What is the core philosophy of today’s Democratic Party and does it serve anyone’s interests other than a wealthy elite? Thomas Frank lays bare Democrats’ abandonment of their purported values — and the role this has played in entrenching economic inequality — in his sardonic new book, Listen, Liberal. Order your copy by making a donation to Truthout today!
The following is an excerpt from Chapter 11 of Listen Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? It describes the puzzling and contradictory “microclimate of virtue that surrounds Hillary Clinton.”
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As Hillary Clinton has no doubt noticed, the circumstances of 2016 present a striking similarity to the ones that put her husband in the White House in 1992. Again Americans are outraged at the way the middle class is falling to pieces and at the greed of the people on top. The best-seller lists are once again filled with books about in equality. Today Americans are working even harder for even less than when Bill Clinton made “working harder for less” his campaign catchphrase. Hillary Clinton — the way any Democrat — will play such a situation is extremely easy to guess.
“You see corporations making record profits, with CEOs making record pay, but your paychecks have barely budged,” Hillary declared in June 2015, launching her presidential campaign. “Prosperity can’t be just for CEOs and hedge fund managers.” On she talked as the months rolled by, pronouncing in her careful way the rote denunciations of Wall Street that were supposed to make the crowds roar and the financiers tremble.
That those financiers and hedge fund managers do not actually find Hillary’s populism menacing is a well-established fact. Barack Obama’s mild rebukes caused Wall Street to explode in fury and self-pity back in 2009 and 2010; the financiers pouted and cried and picked up their campaign donations and went home. But Hillary’s comments provoke no such reaction. Only a few days before she launched her campaign, for example, John Mack, the former CEO of Morgan Stanley, was asked by a host on the Fox Business channel whether her populist talk was causing him to reconsider his support for her. On the contrary: “To me, it’s all politics,” he responded. “It’s trying to get elected, to get the nomination.”
“None of them think she really means her populism,” wrote a prominent business journalist in 2014 about the bankers and Hillary. The Clinton Foundation has actually held meetings at the headquarters of Goldman Sachs, he points out. He quotes another Morgan Stanley officer, who believes that “like her husband, [Hillary] will govern from the center, and work to get things done, and be capable of garnering support across different groups, including working with Republicans.”
How are the bankers so sure? Possibly because they have read the memoirs of Robert Rubin, the former chairman of Citibank, the former secretary of the Treasury, the former co-head of Goldman Sachs. One of the themes in this book is Rubin’s constant war with the populists in the Party and in the Clinton administration — a struggle in which Hillary was an important ally. Rubin tells how Hillary once helped him to get what he calls “class-laden language” deleted from a presidential speech and also how she helped prevent the Democrats from appealing to “class conflict” in a general election — on the grounds that it “is not an effective approach” to the “swing voters in the middle of the electorate.”
Trying to figure out exactly where Hillary Clinton actually stands on political issues can be crazy-making. As a presidential candidate, for example, she says she deplores the revolving door between government and Wall Street because it destroys our “trust in government” — a noble sentiment. When she ran the State Department, however, that door spun on a well-lubricated axis. As a presidential candidate, she opposes Obama’s TransPacific Partnership treaty, as do I; as secretary of state, however, she helped negotiate it. As a presidential candidate in 2008, she claimed to oppose NAFTA, the first great triumph of the (Bill) Clinton administration; not only had she supported it earlier, but as a US senator, she had voted for numerous Bush administration free-trade treaties.
The same is true nearly wherever you look. The great imprisonment mania of the 1990s, for example: As first lady, Hillary’s appetite to incarcerate was unassuageable. “We need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat off enders,” she said in 1994, kicking off a bloodthirsty call for more three-strikes laws. On another day, seven years later, Senator Hillary Clinton could be found urging law students to “Dare to care about the one and a half million children who have a parent in jail.” Even the wellbeing of poor women and children, Hillary’s great signature issue in her youth, had to hit the bricks when the time arrived in for welfare reform, a mea sure she not only supported but for which she says she lobbied. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Hillary liked to identify herself with working-class middle Americans; as a lawyer in Arkansas in the Eighties, however, she was a proud member of the board of directors of Wal-Mart, the retailer that has acted on middle America like a neutron bomb. As a student leader in the Sixties, she opposed the Vietnam War; as a senator in the Bush years, she voted for the Iraq War; as a presidential candidate, she has now returned to her roots and acknowledges that vote was wrong….
Times change. Politicians compromise. Neither is a sin. The way Hillary herself puts it is that while her principles never waver, “I do absorb new information.” Still, her combination is unique. She is politically capricious, and yet (as we shall see) she maintains an image of rock-solid moral commitment. How these two coexist is the mystery of Hillary Rodham Clinton….
Nothing is more characteristic of the liberal class than its members’ sense of their own elevated goodness…
That was my first experience of the microclimate of virtue that surrounds Hillary Rodham Clinton. The mystic bond between high-achieving American professionals and the planet’s most victimized people, I would discover, is a recurring theme in her life and work.
But it is not her theme alone. Regardless of who leads it, the professional-class liberalism I have been describing in these pages seems to be forever traveling on a quest for some place of greater righteousness. It is always engaged in a search for some subject of overwhelming, noncontroversial goodness with which it can identify itself and under whose umbrella of virtue it can put across its self- interested class program.
Copyright (2016) by Thomas Frank. Not to be reprinted without the permission of the Publisher, Henry Holt and Company (Metropolitan Books).