'What Happened' Perfectly Illustrates Why Clinton Lost—Just Not on Purpose
In trying to reckon with her loss, Hillary Clinton doubles down on the same hollow rhetoric and questionable politics that contributed to it.
Photo by Jewel Samad Via Getty
"I'm coming around to the idea that what we need more than anything at this moment in America is what you might call 'radical empathy.'"
— Hillary Rodham Clinton, "What Happened"
I have empathy for Hillary Clinton. This is not because I agree with her politics, or because I like her at all, but because in an effort to be a kinder, more grown-up person, I try to have empathy for everyone. But because my empathy extends beyond Hillary Clinton—to marginalized people from Little Rock to Iraq—I strongly dislike her, too. (Don't worry, I'm not a sexist: I hate both Clintons equally.)
It was in this state of intense ambivalence that I embarked on the unenviable task of reading and digesting Clinton's 469-page tome What Happened over a 48-hour period. It was a much more emotional experience than I expected (though that may have had something to do with the fact that, due to poor planning, I got an I.U.D. placed at the beginning of this literary gauntlet). The treatment Clinton has endured in her public life is objectively infuriating: Throughout the book, and particularly in a chapter entitled "On Being a Woman In Politics," she examines the sexism she's faced over the course of her career and during the 2016 election, from the press's famously overblown reaction to her "tea and cookies" comment, to widespread scrutiny of her personal choices and appearance ("It hurts to be torn apart," she writes), to Trump's "nasty woman" bile.
It's inarguable that sexism played a role in her defeat, and I think most women would relate to the slights and aggressions she had to endure placidly. Clinton has struggled throughout her career to seem "authentic," whatever that means, and there are several places in the book where she comes across as genuinely likable: Her love for her daughter, her grandchildren, her parents, and even her husband is quite moving, and she's particularly compelling when taking on Trump and the GOP, like when she wryly admits to mistaking Jason Chaffetz for fellow nondescript white man Reince Preibus. Her longing to see America elect a woman president—and her crushing disappointment at getting a horrific misogynist instead—tugged at my feminist heartstrings.
But for every moment of identification, there were multiple moments where she came off as jarringly out-of-touch. Her offhand references to famous friends like Oscar de la Renta and to second homes, and her obsessive focus on professional women and tech entrepreneurs, weren't too relatable to my experience as a low-income member of the precariat. And I'm more privileged than the average American.
Clinton doubles down on the kind of thinking that led progressives of all demographics to stay home or vote third party in 2016.
I should, at this point, acknowledge the discursive climate into which this book was released, which has made straight reviews all but impossible. Instead of judging the book on its own merits—literarily, it's a surface-level memoir brimming with defensiveness and platitudes, and politically, it's about what you'd expect, for the record—critics on both sides have been arguing whether Clinton should have written it at all. Politico reported that Democratic operatives were "dreading" her book tour, fearful it would reopen old wounds and divisions, and leftist critics have vocal with their recriminations—namely, that "staging a vanity book tour" and "relitigating 2016" are bad priorities for a progressive to have right now.
This backlash, of course, prompted a spate of irate pieces from Clinton supporters, who argue that Clinton is being silenced because she's a woman, and that What Happened is important because Clinton has an important role to play in the Democratic Party going forward. "No, Hillary Clinton, the First Woman to Win a Major-Party Presidential Nomination, Does Not Need to Shut Up About It," proclaimed Vogue; a snarky blog post on Bustle enumerated five other famous women "who should keep their mouths shut" if Clinton has to, which included Oprah Winfrey and "the women of ancient Egypt."
In my view, all of these people are wrong. This book needs to exist, but only as a primary document of failure that should be studied for decades to come. While Clinton does a decent job pointing out what happened, it's not instructive in the way she probably intended. From her reverence for data and experts, to her wariness of populist movements of any kind, to her tone-deaf commitment to trickle-down feminism (featuring a cameo from her friend Sheryl Sandberg), Clinton doubles down on the kind of thinking that led progressives of all demographics to stay home or vote third party in 2016.
As Clinton's own tenure on the board of a union-busting Walmart showed, simply admitting more women to the halls of power doesn't do shit for the women on the bottom. In one particularly revealing passage, she praises the millions of people who protested in Women's Marches around the world, but in the same breath resentfully wonders "where those feelings of solidarity, outrage and passion had been during the election." To me, the answer seems obvious: People didn't mobilize for Clinton because they didn't support her record, her message didn't resonate with them, and she was far more conservative than the average liberal voter. That 90 percent of Sanders supporters ended up voting for her in the general election—about the same percentage as Clinton supporters who voted for Obama in '08—is a testament to our willingness to set "purity" aside to stave off a greater evil. Simply put: We weren't expressing feelings of solidarity and passion because we simply didn't have them.
While Clinton repeatedly says she takes (partial) responsibility for her loss (did you know she won the popular vote?), the failings she admits to are mostly frivolous, like "optics" and "likability"—the equivalent of saying "I'm too much of a perfectionist!" when asked one's flaws in a job interview. When discussing her paid, closed-door speeches to Goldman Sachs, for instance, she insists her coziness with the crooks who evaded punishment for causing the financial crisis has nothing to do with her policy stances toward said crooks; her only mistake was miscalculating how the public would perceive her afterwards: "I spoke to audiences from a wide range of fields… I also spoke to bankers," she writes. "Especially after the financial crisis of 2008-2009, I should have realized it would be bad 'optics' and stayed away from anything having to do with Wall Street."
At points, she admits she "didn't recognize" the "bitter, broken" country that Trump so effectively "painted a picture" of, but concludes not that she was out of touch with reality, but that everyone else just needed to get on board the "America is already great" train. "[Trump] didn't seem to see any of the energy or optimism I saw when I traveled around the country," she laments, after rattling off an unconvincing list of Obama-era achievements that includes, "Our military remained by far the most powerful in the world." (While she does admit her error in voting to authorize the invasion of Iraq—a war she pitched to corporations as "a business opportunity" in 2011— she complains about being unfairly targeted for doing so.)
It should come as no surprise that Clinton treats Bernie Sanders and his supporters with a cartoonish degree of condescension. In the primary, Clinton was faced with the problem of a candidate running to the left of her on most issues. She deals with this by painting Sanders' social democratic reforms as crazy and unrealistic, and her means-tested, technocratic tinkering as progressive and practical. In one particularly offensive passage, she literally quotes from a Facebook meme that equates Sanders' proposed policies to promising everyone a pony, as though affordable healthcare is a childish dream or needless luxury, something a spoiled five-year-old would demand as a birthday gift.
Throughout the book, and in subsequent interviews, Clinton has tended to paint male Sanders supporters as a mob of "more than a little sexist" white men who don't care about racial justice, and female Sanders supporters as naive fools who think the struggle for women's lib is over and just want to be where the boys are: "I know that for a lot of people, including a lot of women, the movement for women's equality exists largely in the past," she says.
As long as America's problems are spiritual and not structural, she can scold everyone into doing better while leaving the old hierarchies untouched.
On the question of whether Clinton opposes New Deal style social democracy due to principle or logistics, the book is unclear. At points, she praises the New Deal as having "saved capitalism from itself," claims there wasn't that much difference between her proposed policies and those of Sanders, and says Republicans are what's standing in the way of us getting Denmark-style entitlements. At other points, though, she says Sanders' "socialism" would be bad for the country without explaining why, and praises free market capitalism for building the greatest middle class in history... never mind the fact that it later destroyed that same middle class. On a practical level, it doesn't really matter why Clinton opposed even socialism-lite reforms, but a sincere (if wrongheaded) belief they're impossible would speak better of her than being beholden to the donor class or believing that struggle ennobles the poor.
In her diagnosis of the country's problems, Clinton falls on the wrong side of a growing rupture between idealism and materialism. She believes Appalachian poverty is not just the result of economic factors, but "a culture of grievance, victimhood and scapegoating tak[ing] root as traditional values of self-reliance and hard work have withered," as posited by modern Horatio Alger myth-maker JD Vance. In her telling, racism and sexism arise not only from tangible factors in history, but a failure of America's moral fiber. She also notably refuses to acknowledge her role in perpetuating racial oppression, through her public and unabashed support of Bill's "tough on crime" policies and her touting of the racist "superpredator" myth, dismissing Black Lives Matter activists' criticism of her as "oversimplified beyond recognition." She says America's problems can be solved with "a new ethos of individual responsibility, and caring." As long as America's problems are spiritual and not structural, she can scold everyone into doing better while leaving the old hierarchies untouched. But hey, now the boot on your neck belongs to a woman!
Fortunately, even establishment Democrats are starting to see that voters want more than centrist platitudes. Single-payer healthcare, that thing she said would "never, ever come to pass," now has the support of most of the Democrats thinking of running for president. Sanders remains the most popular politician in the country. All over the world, grassroots left-populist movements are offering workable alternatives to both the failed status quo and the rising nationalist right. Feminists are rejecting the politics of elite representation in favor of intersectional work that recognizes women's rights are LGBT rights are union rights are sex workers' rights are POC rights are Palestinian rights.
Despite my criticisms of her, I'm willing to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt. It's possible she'll get more progressive now that she's no longer beholden to the donor class, or possibly now that she sees that's where the action is. (Her reasons are her business, OK?) I've long admired her charming cackle, her obvious intelligence, and her steely, imposing presence, and wished she'd deploy them in favor of good. It's probably too much to hope for, but stranger things have happened in these times.