Two distinguished members of the Silent generation, Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem, created a sensation on the eve of the New Hampshire primary with appeals to feminism. (For the record, I just discovered sexism in the blogger spellchecker: it recognizes Acheson, Seward and Dulles--all former secretaries of state--but not Albright.) Albright told women a special place in hell awaited them if they did not vote for Hillary Clinton, and Steinem accused Millennial women of campaigning for Bernie Sanders because that is where the boys were. (Steinem recanted the next day; Albright has not.) Their statements were certainly extreme, but they represented a widespread view in some feminist circles that Hillary Clinton, to some extent at least, deserves to be elected simply because she is a woman. The candidate herself has also expressed this view with applause lines about the possibility of becoming the first woman President. This is a sensitive subject which I have hesitated to raise head on, but to paraphrase the great Edward R. Murrow, this is no time for Americans--or Democrats--to remain silent. This is one of the crucial elections of our entire history.
In my opinion, one must understand two things about American feminism as it emerge din the 1970s. First of all, despite Vietnam, Watergate, and civil rights strife, the United States at that time was still a relatively egalitarian society with a highly functional government in which people at different levels of the occupational scale could afford houses, higher education, and a generally decent life. Urban poverty had become a national issue--although little was being done about it--and the stagnation of workers' wages was beginning to set in, but we had a much sounder economic foundation than we do today. The problem, to feminists like Steinem, was the definition of accepted roles for women within that society, not the transformation of that society. She and her allies wanted abortion rights, greater freedom from abusive relationships,and greater job opportunities for women. They also wanted a society in which women could live without men. And it became axiomatic among feminists that any disparity in numbers of men and women at any level of our society--particularly the highest ones--was an injustice that had to be corrected as soon as possible. These views have spread over the decades, and they now dominate academia, the media, and the Democratic party establishment--in part because there was a good deal of truth in them.
Something, however, was lost in all this--something very important. The corollary view of American history was that men had succeeded because they were men--and this has never been the case. Yes, it was necessary to be a man to aspire to high office for most of American history, but it obviously was not sufficient to be a man to guarantee success. The male population divided on economic, ideological, religious, regional, and a host of other lines that in different eras defined the contours of American politics. The same was true in every other field: to succeed, a man had to outdo other men. Neither American politics nor American economic life were pure meritocracies among males (or, if you prefer, white males), but competition within those groups, not entitlement, determined success or failure. That, to millions of Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries, was what American exceptionalism meant.
Now the feminist revolution has had an enormous impact upon American life. It certainly has not created complete equality at the upper reaches of our society by any means. The gap between men's and women's pay even in the professions has only shrunk very slightly. But there are far more women doctors, lawyers, professors, and politicians than there were half a century ago--not to mention military officers and enlisted personnel, firefighters, and police officers. Women certainly do not need to marry men to gain economic security, or remain in abusive relationships. And in certain fields, though not all of them by any means, the idea that women's participation must be increased has become institutionalized. The question that is now arising is whether we should extend that view to our selection of our next President, and elect Hillary Clinton in significant part because she is a woman. And that is what I want to address.
It is a sign of how far we have come that I haven't seen any mainstream press commentator discuss the irony of this situation. Does it really constitute a triumph for feminism that the first serious female candidate became a national figure because her husband was elected President of the United States? I know that many of Hillary's friends and supporters believe deeply that if she had not married Bill and moved to Arkansas, she would have risen through the political ranks of New York or some other state on her own and gotten to where she is now anyway. I will certainly concede that that is possible but not that it was ever likely. For every Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, or Bill Clinton, there are a hundred men of equal ambition and ability who never got anywhere near the White House. Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, Diane Feinstein, and numerous other women had longer and at least equally distinguished careers in public life than Hillary Clinton without getting anywhere near the White House either. The real question--and it turns out to be a very interesting one--is exactly how, both in 2007 and in 2015, Hillary Clinton seemed to be on the threshold of nomination and election as President.
Well, it is not, in my opinion, because of any overwhelming accomplishments as a public servant. In her eight years in the Senate Clinton made no waves and authored no particularly important legislation. In 2009, when the Democrats had just won complete control of the government and she might have helped do just that, she became Secretary of State instead. In that office, she set a goal, apparently, of visiting as many countries as possible; emerged as one of the Obama Administration's foremost advocates of the use or threat of force in various conflicts; and undertook no major diplomatic initiatives, least of all towards America's enemies. The contrast with John Kerry, who has restored relations with Cuba and reached a nuclear deal with Iran, is rather striking in that regard. Some months ago, on the NPR program Radio Open Source, journalist and historian Stephen Kinzer, discussing the Iran agreement, stated that none of the then-visible presidential candidates would continue Obama's policy of seeking accommodation with America's enemies. Queried by a surprised host Christopher Lydon whether that included Hillary Clinton, he replied that she was probably one of the least likely to do so. As Senator and Secretary of State, it is fair to say, Clinton played it safe.
Clinton got where she is today in the presidential race by carefully cultivating major donors, both among Democrats and powerful institutions like the Wall Street banks. She took advantage of the connections she and her husband built up when he was in the White House, and also built strong relationships with leading figures in minority communities. Now let me be frank: that is exactly how every major candidate in recent political elections, both Democrats and Republicans, have done it as well. Clinton is not the only candidate to get where she is thanks to family connections: see Bush, George W., and Jeb. A number of other leading candidates, such as George H. W. Bush and Al Gore, secured the same connections in the Vice Presidency. That is how our system now works.
That, however, has turned out to be Clinton's Achilles heel in the year 2016, because the American people are genuinely sick of that system. They no longer want candidates who got where they are by cultivating the 1%. And this is not sexism. The Republican candidate who most resembles Hillary, clearly, is Jeb Bush, a moderate (by the current standards of his party) who rose in politics with the help of family connections and who had preferred access to the movers and shakers of his party. Bush is doing much worse than Clinton is--and the last time I looked, he was a man.
And what of Clinton's claim that she has been fighting for those less well off--particularly children--all her life? Well, at one time, men and women who had spent their whole professional lives in what was then called social work--people like Harold Ickes, Frances Perkins, and Harry Hopkins--rose to high positions in government. Those three all belonged to Franklin Roosevelt's cabinet. Those days, however, are long gone, and the many thousands of men and women who do work among the less well off are cut off from the political system. Clinton's work for the Children's Defense Fund and her civil rights work in Alabama, which she is so fond of citing, seems to have occupied parts of two years of life, before and after her graduation from Law School in 1973. After marrying Bill Clinton and moving to Arkansas, she joined a local corporate firm. Her role as an activist is rather parallel to Barack Obama's two years as a community organizer in Chicago--a stint which does not seem to have led him to question the essential structure of the system through which he was rising, any more than Clinton has. As First Lady, of course, she helped design the Clinton Administration's health care plan--one which, like Obamacare, did not directly threaten the economic role of private insurance. It failed to pass. Later, objective accounts confirm, she got, and kept, the White House engaged on behalf of the SCHIP program to provide health insurance to children, but it was Senator Edward Kennedy who was primarily responsible for it. None of this differentiates her from the average mainstream Democratic politician.
There is no reason to think, as I have blogged here before, that electing Clinton would do anything to change the fundamental direction of American society and foreign policy of the last couple of decades in general, or halt our movement into a new Gilded Age in particular. It would "shatter the glass ceiling" and put a woman in the White House. That, in turn, leads to another question--has the greater presence of women at the upper reaches of American society done anything for women in the lower half? In my opinion, the answer is, not very much.
The plight of women in the lower half of our economy is similar to the plight of men--not surprisingly, since both reflect the rise of income inequality, our horrifying criminal justice system, the decline of government as a force for good, the decline of organized labor, and the cost of higher education. There are far more single mothers than there were in the 1970s, and I cannot believe that is a good thing for women, children, or men. There are far more women addicted to drugs and far more women in prison. They have fewer protections as workers and many cannot acquire higher education without assuming enormous debts. I feel quite sure that it is because Millennial women know some or all of this first hand that they do not see any reason to vote for Clinton, rather than Bernie Sanders, simply because she is a woman.
In her concession speech Tuesday night, Clinton claimed the mantle of the representative of oppressed Americans, including minorities, women, and LGBTs. That is how both the feminist movement and two generations of civil rights activists have trained us all to see the problem of oppression and injustice. In my opinion that has not worked--least of all for those groups themselves. That approach, let us face it, has also driven significant numbers of poor white voters--men and women--into the arms of Donald Trump. Bernie Sanders stands for something different: for the rights of all Americans--particularly their economic rights--regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. That was the approach that led to real progress for all Americans in the middle third of the twentieth century and I still think it is the only approach that can work. And I am very deeply moved that so many younger Americans seem to agree.