In a recent article, Robert Reich writes:
“Does Hillary Clinton understand that the biggest divide in American politics is no longer between the right and the left, but between the anti-establishment and the establishment?
“I worry she doesn’t – at least not yet.
“A Democratic operative I’ve known since the Bill Clinton administration told me, ‘Now that she’s won the nomination, Hillary is moving to the middle. She’s going after moderate swing voters.’
“Presumably that’s why she tapped Tim Kaine to be her vice president. Kaine is as vanilla middle as you can get.
“The most powerful force in American politics today is anti-establishment fury at a system rigged by big corporations, Wall Street, and the super-wealthy.
“In fairness, Hillary is only doing what she knows best. Moving to the putative center is what Bill Clinton did after the Democrats lost the House and Senate in 1994 …”
I often admire Reich’s advocacy on behalf of progressive causes, but I find his analysis here to be smug, superficial, and sexist.
To be fair, he doesn’t get everything wrong; Bill Clinton did move to the “putative center.” There is rising anger against “big corporations, Wall Street, and the super-wealthy.” And Tim Kaine is no radical.
Beyond that, however, I can’t find much to agree with here.
First: His observation that Clinton fails to understand that “the biggest divide in American politics is no longer between the right and the left, but between the anti-establishment and the establishment?” is wrong in a double sense. The biggest divide – and Hillary clearly understands this well – has never been between the right and left. And the main divide is not the clash between the “anti-establishment and the establishment.” Sure, the establishment/anti-establishment idea has increasingly fractured U.S. politics and shapes popular thinking. Bernie Sanders especially echoed this sentiment in his campaign. But it hasn’t replaced the main political division. And that division is between right-wing extremism on the one side and a broad, diverse, multi-class people’s movement on the other.
This divide between ultra-right extremism and the rest of us dates back to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and nearly 40 years later, shockingly, it remains our overarching reality, structuring politics, political possibilities, and the current elections.
Indeed, the main and immediate political challenge at the moment is to defeat Trump and the rest of the right wing down the ticket in a landslide. Such a rout would cause people here and worldwide to breathe a sigh of relief. But more: it would give a fresh impulse and a popular mandate to secure badly needed political, economic, and social reforms in the near term and over a longer horizon to vigorously challenge globalized production and financialization in their neoliberal form.
Second: Reich, who was Secretary of Labor in the Bill Clinton administration, complains that Hillary is “going after moderate voters.” But is there something wrong with reaching out to moderates? Should she ignore them? Dismiss them? Or cede them to Trump and the right wing? If there a pathway to a landslide victory in November that doesn’t include “moderate” as well as – this may sound heretical to some who are lost in pure and uncomplicated categories of class and social struggle – a chunk of traditional Republican voters, I’m not sure what that path is.
So the question isn’t why is Hillary reaching out to such voters, the question is why wouldn’t she? And the follow up question is: how can we help her? Of course, her campaign and the broad coalition that supports her should reach out to “first time” and “stay-at-home” voters – not to mention register new voters, too. In other words, employ, with some updating and on a broader scale, the playbook of President Obama’s two successful presidential runs.
Third: Reich – and he unfortunately has plenty of company on the left – locks Hillary into a tightly constructed political category from which he allows her no space to escape, when he writes, “Hillary is only doing what she knows best. Moving to the putative center is what Bill Clinton did after the Democrats lost the House and Senate in 1994 …”
Other than a conversation with a “Democratic operative,” Reich brings no evidence to bear on his claim that Hillary is tacking to the right. Perhaps, bowing to the Hillary-hating that is nearly a national pastime, that is all he thinks is necessary. Sorry Bob, it isn’t. Some facts have to be offered. But none are and a good part of the reason is that the facts strongly suggest otherwise. From the tenor of her primary campaign, to her search for common ground with Bernie Sanders, to her embrace of the unprecedentedly progressive convention platform, to her acceptance speech at the Democratic Party convention, and to her election campaigning so far, she has been breaking in a progressive direction on a broad range of class and democratic issues. (And the wall between “class and democratic issues” is very permeable; I use “interpenetrate” to capture their interaction and dynamic).
Despite this reality, Reich (and some others on the left) are stingy with their praise for Hillary and seldom if ever mention the significance of the glass ceiling that she will break if she is victorious. Instead, they are far more likely to critique – at times blast – her. I guess they think that to do otherwise might leave them open to criticism from others on the left, thereby tarnishing what is most precious to them – their progressive and radical credentials.
Moreover, Reich, without any qualification, assumes that what Bill did Hillary will do. In other words, she has to not only pay for the sins of her husband, but, as a dutiful woman and wife, she is programmed to repeat them, according to Reich. That kind of pigeon-holing insultingly dismisses HER and the possibility that HER thinking may have evolved in the face of the global economic crash, or sluggish recovery and persistent income stagnation, or the epidemic of shootings of young Black men and the challenges to the criminal justice system, or the upward climb of the planet’s temperature, or the growth and surge of popular movements, or policy failures of previous Democratic administrations, or even the narrowing limits of U.S. power projection in the global theater.
I’m sure Reich wouldn’t put himself into such an ideological iron cage, but he has no hesitation to dump Hilary there and turn her into a creature of the past destined to do what her husband did. It seems that in Reich’s world, once in the dog house, always in the dog house, especially if you are a smart woman who I’m guessing clashed with Reich on one thing or another in the past. This is a sexist and sloppy analysis. We should expect better from Robert Reich.