Will Hillary ever forgive us?

September 22, 2017

Hillary Clinton's memoir says more about her and the Democratic Party than she'll ever realize. Elizabeth Dean read the book and wrote this review so you won't have to.

READERS OF SocialistWorker.org will probably not be shocked to learn that Hillary Clinton's What Happened is a bad book. So why bother with a review? One answer is that, while books like this aren't exactly intellectual achievements, they do provide a useful window into how the ruling class thinks about us--and that's worth knowing.

Just to state the obvious first, however, much of What Happened is boring in a thoroughly banal and predictable way: Hillary met a voter on the campaign trail who inspired her! Hillary has a list of wonkish policies! Hillary loves her family!

There are the inevitable references to Hillbilly Elegy, self-care and Hamilton. In fact, the book reads like Clinton--or her interns, rather--gathered a bunch of think pieces from Vox and Slate, put them through a blender, sprinkled in some quotes from fridge magnets, and frosted the whole thing with cloying Methodist pieties.

If you're wondering if Clinton takes responsibility for anything in this book, she absolutely does: She takes responsibility for being too smart and too good for the rest of us. Clinton confesses that her "instinctive response is to talk about how we can fix things," but people were simply too angry to listen.

Hillary Clinton greets supporters during the launch of her new book in New York
Hillary Clinton greets supporters during the launch of her new book in New York

In one passage, Clinton describes throngs of women coming up to her to do penance after the election:

On one occasion, an older woman dragged her adult daughter by the arm to come talk to me and ordered her to apologize for not voting--which she did, head bowed in contrition. I wanted to stare right in her eyes and say, 'You didn't vote? How could you not vote?! You abdicated your responsibility as a citizen at the worst possible time! And now you want me to make you feel better?' Of course, I didn't say any of that.

Clinton was too classy to scold this young woman to her face. She chose to do it in a book that will be bought by people across the country.

At one point, Clinton even bizarrely wonders whether her efforts to help residents of Flint, Michigan, by publicizing the water crisis and proposing a different course lost her white voters in the state--but magnanimously explains "that's not what it was about for me," because there were "real live kids" to help.

Truly a portrait in courage.

THIS EMPHASIS on her ostensible devotion on dealing with "real live" issues runs throughout What Happened, and it is the underlying point of her attacks on Bernie Sanders, who comes in for about as much criticism as Trump.

Clinton accuses Sanders of "thunder[ing] on at every event about the sins of "the millionaires and billionaires," while she "was more focused on offering practical solutions that would address real problems and make life better for people." As if "millionaires and billionaires" had nothing to do with the "real problems" working-class people face.

Clinton's "practical solutions" are a patchwork of pretty tame policies: a higher minimum wage (but not too high!); some fixes to Obamacare; giving businesses more money in the hope that they might create jobs someday; even a program to encourage people to move out of economically struggling towns (and she wonders why she lost in the Rust Belt!).

By "practical solutions," Clinton doesn't mean solutions that are "practical" to implement. She means solutions that are "practical" for the ruling class, by causing them minimal inconvenience while forestalling more radical changes.

Clinton would never use those words to say that. On the other hand, however, she is quite explicit about her hatred of radicalism.

For anyone who remembers the legend of Bill and Hillary Clinton as young 1960s radicals, read what she has to say about the 1968 police attacks on antiwar protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Clinton says she worried that "the antiwar movement was causing a backlash that would help elect Richard Nixon and prolong the war."

Never mind that the 1968 convention protests took place because the Democrats bypassed popular antiwar choices to nominate a pro-war presidential candidate, Hubert Humphrey--and Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley sicced his cops on anyone who dissented.

Clinton recounts the debates among youth at the time: "Should our goal be reform or revolution?" She concluded that "the system had to be reformed from the inside" because people who are suffering now can't "wait" for a "revolution."

This, of course, presents a false choice between pursuing change in the here and now versus doing nothing and waiting passively for the revolution to happen. In fact, the history of the socialist tradition in this country and others is of hard and patient organizing in the here and now, inside the labor movement, the Black freedom struggle, the women's movement and antiwar fights.

But socialists see these acts as building toward revolution, not as an alternative to it. Clinton ignores the root cause of the suffering she discusses--decisions made by the ruling class, including Clinton herself.

Thus, Clinton complains about protesters from the movement for Black lives who disrupted her talks and called for her to take responsibility for the 1994 crime bill passed during the Bill Clinton administration that kicked the era mass incarceration into high gear.

Clinton, in fact, defends the crime bill as a "tough compromise" and tosses in a defense of her husband's destruction of welfare for good measure.

This sums up Clinton's "practical solutions": policies that devastate Black and working-class communities. She scolds the protesters for not "engag[ing] constructively"--unlike the "leaders" she met with who back neoliberal education reforms that tear apart Black and Latino working-class schools.

THE CHAPTER on "Turning Mourning into a Movement" highlights Clinton's insincerity and condescension.

Clinton seeks to impress her readers with how deeply she felt the grief of family members of victims of police violence--and then goes on to assure readers that "I feel strongly about this: the vast majority of police officers are honorable, brave public servants who put their lives on the line every day to protect others."

She writes some platitudes about systematic racism, then turns the whole issue into a discussion of gun control, ignoring the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement erupted precisely against the murderers who are armed and funded by the state.

But this is typical of What Happened: One of the most insidious things about it is the way Clinton appropriates the struggles of ordinary people to try to convince us that her interests are the same as ours.

She complains about the burden of "emotional labor," a concept originally meant to explain how workers, especially female service workers, are expected to restrict and manage their feelings according to the priorities of corporations and ruling institutions.

Clinton's discussion of the question revolves around "women CEOs" and "women heads of state"--and she goes on to credit female politicians' experience with "emotional labor" for allowing them to form better coalitions in Congress than their male counterparts. The nature of these coalitions--are they, for example, agreements brokered by women to support wars or deport immigrants?--is, of course, left unspecified.

Clinton also succeeds in what might seem like an impossible task: attacking Trump from the right. She fully indulges paranoia about Russia that sounds like it could have come from a 1950s propaganda film.

For example, she compares the U.S. to a body whose immune system has been weakened: "Now that the Russians have infected us and seen how weak our defenses are, they'll keep at it...Their ultimate goal is to undermine--perhaps even destroy--Western democracy itself." Makes you wonder what's happening to our precious bodily fluids?

"[W]e need to get tough with Putin," Clinton says--by increasing U.S. intervention in Syria and Ukraine, and bolstering NATO (no appeals to "emotional labor" here!). Clinton warns that Trump will not "face this threat head-on" and begs us not to dismiss her discussion of Russia "as me trying to shift blame for my loss in 2016."

In a way, Clinton is right. While she is trying to shift the blame for her loss, she's also trying, as she did throughout the 2016 campaign, to present herself to the ruling class as the best manager of U.S. imperialism--a defender of the American-dominated world order that "defended universal human rights, defied totalitarianism, and delivered unprecedented peace, prosperity and freedom."

That list, of course, leaves out the millions killed by the U.S. across the world over the course of the last century. But maybe the Chileans or Palestinians or Vietnamese had it coming because they didn't "engage constructively."

SO IT'S no surprise to learn that--along with the cops, the military and intelligence agencies--Clinton finds she has much in common with the political leaders on the "other side": the Republicans. She gushes about how warm and comforting George W. Bush was during Trump's inauguration ceremony.

Clinton also finds inspiration in Theodore Roosevelt, the white supremacist and imperialist who she praises as "a shrewd politician who managed to fend off the demands of angry populists on his left who wanted to go even further toward Socialism, and conservatives on his right who would have let the robber barons amass even more wealth and power."

Clinton clearly sees herself in this mode, bragging about her "defense of the American system of free enterprise" during the Iowa primaries, for example. Still, socialists might be heartened by these passages--leading U.S. politicians now feel the need to openly attack socialism, rather than simply ignore it.

Let me close by adopting one good piece of advice from Hillary Clinton: "Find an organization that's doing work you believe in...If it doesn't exist, build it."

The political bankruptcy of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party as a whole in the face of the horrors of the Trump era proves like nothing else can the need for our own working-class organizations. So fight the right, build the left, and join the socialists!

Further Reading

From the archives