Attending Hillary Clinton’s speech here at The New School on Monday, I was impressed, though not inspired. In person, she seemed to me to be as wooden as she appears on television. Yet especially now, a tough day later with bad news from Greece and good news from Iran, I think its pretty clear that she is developing a position that addresses the economic challenges of our times.

After hearing the speech, I decided to do something completely different. I intended to write this post, but first wanted to clear my head to find some perspective. I went to the Neue Galerie, one of those small boutique museums that I especially like, but then I stumbled on the steps exiting, landing on the concrete sidewalk, directly on my knee. I planned on writing this note yesterday, but my knee got in the way.

Now I am writing in the emergency room of Phelps Memorial Hospital, near my home, and I am thinking that Clinton also stumbled a bit. But, as I hope that my injury is nothing serious, I believe Clinton’s stumble indicates more a stylistic limitation, far from fatal to her candidacy.

As expected, she contrasted herself with her potential Republican opponents. Linking names with problematic solutions to our economic problems, she dismissed the idea that Americans just need to work harder to increase economic growth (Jeb Bush); she questioned the tax reform that would save households making three million dollars a year almost two hundred forty thousand dollars, three times the average person’s income (Marco Rubio), and she supported unions as Republicans make their names by attacking and weakening them (especially Scott Walker). She gave a Clintonesque laundry list of needed reforms, from the tried and true, and necessary — early childhood education and equal pay for equal work, to the new and intriguing — a developing proposal for profit sharing. And she embraced the economic policies of her Democratic predecessors: her husband and her former boss, as she criticized the trickle down folly of Republican presidents past, noting that the prospective Republican presidents promise more of the same.

Clinton presented an overriding theme: “an agenda for strong growth, fair growth …,” beyond “second to second financial trading, and quarterly earnings reports, and too little on long-term investments.” And she even promised a critical epistemology to inform public policy: “making decisions that rely on evidence more than ideology. That’s what I’ll do as president. I will seek out and welcome any good idea that is actually based on reality.”

I particularly appreciated her epistemological note, which other commentators have not highlighted. I am a long time observer of ideological politics of the 20th century, with grave concerns about 21st century varieties based on dogmatic beliefs in the market, nation and religion. Clinton clearly is not a market fundamentalist, as all her potential Republican rivals are, and hers is clearly not a politics based on ideological true belief.

Yet, I was not inspired. Clinton is not a great speaker, unsteadily expressing conviction, uneasily embodying her words, and poorly connecting with her audience. But more than this, I don’t think she firmly gets what should be her underlying economic theme. She doesn’t appreciate how profoundly problematic inequality has become in America, or at the least she doesn’t demonstrate such appreciation. What Tocqueville understood as being definitive of democracy in America, equality, is no more. Senators Sanders and Warren understand this with urgency in a way that Clinton doesn’t, it seemed to me after hearing her speak. Her pragmatic evidence based policy proposals were not sufficiently tied to the core problem. To quote George H. W. Bush, “the vision thing” escaped her. I have hopes that nonetheless she will get and express it.

Perhaps some young political operative should hang up in her campaign headquarters a sign: “It’s inequality, stupid!” to help her focus on what she suggests, but doesn’t yet embody. And perhaps the Sanders candidacy will push her. This is my hope for Clinton’s candidacy and presidency. I don’t like the fact that she appears to be inevitable. But it could be worse. She revealed yesterday that she understands that economic growth is not an end in itself; it won’t do if it benefits only or even primarily the one percent. Clinton is running to the left of her husband’s and Obama’s presidencies. This is the result of the long struggle for social justice, in my judgment a fruit of Occupy Wall Street, as it worked to reinvent American political culture. Many cynics observe that Sanders is forcing her into this position. Perhaps, but it doesn’t matter. Yesterday in presenting the terms of her approach to the economy, she made public commitments. I am indeed favorably impressed and hopeful.

And I am hopeful about my knee too. No broken bones, they tell me. But it still hurts.

9 thoughts on “It’s Inequality, Stupid! Hillary Clinton at the New School on the Economy

  1. Favorably impressed? How pathetic ! Taken in by another fake, perfectly packaged politican. I suppose we the people are getting what we deserve … a choice of among more than a dozen losers. VOTE FOR NONE OF THE ABOVE.

  2. Bill Clinton’s years were good for the country. We don’t know how much it is because of his presidency, but he must get some credit. A Clintonesque platform, somewhat to the left to correct for subsequent mistakes, is inspiring enough for me. I can do without charismatic speeches, actually I prefer it this way.

  3. Peter, I am impressed that Clinton is addressing problems as they have been framed by those who have underscored the centrality of the increasing inequality in the U.S (OWS et al). The frame of public discussion moves political action and policies. There were signs in Clinton’s speech at The New School that the all growth is good consensus has ended, that not only growth but equality and other social goods must be achieved. Making such concern public is more important than authenticity.

    Voting for none of the above, would be disastrous, starting with the Supreme Court but way beyond that. Consider what would happen, for example, to the agreement with Iran.

    But I think, Felipe Pait, that speeches that indicate a set of concerns as a whole is important. The legacy of Reagan and Thatcher, what people call the neo-liberal hegemony and I call market fundamentalism, has to be overturned in the US. Bill Clinton squandered his talents to do this, if he ever wanted to, because of his personal problems. Obama has made great efforts, the fruits of which are becoming evident especially in recent months. It would be good if Hillary Clinton, or perhaps one of her rivals, would win and seal the deal. A starting point might be what I call here, ironically, her epistemological position, but she needs to go further. Thus my call for the slogan “It’s Inequality Stupid!”

    1. “Obama has made great efforts, the fruits of which are becoming evident especially in recent months.” Among those, the deliberate effort to *not* prosecute any of the Wall Street criminals. The skyrocketing inequality is not solely the result of this failure, but the political decision to let bankers off the hook has not helped. Among these recent “great efforts” the political bullying to force the fast tracking of the TPP comes to mind. Talk about something that will surely mitigate market fundamentalism…This goes beyond a “glass half full” attitude. Just like in the case of your view of Clinton’s repositioning to the left, you seem to be looking for the positives in Obama’s legacy to the point of declaring the glass half full when it contains a few drops only. The fact is, there is very little reason to trust any repositioning on the left by Clinton if we are to judge by the precedent of Obama, who campaigned on the left, and forgot about it the day he got elected. There is no reason to expect Clinton–another Wall Street sponsored candidate–to address inequality in any kind of meaningful way.

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Clinton’s visit Jeff. A few initial thoughts to your post.

    First, judging Clinton by her Republican contenders is like judging the quality of fresh fruit in a Save-A-Lot produce section. I’ve never been a Democrat or a Republican, and never will be, so comparing one party to the other has no intrinsic political value for me. There is a certain laizze faire attitude amongst so-called progressive Democratic politics today that your post perfectly captures: “I don’t like the fact that she appears to be inevitable. But it could be worse.” If politics has come down to accepting the inevitable best elite of the worst elites, and we are ok with that, than what is the point of having a representative Republic by and for the people in the first place? If any person is going to represent me, they damn well better be principled on key issues and actually fight for those, not just pay them lip service, before I would even think about empowering them to represent me.

    Second, you claimed that among the “Clintonesque laundry list of needed reforms” was “the new and intriguing — a developing proposal for profit
    sharing.” Since this was a talk about economics, it might be useful to reflect on basic business models. What she is talking about is called a cooperative business, where workers either own a share in the company or are part owners. This is neither new nor innovative, as the cooperative movement dates back to the 1800s in Europe, and arguably even earlier. So what exactly about her profit-sharing plan is new or innovative in your mind?

    Third, yes, it’s great that Hillary mentioned inequality. But she doesn’t get it at all, and on this point we agree for very different reasons. If she was serious about addressing inequality in relation to economics, she would have had to talk about three things, and they were not about smart, fair or long-term growth.

    1) Mass Incarceration
    There is no point in even starting a discussion about economic reform if you don’t begin with the massive amount of people of color locked up in the US prison system. Any economic plan which does not address this as a central issue is dead in the water.

    2) White Supremacy/Institutional Racism
    If we want to talk about economic reform, we need to talk about racial entitlement and privilege. The invisible hand of the market doesn’t just magically decide that white people are better at making money. This is a historical reality shaped by slavery, genocide and intentional political exclusion. No amount of tax reform or public sector handouts will even make a dent in this issue.

    3) Militarism
    If we want to have a serious talk about economics in this country, let’s talk about the billions we spend each year on military, law enforcement and related forces meant to pacify and suppress dissent againt the US elite’s global hegemony, both at home and abroad. In FY 2015, the US defense budget is projected to be almost 54 percent of total federal discretionary spending, or about $598.5 billion.

    So in short, I would love to have a real discussion about economic reform in this country, one that was both new and innovative. Clinton offered nothing of either. And to use The New School as a progressive show piece is just disgusting political propaganda that makes our legacy even more of a joke than it already is.

    At any rate, those are a few initial thoughts to your post.

    1. I don’t understand your first point. There is going to be a President of the United States after Obama. We have to compare Democrats with Democrats, and with Republicans and third party candidates.

      My simple point, not as an advocate: it is notable both that Clinton is running on the problem of inequality and that she is not that clear about it. If the debate becomes about social justice and the other issues that concern both you, Chris, and me, that it is noteworthy, impressive. It is especially new and impressive that she mentioned profit sharing. I know that this is not a new idea, but it is new coming from a candidate for President of the United States of a major, my simple point.

      I think it matters who is president and it matters what she or he advocates as a candidate. (I also think it would be great, a significant change, if it were a “she”)

      On thrust of your critique: I don’t expect a thoroughly adequate analysis of the dimensions of economic inequality to come from any politician, radical, liberal or conservative. If important issues become part of public debate, I see this as a great advance, for example, issues of inequality rather than ways to reduce the role of government.

      On what I think is the key difference between you and me (and many of our colleagues) I believe the enemy of the good is the perfect, and the imagined perfect often leads to horrors.

      And on local New School issues: I am very glad that we hosted Clinton. I hope we will host Sanders, and for that matter, other Republican and Green candidates as well. For me that would represent the deep tradition of the New School, it’s openness, which also leads me to welcome your considered response to this post and to publish enthusiastically your own piece on Clinton.

      I hope and trust we will have the occasion to have further discussion of these issues at Public Seminar in the coming months.

      1. My point was that it would be much more meaningful to compare Clinton’s economic plan with the other Democratic contenders, otherwise there really is no comparison. But given that you more or less assume she will be the candidate–for good or ill–it seems you were left with comparing her comments to those of Bush and Rubio.

        I guess I don’t really understand your statement that you “don’t expect a thoroughly adequate analysis of the dimensions of economic inequality to come from any politician, radical, liberal or conservative.”

        If a potential President of the US doesn’t know or understand enough about economic inequality to offer a thorough analysis–or any analysis for that matter, since Clinton offered zilch in terms of critical analysis in her talk–than why would anyone ever vote for them? Because they are the lesser of the two evils is not a valid voting motive, or justification, in my opinion.

        And further, it strikes me as deeply troubling to say “If important issues become part of public debate, I see this as a great advance, for example, issues of inequality rather than ways to reduce the role of government.”

        This leads me to ask, why are we even bothering with elections and the pretense of democracy if our public debates over presidential candidates don’t include “important issues” as a non-negotiable starting point? To put it more bluntly, are you honestly content with politicians talking meaningless nonsense, or offering us utopian dreams of how good the country will be once they take the reins, as a substitute for actual public deliberation and informed citizen participation? Cause I sure ain’t!

        “On what I think is the key difference between you and me (and many of our colleagues) I believe the enemy of the good is the perfect, and the imagined perfect often leads to horrors.”

        I disagree, as I have no interest in the perfect, whatever that even means in politics. I would say the key difference, at least judging from our limited exchanges reflecting on Hillary’s speech, is that you seem to have settled for mediocre liberalism as a refuge for an emaciated “progressive” politics, while I refuse to settle for handouts and ho-hum, guess this is the best we can get, politics. I refuse to settle for the farce we call democracy in the US today. My position has everything to do with a deeply held belief in the lifelong struggle for social justice, radical democracy, and political accountability. I’d like to think you also stand for those thing…

        Finally, as to the New School issue, my point was not that we should not invite her, but rather that we should not allow her to use the once-radical image of our economic thinking as a backdrop to legitimate what is clearly just another neoliberal economic plans, same as the last Clinton. I would welcome her her in an open community debate where she has to deal with a hostile crowd and other demos and independents who would not let her get off with a shill speech and lots of smiling and head nodding. If she were to come back for something along those lines I would welcome her participation. It’s an important distinction, and one she was quite shrewd to deploy at our expense.

        1. You and I agree that the range of political debate in the U.S. is not broad enough and that it has been dominated by free market ideology. I think, therefore, that t is notable that Hillary Clinton is now returning to a position that once was central to the Democratic Party. I think this is an indication of broader public support for this position and others more progressive, and that her stance moves the public in that direction, suggesting the possibility of democratic change. I think further another indication of the change, another more direct development that pushes democratic change, is Bernie Sanders, a self declared democratic socialist as a serious candidate. It would be great if he too would visit the New School.

          I think our differences, Chris, have less to do with social goals, more to do with our understanding of the relationships between scholarship, intellectual critique and politics, and our judgments about the relationship between means and ends. You are probably right, it doesn’t have to do with wanting the perfect.

          That said, I must say the idea of welcoming Clinton to “an open community debate where she has to deal with a hostile crowd and other demos and independents…” is not an indication of real openness.

  5. Hi….Former student of yours here circa 2008-2009. I actually took your Erving Goffman course during the semester in which Obama was elected president, and it was really interesting talking politics with you, and I’m glad to hear you weighing in on the state of Hillary’s campaign thus far.

    I agree with much of your take on Clinton’s candidacy. I’ve been thoroughly surprised by her willingness to move away from middle-of-the-road triangulatory posturing into proposing solutions that actually come close to matching the challenges of our time. She still seems, as you say, uninspiring, and in my view a little too cautious (i.e., not going to Netroots Nation, being relatively silent on TPP). But I think for the most part she’s rightly reading the electorate as it relates to their views on policy; namely, when people hear specifics, they prefer more progressive policies.

    A couple of things I’m really liking about her candidacy that you didn’t mention include a recent focus on what she’s calling “short-termism”, a corporate culture that was cultivated decades ago and has only grown massively since. I’m also really liking what seems to be a renewed focus on increasing political activity at the state level and leveraging that activity for down-ticket wins. Much of the ground progressives have lost in the past six years have been at the state-level; in fact, I consider the utter lack of urgency on Obama and National Democrats’ part to defend gains made in 2008 leading to the electoral bloodbath in 2010 (and subsequent gerrymandering) to be the biggest mistake of Obama’s presidency.

    I think Bernie’s candidacy is absolutely helping move her in the right direction and just because it’s taking that outside pressure to make it happen matters not one iota to me. There’s been a lot of research about how presidents typically try to accomplish what they promise to their supporters they’ll do (which might fly in the face of conventional wisdom to non-political junkies). So how she gets there is immaterial. And whether or not she’s inevitable (she is, barring actual scandal), she doesn’t appear to be taking it for granted that she needs at least a moderately enthused left in her corner.

    Anyway, good to see some of your thoughts on this, and I hope your knee has mended in the days since you wrote this. Take care.

    Ryan Ward

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