The figure that emerges from Hillary Clinton’s 50-minute sit-down with Ezra Klein to discuss the 2016 election and her vision of politics is at once sympathetic and maddeningly hypocritical.
The first part of the interview focuses on Clinton’s view of political change—incremental and pragmatic, she says, rather than radical or sweeping. Clinton campaigned on policies that were doable in the here and now, while her populist opponents—Bernie Sanders on the Left and then Donald Trump on the Right—generated much more enthusiasm with detail-free promises and theatrics.
Fair-minded Clinton critics of all stripes ought to be able to sympathize with this challenge. Trying to fact-check populism is a bit like trying to fact-check a pornographic film. People don’t care how plausible it is. It’s not designed to appeal to that part of your brain. Wonkish or detail-oriented arguments against populism often fail to register. Clinton’s contention that she laid out a more coherent governing agenda than Bernie and Trump but the voters and the media brushed it aside in pursuit of shiny objects is important and largely true.
But as the interview progresses, it becomes clear that Hillary’s self-styled pragmatism is not, in fact, the open-minded and evidence-based pluralism that is advertised. Indeed, at its worst, it can be very nearly as militant, very nearly as contemptuous of its critics, and very nearly as impervious to counter-argument as the Left-Right populist pincer that brought it down.
Hillary’s particular kind of dogmatism is first on display when Klein asks her about her infamous Goldman Sachs speeches in the run-up to the election. Clinton cannot or will not acknowledge that pay-to-play can be a problem for public confidence in institutions—not for Democrats, at least, and certainly not for her. “I think it’s theoretically an interesting conversation,” she said, emphasizing the word theoretically, “but you look at somebody like President Obama, who took a lot of money from a lot of different interests, but it didn’t affect how he governed.”
“I think that’s strong, though, to say it didn’t affect how he governed,” said Klein, pushing back. “And I think there is evidence that these kinds of donations do give these interests more of a voice, and that does affect things, certainly in the details.”
“It has always been thus,” Clinton shoots back, impatiently. “If you have seen the musical Hamilton, you know” that in America there have always been special interests.
This is a short summary of a long and revealing exchange indicating that, to Clinton, the idea that corporate money could possibly be corrosive to her or her allies is laughable. After all, unlike the Republicans, she supports repealing Citizens United and implementing public financing for presidential campaigns.
But wait, if money in politics is so obviously a non-problem, why does she support such aggressive measures to change the way campaigns are funded (even if neither of the ones mentioned would have prevented her pre-campaign Wall Street speaking windfall)? Because, well, it is still a problem for Republicans. The Koch brothers, she warns darkly, “say they’re gonna spend $400 million in the 2018 campaign.” That’s a lot to spend if it won’t have any effect on governance! And Donald Trump “funded people on both sides to curry favors.”
Hillary is not corruptible, but the other side is. And Republicans aren’t only buying their way to victory (Hillary repeats this assertion despite the fact Democrats outspent Republicans by hundreds of millions in 2016), they are doing so with the aid of a dishonest and unfair media system. “We don’t control the media the way the right does,” she says, despite the fact that virtually all newspapers endorsed her over Donald Trump. “It’s harder for our message to get out”—this, once again, despite the fact that most politically active celebrities and business leaders, not to mention the sitting President, were championing Clinton’s social policies.
Clinton burns Republicans for wanting a new constitutional convention—”they want radical, pull-’em-up-by-the-roots change, they want to have a constitutional convention to rewrite our Constitution to make it friendlier to business, to inject religious and ideological elements”—but she wants not only to amend the constitution to reverse Citizens United, but to overturn the electoral college. Our system of picking Presidents is “an anachronism.” And that is just one of the ways that her defeat was tainted by illegitimate institutions and practices. “I won in counties that produce two-thirds of the economic output in the United States,” she pronounced. “I won in places that were more on the optimistic side of the scale than the pessimistic side. I won in places that understood and appreciated diversity. I won in places where African-American and younger voters were not suppressed, as they successfully were in, for example, Wisconsin and other locations that I didn’t win.”
When Klein asks her about geography—the Democrats’ growing tendency to run up huge majorities on the coasts and in cities, which the Constitution disfavors through representative institutions—Clinton pivots back to voter suppression. She spoke for the legitimate body politic—the wealthy areas, the cities, the places where Republicans have not corrupted democracy.
Hillary Clinton seems to see herself, and the broader center-Left, as self-evidently virtuous and public-spirited, as speaking for the real America, and blocked out of power primarily because of a sinister Republican money machine, a corrupted media environment, a constitutional/electoral system stacked against her, and anti-democratic voter suppression enabled by the “Republican majority on the Supreme Court.”
Of course, just like that of the populists, Hillary Clinton’s critique of U.S. democracy captures part of the truth. She and her compatriots certainly do want the best for the country, and are almost certainly not knowingly corrupted by the kind of jet-setting corporate speaking and consulting gigs that are now the norm for politicians in between runs. She did win the popular vote. Republican interests do spend money on American politics to great effect. State voter ID laws are ugly and counterproductive, even if their actual impact varies.
But she does not consider—she cannot grasp—that her way of seeing the world might be influenced by the types of people whom she spends time with and who bestowed enormous wealth upon her, even if she still supports Dodd-Frank. She does not consider that some people vote for Republicans out of conviction, not because of Koch brainwashing. She does not consider the way that the media has propped up her strand of liberalism even as it covered her unfairly in 2016. She does not consider that the Democratic disadvantage is not only due to GOP shenanigans but due to her own party’s failure to build a geographically broad coalition, which institutions like the House, the Senate and the Electoral College all demand.
So yes, Hillary is a pragmatist when it comes to policy—she wants to pass initiatives that can work, and that can pass, and that she sincerely believes can help people. But she is also, in her own way, a militant. She has internalized a persecution narrative of a system stacked against her and people like her. She is so dead-set in her “pragmatic” agenda that she is not open to any form of populist critique about the Democratic Party, about elite insularity, or about the ways that some Americans might have legitimate objections to her brand of liberalism.
We tend to think of militants as only existing on the Left or Right—and indeed, they do tend to congregate there. But perhaps the biggest problem for pragmatists in American politics is that they are developing a militancy of their own, complete with a sense of aggrieved disadvantage, personal infallibility, and an unwillingness to reform. So long as basically responsible policy custodians like Hillary Clinton cannot offer a more open-minded and pluralist vision of their place in the political system, voters can be excused for thinking that their exhortations to pragmatism are just non-threatening justifications for preserving the privileges of a specific elite faction.