There’s a general sentiment that crops up when people talk about the current American presidential race which goes something like this: “Wow, Hillary Clinton is a terrible candidate. Any generic Democratic politician would be beating Trump by a landslide.”
That may be true. “Generic Democratic politician” implicitly means a man, which would at least put an end to some of Trump’s weirdest dogwhistles. It’s easy to imagine Joe Biden demolishing Trump with middle-class earnestness, or Barack Obama gracefully turning him into a joke. But Hillary Clinton is the one running, and she now looks almost certain to win this race. (Trump has been plummeting in the polls ever since the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump brags about getting away with sexual assault, but he was in a deep hole even before that. In the last 24 hours, the floodgates of Donald Trump’s sexual predations have begun to open, causing Trump to predictably bunker down, deny everything, and basically declare open war on his own party.)
So can we rephrase that sentiment? It’s probably a lot more true to say, “Wow, Donald Trump is such a bad candidate that not even America’s entrenched misogyny is saving him.”
I like this rephrasing. It puts the focus on something that too often slinks by unnoticed, which is that Trump has had the easiest glide imaginable to a major party nomination, while Clinton has had to work fiercely for decades just to crack open the possibility of it. (How annoying must it be to achieve something completely unprecedented, only to have people grumble that it was ‘inevitable’?) But even this rephrasing still makes the mistake – one common to a lot of writing about this election – of making it all about Trump. It makes it all about Trump succeeding on his own terms or failing on his own terms, and ignores the woman who’s studiously and methodically kicking his ass.
So let’s talk about Hillary instead.
It can be really difficult to get a good sense of Hillary Rodham Clinton; the field is swarmed with everybody’s feverish and contradictory ideas of her. Hardcore right-wingers think she’s a radical feminist criminal. Hardcore leftists think she’s a neoliberal hack and a Republican warmonger. Alex Jones thinks she’s “an abject, psychopathic demon from Hell.” So … who knows, I guess? ‘Teach the controversy’?
Take this as a rule: the sentiment “I don’t want a female leader” nearly always manifests itself as “I don’t want this female leader.” Misogyny mobilises itself against women who seek power in a variety of ways. Some are obvious, but most are cloaked and diffuse. What do you call it when, over the course of literally decades, a female politician’s “trustworthiness” and “ambition” is talked about more than it ever is for male politicians? If you’re an average member of the public, you’re going to assume that the amount of media coverage a scandal receives is basically commensurate to its objective importance, right? After all, it’s hard to believe that there could be similar but unambiguously worse scandals which receive only a tiny fraction of the coverage. So what do you call it when that average member of the public, through no particular malice of their own, concludes that the female subject of a disproportionately-covered scandal is uniquely dishonest?
These are some of the more subtle movements of misogyny: decisions which can all be defended individually, but which form creepy-as-fuck patterns when you zoom out. Shifting standards, plausible deniability, and sexism so diffuse and systematic that it’s hard to hold anyone accountable for. A person doesn’t need to have misogyny in their heart to be influenced by, and implicated in, an ecosystem that punishes women for seeking traditionally male roles of power. All you have to do is have two working lungs, and you’ll inevitably breathe some of it in. None of this negates or invalidates the real critiques that people can have of Clinton, of course (see Michelle Alexander in The Nation or Thomas Frank in Harpers for some of the ones that really sting), but that toxicity has to be accounted for. If you’re not accounting for it, you’re breathing it.
So with that in mind, I want to set something straight. People love to say that Hillary Clinton is “basically a Republican”, but that is pungent, richly-coloured, A-grade bullshit. Want to know the most underrated storyline of this whole election? Hillary Clinton, in addition to being the first woman to be nominated by a major party for president, is running on the most progressive domestic platform in the history of modern American major party politics.
Once we get a bit of distance from this whole Trump shitshow, I think it’ll seem bizarre that we’re not making a bigger deal out of this. She’s running on the largest increase to the federal minimum wage in history, increasing taxes on the rich, and finally getting paid family and medical leave. She’s running on LGBT rights, ending mass incarceration, and giving people the chance to go to college debt-free. She’s running on more compassionate immigration reform, the aggressive re-regulation of the big banks (not to mention overturning Citizens United), and a comprehensive plan to address climate change. And before you say, “She’s only saying that stuff to pander to Bernie Sanders voters”, take a look back at the speech she gave when she got into the race. Bernie Sanders absolutely did push her to the left in some areas, but that speech is from June 2015, before Bernie Sanders was even a thing, and most of that policy was already there. (I thoroughly recommend reading it, by the way; it’s a great speech. She was quoting FDR before Bernie made 1930s-style social democracy cool again.)
It’s common for the candidates of both parties to sing the song of their base to win the primaries, and then tack back to the centre in the general election. But significantly, Clinton hasn’t done this at all. She’s still running on her Leslie Knope-style binder full of progressive ideas, and is even still adding to it – she just unveiled an ambitious expansion of the Child Tax Credit that would massively benefit the poor, lifting an estimated 1.5 million people above the poverty line. Nobody’s paying any attention to anything but Trump right now, of course, so it went almost totally unnoticed.
It’s as though Clinton’s in the middle of a collapsing three-ring circus, doing her damnedest to talk about refundability thresholds over the roar of the crowd, but their attention is plainly glued to the dancing bear who’s caught on fire and is mauling its handlers.
It’s hard to tear your eyes away from the bear, but stay with me here. Hillary Clinton deserves your attention. She’s a flawed, pragmatic, progressively-minded public servant: a dedicated coalition-builder and a remarkably good listener. She has an indefatigable work ethic, a wonk’s love of detail, and more endurance than I can even wrap my head around. People who know her well seem to love her, and even people who dislike her, once they actually work with her, tend to come around.
“Not this woman”, people say, but when there turns out to be something wrong with every woman who actually has a feasible chance to take on the role, you have to start to wonder. There’s a lot of evidence that electing women to office has more than symbolic value – that it actually changes how government operates in distinct ways that benefit women, minorities, and the poor. Anyone who thinks that electing a woman president will suddenly solve sexism is obviously delusional, but I’m not so sure anybody really does think that. Forget electing “a” woman president – electing this woman president will do an awful lot of good. She’s not perfect, but why do I even feel the need to say that? Has the fiction of a ‘perfect woman’ ever been anything but a cudgel used to keep women down?
When we think about Hillary, a lot of the time we’re just thinking about the toxic patterns in the air around her. We’re thinking about fake scandals, and half-remembered half-truths, and weird sexist double-standards that it never even occurs to us we may have imbibed. When you force all that to the side, what’s left is, frankly, an incredibly impressive woman. Not necessarily one you’ll agree with about everything, but one that you would be genuinely glad to have as your boss, or your landlord, or (hopefully) as president. It can be hard to see that person, behind everything she gets covered with – but she’s there, like she has been for decades, quietly putting in the work.
This is the second in a three-part series on the upcoming U.S election. Andy Wadeson Connor is a writer, dungeon master, and US politics obsessive who grew up in Wangaratta. Andy is currently writing a masters thesis in philosophy, and gives advice in the character of a cartoon moose named ‘Mulbert’ over at http://advicecomics.tumblr.com/