I argued last week that left-of-center pundits who are demanding someone in the Democratic Party pose a challenge to Hillary Clinton are not offering arguments. Instead, they are expressing anxiety. Fears, not reasons. They worry that Clinton won’t earn the party’s nomination, but instead seize it as a birthright, which runs afoul of liberal commitments to merit, competition, and fair play.
Because the Republicans have no such concern (despite Jeb Bush’s urging to the contrary), I argued that the stakes are too high for restarting debate over first principles. Unlike 2008, Hillary Clinton now stands alone with no significant opposition in sight. Yes, I know. Bernie Sanders, the democratic-socialist senator from Vermont, announced his candidacy on Thursday. As I said, no significant opposition. I love Bernie’s bomb-throwing as much as any other lefty, but he doesn’t stand a chance. For now, Hillary Clinton is the best choice for maintaining Barack Obama’s broad voting coalition and for protecting the hard-won progressive gains of the president’s administration.
It was a cold-blooded analysis, perhaps made colder by the fact that I wasn’t writing from the heart. I was instead writing as a voter, and voters must, I contend, try to pierce, as much as possible, through the “hologram” of American politics, as the late great populist Joe Bageant put it. So I’m getting in line behind the Democratic frontrunner even though I personally prefer a dialectic over values, issues, and ideals; even though I personally believe that ideological duels among like-minded partisans is healthy and good; and even though I personally dislike Hillary Clinton.
I realized this dislike in 1991 when I was 17 years old. Arkansas governor Bill Clinton was running for the nomination against Jerry Brown (who had been, and is once again, governor of California). Brown had accused Clinton of “funneling money to his wife’s law firm for state business.” Pressed to respond, his wife said: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession.”
This comment is usually seen as an artifact of the “culture wars” and the “debate” over the legacy of second-wave feminism. But there’s more to it than that. At the heart of Clinton’s “cookies-and-tea” comment was a kind of rank classism that drove a wedge between voters who would otherwise find common ground in advancing mutually beneficial agendas. Labor is labor, whether done in public or in private, but the Ivy League-educated wife of a presidential up-and-comer was too elitist to see the truth of the matter. The result was stay-at-home mothers — like my own housekeeping mom — splitting from the Democrats and running into the waiting arms of GOP conservatives.
Even so, I believe Hillary Clinton would make a decent president, maybe even a good one, despite her elitism leaving a memorably bad taste in my mouth. People are usually surprised to hear that. They are surprised, I suspect, because the parties and the media, consciously and unconsciously, encourage voters to view candidates as if they were products — as a brand whose image embodies a vast web of psychological phenomena. This despite the fact that familiar candidates like Hillary Clinton are mere mortals whose views and policy positions have long been known. Even so, if you buy a product, the assumption is that you like it. And indeed, candidates have been “sold” to voters for decades. In The Selling of the President, a classic of the 1968 presidential election, the late journalist Joe McGinnis wrote that once politicians and ad men “recognized that the citizen does not so much vote for a candidate as make a psychological purchase of him, [it wasn’t] surprising that they began to work together.”
Since 1968, that profitable alliance has grown in size and sophistication. Anyone can see that. What we can’t see is our political blindness. As Joe Bageant put it, we don’t see the candidates; we see their “hologram.” “All things are purchasable, and indeed, access to anything of value is through purchase. Even mood and consciousness, through psychopharmacology, to suppress our anxiety or enhance sexual performance, or cyberspace linkups to porn, palaver, and purchasing opportunities. But most of all, the hologram generates and guides us to purchasing opportunities.”
The hologram draws much of its power from the fantastical desire for the perfect candidate. Case in point: Barack Obama. He was going to bring change to Washington. How wonderful! Though he did try, the president soon learned he could not transform politics as usual. No way. Indeed, the man who promised to overcome partisanship became, thanks to total Republican obstruction, a pure partisan.
Democratic voters must try to pierce through the Hillary Clinton Hologram, as much as they can, to see the person. The mere mortal. The flawed, maybe tragic, human being. The woman who once thought herself too good to bake cookies at home. She has baggage and can be found ideologically wanting. But none of that matters. What matters is that she’s a Democrat who will protect social-insurance programs, defend higher taxes on the wealthy, continue peace talks with Cuba and Iran, and stand behind women’s rights and liberties even if my mom continues to favor Republicans.
And what matters is that her campaign has become a juggernaut that has the potential to roll over her Republican opponent.
In comparison, the fact that I don’t like her is irrelevant.
[Cross-posted at National Memo]