more conservative in order to gain and hold elective office. These "New Democrats," such as Joe Biden, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, gained increasing influence within the party, leading to Clinton's election to the presidency in 1992.
As president, Clinton demonstrated how different the New Democratic agenda was from the liberalism that had preceded it. When running for the Democratic nomination, then-Governor Clinton established his "tough on crime" bona fides by refusing to order a stay of execution on a mentally disabled African-American man. Later he signed the 1994 crime bill that expanded prison construction and the death penalty, increased prison sentences on many crimes and initiated an "era of mass incarceration" that Hillary Clinton decries today. In 1996, Bill Clinton campaigned on a program of welfare reform, which culminated in a punitive law that instituted a lifetime limit on assistance while putting in place work requirements that imposed significant child-care hardships and provided little in the way of job placement assistance. Clinton instituted the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military, opposed same-sex marriage as president and signed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as being only between a man and a woman. Economically, he supported the North American Free Trade Agreement and continued the pattern of financial deregulation (most notably the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999) begun by his Republican predecessors.
Normally, I would not think it fair to hold a candidate accountable for the views or actions of his/her spouse. But I do think it is justified in this particular case. Bill promised voters on the campaign trail that he and Hillary represented "two for the price of one." Though he did not appoint Hillary to an official position in his administration (perhaps because it had become illegal since the days of Attorney General Robert Kennedy), she chaired his health care task force. After the ambitious health care reform initiative failed, Hillary was the White House point person on negotiating the Children's Health Insurance Program with Congress. She owes her Senate seat, which made the rest of her political career possible, to the name recognition she gained as First Lady. Perhaps most importantly, Hillary has repudiated very little of Bill's presidency and has occasionally invoked his legacy on the campaign trail.
During this cycle's Democratic primaries. Bill Clinton was campaigning for Hillary in New Mexico. He was shaking hands with voters at a restaurant when when Josh Brody, a young man of 24, began an argument with the former president about his legacy. "Seems like your narrative,” Brody told Clinton, "is that you did the best job that you could have possibly done from the most progressive standpoint that you possibly could have had, when the reality is you campaigned as a New Democrat. And you said, we’re gonna basically move away from the old Democrats, the New Deal–style Democrat. So that’s what a lot of us want. So this is a philosophical difference.” Brody's criticisms articulate precisely my own view of the Clinton presidency. His supporters would point out that the times were more conservative and he did many of these things under duress. And I have no doubt that in many cases this is true. But it is hardly a defense. Abandoning one's principles, and one's allies, is not the only way to deal with a losing hand. Another possible option would be to exert some moral leadership, stand up for what one thinks is right, push the needle on the debate and hopefully pave the way for a victory down the road.
But in the immediate term this means a loss. It is consequently difficult to imagine Bill Clinton embracing such a strategy. Others certainly disagree, but to me that unwillingness speaks poorly of him. Unfortunately, I see the same qualities in Hillary Clinton. As a senator, Secretary Clinton voted for the Iraq War when not doing so would have been politically difficult. Now that the war is unpopular, she has repudiated her earlier vote. In the Democratic primary, she supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership until the popularity of rival Bernie Sanders forced her to disavow it. Secretary Clinton was publicly opposed to gay marriage for over a decade, finally reversing her position only in 2013. (In an interesting NPR interview, Clinton bristled and offered a very confusing response when host Terry Gross asked if the growing acceptance of homosexuality had influenced her shift in position.)
The political shape-shifting also lends credence to a widespread perception regarding Secretary Clinton, that she is duplicitous and untrustworthy. When confronted with an unpleasant fact related to her own position or behavior, she tends to dissemble and qualify rather than offer a more direct response. In the current campaign, she has refused to release her Wall Street speeches. The ongoing controversy over her email server has focused on whether any of the messages were classified. But to me the mere fact that the server existed speaks volumes about her tendency to elevate secrecy over good judgment and respect for the people she serves.
So what I am saying is that Hillary Clinton does not really reflect my own political values and is consequently not a candidate for whom I would be inclined to cast my vote. One would think that this would be, or at least should be, the end of the story. But in my experience, political discussions seldom end there. (Of course, I live in "Big Sort" America, so no one I talk to about politics is actually conservative.) "But what about the Republicans?" they ask. "They are truly awful. What about the Supreme Court?" I do, in fact, think that in many cases the Republicans are truly awful. And many of my friends are as underwhelmed with contemporary Democrats as I am. So what we disagree about, I think, is not the merit of the potential officeholders in question, but the very purpose of voting.
As citizens we are constantly told that our vote is precious and that casting it is the essence of the democracy we cherish. But we are also told that we live in a two-party system and that voting for anyone other than the major party candidates is nothing but a waste. These two sentiments are in conflict: voting cannot be both an expression of personal values and a mechanistic choice between exactly two sanctioned alternatives.
Operationally, far more people side with the latter than the former. The most popular form of political argumentation today seems to be that "the other candidate is so terrible." It is only from within that framework that a point made against one candidate counts as an endorsement for another. In most cases this conception of our role as voters comes across to me as little more than an invocation of the status quo masquerading as hard-bitten realism. It can also be a mask for a simple competitive partisanship. (I am waiting for the day when some Democratic candidate has terrible poll numbers and all of my more mainstream friends tell me that it doesn't matter if I vote Democratic or not. I think I will be waiting for a long time.) Overall, then, I am far more sympathetic to the other conception of voting, in which casting a ballot is an expression of who the voter would actually like to see in office.
Votes can be devices for choosing candidates. But they can also be vehicles for registering dissatisfaction with those limited choices, for making a statement about a particular issue or for trying to build a new party or movement. Though the structure of the US Constitution makes any of these other projects exceedingly unlikely to succeed, most of them represent attempts to get airplay for smaller voices. That is why I see casting a vote this way as idealistic, even as others might see it as destructive.
Of course, such political projects could be pursued more effectively in other ways that do not involve casting a vote for a candidate who will never win. One can be an activist or a movement-builder between elections. There are many liberals and leftists who probably hold views about Secretary Clinton that are similar to mine. Many of them have devoted far more of their lives to politics than I have, and yet they feel completely comfortable endorsing her. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Michael Moore, even Noam Chomsky have all publicly came out in favor of voting for Clinton.
The reality, though, is that I feel like I'm throwing away my vote when I cast it for a candidate who I do not actually want to occupy the office in question. And I have no personal loyalty to the Democratic Party. I did not vote for Bill Clinton, Al Gore or John Kerry. (I feel a little differently about President Obama, but I can write about that on another day.) But this election is different, in two ways. The first is that I do not see any other candidates or parties I can support. There was a time when I believed in the potential of the Green Party, but time has not matured that organization. Writing in the name of someone who is not campaigning for the job really does seem like wasting a vote. And I feel it to be my civic duty to vote, so I don't think I could ever stay home.
Nonetheless, if the lack of a candidate for my vote were the main problem, I am sure I could work something out. But it is not. The second, and most important, issue is Donald J. Trump. Every four years, Democrats argue that the current Republican presidential nominee is a Dark Lord of the Sith, and that they will have to move to Canada if that person wins. (They said that about Mitt Romney, which seems a bit silly now, doesn't it?) This argument is more than a little hysterical, every bit as extreme as the current Republican idea that Secretary Clinton should be sentenced to jail. But they put it forward every time, and then later offer yesterday's Republican as the kind of candidate that used to be so reasonable. So I have completely tuned out that argument. So it might have taken me a little longer to realize that Trump really is a threat to the Republic. His belligerent temperament, inability to incorporate facts that he does not like, loose grasp of the issues, lack of understanding and respect for the nation's history and political culture, and boorish disrespect for any person or group who thwarts his ambitions make him completely unfit to hold the office. Like many others, I had thought that his incompetence and brutishness could not possibly survive the political process. I believed he was a sideshow oddity and that there was a ceiling on his popularity. I didn't think he would win a state, much less the Republican nomination. I saw his boast about "grab[bing] [women] by the pussy" as a campaign-ending revelation. But at every turn, Trump has refused to fade away. The election is fast approaching and he could conceivably win.
So after a long primary and electoral campaign, I face the voting booth without enthusiasm. If casting a vote for Hillary Clinton is the only thing I can do to thwart the possibility of Donald Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States, then I guess I'm with her.