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The Wrong Kind of Experience

Hillary Clinton's record suggests she'll wield power to undermine progressive goals — not advance them.

There’s a battle raging within American liberalism, and it’s a familiar one — a repeat of the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. Then, as now, Hillary Clinton was the party establishment’s “inevitable” candidate, facing a challenger deemed more progressive and politically steadfast than her — a plausible embodiment of the aspirations of the party’s rank-and-file.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s challenger was a young black senator from Chicago; now it’s a grizzled Jewish senator from Vermont. But just like the 2008 campaign, Clinton supporters have leveled accusations of sexism against those who prefer her opponent while struggling to make a strong, substantive case for her.

This time around they’ve settled for describing Sanders as a naïve, unelectable dreamer. And then, as now, scathing criticism of Hillary Clinton could not be clearly distinguished from the anger that still simmers over her husband’s presidency — which cemented the Democratic Party’s long lurch to the right — and his profitable career in professional philanthropy that followed.

Journalist Doug Henwood has recently injected a new broadside into this debate: My Turn: Hillary Clinton Takes Aim At The Presidency. Henwood is best known for his 1997 book Wall Street, which argued that Wall Street functioned less as a way for American industry to raise capital than as an instrument of ideology that establishes (and reproduces) the prestige and apparent indispensability of the financial system.

Henwood’s abiding interest in economic issues and the way they interact with political realities to ensure the bottom line is apparent in My Turn as well. The book’s opening pages note that eight million jobs will have to be created to return the United States to pre-recession employment figures and that income inequality is worse than it has ever been.

His insistence on grounding his many rhetorical and analytical fusillades in the material conditions of US life ensures that his detailed, unflinching look at the Clintons’ long public history cannot be written off as a sexist attack. Instead, Henwood’s brief is directed squarely at Hillary Clinton’s political opportunism, her reflexive secrecy, her frequent patronage of friends and cronies, her belligerent approach to foreign policy, her scant legislative record in the Senate, and her unimpressive tenure as secretary of state.

To the extent that Clinton’s identity serves as a basis for Henwood’s critique, it is not her gender, but her identification with, and championing of the interests of, the powerful and wealthy American elite that makes her an unworthy candidate.

The Clintons are card-carrying members of that elite: Bill Clinton’s wealth has been estimated at is $55 million; Hillary’s at $32 million. They defend the powerful and the structures that maintain that power, they pay lip service to caring for the not-so-fortunate, and under cover of doing so, find ways to increase their wealth and political power (as the close ties between their Clinton Foundation and its corporate allies show).

The best, or worst, example of this latter tendency may be found in Hillary Clinton’s record in Haiti, where as secretary of state she oversaw an election riven by corruption, active suppression of increases in minimum wages, and incompetent reconstruction efforts — which fattened the pockets of private contractors — after the 2010 earthquake. All this while the US embassy constructed luxurious housing for its staff and the Clinton’s friends secured contracts to build luxury hotels. (There is truth to Henwood’s claim that the Haiti passages in My Turn are “almost alone worth the price of admission.”)

Henwood’s accusations are damning and detailed. As his analysis makes clear, Clinton’s record has repeatedly demonstrated: her desire to cozy up to power and her disinclination to rock political boats; her commitment to expediency above any political principle; and her trafficking in greed of several flavors.

In Arkansas, during her pre-Washington days, Clinton served on Walmart’s board for six years and never spoke up against its anti-union activities or against its discrimination against women, and in her Senate campaign, Clinton supported the death penalty, welfare restrictions, and a balanced budget.

Once in the Senate, she voted for the Iraq War — without, as Henwood notes, even reading the intelligence report on Iraq — while voting in favor of the 2001 bankruptcy reform bill, which if passed would have made it harder for ordinary Americans to file for bankruptcy, more often than not caused by unaffordable medical bills.

Overall, Clinton’s legislative record was scant, and as Henwood caustically concludes, purely nominal — the equivalent of “opposing cancer.” In this regard, Clinton is in no way unique among career politicians, but she’s certainly no transformational outsider either.

Henwood discusses, and roundly condemns, the sexism that has explicitly and implicitly animated much of the commentary on Hillary Clinton’s political career. But, as he argues, the bald misogyny of many of her critics is a “distraction,” one that has prevented a more sober look at her record in politics. Instead, sexist critiques of Hillary have encouraged counterproductive forms of wagon circling on the Left and induced potentially damaging sectarian dispute in those same precincts.

Still, the misogyny of some of Clinton’s critics does not automatically translate into a feminist case for Clinton’s candidacy. “The side of feminism I’ve studied and admired,” Henwood writes, “[has not been about] merely placing women into high places while leaving the overall hierarchy of power largely unchanged.”

Instead, radical feminists seek to reconfigure or overturn the political and economic structures that keep women marginalized within their social strata, starting at the bottom. The materialist feminisms to which Henwood alludes argue that no superficial adjustment to political power relations can ameliorate the disproportionate harm the current economic and political system inflicts on women.

The American example of race relations makes an analogous case. Barack Obama’s election to the presidency was a significant triumph in the battle for racial equality, but it did little to change the everyday social and economic realities faced by the majority of African-Americans. In fact, many of his policies deepened the inequities that structure black working-class life.

Some — like Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow — have even suggested isolated success stories like Obama’s do more harm than good by encouraging the damaging illusion that the achievement of racial equality within the ruling class represents real progress for the majority of black Americans.

US history provides ample evidence that racial and social justice movements have won only partial and ambiguous victories through impact litigation and the advancement of a handful of exemplary figures to the higher echelons of power. The real battle to eliminate structural, economic inequalities remains to be won. As Henwood argues, “Magical interventions from the top won’t change much. If, by some freakish accident, Sanders ever got elected, the established order would crush him. We’ll never find salvation, or even decency, from above.”

Or, to put it in terms that Clinton is fond of: air operations will not do the trick; you need boots on the ground.

Still, Clinton’s candidacy has not lacked for support among feminists, especially those who focus on the promise she once held out. Clinton advocates, like Rebecca Traister, often point to the young Hillary Clinton’s work on a variety of worthy causes.

By now, the litany is familiar. We are first told that as an undergraduate at Wellesley, Clinton wrote her thesis on Saul Alinsky. But, as Henwood points out, by then, she had already become disenchanted with community organizing, dismissing community action programs as “too idealistic and simplistic” and accusing welfare programs of creating a “cycle of dependency.”

Later, as a law student at Yale, she monitored trials for civil rights violations, including a prosecution of Black Panther militants (this claim though, seems to have shallow roots in fact). And then, as a young lawyer, she built her career at public agencies, like Legal Services Corporation, and nonprofits, like the Children’s Defense Fund, fighting for the rights of poor women and children.

But Traister admits that during the decades that followed, “she contorted” into a figure more accommodating to the status quo, eager to compromise in whatever manner was required to advance first her husband’s, and then her own, political ambitions.

Traister blames sexism for Clinton’s metamorphoses. “America did not much like this woman when she first came to us,” Traister writes, and though she allows that Clinton bears ultimate responsibility for the decisions she has made in office, it is “also on us, and our longstanding lack of appetite for [ambitious] women who threaten or trouble us.”

But sexism alone can’t explain Clinton’s decades-long betrayal of her once-progressive credentials. While working in Arkansas for the Rose Law Firm and its client, Walmart, Clinton took on a case against the community organizing group ACORN, which had fought for different electricity rates for commercial and residential users. Clinton crafted a legal strategy favored by right-wing attacks on administrative agency regulation: that such measures amounted to unconstitutional “takings of property.”

Later, during Bill Clinton’s administration, after the failure of her efforts as chair of the Task Force on National Health Care Reform, Clinton aided destructive legislation like the welfare reform bill that shoved millions of needy families off welfare rolls. (Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, described this infamous bill as an “abomination.”)

Such legislation, as well as her support for a “balanced budget,” were disastrous for the American working class and helped push the nation’s mainstream political debate considerably rightward. Later, after becoming a senator, she supported George W. Bush’s work requirements for recipients of the surviving welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Clinton’s lack of progressive ideals is especially visible in her work as secretary of state — a record that Henwood subjects to especially withering analysis — where she oversaw a belligerent foreign policy: she backed an escalation of the war in Afghanistan, supported intervention in Libya, called for strikes in Syria, urged an ongoing military role in Iraq, and enthusiastically supported Israel’s policies in Gaza.

As secretary of state, Clinton supposedly worked on issues like “empowerment of women, gay rights, Third World development, health and internet freedoms,” but there is little tangible impact to report in those domains. She did help impose tough sanctions on Iran and negotiated neoliberal free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. She also dispensed plenty of patronage to friends, ensuring waiver of the usual background scrutiny for those she hired to well-paid positions at the Department of State.

In a classic instance of neocolonial appropriation of nationalized industries, Clinton actively worked to open up Mexican oil and gas to American corporations, and joined a long and dishonorable tradition of American foreign policy by supporting a coup in Honduras against the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya.

Henwood’s account of the Clinton State Department is damning in other respects as well. He argues that the position was extremely lucrative for the Clintons: in a rather transparent quid pro quo Clinton dispensed favors in international business deals to her corporate allies who in turn donated to the Clinton philanthropies — business elites got contracts and in turn gave funds to the foundation, which were siphoned off for luxurious travel and sundry expenses.

During her tenure as secretary of state, Bill Clinton gave ten of his thirteen speeches — between 2001 and 2012 — that have netted him over half a million dollars each; “many of those speeches were sponsored by groups with interests before the state department.” As Henwood notes, journalists can only go so far in charging the Clintons with corruption; legal investigation is needed to make these charges stick.

Whatever factors motivated Clinton’s retreat from the positions she once held, she has now had ample opportunity — as first lady, as US senator, as secretary of state — to demonstrate how she will wield power once she gets it; it is implausible to suggest the real, more progressive politician will emerge once the demands of the campaign are behind her.

Henwood’s critique of Clinton is, however, more than just a long recitation of charges to be laid at her door. He reminds us real political change will only be achieved by unglamorous work, by racking up, slowly, the small victories of the kind that Clinton, in her battles against ACORN in Arkansas, did a great deal to undermine.

It will not be enough to crown a new ruler; militant political mobilization and worker organizing remain the only sure way to challenge entrenched corporate power.