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The Progressive Case For Hillary Clinton Isn’t Much of a Case At All

A recent argument for Clinton from the left fails to convince.

BY Douglas Williams

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Making a progressive case for Clinton is impossible given her history. Instead we get an argument that is full of personal professions of faith about what a Hillary Clinton presidency might look like.

In a recent issue of In These Times, Sady Doyle made “A Progressive Case for Hillary Clinton.” That such a case could be made might come as a surprise to many progressives, considering that Hillary Clinton has, for instance, derided single-payer healthcare as something that will never, ever come to pass,” and has poohed-poohed calls for free public higher education by stating that students need more “skin in the game.”

Still, it’s worth asking: Does Doyle’s case hold up under scrutiny? Let’s take a look.

Has sexism influenced assessments of Hillary Clinton?

Doyle spends the first third of her piece arguing that “it is impossible to analyze Clinton—her policies, her career path, her hair—without understanding how gender bias operates,” and that “as progressives, it is our duty to resist these stereotypes, and, if we are journalists, to help our readers understand how gender bias operates at an unconscious level.”

It is true that we all have biases, and it is undoubtedly true that there are many, many people who have made sexist statements about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy—it’s been a central trope of the Right’s attempt to discredit her for more than two decades now.

But aside from the fact that pointing out and condemning such sexism, while important, does not constitute a progressive case for Clinton, there are two problems with this argument.

The first issue is with the research cited. Doyle references a 2010 study from Yale School of Management professors Tyler Okimoto and Victoria Brescoll which found that women who seek to gain political power can elicit negative reactions due to their deviation from the expectation that women exhibit more “communal” traits, such as warmth and comfort. But a 2013 methodological study by Kathleen Dolan found that surveys and experiments that ask people about support for female politicians in the abstract or about hypothetical candidates—like the study that Doyle cites, which constructed fictional state senators—do not get at the question of the role that gender plays in vote choice.

When people are asked about supporting actual, specific women for public office, Dolan finds, gender matters little. This is a finding echoed elsewhere, particularly when party identification is factored in. In fact, another study by Dolan and Kira Sanbonmatsu shows that women running in Democratic primaries actually benefit more from arguments about competence than their Republican counterparts, as “Democrats are more likely to hold gender stereotypes that benefit women in politics.”

The question is not whether sexism exists; no sentient being with actually existing progressive politics would ever make such a claim. Of course it does. The question is whether said sexism is hindering Hillary Clinton in her run for nomination to the highest political office in the United States. When looking at research that fully accounts for factors related to actual vote choice, it seems clear that such effects are minimal at best when measured against other factors that affect vote choice.

The second point is a simple one, yet it is one that has been all but ignored in the discussions about gender in this presidential election: Some of Hillary Clinton’s biggest detractors on the Left are, themselves, feminists. Rania Khalek, Michelle Alexander, Roqayah Chamseddine. Professor and author Liza Featherstone has edited an entire volume of feminist critiques of Hillary Clinton. 

What about the issues?

Doyle then moves to the article’s principal purpose: making a progressive case for Hillary Clinton. It gets off to a shaky start, however, when she frames Hillary Clinton’s arrival on the national stage through the lens of Arkansas Project-style right-wingers:

She was Bill Clinton’s left-wing liability, a Saul Alinsky-hugging, Children’s-Defense-Fund-working, non-cookie-baking, mouthy feminist, attacked on the stage of the Republican National Convention for supporting “radical feminism” and “homosexual rights.”

Doyle asks us to accept this framing as an accurate rendering of Hillary Clinton’s politics, as it allows her to make the case that such right-wing haranguing forced Clinton to become a political centrist. But in fact, in 1996, when Clinton supposedly held these liberal beliefs, she was proclaiming her pride at having once been a “Goldwater Girl,” a young supporter of reactionary 1964 presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater:

And I feel like my political beliefs are rooted in the conservatism that I was raised with. I don’t recognize this new brand of Republicanism that is afoot now, which I consider to be very reactionary, not conservative in many respects. I am very proud that I was a Goldwater girl.

Another odd moment in a progressive case for Clinton comes when Doyle states that Clinton’s support of the Iraq War—a military intervention that was, is and will continue to be nothing short of disastrous for Iraq, the United States, the Middle East and much of the world—is not a dealbreaker, because Bernie Sanders is not serious enough about these kinds of things:

I respect that for a serious and thoughtful person, the Iraq vote might rule Clinton out; it ruled her out for me in 2008. But this is not 2008, and this year, her opponent’s lack of interest or expertise in foreign policy worries me more than her record. We got into Iraq—a quagmire that has lasted, literally, for my entire adult life—not only because of U.S. interventionism, but because the commander in chief didn’t understand the region well enough to know how profoundly we would destabilize it, or how that would trap us in a conflict that would last for generations. I may not always agree with Clinton, but at least I believe she knows her stuff.

This quote suggests that we were led into the Iraq War by rubes and dunces, and that Hillary Clinton’s “experience” and “knowledge” would keep us out of such situations. Leaving aside the facts that the “experienced” and “knowledgeable” Hillary Clinton voted for the War in the first place and that the Iraq War was a deliberate ideological project by neoconservatives who had long wanted to invade the country, the truth is that it was experienced hands that led us into the war.

The decisionmakers at the table, from Vice President Dick Cheney (a former Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush and former member of Congress from Wyoming) to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (a former member of Congress from Illinois, former Ambassador to NATO and a previous Secretary of Defense under Ford) and so on, all had experience and knowledge in the costs of war and the consequences of failure.  

Knowledge and experience are not good things if they are turned towards horrifying ends. Ideology matters. And on that front, the same war hawks that got us into the war in Iraq seem to be pretty supportive of Clinton.

The progressive case against Hillary Clinton

Doyle mentions a curious figure in her analysis: She states that the voting records of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders matched up 93 percent of the time. Such a statistic must certainly prove that these two candidates are very similar, right? Is Hillary Clinton every bit a progressive as the career-long member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who is supported by organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America and Socialist Alternative?

Not exactly. The problem with voting record statistics is that they also include very non-controversial roll call votes on procedural issues and symbolic legislation, such as the naming of post offices and federal courthouses. A better score would include ideology as a measure to truly get at whether these two are similar in their policy preferences.

According to the DW-NOMINATE scores, tabulated by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, for every Congress since the beginning of the Republic, the average ideological median of the United States Senate for the time that Hillary Clinton served was -0.362 (a -1 is extreme left, while a score of 1 is extreme right). Clinton’s own score was -0.381, which puts her slightly to the left of the median. Bernie Sanders’s score was -0.523, which earns him the most left score in the Senate for the entire time that he has served.

But Doyle’s inclusion of the roll call analysis does serve a purpose: It seeks to remake Hillary Clinton’s record into one that is as progressive as that uber-lefty Sanders. And if this is the case, it would support the notion that the opposition to Clinton is not based on her record, but on Clinton herself.

It is an argument, for sure; it is just one that is not borne out by Clinton’s actual record.

Perhaps the most glaring omission from Doyle’s piece is any substantive analysis of Clinton’s record on domestic issues. It is understandable; after all, this is supposed to be a progressive defense of Hillary Clinton, and when it comes to Clinton’s progressive domestic policy record, in the words of Gertrude Stein, “there is no there there.”

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, otherwise known as welfare reform, was signed into law shortly before the 1996 presidential election. Hillary Clinton touted the law when her husband was in office, saying that it “kept faith with our goals: End welfare as we know it, substitute dignity for dependence, but make work pay.” The reality, however, is that whatever semblance of a social welfare state that the United States had managed to build in the postwar era vanished overnight in a sea of block grants and punitive measures for states—and people—who did not meet the goals designed to kick people off the welfare rolls. While businesses got tax cuts and eased regulatory schemes, the working class of color—who had become both demon and prop in the debates about welfare—got a kick in the ass.

But the disaster of welfare reform would not be the only injustice that working-class people of color would suffer. Hillary Clinton was made to reckon with her past statements on law and order this winter when a Black Lives Matter protester confronted her about her statements on so-called “superpredators” as First Lady. The term was conceived of by Princeton professor John DiLulio in the conservative Weekly Standard to describe an apparent evolution in the common criminal, one who raped and murdered without remorse or regard for human life. While campaigning in 1996, Hillary Clinton told a New Hampshire audience that such persons “needed to be brought to heel.”

The way that this would be accomplished was through the largest increase in prison-building and incarceration in American history. And because, as research from Tali Mendelberg and Franklin Gilliam and Shanto Iyengar have pointed out, criminal justice and race were (and still are) intertwined with one another, the population that bore the brunt of the mass incarceration crisis were young Black men. But to hear one of Hillary Clinton’s principal surrogates tell it, Black people should be grateful for such racially conscious advocacy.

The legacy of such policies has been disastrous. And when Clinton was not advocating policies that ended up tossing young Black men in jail, she voted for policies, such as No Child Left Behind, that would ensure that the quality of education that they received would continue to lag behind their white counterparts.

Just as disastrous has been Hillary Clinton’s record on labor and trade issues. The former Wal-Mart board member who once exclaimed that she was proud of how the world-class union buster “did business better than anybody else,” has rarely met a trade agreement that she did not like. This was the case even as others—including and especially Bernie Sanders—warned about the issues that could come from enacting these agreements, such as the loss of American jobs and the lack of transparency that accompanied both the negotiation and the administration of such agreements.

Despite all of that, Clinton’s stances on domestic issues seem positively Leninist when compared to her stances on American foreign policy. As if her support for the Iraq War was not bad enough, Secretary of State Clinton then sought to portray the resulting chaos as a positive opportunity—for corporations: “It's time for the United States to start thinking of Iraq as a business opportunity.”

She supported the 2011 bombing of Libya, which may have ousted a dictator but has created a breeding ground for terrorist activity that is bordering on failed state status. In her book Hard Choices, Clinton detailed the role that her State Department played in the 2009 coup d’etat against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. In the wake of Zelaya's ouster, the Honduran government has begun a crackdown against labor, leftist and indigenous activists.

One of those activists, Berta Caceres, singled out Clinton for her advocacy of regime change:

The same Hillary Clinton, in her book, Hard Choices, practically said what was going to happen in Honduras. This demonstrates the meddling of North Americans in our country. The return of the president, Mel Zelaya, became a secondary issue. There were going to be elections in Honduras. And here she [Clinton] recognized that they didn’t permit Mel Zelaya’s return to the presidency.

Caceres was murdered at her home, on March 2. To date, the Office of Global Women’s Issues, touted in Doyle’s piece as a sign of Clinton’s commitment to equality for women worldwide, has not issued a statement condemning Caceres’ assassination. All the while, Clinton continues to insist to this day that American intervention in places like Honduras will pay dividends.

Doyle insists that Clinton’s 1995 declaration that “women’s rights are human rights” is evidence enough of her commitment to global equality. Yet it might be difficult for Berta Caceres’ family to see any real evidence of that. The women who now have to raise their children in bombed-out cities in Iraq and Libya might also have trouble seeing the beneficence of Clinton foreign policy.

It raises the question: Which women matter to Hillary Clinton?

Another woman candidate

Doyle summed up her piece perfectly with the first two sentences of the last paragraph: “I am a progressive. I like Hillary Clinton and I do not feel remotely conflicted.”

Indeed, the “progressive case for Hillary Clinton” reads a lot like “one progressive’s thoughts on Hillary Clinton.” It is so, perhaps, because making a progressive case for Clinton is impossible given her history. 

But given that the Democratic primaries are essentially over at this point—with Clinton to be the party’s nominee for president—what should progressives and leftists do? Should we not turn out in force to stop Donald Trump?

The answer to that question is easy. Yes: in the streets. In neighborhood organizations whose work revolves around social equality and justice. In left-wing national organizations that are growing, such as the Democratic Socialists of America or Socialist Alternative (disclaimer: I am a member of both organizations). Cast a ballot for a more progressive female candidate, Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party.

If the issues that progressives have held dear—health care, labor rights, access to education, ending mass incarceration, ending wars—still matter, then we should not pretend that a victory for Hillary Clinton this November is anything but a win for the same frustration and disappointment that we have experienced over the last eight years.

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Douglas Williams is a doctoral student in political science at Wayne State University in Detroit, where his research centers around public policy, disadvantaged communities and the labor movement. He blogs at The South Lawn.

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