It says a great deal about American society that Hillary Rodham carries the last name Clinton. When she married Bill Clinton in 1975, Hillary Rodham kept her own last name. Born in Chicago and educated at Wellesley College, she was influenced by the second-wave feminist movement. A student of political science at the celebrated all-women’s college, she delivered its commencement address in 1969. The challenge for her generation, she said that day “is to practise politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible”. But as she moves to become the Democratic Party’s candidate for President, it is not as Hillary Rodham that she will appear on the ballot papers. Her name will be Hillary Clinton. And no longer will she seek to make the “impossible possible”. Her aim now is strictly for the possible, namely to tinker with reality rather than change it.
When Bill Clinton won the Governor’s race in his native Arkansas in 1978, The New York Times’ Richard Thornburgh wrote that he “is married to an ardent feminist, Hillary Rodham, who will certainly be the first Lady of Arkansas to keep her maiden name”. Having lost his re-election in 1980, Bill Clinton decided to try again two years later. Certain that her independence had contributed to his defeat, Hillary Rodham told her husband she would now take his name. Connie Bruck of The New Yorker asked Bill Clinton about this in 1994, when he was already the President. He told her that his wife made the decision herself to ensure his election. Hillary Clinton, wrote Bruck, “surrendered the notion that she could do things in her unvarnished way; and she set about repackaging herself—changing her name, her appearance, and her public demeanour”.
Sexism and the Third Way
The question of her last name says something both about American society and Hillary Clinton.
A deep-rooted social conservatism lingers beneath the surface of what appears as total social freedom in the United States. The week when Hillary Clinton secured enough delegates to be the Democratic nominee, an incident from Stanford University grabbed the headlines. A celebrated athlete, Brock Turner, was sentenced to six months in prison for raping a young woman—a very short prison sentence in the scheme of things. “You cannot give me back my sleepless nights,” wrote the woman in her statement to the court. It did not take long for a million people to sign a petition asking for the judge to be recalled.
The Brock case reveals the everyday sexism that adversely affects social relationships and public institutions. Brock raped his victim in public. He did not care about the consequences. Horrified, Swedish students chased him down. When the police arrived, one of them cried as he recounted what he had seen. It is not evident that an American man would cry when confronted by an incident of rape. Sensitivity to such violence against women is not something produced easily by American culture. No wonder Hillary Clinton felt the need to take her husband’s name. The pressures of sexist traditionalism weigh too heavily on U.S. society.
Hillary Clinton’s use of her husband’s name suggests a temperament suited to pragmatism rather than principle. During her run for the Democratic nomination, she described herself as a “progressive who gets things done”. If the point is to win, then principles could be a hindrance. Bill Clinton and his adviser Dick Morris finessed the theory of “triangulation”, which essentially wanted to set aside ideology in favour of expediency. As Morris described it, the theory would allow the politician to draw from both the left and the right and open up a “third way”. For example, on social welfare reform, Morris advised Bill Clinton to adopt, from the Left, the importance of day care for children and food supplements for the poor; meanwhile, from the Right, Clinton would argue that the poor who got welfare should go find a job. This was the essence of triangulation, or the third way. It meant that commitment to certain ideas would have to be set aside. What would be gained from this triangulation? The politician who used it would be seen to get things done, regardless of what those things might entail. Hillary Clinton’s liberalism is moulded out of this kind of triangulation doctrine. When she said that she is a “progressive who gets things done”, the real question was what would she get done?
Third Way liberalism
One of the grave problems of triangulation is that it emptied out liberalism of its main objectives. Whether Bill Clinton in the U.S. or Tony Blair in the United Kingdom, reform of capitalism went out of the window as did care for capitalism’s victims—the workers and the poor. Welfare reform and a cut in benefits came alongside a robust expansion of police and prisons. Both Clinton and Blair understood that the Atlantic economies would be driven by finance, which is why both favoured Wall Street and the City of London. Western liberalism was more solicitous of bankers than of the unemployed. Its policies from the 1990s set in motion the credit crisis of 2007, whose effects linger today.
Hillary Clinton inherited this brand of liberalism, as did the New Labour candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party in the U.K. While Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall fell before the social movement galvanised by Jeremy Corbyn, Hillary Clinton held her own against Bernie Sanders. Lingering fears of socialism that strike deep in the heart of American society and Hillary Clinton’s close ties to black and Latino politicians saved her from what Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall —New Labour’s spearheads—faced. What nonetheless unites Hillary Clinton with Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall is the view that voters are middle class, and that the stereotypical prejudices of the middle class should frame the issues of the campaign. Classical Third Way politics would have highlighted crime and indolence. The new Third Way, radicalised by the credit crisis of 2007 and disgruntlement over the power of bankers, has to take into consideration income inequality, difficulty with college tuition and fears of a bad labour market. Reality has dragged the politics of triangulation back towards the actual needs of the people. But that does not mean that the rhetoric of their liberalism will translate into liberal policies. When they take office, Third Way liberals govern much like conservatives.
One of the signs of Hillary Clinton’s intelligence as a politician is that she quickly linked her campaign to the defence of Planned Parenthood, the organisation that provides abortions in addition to other services. The right had vilified Planned Parenthood, and Hillary Clinton would have been well advised to stay clear of it. But she did not. She reclaimed her “ardent feminism”, which bore results. As early as June 2015, the liberal journalist Katha Pollitt reflected the views of large numbers of people like herself (white women above 40), “Clinton is running as a feminist—and that matters for all women”. “I am voting with my vagina,” wrote the feminist writer Kate Harding in April 2015, as she enthusiastically endorsed Hillary Clinton. While others would say that Hillary Clinton’s feminism is weak, her stand with Planned Parenthood in the context of virulent sexism and misogyny seemed to count for something. It galvanised those who despise the far-right and it redeemed her in the eyes of older women. “I’m with her,” they said.
Looking beneath the warm embrace of this long-forgotten feminist commitment, however, other, less comfortable facts emerge. When Bill Clinton went after women on welfare, Hillary Clinton produced a book called It Takes A Village, in which she recommended that social workers do mandatory house searches of the homes of women on welfare. “The village must act in the place of parents,” she wrote, “it accepts those responsibilities in all our names through the authority we vest in the government.” The “village” was the state, which was now given authority to regulate in all aspects the lives of the poor. The rich, meanwhile, earned a free pass. Bill Clinton’s economic policy enhanced trade and freed up the banks. The Clintons attacked the poor and called on them to take “personal responsibility”; no such attack came against the rich. This was liberalism in the service of the rich.
As Senator from New York and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton pushed a belligerent foreign policy that included wars of aggression and unequivocal defence of U.S. allies (such as Israel). She oversaw the coup in Honduras and the regime-change operation in Libya— two instances, among many, which showed that her liberalism seemed identical to neo-conservatism. Little wonder that the neo-conservative writer Robert Kagan said of her: “I feel comfortable with her on foreign policy.” Little in Hillary Clinton’s record should give anyone illusions that she will govern from anywhere other than the Right. That is her temperament. The two pillars of her administration will be Wall Street and war. It is to be expected.
The two major U.S. parties—the Democrats and the Republicans—control the elections. They run the debates and they fight to make ballot access for other parties difficult. Neither the Libertarians nor the Greens have a chance of making a dent in the election. Resignation about this drives the contest. It becomes more about turnout than anything else. Donald Trump will dishearten conservatives who do not trust him, but they might come to the elections because they hate Hillary Clinton. On the other side, Hillary Clinton will not enthuse the Left, but liberals will flock to vote for her because Trump is the ghastly alternative.
The idea of the lesser evil weighs heavily on the U.S. electorate. Even if one does not like a candidate, one feels obliged to vote against the worse one. It is a narrow definition of democracy. Trump is the best foil for Hillary Clinton. His sexism and racism have already framed him as a spiteful and hateful man. Hillary Clinton’s surrogates—from President Barack Obama to Senator Elizabeth Warren—will highlight his offensiveness. Fear of “outsiders” will send some people to vote for Trump while fear of Trump will send others to vote for Hillary Clinton. This is a negative election. The campaign will be negative, the polling day will be negative and indeed the next four years will be bathed in negativity—most likely with President Hillary Clinton at the helm.
This article originally appeared on Frontline (India).