Hillary Clinton Suggested Breaking Up the Big Banks Won’t End Racism and Sexism. Is She Right?

Clinton’s remark prompted a furious debate. Is there any truth to it—and why did she say it? Moe Tkacik and Amanda Marcotte debate.

Amanda Marcotte and Moe Tkacik March 11, 2016

(David Calvert/Getty Images)

On Feb­ru­ary 13, ABC reporter Liz Kreutz tweet­ed a snip­pet of a Hillary Clin­ton speech and prompt­ly sent the Inter­net into a fren­zy of debate:

'When the going gets tough, Hillary falls back on the old New Dem coalition strategy: getting the black community leaders and abortion lobby to get out the vote, the bank lobby to pay for the ad buys and the eternal GOP majority to prevent anything from transpiring that might alienate the bank lobbyists.'

Clin­ton: If we broke up the big banks tomorrow….would that end racism? Would that end sex­ism?” No!” crowd yells out

NBC lat­er sup­plied a length­i­er version:

Not every­thing is about an eco­nom­ic the­o­ry, right?” Clin­ton said, kick­ing off a long, inter­ac­tive riff with the crowd at a union hall this afternoon. 

If we broke up the big banks tomor­row — and I will if they deserve it, if they pose a sys­temic risk, I will — would that end racism?”

No!” the audi­ence yelled back.

Clin­ton con­tin­ued to list sce­nar­ios, ask­ing: Would that end sex­ism? Would that end dis­crim­i­na­tion against the LGBT com­mu­ni­ty? Would that make peo­ple feel more wel­com­ing to immi­grants overnight?”

To dis­cuss the quote and its con­text, In These Times invit­ed Moe Tkacik, a for­mer Wall Street Jour­nal writer and the author of an essay in the forth­com­ing col­lec­tion False Choic­es: The Faux Fem­i­nism of Hillary Rod­ham Clin­ton; and Aman­da Mar­cotte, who writes for Salon on pol­i­tics, fem­i­nism and cul­ture, and in Novem­ber 2015 wrote a col­umn titled, Let’s get excit­ed about Hillary Clin­ton: She’s not a sav­ior — but she is exact­ly what we need.”

MOE: When I saw this quote on Twit­ter, I just stared for a few min­utes, as if into the abyss or at a real­ly gross zit under a mag­ni­fy­ing glass. I didn’t want to know the con­text” because the state­ment itself defe­cat­ed all over the very idea of context.

Obvi­ous­ly, no one ever promised a piece of leg­is­la­tion would end” hate and injus­tice. Any­one even notion­al­ly sin­cere about bat­tling the prej­u­dices and cog­ni­tive dis­so­nances that oli­garchs and over­lords have for­ev­er pro­mul­gat­ed to divide and con­quer human­i­ty under­stands that racism” and sex­ism” are not forces you can arrest with a pen. 

Then there are the banks, the biggest and rotten­est of which have been with us for more than two cen­turies. To want to see them cur­tailed is to have absorbed more than enough his­to­ry to under­stand that such things don’t hap­pen tomor­row.”

When I final­ly caved and read the full speech, I found a ver­i­ta­ble orgy of straw men, each cater­ing to some cru­cial seg­ment of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic coali­tion. It wasn’t just racism and sex­ism that would per­sist in a land­scape of small­er banks, accord­ing to Hillary Clin­ton. Ger­ry­man­der­ing and redis­trict­ing” would also per­sist, as would dis­crim­i­na­tion against immi­grants and gays.

Some­thing about the line just screamed Bill.” Not shit-eat­ing-grin Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton at the height of his virility/​virulence, but the Clin­ton of today who is occa­sion­al­ly giv­en to weird­ly bit­ter rants that are simul­ta­ne­ous­ly non­sen­si­cal and illu­mi­nat­ing, like a warped decoder ring for under­stand­ing how the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty could main­tain its monop­oly on self-right­eous rhetoric while sell­ing short the New Deal and Great Soci­ety con­stituen­cies that got out the vote all those years: Just remind Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers that Repub­li­cans want to out­law affir­ma­tive action and abor­tion and quar­an­tine every­one diag­nosed with AIDS.

The thing is, we were nev­er dumb enough to sign on to this gut­ted, soul­less, lever­aged-buy­out ver­sion of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic plat­form. Bill Clin­ton eked out a White House win with only 43 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote. His tri­umphant job per­for­mance as pres­i­dent is a fic­tion in which Democ­rats have been incul­cat­ed because his sur­ro­gates have so effec­tive­ly mar­gin­al­ized any­one who dares acknowl­edge history.

But when the going gets tough, as it con­spic­u­ous­ly has, Hillary (like Oba­ma in 2009, alas) falls back on what worked for Bill, the old New Dem coali­tion strat­e­gy: get­ting the black com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers and abor­tion lob­by to get out the vote, the bank lob­by to pay for the ad buys and the eter­nal GOP major­i­ty to pre­vent any­thing from tran­spir­ing that might alien­ate the bank lobbyists. 

Today, as in 1992, this strat­e­gy only works by sac­ri­fic­ing a thing that Hillary now maligns as egghead­ed eco­nom­ic the­o­ry” but what Sanders sup­port­ers see as coher­ence.

AMAN­DA: We’re in the thick of pri­ma­ry silli­ness when a sup­port­er of Bernie Sanders — Bernie Sanders! — feels enti­tled to accuse any­one of hyper­bole. Not pick­ing on the Bern, to be clear. Like his fel­low career politi­cians, Bernie has a shtick that works for him. But glass hous­es, stones, all that.

And poor Hillary Clin­ton! Dinged repeat­ed­ly for an unin­spir­ing nut­sand-bolts approach, only to get dinged again when she tries her hand at the same grandiose rhetoric her oppo­nent is applaud­ed for. She can’t win. And we won­der why so many women see their lives in hers.

Set­ting aside the debate over whether Hillary Clin­ton should be per­mit­ted the use of the over-sim­pli­fied, rev­o­lu­tion­ary rhetoric her oppo­nent is allowed by birthright, it’s quite clear to me that Clin­ton is argu­ing that Sanders’ sin­gle-mind­ed focus on Wall Street isn’t going to be enough to deal with the nuanced prob­lems of racism, sex­ism — all the ‑isms, really.

No need to blame Bill Clin­ton, or to treat Hillary like she’s an exten­sion of her hus­band. (Though the way she’s treat­ed as her husband’s pup­pet is a nice reminder to me why I will nev­er get mar­ried.) Clin­ton picked this talk­ing point up from anti-racism activists who have been crit­i­cal of Sanders for his dodg­y­ness on any race issue that can’t be reduced to income inequality.”

David Freed­lan­der of the Dai­ly Beast inter­viewed black lead­ers from Sanders’ home state of Ver­mont and found that Sanders had a habit of benign neglect” on any race-based issue that wasn’t about gener­ic income inequal­i­ty.” Cur­tiss Reed Jr. of the Ver­mont Part­ner­ship for Fair­ness and Diver­si­ty told Freed­lan­der that Sanders was just real­ly dis­mis­sive of any­thing that had to do with race and racism, say­ing that they didn’t have any­thing to do with the issues of income inequality.”

Under pres­sure from anti-racism activists, Sanders has got­ten smarter about this sort of thing, but he still does things like dis­miss repa­ra­tions as a pipe dream. The fact that Sanders loves pipe dreams — like free col­lege — when white vot­ers are in the imag­ined group of recip­i­ents is not some­thing that is unno­ticed. Clin­ton, a politi­cian, pounces. If Sanders wins the nom­i­na­tion, his sup­port­ers, as David Roberts of Vox said, should get a thick­er skin, quick,” because the Repub­li­cans aren’t going to be as gen­tle as Clinton.

MOE: If it felt a bit hyper­bol­ic to iden­ti­fy Hillary’s true neme­sis as coher­ence,” well, it wasn’t. The Clin­ton­ists don’t want the elec­torate to make sense of the world — or to link cause and effect.

If they did, they might begin to see break­ing up mas­sive unac­count­able mon­ey syn­di­cates as a vital step toward achiev­ing racial tol­er­ance and gen­der equality.

At some point between the finan­cial cri­sis of 2008 and the rise of Occu­py in 2011, Amer­i­cans began to under­stand that preda­to­ry lend­ing was the cor­ner­stone of mod­ern finance. Usu­ri­ous inter­est rates, extor­tion­ate fees and vicious cycles of ever-inflat­ing indebt­ed­ness were a phe­nom­e­non that unit­ed black retirees in Detroit with Mex­i­can day labor­ers in Hol­lis­ter, Calif.; under­em­ployed Vas­sar grads with under­em­ployed Uni­ver­si­ty of Phoenix grads; the evap­o­rat­ing cof­fers of Jef­fer­son Coun­ty, Ala., and Harvard’s $36 bil­lion endow­ment. The mechan­ics and fine print might dif­fer case to case, but the busi­ness mod­el was iden­ti­cal, need­ing two crit­i­cal ingre­di­ents to thrive: a cul­ture effi­cient at dehu­man­iz­ing vic­tims, and legal impunity.

First, at Wash­ing­ton Mutu­al — picked off for pen­nies on the dol­lar in 2008 by TBTF bank JPMor­gan — sub­prime mort­gage sales­men who didn’t sell enough preda­to­ry neg­a­tive-amor­ti­za­tion mort­gages were assigned train­ers” whose first words were, Do not feel sor­ry for these’ peo­ple.” At Wells Far­go, where mort­gage exec­u­tives called minori­ties mud peo­ple” and nig­gers,” sales­men were direct­ed to solic­it new cus­tomers at African-Amer­i­can church­es. Sex­u­al harass­ment was indis­putably ram­pant in the indus­try. Mort­gage sluts” peo­pled a 2008 Busi­ness Week cov­er sto­ry. Is there a more vivid embod­i­ment of rape cul­ture than the pho­tos of the 2010 Hal­loween par­ty held by staffers of the Steven J. Baum fore­clo­sure mill?

Sec­ond, no major finan­cial insti­tu­tion is as singly respon­si­ble for the main­stream­ing” of preda­to­ry lend­ing as Cit­i­group. No oth­er insti­tu­tion has employed as many vet­er­ans of the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion. Mere­ly list­ing the rel­e­vant names could fill the bet­ter part of a book, but here are three: Peter Orszag, Jack Lew and Michael Fro­man. By 2007, Citi’s bal­ance sheet was the biggest on Wall Street — when you includ­ed all its off-the-books assets, in any case — and in 2008 Citi became the recip­i­ent of the sin­gle biggest bailout.

If any cor­po­rate mon­stros­i­ty was wor­thy of a breakup, it was Citi. Cel­e­brat­ed ana­lyst Mered­ith Whit­ney said so, FDIC chair­man Sheila Bair said so, TARP over­seer Eliz­a­beth War­ren said so and for­mer Citi exec Sal­lie Kraw­check said as much after she was fired by (ser­i­al sex-dis­crim­i­na­tion law­suit defen­dant) Vikram Pandit.

No one lis­tened. War­ren and Bair were mar­gin­al­ized — dis­missed for fail­ure to be seen as team play­ers” by the Clinton/​Citi alums who infest­ed the Oba­ma White House. Nev­er­the­less, a lot of pow­er­ful men came around, includ­ing Lar­ry Sum­mers and then (unbe­liev­ably) for­mer Citi CEOs Sandy Weill and John Reed, both of whom wrote op-eds argu­ing that Glass-Stea­gall need­ed to be rein­stat­ed and their old bank bro­ken up.

Hillary thinks oth­er­wise — that we have not yet reached the hypo­thet­i­cal in which they deserve it.” Could that be because Citi, in its cur­rent and appar­ent­ly invin­ci­ble state, is the sec­ond biggest donor to her campaign?

AMAN­DA: I was just sit­ting around think­ing about how I’m going to miss Jeb Bush and his desire to con­vince us that Bill Clin­ton was pres­i­dent on 911, but I shouldn’t have wor­ried! Now I get to enjoy Sanders’ sup­port­ers telling me that Hillary Clin­ton was pres­i­dent from 2000 to 2008, dur­ing which time I was under the impres­sion she was the queen of Fil­lo­ry. Why shouldn’t I vote for her now, see­ing as she was the pow­er behind Bush all that time? She is clear­ly a witch and she won’t just know that you vot­ed against her, but will secret­ly curse you with her sor­cer­ess powers. 

The efforts to lull Clin­ton sup­port­ers into defend­ing the big banks” have failed, for good rea­son. There’s no evi­dence of a semi-secret con­spir­a­cy of Democ­rats that fucked up our econ­o­my out of the evil­ness of their trai­tor­ous hearts. Do they lis­ten too much to peo­ple who are inside the indus­try? Sure. Is Lar­ry Sum­mers a dick? Absolute­ly. Do I think that Democ­rats got lulled into believ­ing they could win over some Repub­li­can votes by embrac­ing con­ser­v­a­tive dereg­u­la­tion schemes? The record shows they did. 

But I also think the Democ­rats, includ­ing Hillary Clin­ton, have embraced rein­ing in Wall Street and pro­tect­ing finan­cial con­sumers. Read the White House sum­ma­ry of how effec­tive the Dodd-Frank bill has been, which has includ­ed cre­at­ing the Con­sumer Finan­cial Pro­tec­tion Bureau in order to pro­tect con­sumers from preda­to­ry bank­ing prac­tices. (Sanders fans might look into the role Eliz­a­beth War­ren played in that, because I’ve been assured that they real­ly like her.) If Clin­ton had some secret agen­da to undo all that, I doubt Bar­ney Frank would be advis­ing her on this front.

Aman­da Mar­cotte is a pol­i­tics writer for Salon. She has pre­vi­ous­ly writ­ten for Slate Rolling Stone, LA Times, and USA Today.

Moe Tkacik is a free­lance writer; read her oth­er sto­ries for In These Times here. She is a for­mer Wall Street Jour­nal reporter and was a found­ing edi­tor of Jezebel.

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