The Failure of the Status Quo

I’ve been reading Hillary Clinton’s latest this weekend.  It’s quite an interesting read, both for what it says and for how everyone reacts to it.

First, the reaction. There was the insta-reaction, from leaked early copies, that immediately played up where she complained that Bernie Sanders had the temerity to run for office. This was a small part of the book, but her interviews on her book tour this past week indicate it’s not such a small part of her memory. There’s some irony here given the drama at the 2008 Democratic convention, where Clinton played the part of Sanders and “HillaryIs44” played the part of “BernieBros”, but re-litigating the primaries is, again, a very small part of the book.  (After all, there was the small matter of Donald Trump.) A great many reviews from the left side of the aisle have a difficult time getting past this. But I don’t think that’s really the larger point here.

Clinton is, to put it mildly, not particularly happy with the way the general election turned out (neither am I) and some of her rawest writing comes through when The Donald pops up. She points out, justifiably, how howlingly unfair a double standard she was held to, where her every phrase was parsed for meaning, subtext, and emotional honesty while Trump had a difficult time using sentences with vowels. She also points out, to a punishing and accurate degree, how much gender still played a factor in her treatment, both by the media and by the electorate (if nothing else, when a tape is found of a candidate bragging about being a sexual predator and that candidate is still elected, we have a few issues), which contributed to the sense that the entire election was Clinton’s Kobayashi Maru – at every point she was expected not to be the equal of her opponent, but perfect, to the point where a head cold turns into a conspiracy theory.

And yet, her book also makes it very clear how, in the circus of Annus Horribilis 2016, there was no way she could ever win. The Clintons of the 1990s come through many times, in some ways unintentionally (a paragraph about her longtime “housing manager” – aka house servant – is particularly jarring) and in some ways infuriatingly, such as when Clinton comes this close to proposing a Universal Basic Income system for the US based on shared returns from national resources, financial system taxes and carbon tax mandates (it even had a peppy name, “Alaska for America” based on that state’s oil revenue sharing) and then just draws back from the brink because it might be a little much.

What energizes Clinton’s fury, more than anything, is how unfair it all is. She’s the most qualified to be President – that was, literally, the reason she gave for running, and given her eventual opponent, it’s very, very difficult to disagree. Yet it drives so much of her animus with the media (which, she begins to realize, is feeding back and making her path to electoral victory that much narrower) – why don’t they realize that Trump is a joke and she isn’t? Why are they normalizing him? Why are people treating him seriously? Haven’t they listened to her? Haven’t they read her policy papers?

Or, as she put it:

And yet, people did treat him seriously – not a majority, but enough, where it counted – and here we are. Clinton failed. Which, to her credit, she admits, even if she doesn’t quite understand why.

As to why she failed, the answer, as always, depends on who you talk to – if you talk to the hard-core Trump supporters, it was because she was corrupt and Trump somehow wasn’t. (I know. I KNOW.) If you talk to Sanders supporters and points left, it was because she didn’t take risks and embrace full space communism. If you talk to Clinton supporters, it’s because James Comey is an idiot.

The real answer, in my view, is actually closer to space communism than you’d think, but a few points on the curve away – although that might be one of the eventual endings. One of the first writers who I’ve seen describe our current situation clearly is Chris Hayes, the MSNBC commentator who is basically the Lawful Good version of Tucker Carlson. As part of that, he writes decent, well thought out books – one of which is called Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy. His thesis is, essentially, that America relies on a technocratic elite to keep things running – the “adults in the room” – and for the past few decades, well, they’ve been really awful at their job.

Chris Hayes, naturally, notes the irony of his making this argument while being part of that technocratic elite. (A self awareness which for much of the time, sadly, eludes Clinton.) He drills deeper into the causes of this break – income inequality enforcing social separation, a justice system that is clearly different depending on which class you are a member of, and most critically an educational system that is designed solely to produce investment bankers and little else – and it’s hard to argue given the general state of, well, everything in American society.

Another view is from the British film maker Adam Curtis, whose film on the subject, HyperNormalisation, is readily available (and embedded below). It tries, sometimes insanely so, to find a unified theory of everything awful, to the point where Donald Trump and Hafez Assad exist in the same narrative in the 1980s. Yet Curtis’ point, at its core, is the same as Hayes’ – that, as Curtis puts it, the world became too complicated for the elites to understand, let alone run, so they, along with everyone else, retreated into a fantasy world of simplicity while everything around them collapses into chaos.

Chaos is not exactly a long-term solution. You can argue, as Clinton does, that the answer is more competence, to tinker with the edges and find common sense solutions – you can argue, as the left does, that the answer is to take steps back from our capitalist system and up-end our society since it’s fairly broken already – or you can argue, as the right does, that the answer is blood and soil.

When everyone’s a revolutionary, what’s a moderate liberal consensus builder to do? This is what I find to be the final takeaway from Clinton’s book. She tries to argue that the Obama promise, the Clinton promise is still there and still valid… that America is still “a good country, with good people,” and that the answers lie in individual responsibility – of course it does; that is the Clinton lodestone. If only everyone could find the bootstraps her housing manager helpfully left by her bedside.