An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton on Progressivism

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Hillary Clinton / via

Dear Madam Secretary,

It’s been nearly a quarter of a century since Bill Clinton, then a 45-year-old governor of Arkansas, announced that he would run for the presidency of the United States. At the time, many people had never heard of your husband, although he had four times been elected to the governorship and he delivered a prime-time address nominating Michael Dukakis as the 1988 Democratic presidential candidate in Atlanta. Although the speech was widely panned, your hubby cleverly accepted an invite to appear on Johnny Carson, where he promptly and joyously lampooned himself. The future looked bright: Bill Clinton wasn’t only a moderate southerner on whom the Democrats could rely for political success following three Republican routs in 1980, 1984 and 1988, but his star power was incandescent. Bill Clinton was a political Moses and he could and did (in 1992 and 1996) lead the Democrats to the electoral promised land after a dozen years in exile.

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Hillary Clinton / via
Hillary Clinton / via

I write to you as a Democrat who is as “Ready for Hillary” as the sloganeering goes. But I also pen this missive less with unadulterated hope than I do cautionary optimism. And I feel compelled to ask a simple question: In being “Ready for Hillary,” what should we be getting ready for exactly? From the crudest vantage point of sheer electoral calculus, there is no question in my mind that your nomination would be the most reliable firewall against a rabid and reactionary opposition. For progressives, never have the last 80 years of liberalism’s enduring achievements been more vulnerable to attack than the present day. This is no longer Eisenhower’s Republican Party nor is it even Bush the elder’s. To think that George H.W. Bush, whom your husband vanquished after one term in office, signed The Clean Air Act and The American with Disabilities Act sounds farcical on its face, when viewed through the prism of Scott Walker or Ted Cruz. Even Bob Dole, with regard to today’s GOP, bluntly observed, “Reagan wouldn’t have made it. Certainly, Nixon couldn’t have made it.”

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In what will soon be the post-Obama years, Democratic voters want to know that a Hillary Clinton administration won’t simply be another dream deferred. Indeed, faded Shephard Fairey Obama HOPE posters have ruefully morphed into emblems of disillusionment. To your great credit, however, you have already staked out undeniably progressive stances on immigration, marriage equality and voting rights, but they are positions congruent with a body politic that tilts leftward on social and cultural matters, according to recent polling. Unlike Bill Clinton, neither must you run as a “different kind of Democrat” replete with a “Sister Souljah moment,” nor must you swear fealty to the corporate centrism of the (now defunct) Democratic Leadership Council, which your husband famously chaired.

But in an era where the bipartisan moneyed stranglehold over Washington threatens to render the Democrats as little more than lackeys to oligarchs, left-leaning voters want the assurance that Democrats can be Democrats again. It’s the reason Sen. Bernie Sanders is running as your primary opponent. Absent a Hubert Humphrey, or his spiritual descendant, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the left yearns for a liberalism of the old school: robust, unapologetic and tireless in defense of the working class, the middle class, the infirm and the dispossessed.

It’s no accident that the French economist Thomas Piketty’s sprawling tome on inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, proved a best-seller last year, despite its length and erudition. Inequality is very much a global plague, although it threatens one of the more deeply held American precepts: that of upward mobility. The American Dream may be illusory as a promise, but in the 20th century, real wages rose consistently from the end of World War II to the mid-1970s, as did productivity. Not so in the last 40 years, give or take some blips of prosperity.

Sen Bernie Sanders speech
Senator Bernie Sanders

To be sure, Sanders isn’t any kind of threat to your presidential aspirations. Yet, Sanders calls himself a socialist, which in American politics reeks of an ideological apostasy even worse than atheism (so help me God). But the beauty of Sanders’ message is his intellectual honesty. It’s hardly surprising that Sanders’ Eugene Debs-like insurrection isn’t likely to gain much traction at the ballot box, but he chooses to engage in a political dialectic that is as populist as it is unsparing. Socialism may inspire fear and loathing wherever or whenever it’s invoked, but boy does it have countless devotees. Cut off the funds for Medicare, Social Security and unemployment insurance, and we can chat about what we saw at the revolution.

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Of course, the only reason we tag Sanders as “left-wing” and prattle on about our “progressive” aspirations is that our political discourse appears only fluent in the right-wing vernacular, which Ronald Reagan spearheaded 35 years ago. Obama’s 2008 quip, albeit aimed at your own presidential campaign, was sadly all too perceptive. As Obama contended, “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and a way that Bill Clinton did not.” Reagan’s “government is the problem, not the solution” harangue proved far too durable, politically, even if its policy implications wreaked havoc for just about everyone, save high-income wage earners and defense contractors. And it bears repeating that Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union Address trumpeted “The era of big government is over,” as its overarching mantra.

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In all fairness, you — of the 1972 George McGovern presidential campaign in Texas, and the Senate Watergate hearings — know better than anybody that a progressive agenda is not the handiwork of some fringe group. Progressivism is the whole of the New Deal and the Great Society. It’s the legacy of civil rights, fair housing, the right to a good education, the right to organize, Social Security, women’s rights and the crusade against injustice of any kind. Take away any of these, and you are left with a plutocracy that would do the Koch brothers proud.

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After all, isn’t the so-called liberal agenda, which has long been a perceived liability in American politics, actually immensely popular? You bet. For progressive public policy is far more simpatico with public opinion than the chattering classes, not mention Tea Party fulminators, would like us to believe. It’s always been that way, even if the silver-tongued rhetoric of Reagan and other GOP messengers have obscured that fact.

It is with this reality in mind, and still some degree of hope for a more perfect union, that I conclude my note. I look forward to the freedom you will have to simply be yourself. And I suspect most politicians will envy you, even as the nation, should you become the 45th president, will thank you.

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Sincerely yours,
Adam Epstein