Hillary Clinton And The Populist Revolt

The inadequacy of this picture became clear to me in Obama’s first term. During the Great Recession, I visited many hard-hit small towns, exurbs, rural areas, and old industrial cities, and kept meeting Americans who didn’t match the red-blue scheme. They might be white Southern country people, but they hated corporations and big-box stores as well as the federal government. They might have a law practice, but that didn’t stop them from entertaining apocalyptic visions of armed citizens turning to political violence. They followed the Tea Party, but, in their hostility toward big banks, they sounded a little like Occupy Wall Street, or vice versa. They were loose molecules unattached to party hierarchies—more individualistic than the Democrats, more antibusiness than the Republicans. What united them was a distrust of distant leaders and institutions. They believed that the game was rigged for the powerful and the connected, and that they and their children were screwed.

The left-versus-right division wasn’t entirely mistaken, but one could draw a new chart that explained things differently and perhaps more accurately: up versus down. Looked at this way, the élites on each side of the partisan divide have more in common with one another than they do with voters down below. A network-systems administrator, an oil-and-gas-company vice-president, a journalist, and a dermatologist hire nannies from the same countries, dine at the same Thai restaurants, travel abroad on the same frequent-flier miles, and invest in the same emerging-markets index funds. They might have different political views, but they share a common interest in the existing global order. As Thomas Frank put it, “The leadership of the two parties represents two classes. The G.O.P. is a business élite; Democrats are a status élite, the professional class. They fight over sectors important for the national future—Wall Street, Big Pharma, energy, Silicon Valley. That is the contested terrain of American politics. What about the vast majority of people?”

The political upheaval of the past year has clarified that there are class divides in both parties. Bernie Sanders posed a serious insurgent challenge to Clinton, thundering in front of tens of thousands of ardent supporters—all the while sounding like an aging academic who’d have been lucky to attract a dozen listeners at the Socialist Scholars Conference twenty-five years ago. Sanders spoke for different groups of Americans who felt disenfranchised: young people with heavy college debt and lousy career prospects, blue-collar workers who retained their Democratic identity, progressives (many of them professionals) who found Obama and Clinton too moderate. It was a limited and unwieldy coalition, but it had far more energy than Clinton’s constituency.

Initially, Clinton was caught off guard by the public’s anger at the political establishment. She casually proposed her husband as a jobs czar in a second Clinton Presidency, as if globalization hadn’t lost its shine. One of her advisers told me that Hillary’s years in the State Department had insulated her and her staff from the mood of ordinary Americans. So, one could add, did her customary life of socializing with, giving paid speeches to, and raising money from the ultra-rich, whose ranks the Clinton family joined as private citizens. (From 2007 to last year, Bill and Hillary earned a hundred and thirty-nine million dollars; in 2010, their daughter, Chelsea, married a hedge-fund manager.) In 2014, in a speech to the investment firms Goldman Sachs and BlackRock, Hillary Clinton described her solid middle-class upbringing and then admitted, “Now, obviously, I’m kind of far removed, because of the life I’ve lived and the economic, you know, fortunes that my husband and I now enjoy, but I haven’t forgotten it.”

Clinton was saying in private what she can’t or won’t in public. The e-mails hacked from the account of her campaign manager, John Podesta, and released by WikiLeaks, show her staff worrying over passages from her paid speeches that, if made public, could allow her to be portrayed as two-faced and overly friendly with corporate America. But when Clinton told one audience, “You need both a public and a private position,” she was describing what used to be considered normal politics—deploying different strategies to get groups with varying interests behind a policy. Before what Lawrence Summers called “the popularization of politics,” Lyndon Johnson required a degree of deception to pass civil-rights legislation. “It is unsavory, and it always has been that way, but we usually get where we need to be,” Clinton told her audience. “But if everybody’s watching, you know, all of the backroom discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least.” Clinton would be comfortable and productive governing in back rooms—she was known for her quiet bipartisan efforts in the Senate. But Americans today, especially on the Trump right and the Sanders left, won’t give politicians anything close to that kind of trust. Radical transparency occasionally brings corruption to light, but it can also make good governance harder.

Indefatigable and protean, Clinton read the disaffected landscape and adapted in her characteristic style—with a policy agenda. She endorsed profit-sharing for employees and declared opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. She demanded stricter enforcement of trade rules that protect workers, and called for more infrastructure spending and trust-busting. She underscored her commitment to equal pay for women. Publicly, she attacked the bloated salaries of the C.E.O.s with whom she privately socializes and raises money. [cartoon id="flake-2013-09-02"]

I asked Clinton if Obama had made a mistake in not prosecuting any Wall Street executives after the financial crisis. She replied, “I think the failure to be able to bring criminal cases, to hold people responsible, was one of the contributing factors to a lot of the real frustration and anger that a lot of voters feel. There is just nobody to blame. So if we can’t blame Company X or C.E.O. Y, let’s blame immigrants. Right? We’ve got to blame somebody—that’s human nature. We need a catharsis.” F.D.R. had done it by denouncing bankers and other “economic royalists,” Clinton said, her voice rising. “And by doing so he told a story.” She went on, “If you don’t tell people what’s happening to them—not every story has villains, but this story did—at least you could act the way that you know the people in the country felt.”

After defeating Sanders, Clinton tried to win over his supporters by letting them write the Democratic Party platform. It is the farthest left of any in recent memory—it effectively called for a new Glass-Steagall Act. The internal class divide is less severe on the Democratic side. Even Lawrence Summers embraces government activism to reverse inequality, including infrastructure spending and progressive reform of the tax code. But Democrats can no longer really claim to be the party of working people—not white ones, anyway. Those voters, especially men, have become the Republican base, and the Republican Party has experienced the 2016 election as an agonizing schism, a hostile takeover by its own rank and file. Conservative leaders had taken the base for granted for so long that, when Trump burst into the race, in the summer of 2015, they were confounded. Some scoffed at him, others patronized him, but for months they didn’t take him seriously. He didn’t sound like a conservative at all.

Charles Murray is a small-government conservative and no Trump supporter (“He’s just unfit to be President”), but some of his neighbors and friends are. “My own personal political world has crumbled around me,” he said. “The number of people who care about the things I care about is way smaller than I thought a year ago. I had not really seen the great truth that the Trump campaign revealed, that should have been obvious but wasn’t.”

The great truth was that large numbers of Republican voters, especially less educated ones, weren’t constitutional originalists, libertarian free traders, members of the Federalist Society, or devout readers of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. They actually wanted government to do more things that benefitted them (as opposed to benefitting people they saw as undeserving). “The Republicans held on to a very large part of this electorate for years and years, even though those voters increasingly wonder whether Republicans are doing anything for them,” Murray said. “So Trump comes along, and people who were never ideologically committed to the things I’m committed to splinter off.”

Party leaders should have anticipated Trump’s rise—after all, he was created in their laboratory, before he broke free and began to smash everything in sight. The Republican Party hasn’t been truly conservative for decades. Its most energized elements are not trying to restore stability or preserve the status quo. Rather, they are driven by a sense of violent opposition: against changes in color and culture that appear to be sweeping away the country they once knew; against globalization, which is as revolutionary and threatening as the political programs of the Jacobins and the anarchists once were.

“Reactionaries are not conservatives,” the political essayist Mark Lilla writes in his new book, “The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction.” “They are, in their way, just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings.” This is the meaning of Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Though the phrase invoked nostalgia for an imagined past, it had nothing to do with tradition. It was a call to sweep away the ruling order, including the Republican leadership. “The betrayal of élites is the linchpin of every reactionary story,” Lilla writes.

The Trump phenomenon, which has onlookers in Europe and elsewhere agog at the latest American folly, isn’t really exceptional at all. American politics in 2016 has taken a big step toward politics in the rest of the world. The ebbing tide of the white working and middle classes in America joins its counterpart in Great Britain, the Brexit vote; Marine Le Pen’s Front National, in France; and the Alternative für Deutschland party, which has begun to threaten Angela Merkel’s centrist coalition in Germany. To Russians, Trump sounds like his role model, President Vladimir Putin; to Indians, Trump echoes the Hindu nationalism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Even the radical nostalgia of Islamists around the Muslim world bears more than a passing resemblance to the longing of Trump supporters for an America purified and restored to an imagined glory. One way or another, they all represent a reaction against modernity, with its ceaseless anxiety and churn.

A generation ago, a Presidential contender like Trump wasn’t conceivable. Jimmy Carter brought smiling populism to the White House, and Ronald Reagan was derided as a Hollywood cowboy, but both of them had governing experience and substantive ideas that they’d worked out during lengthy public careers. But, as public trust in institutions eroded, celebrities took their place, and the line between politics and entertainment began to disappear. It shouldn’t be surprising that the most famous person in politics is the former star of a reality TV show.

There’s an ongoing battle among Trump’s opponents to define his supporters. Are they having a hard time economically, or are they just racists? Do they need to be listened to, or should they be condemned and written off? Clinton, addressing a fund-raising dinner on Wall Street in September, placed “half” of Trump’s supporters in what she called “the basket of deplorables”—bigots of various types. The other half, she said, are struggling and deserve empathy. Under criticism, she half-apologized, saying that she had counted too many supporters as “deplorables.” Accurate or not, her remarks rivalled Obama’s “guns and religion” and Romney’s “forty-seven per cent” for unwise campaign condescension. All three politicians thought that they were speaking among friends—that is, in front of wealthy donors, the only setting on the campaign trail where truth comes out.

In March, the Washington Post reported that Trump voters were both more economically hard-pressed and more racially biased than supporters of other Republican candidates. But in September a Gallup-poll economist, Jonathan T. Rothwell, released survey results that complicated the picture. Those voters with favorable views of Trump are not, by and large, the poorest Americans; nor are they personally affected by trade deals or cross-border immigration. But they tend to be less educated, in poorer health, and less confident in their children’s prospects—and they’re often residents of nearly all-white neighborhoods. They’re more deficient in social capital than in economic capital. The Gallup poll doesn’t indicate how many Trump supporters are racists. Of course, there’s no way to disentangle economic and cultural motives, to draw a clear map of the stresses and resentments that animate the psyches of tens of millions of people. Some Americans have shown themselves to be implacably bigoted, but bias is not a fixed quality in most of us; it’s subject to manipulation, and it can wax and wane with circumstances. A sense of isolation and siege is unlikely to make anyone more tolerant.

In one way, these calculations don’t matter. Anyone who votes for Trump—including the Dartmouth-educated moderate Republican financial adviser who wouldn’t dream of using racial code words but just can’t stand Hillary Clinton—will have tried to put a dangerous and despicable man in charge of the country. Trump is a national threat like no one else who has come close to the Presidency. Win or lose, he has already defined politics so far down that a shocking degree of hatred, ignorance, and lies is becoming normal. [cartoon id="finck-2015-05-25"]

At the same time, it isn’t possible to wait around for demography to turn millions of disenchanted Americans into relics and expect to live in a decent country. This election has told us that many Americans feel their way of life is disappearing. Perhaps their lament is futile—the world is inexorably becoming Thomas Friedman’s. Perhaps their nostalgia is misguided—multicultural America is more free and equal than the republic of Hamilton and Jefferson. Perhaps their feeling is immoral, implying ugly biases. But it shouldn’t be dismissed. If nearly half of your compatriots feel deeply at odds with the drift of things, it’s a matter of self-interest to try to understand why. Nationalism is a force that élites always underestimate—that’s been a lesson of the year’s seismic political events, here and in Europe. It can be turned to good or ill, but it never completely goes away. It’s as real and abiding as an attachment to family or to home. “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” Trump declared in his convention speech. In his hands, nationalism is a loaded gun, aimed not just at foreigners but also at Americans who don’t make the cut. But people are not wrong to want to live in cohesive communities, to ask new arrivals to become part of the melting pot, and to crave a degree of stability in a moral order based on values other than just diversity and efficiency. A world of heirloom tomatoes and self-driving cars isn’t the true and only Heaven.

Source : http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/31/hillary-clinton-and-the-populist-revolt

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