Washington, D.C. (openDemocracy) – The French novelist Madame de Staël is said to have remarked, of meeting Napoleon, “Ce n’est point un homme, c’est un système”: “he is not a man, but a system”. This offers a useful template for understanding the contemporary centre-left career politician, whose persona is determined less by recognisably human qualities than by cold, technocratic prowess. Recall the sociopathic adroitness of Tony Blair: after some ten years in charge of the UK, no-one was any the wiser about what he stood for, or who he was. To the extent that he represented anything at all, he represented Tony Blair. Under his leadership the Labour Party fetishised power for its own sake, a strategy which won three general elections but has proved disastrous for its prospects in the longer term. Any retrospective of that era would struggle to disentangle Blair from New Labour, and New Labour in turn from the exigencies of the neoliberal consensus of the 1990s.
A similar dilemma is at hand in any critical examination of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner for this year’s US presidential election. Doug Henwood, an American journalist and a contributing editor at The Nation, has written a short, punchy book challenging Clinton’s campaign narrative, particularly her self-identification as a plucky underdog, by highlighting her cosy relationship with big business and her dubious track record on policy.
My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency is neither exhaustive – the author helpfully points the reader in the direction of several more detailed studies – nor, in its pamphlet-style, conversational tone, especially polished. But it makes a simple, important point very effectively: that there is, and always has been, a distinctive whiff of cronyism and dishonesty about the way Hillary Clinton does politics. In one characteristic passage, Henwood draws our attention to a Wall Street Journal article that revealed how some 60 major corporations – including GE, Exxon Mobil, Microsoft and Boeing – which lobbied the State Department during her time as secretary of state, also happened to donate a total of $26 million to the Clinton Foundation in this time. And 44 of those 60 corporations participated in projects coordinated by the affiliated Clinton Global Initiative, a contentious programme which arranged for the US diplomatic corps to work in tandem with big corporations to further American economic interests abroad.
It is never quite capital-C corruption; it is more oblique, more osmotic. But there is definitely, says Henwood, an “aura of quid pro quo” about such arrangements: “The recurrent pattern of benefits and favours looks too established to be a long series of accidents.”
To what extent are such shenanigans specific to Hillary Clinton, and to what extent are they just inherent in US political culture? As any Marxist will tell you, cronyism is built into the very DNA of the capitalist state. As such, Henwood’s indictment of Clinton is really a comment on the banality of corruption, and an implicit call for a more progressive, authentically democratic politics. His is by no means a lone voice, as witness the considerable public support for Clinton’s leftwing rival for the nomination, Bernie Sanders. Sanders’ politics “are cut from the cloth of traditional social democracy”, notes Henwood, “which makes him a virtual Bolshevik by modern American standards.”
Though he is extremely unlikely to secure the nomination, Sanders has shown up the Clinton effort by attracting vast crowds to his rallies in major cities like Seattle, Boston and Los Angeles. In stark contrast, the Clinton campaign has been having trouble raising funds from small and medium donors, suggesting a serious lack of credibility at the grass-roots level that may cost her party dearly when it comes to the presidential campaign.
A run-down of Hillary Clinton’s positions on key policy areas paints a picture of a politician for whom “political calculation appears to trump genuine shifts in conviction.” She only relinquished a long-standing opposition to gay marriage in 2013, when it seemed inevitable that it would go through; such was her eagerness to vote in favour of the 2003 invasion that she declined to examine the National Intelligence Estimate before casting her vote, even publicly endorsing the canard that Saddam was in league with Osama Bin Laden; whereas in 2008 she had attacked Obama’s stance against mandatory minimum sentences and maintained a distinctly right-wing stance on sentencing issues, she has more recently made pronouncements in favour of a more liberal policy on matters pertaining to policing and the prison system, in an apparent attempt to co-opt the hugely popular Black Lives Matter campaign; in a similar vein, Clinton came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership in September 2015, having previously talked up its virtues at length in a 2011 article in the influential Foreign Policy journal.
Henwood avers that her recent ‘left turn’ is a strategic move to militate against a repeat of her 2008 campaign, when she lost out on the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, by ensuring that she is not outflanked by a more liberal or left-wing candidate. Given her historic record, it is hard to disagree.
An interesting subtext to this 140-page précis of Clinton’s political career is an apparent propensity for fibbing. It is all the more fascinating because some of the lies are apparently quite gratuitous, and it is hard to understand the motivation for them. If donning a New York Yankees hat and falsely pretending to be a longtime fan was a transparent ruse to enhance her popular appeal, it is harder to see why she felt the need to deny that her 1996 memoir, It Takes a Village, had been ghostwritten by a journalism professor at Georgetown University in Washington. The same goes for her notorious fabrication, in March 2008, of a story about having landed under sniper fire in Bosnia in 1996.
Then there is the altogether more serious matter of the Honduras coup of 2009, in which a military coup overthrew a liberal president, Manuel Zelaya: in her memoir, Hard Choices, Clinton claimed that she “didn’t see any choice but to condemn Zelaya’s ouster”, but her email correspondence at the time indicates she had actually made a conscious decision to support the coup. As Henwood points out, what makes this particularly galling is that Zelaya’s support base comprised a coalition of environmentalists, LGBT activists, birth control activists, progressive clerics, legal reformers – people whose US counterparts would be considered a core Democratic constituency.
The well-documented ‘emailgate’ controversy is of a piece with the general pattern. Though Clinton’s decision to have her electronic correspondence run through a server in her family home instead of the State Department server is not the most scandalous outrage in the history of domestic politics, it points to a tendency towards centralisation and secrecy that goes against the spirit of democratic politics. In common with her forays into casual mendacity, it gives the impression that Clinton is simultaneously acutely image-conscious and staggeringly oblivious to how her actions are perceived. Her dismissal of the email scandal as merely ‘political’, and the churlish condescension of her initial non-apology – “I am sorry that this has been confusing to people” – suggest a certain haughty aloofness from ordinary moral standards, as does the Clinton camp’s reflexive habit of attributing all criticism to some nebulous anti-Clinton conspiracy.
What is conspicuously lacking is any basic awareness that having a reputation for slipperiness might actually diminish her standing in the eyes of fair-minded people, and hinder her electoral prospects.
The pre-publication hype around My Turn was dominated by a rather boring squabble about the book’s striking cover art, which was deemed sexist by some pro-Hillary commentators. If the charge itself was ludicrous – Henwood issues a brief, polite rebuttal in the foreword to this book – it is indicative of the charged atmosphere in which all Clinton-related debate must, it seems, be conducted. There is a vocal section of opinion that will readily interpret any and all criticism of Hillary Clinton as inherently sexist, and denounce it as such. Henwood calls into question Clinton’s integrity and her political convictions, while acknowledging her technical talents as a politician; that is as far as it goes, and anyone searching for an ulterior, misogynistic motive will be disappointed.
Gender politics aside, though, it would be remiss not to point out certain minor shortcomings with regard to the tone of this book. The occasional descent into sarcasm and snark, fixated primarily on the Clintons’ personal wealth and its trappings – remarking, in relation to the couple’s property portfolio, that “It’s a good life they made for themselves”; sporadic catty references to “snazzy” and “posh” housing, and so on – does little to enhance the central argument. For better or worse, we are resigned to the fact that most politicians come from the affluent classes, and the excessive emphasis verges on the patronising.
In truth, Henwood is looking beyond the next election, to the one after that. He sees, in the vitality of mass, grass-roots campaigns like Occupy and Black Lives Matter, signs of hope for a renewal of social democratic politics in the United States. It is a hearteningly optimistic prognosis, although the author is by no means unequivocal in his praise of these movements. Henwood’s politics are decidedly of the old-school left, and he articulates a certain frustration with Twitter activism and its indifference to traditional organisational forms. Black Lives Matter, he says, is “very reminiscent of Occupy” in its “emphasis on decent red non-structure and hesitance about embracing an agenda.” In this respect it is “characteristic of so much dissent today: more about self-affirmation and healing than about taking power.” Henwood’s ambivalence speaks to an enduring disconnect within the US political left at large, between those steeped in a broadly labourist tradition and a generation that, having grown up in the 1990s and 2000s, has little affinity with ‘old left’ modes of political organisation. His call for activists to see the issues of mass incarceration and police violence as matters that transcend race – “framing it in purely racial terms misses the breadth of state violence and reduces the constituency for change” – will be problematic for some, who might contend that any attempt to de-racialise these issues plays into the hands of white chauvinists. But his general wariness of identity politics – however out of step with the cultural zeitgeist – is healthy.
My Turn is about more than just Hillary Clinton. If she is indeed slippery and untrustworthy, she is also a product of the system that spawned her, and the contradictions of having to suck up to the rich and powerful while paying lip service to the high ideals of democracy. The problem of Hillary Clinton is the problem of American democracy. One suspects that, outside of her sizeable following, most informed, left-leaning readers will already be familiar with the arguments advanced in this book, and will be broadly sympathetic to them. As for the Clinton hardcore, they will not be swayed. This schism won’t stop her winning the nomination; but it might ultimately put the main prize – the presidency – out of reach.
Doug Henwood, My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency, is out on O/R Books, February 2016.
This report prepared by Houman Barekat for openDemocracy.