A democratic moment
Hillary Clinton needs her new progressive agenda as much as America does
By Don Watson
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“It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”
– Political strategist Frank Luntz
It seems certain a majority of voters in the United States have – at last – decided that Donald Trump is too odious and they will elect Hillary Clinton the 45th president. As she will be the first woman to fill the position, this will be a great day for American democracy, as great as the day eight years ago when the first African-American was elected. There is nothing small in these developments. From now on neither race nor gender stands between an American citizen and the presidency. Not only Chelsea Clinton or Ivanka Trump but also Michelle Obama and her daughters can be president. American democracy just keeps on giving.
Choosing a woman to be the most powerful person in the world is only half the good news: the other half is that Trump will not be chosen. The world will get a woman and dodge a cluster bomb. The trouncing she gave him in the first debate should have put an end to it. His pronouncements should have. Or the thought of him as commander-in-chief of the American military and its US$600 billion annual budget, with his finger never far from the nuclear button – not that the prospect of Clinton in the role is much cause for comfort.
But the issue was not to be decided on questions of race or rights, or justice, or the chances of humanity surviving for a few more decades. As commentary on the first presidential debate mainly concerned the weight of a Miss Universe contestant, over the second one loomed an 11-year-old video of a conversation Trump had with Billy Bush (NBC presenter, celebrity spruiker, cousin of Dubya and Jeb, nephew of old George) in which Trump spoke of his predatory sexual habits and likely serial assaults on women. It was this that sent him crashing in the polls from a virtual tie with Clinton to seven points behind her, and cost him the support of several dozen Republican heavies. (For his complicity in the outrage, Billy Bush was drummed out of NBC.) Just why it took that video and the subsequent accusations of eight women to convince so many voters (mainly college-educated women, the polls suggest) that Trump is a creep is strange indeed. Couldn’t they tell by watching him? What’s not only strange but alarming, and much more telling, is that a manifest crook and quasi fascist became the Republican candidate in a landslide, and just a month from polling day was still within reach of the White House.
There is more good news. Thanks largely to her erstwhile Democrat opponent Bernie Sanders, Clinton will be elected on the most progressive platform in memory. Sympathetic commentators who have bothered to read the party manifesto (now in the form of a book called Stronger Together) have called it the “new New Deal”. Sanders and his formidable co-religionist Elizabeth Warren are stumping the provinces for Clinton; sometimes, in what must be an unalloyed knees-up for progressive audiences, they are together on the same stage.
It might be just Clinton’s political reflexes, but there are signs that something of her old reforming self has been awakened by the campaign. She can still mix her exceptionalist mantras – on television after the shooting of an unarmed black man in Oklahoma, she said it was not the way to “the city on the hill, striving for the more perfect union” – but she now also talks about “systemic racism” and “implicit bias” in institutions including the nation’s police forces, and the need for white Americans to imagine themselves in black Americans’ shoes.
This is bravery unimaginable six months ago. No doubt Clinton has been pulled there by Black Lives Matter, as she’s been pulled to more radical positions by Sanders and Warren. And she must have been made bolder by Trump’s insipidness in the first debate and his downright scary performance in the second. And all the while the Republicans look more craven and inept.
In the circumstances Clinton was bound to say that, while globalisation, trade and immigration are good for America, and while the economy is growing and job growth is unprecedented, the country has to do more for those who missed out on the benefits. But the platform goes beyond that kind of cant. The promises are many and impressive. There’s the biggest investment in jobs since World War Two, the biggest investment in infrastructure since Eisenhower’s highway program. She will make America “the clean energy superpower of the world”. She will “reward” companies that invest in American jobs and share profits with their employees, and penalise those that move their business overseas to avoid tax. She’ll reform the tax code in favour of working Americans, “make debt-free college available to everyone”. There will be paid family and medical leave; child care; “universal, quality, affordable health care”; immigration reform. Her husband’s “three strikes” policy notwithstanding, she intends “ending mass incarceration”. The Trans Pacific Partnership is weighted too heavily against American jobs and American interests, and she will oppose it “before and after the election”. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will be “renegotiated”. There will be tougher regulation of Wall Street and the banks, and tougher penalties for executive miscreants. “As President,” voters are told, “Hillary will make sure that corporations and the most fortunate play by the rules and pay their fair share – because they can afford it, and we’re all in this together.” Well, sometimes she does stray towards cant.
The Clinton domestic doctrine directly confronts the Republicans’ persistent 30-year effort to satisfy their greed-inspired anti-government obsessions and their historic mission to dismantle the New Deal with what is generally known as supply-side (or “trickle down”, or “horse and sparrow”) economics. Keynes – or at least Paul Krugman – is back. The wife of the president who let capital off its post-Depression leash says she will put it on again. “Democrats for the Leisure Class” is what Jesse Jackson called Bill Clinton’s Democratic Leadership Council; but the woman who followed her husband’s every step as he took the Democrats to the right, to the donor class and the elites – or towards “pragmatic” progressivism, as she called it when she was trying to beat off Bernie – will now lead them back to the working class. The candidate whose husband gave the country NAFTA, and the ally of the president who wants to give us all the Trans Pacific Partnership, has lined up with their opponents. The free trader has become the economic nationalist. The woman who earned just shy of a quarter of a million dollars each time she spoke to Wall Street has sworn to rein the banks in. The candidate whose campaign raised billions from corporations says she will make good citizens of them. By God, she’s going to end every species of injustice and corruption and make America great again – Whoops!
We don’t have to believe her, of course. And a lot of people don’t: according to a recent poll, upwards of 60% of millennials, for instance. Two in ten Obama supporters say they will not vote for her. Only six in ten Democrat-leaning independents intend to vote for Democrat candidates for the Senate that Clinton must have on her side if she’s to govern with effect and get her justices onto the Supreme Court. It might be enough to win the White House, but relying on the anti-Trump vote to overcome the anti-Hillary factor looks like a losing strategy in the longer run. A quarter of Sanders supporters are still holding out against Clinton. Sixty per cent of millennials say the country needs a revolution, not incremental change, and that includes half of those who intend to vote for Clinton. James Carville’s Democracy Corps found trickle-down economics and corporate power and wealth were millennials’ dominant concerns, and Clinton made most progress with them when she made the case against neoliberalism and said what they wanted to hear: “that [she] is upset with what is happening with corporations and politicians and she will take on the corporate special interests”.
Clinton not only needs her new progressive message, she needs to believe in it. The story of Hillary Clinton, as it is understood by American voters, has kept Trump in the game, and it will do more than a bit to keep Republicans in control of Congress. What’s more, pragmatic progressivism (or “rational”, or “neoliberal”, or “neither liberal nor conservative”, or whatever you want to call the Clintons’ guiding philosophy) has not always proved to be either pragmatic or progressive. Support for the invasion of Iraq comes to mind, as does the persistent failure to regain the House majority they lost in 1994. Mrs Clinton needs a new story, not just to counter Trump’s tale of betrayal and decline and the GOP’s Ayn Rand fixation; she needs it to give herself a new identity and her presidency momentum and purpose. It will be as nothing to the might of the military, and even less to the unstoppable forces of economic globalisation and monopolisation. But without a radical chapter in her story the past 18 months, not to say her lifetime of relentless work and manoeuvring, will be for precious little.
More to the point, her country needs it. US infrastructure is run-down; wages for a third of the population are pathetically low; inequality is grotesque, and worsening; the system, as Elizabeth Warren says every day, is rigged – towards the very rich. And if the pattern continues, the republic, as its founders warned, might not endure. Clinton should need no convincing: the proof is right in front of her and its name is Trump. It’s there in every Trump rally, every Tea Party rally, every time Trump says that as president he will put her in jail or one of his supporters says she should be shot. It’s there not only in Trump but also in those lining up to succeed him. And in the dark forces, both old and new, and the pervasive fear that, with the help of Fox News and the wisdom of Frank Luntz, they will continue to feed and be fed by.
Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, American Journeys, The Bush and, most recently, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’.