The Leftist Case for Clinton
You don’t win tug-of-war by dropping the rope.
I have a confession: I voted for Clinton in the primaries.
To clarify — I consider myself to the left of Sanders on nearly all domestic issues, and I lean heavily towards non-intervention in foreign affairs, particularly in the Middle East.
I voted for Clinton not to preserve the center-left establishment, but because I believe she’s the single person best positioned to co-opt the existing institutional framework and advance my values in the world.
This wasn’t exactly a popular position in millennial circles, though, so for the most part I kept my mouth shut. My only political post on social media was a proud status the day I voted, complete with a snarky hashtag: “You’ll agree with me in November.”
Well, it’s October now, and it looks like I was wrong.
My friends are voting for Clinton, but they feel bullied into it. People who were enthusiastic in 2008 and 2012, who poo-pooed ambivalence and picked fights with Republicans, today feel like reluctant pawns in someone else’s chess game. “I’ll vote for her,” they tell me, “but this really feels like a lose-lose.”
To some extent, I get the sentiment. We’re coming from college campuses where the debate centered around a $15 minimum wage, reparations for slavery, abolition of the prison system, whether cis actors can realistically portray trans characters, how soon is too soon to start pushing for universal basic income. It’s simply demoralizing to trek all the way back to the American center, where the topic up for discussion is whether Muslims and Mexicans are too scary to let into the country.
But at the same time, I’ve been thrilled at the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency for most of my politically aware life. For me this is not a “lesser of two evils” election — it’s the best conceivable candidate versus the worst conceivable candidate.
If that sounds a little strong, consider this: Clinton supporters have been stuck playing defense all year, swatting away criticisms and scandals, hoping that once the fog cleared, everyone would see the formidable politician beneath. So no one’s really bothered to make the positive case for President Hillary Clinton.
This is my attempt.
The short version is this: If we play our cards right, historians will remember the sixteen years from 2009 to 2025 as a period of profound change in American society. That change will be largely credited to two outsize personalities — Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — and their progressive coalition of young voters, people of color, and urban whites with college degrees.
If you’re a reluctant Clinton supporter (or if you’re flirting with Stein or Johnson) I hope you’ll take a few minutes to hear me out.
It comes down to just three things:
1. She is a deep thinker with a profound breadth of knowledge.
This point is so universally accepted that it often gets overlooked. Supporters and detractors alike tend to agree: Hillary Clinton is extremely intelligent, and she knows how to operationalize her knowledge.
Here is a woman who thinks in single-spaced policy briefs, whose speeches are alternately criticized as being either confusingly wonkish or condescendingly meat-and-potatoes. Where past presidents and nominees have leaned on charisma to balance out their intellect (or disguise their lack thereof), Clinton has instead doubled down on being what she is: a nerd.
Did you know that in 1974 she wrote an article for the Harvard Educational Review called “Children Under the Law” which is one of the most widely-cited works on children’s rights? It’s not exactly the most thrilling piece of election news, sure. But based just on her legal writing and tenure at the Children’s Defense Fund, historian Garry Wills called her in 1992 “one of the more important scholar-activists of the last two decades.”
This is who Hillary Clinton is: a gifted political theorist with an activism kick.
- [Read more: What Hillary Rodham Clinton Really Said About Children’s Rights and Child Policy]
- [Read more: From Wellesley to Yale, 1969–1979: A Textual Analysis of Hillary Rodham’s Early Written Rhetoric]
Which is why it drives me crazy when some guy at a party tells me (and yes, it always seems to be a guy) exactly what she did wrong in X country and what she clearly should’ve done. Well, gosh, if only you’d been Secretary of State instead! If only she’d heard your three-sentence criticism, she might have recognized her folly!
Even the New York Times, in a feature titled “How Hillary Clinton Became A Hawk” summarized her disagreements with Obama with one quote from a staffer: she has “a textbook view of American exceptionalism.” How minimizing! Does anyone really believe this? That this lifelong student of world politics, with decades of foreign travel and diplomacy under her belt, whose teams of advisors would make any military strategist’s mouth water — you think she wants to put lives on the line because rah rah go team?
You may believe Clinton does not share your values, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But let’s dispel with this fiction that Hillary Clinton doesn’t know what she’s doing.
2. She has dedicated her life to advancing her values and ideals.
Pause and step back. If Hillary Clinton died tomorrow, she’d already be remembered as a towering figure of the progressive and feminist movements.
Take a look at her actual resume from 1988 (source):
There’s enough effective activism in here — civil rights litigation, legal aid for the indigent, advocacy for working women — for several articles. But I want to focus on the 1990s.
I’ve heard friends suggest that older liberals, like many of our parents, support Hillary Clinton as an extension of her husband — who is rightly censured by my generation for pushing the 1994 crime bill. But this is nonsense. Older liberals support her precisely because of her independence from her husband, because she dropped jaws by saying, “I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.”
And they’re fiercely protective of her because they remember the multi-decade smear campaign that ensued. Because they see echoes of it in her public perception today.
Keep in mind: Clinton was the first First Lady who wasn’t a homemaker. The Republican Party at the time still considered working mothers a threat to “family values,” and Clinton’s very existence in the national spotlight made her Public Enemy №1 of the antifeminist movement. She was branded as a “congenital liar” (PolitiFact: she is the 2nd most honest candidate on record.) She had to bake cookies. The GOP even turned her husband’s infidelity into a political flashpoint, highlighting the instability of their nontraditional marriage.
- [Seriously, read this: Hating Hillary]
And she wasn’t just a passive symbol of gender equality. She wielded her platform more vocally and aggressively than any First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt.
She gave her “women’s rights are human rights” speech, despite pressure from her husband’s administration to soften her rhetoric. She spearheaded a health care plan that, had it passed, would have been the largest poverty-reduction measure since Medicaid. She coauthored It Takes A Village, which argued — in a country still swooning from Reagan — that we have a collective responsibility to make sure every child has the basic necessities and opportunities for a happy life. Republicans called her a “Lady Macbeth.”
I honestly got carried away researching and writing this section and had to cut it down a lot. But what it boils down to is this: Clinton has consistently been as far to the left as a public figure could be in America without being dismissed as a lunatic.
Her Senate voting record makes her more liberal than Obama — and only slightly less liberal than Sanders, a self-described socialist.
And, in case we’ve forgotten, she’s currently running on the most progressive major-party platform in American history.
- [Read more: The Seven Pillars of Hillary Clinton’s First Term]
Still, some of my friends have suggested that Clinton undervalues black and brown lives, that she represents an exclusionary second-wave feminism / white progressivism reserved for rich white women. Again, I don’t see how you can look at her record and still think this is true.
The Children’s Health Insurance Program she salvaged from the failed health bill cut the uninsured rate for children in half, mostly by covering children of color who were previously uninsured. The Clinton Foundation has provided low-cost HIV/AIDS medication to over 9 million people, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. And on a smaller scale, her decision to join the Children’s Defense Fund out of college, her work providing legal assistance to Arkansas’s (largely black) poor, her undercover investigation of a segregated school — all this points to a consistent pattern of providing effective help to those who need it most.
How does this jibe with her foreign policy? If that’s your last sticking point — and it certainly was mine — keep reading. I’m getting there.
3. She is extraordinarily — inhumanly? — pragmatic.
Put yourself in Clinton’s shoes for a second.
If you believed something strongly and spent your life fighting for it, wouldn’t your natural reaction be to shout it from the mountaintops for all to hear?
If half the country spent decades attacking your personal character with unsubstantiated rumors, wouldn’t your natural reaction be to lose your cool and go off on an angry rant?
If a party convention hall chanted “lock her up” and “trump that bitch” for four days straight, if the national media decided that the wellbeing of millions of people depended on your ability to deliver a debate performance that’s knowledgeable but not wonky, composed but not robotic, exceptional but relatable, presidential but womanly — wouldn’t your natural reaction be to buckle under the pressure?
But Hillary Clinton is highly unnatural. She has an uncanny ability to comport herself in exactly the way she believes will best achieve her ends, to play her cards at exactly the right time, to recognize the second- and third-order consequences of her every move, to accrue and spend political capital with mechanical precision.
To her opponents, this is horrifying — and well it should be. Sean Hannity says she’ll be “President Obama on steroids.” Laura Ingraham says this election is the “last stand for America as we know it.” This is what’s holding the Republican Party together: the threat of what Clinton could accomplish.
But even to allies, this can be extremely unsettling. It can feel like she doesn’t care about you, and like she’ll say or do whatever she needs to in order to get your vote.
And thank god for that!
In the last year, a tide of white nationalism has rocked the entire Western world, with far-right anti-immigrant parties winning unprecedented electoral victories throughout Europe. Meanwhile, straddling grassroots insurgents on the left and right, personally disliked by 53% of Americans, and facing an extremely hostile media environment, Clinton has not once dipped below an electoral college majority.
- [Read more: White riot: How racism and immigration gave us Trump, Brexit, and a whole new kind of politics]
This woman is a machine — and for that we should be immensely grateful.
This goes beyond elections, too. Clinton’s actions started making a lot more sense to me when I started framing them in the context of the two questions I imagine her asking herself:
- What do I have to do to win a seat at the table?
- Once there, how can I most effectively lobby for change?
Clinton gets blasted on the left for taking money from interest groups and giving speeches at banks. But if you think you can get elected in 2016 without a $500 million war chest, if you think you can be a New York senator without shaking hands on Wall Street, you’re just not being honest about the realities of electoral politics.
If your only goal in life was to overturn Citizens United, you’d have to start by founding a Super PAC. If your only goal in life was to end the war on drugs, you’d have to start by quitting weed. You can’t change rules if you refuse to play the game.
So Clinton has gotten her hands dirty — to me that is a feature, not a bug. To me, that is the very model of how change happens within massive, complex institutions. I personally aspire to be this clear-minded and goal-oriented in the way I approach problems, at any level of influence.
- [Read more: The Return of the Utopians]
But sometimes I think this is the very same reason my generation hates Clinton. She’s been a wolf in sheep’s clothing for so long that we just think she’s a sheep.
If you feel this way, here’s what I’ll say: You don’t need to consider her a role model to see that she is an extremely powerful ally. It’s an inconvenient reality that for every MLK you also need an LBJ — someone who knows the gears and levers of Washington inside and out, who collects notes from hundreds of meetings with activists and academics and turns them into policy, who builds coalitions and woos opponents, who sits at the damn desk and signs the damn bill.
This approach doesn’t get a lot of retweets, and it doesn’t draw large crowds. But in a country as polarized as ours — in a country where nearly half the population supports a white supremacist for president! — it’s the only realistic way forward.
Okay, let’s talk about foreign policy.
So why is she a hawk?
Well first, let’s be clear: It’s very easy, and very damaging, to pretend that foreign policy can be divided into “hawk” and “dove” — that some people want more war and some people want less. Obviously, this isn’t close to true.
And yet, point by point, Clinton has recommended more aggressive military action in a number of situations. Foreign Policy magazine identifies seven total examples: Haiti, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, bin Laden, and Syria. Why?
This answer is that this very line of questioning misses the forest for the trees. Clinton has a consistent philosophical framework, which she soundbite-ifies as “smart power,” that helps contextualize these individual actions. I’ve done my best to read up on Clinton’s foreign policy thinking — since this is where I differ from her the most — and I’ve gathered four main points:
- Hillary Clinton is a liberal transnationalist. She believes in the primacy of human rights, particularly of individuals against oppressive governments. She dreams of a future system where nations are encouraged to adhere to international norms by something like the U.N. on steroids.
- Hillary Clinton believes in firm commitment to international agreements. The only way to bring about this future globalist order, the argument goes, is to honor our present commitments and compel others to do the same.
- Hillary Clinton does not see inaction as morally distinct from action. As long as you’ve factored in all costs — in lives, dollars, and potential long-term unintended consequences — she believes every viable course of action (including inaction) should be considered on its merits. As with domestic policy, she has little patience for non-interventionist ideologues.
- Hillary Clinton equates military might with moral responsibility. In the end, she is a cold realist: Whoever has the biggest stick sets the agenda. By shirking international responsibilities, the United States transfers power to the next biggest stick.
Pulling this all together, the world according to Clinton is something like a small town without any governance, where the big and strong regularly beat up on the small and weak. She believes all parties will be best served by a formal body that draws up rules of engagement and deters defection by consistently punishing defectors. Instead, what we have is an assortment of self-interested cartels like NATO. So rather than reinvent the wheel, she wants to co-opt these existing institutions (classic Hillary!) to create a pluralist, democratic, peaceful, human rights-enforcing international order. And until that time, she believes the United States must leverage its position as the biggest and strongest guy in town to punish extreme defectors, those most horrific cases that simply can’t wait for the transnational solution.
- [Read more: Get Smart: Combining Hard and Soft Power]
- [Read more: Smart Power: Reclaiming Liberal Internationalism]
- [Seriously, read this: The Obama Doctrine]
In this context, many of Clinton’s “hawkish” decisions make a good deal of sense. Again — I’m not saying I personally support the decisions, but I understand where she’s coming from. It’s not because she doesn’t care about brown lives or doesn’t understand that actions have consequences.
My main difference with Clinton is a difference in degree, not in kind: I think the unintended consequences of intervention tend to be higher than advanced planning indicates. Sure, we had no way to know that the post-Gaddafi Libyans would be so resistant to foreign presence, or that the domestic nightmare over Benghazi would force us to withdraw even those diplomatic “soft power” tools we had left. But couldn’t we have guessed that something would’ve gone awry? (Then again, maybe I’m underestimating the unintended consequences of inaction.)
I also question the universality of our current batch of “human rights” and worry about what would happen if their unilateral enforcement got into the wrong, tiny hands. But as relativist as I am, there are some things that I can’t really argue with. Girls should be allowed an education. Governments shouldn’t gas their citizens. We absolutely shouldn’t expect to correct every infraction, but it’s not exactly innocent to sit back and let Putin dictate what happens in Syria either.
And when it really comes down to it, I feel woefully unqualified to make these kinds of judgments. I always have to remind myself: Clinton is smarter than me, more knowledgeable and more experienced than me. I should absolutely voice my concerns when I have them, but I shouldn’t pretend that this kind of reasoned disagreement is even close to disqualifying.
Even more importantly: These are the conversations we should be having, and it seems like Clinton is eager to have them. She is — remarkably — susceptible to reason. In an age of immense polarization and ideological purity, she is an extreme rarity: an electable national politician who cares and thinks deeply about the issues at hand.
And even when I find her specific choices misguided, I’ll feel a great ease of mind knowing that she’s in the Oval Office, getting the briefings, talking to advisors, and calling the shots.
ADDENDUM: Polls show Clinton is likely to win the election — all the more reason we need to start building support for her administration. And if the GOP dumpster fire trickles down-ballot, we may even be able to take back the House! Can you imagine what she’d be able to do with control of Congress? Keep fighting. This matters.