I am posting here my review of Hillary Clinton’s book “What Happened” that was originally published on Socialist Worker on September 22, 2017. I am obviously not thrilled with the last paragraph at this particular moment. But as a historian, I have always been irritated at interpreters who try to wrench communist writers’ “universal” or “valuable” lessons out of their “problematic” devotions to certain parties, while ignoring that these documents can only be understood from the contexts in which they emerged. Also in the interest of honesty. Also also because socialist organizing is still good. I have, however, edited out some of the revisions the SW editors made. There’s no real difference in politics or content; they were just weird, unmotivated stylistic changes.
Readers of SW will probably not be shocked to learn that this book is bad. So why bother with a review? The answer is that, while books like this aren’t exactly intellectual achievements, they do provide a useful window into how the ruling class thinks about us.
Much of the book is boring in a thoroughly banal way: Hillary met a voter on the campaign trail that inspired her! Hillary has a list of wonkish policies! Hillary loves her family! There are the inevitable references to Hillbilly Elegy, self-care, and Hamilton. In fact, the book sounds like Clinton (or her interns, rather) read a bunch of thinkpieces from Vox and Slate, put them through a blender, sprinkled in some quotes from fridge magnets, and frosted the whole thing with some cloying Methodist piety.
If you’re wondering if Clinton takes responsibility for anything in this book, she does: she takes responsibility for being too smart and too good for the rest of us. She ‘confesses’ that her “instinctive response is to talk about how we can fix things,” but people were simply too angry to listen. In one passage, she describes throngs of women coming up to her to do penance after the election: “On one occasion, an older woman dragged her adult daughter by the arm to come talk to me and ordered her to apologize for not voting—which she did, head bowed in contrition. I wanted to stare right in her eyes and say, ‘You didn’t vote? How could you not vote?! You abdicated your responsibility as a citizen at the worst possible time! And now you want me to make you feel better?’ Of course, I didn’t say any of that.” Of course, Hillary was too classy to scold her to her face: she chose to do it in a book released to the national public, instead. She even bizarrely wonders whether her (token) efforts to help Flint after the water crisis lost her white voters in Michigan, but magnanimously explains “that’s not what it was about for me” because there were “real live kids” to help. Truly, not since Nelson Mandela (whom she namedrops no less than three times) has someone been so willing to sacrifice themselves in the anti-racist struggle.
In fact, this emphasis on her ostensible devotion on dealing with “real live” issues suffuses the book. She accuses Bernie Sanders of “thunder[ing] on at every event about the sins of “the millionaires and billionaires,” while she “was more focused on offering practical solutions that would address real problems and make life better for people,” as if “millionaires and billionaires” didn’t create the “real problems” working-class people face in their everyday lives. Instead, Clinton offers a patchwork of policies: a higher minimum wage (but not too high!), further fixes to Obamacare, proposals to give businesses more money in the vague hope they might create jobs someday, even a program to simply encourage people to move out of economically struggling towns (and she wonders why she lost in the rust belt!) By “practical solutions,” she doesn’t actually mean solutions that work. She means solutions that are “practical” for the ruling class, that cause them minimal inconvenience and forestall radical change.
While of course Clinton would never say that in those words, she is quite explicit about her hatred of radicalism. She recounts her reaction to the 1968 police attacks on protestors at the Democratic National Convention: she worried “the antiwar movement was causing a backlash that would help elect Richard Nixon and prolong the war.” Never mind that the 1968 protests occurred precisely because the DNC elected a pro-war candidate, Hubert Humphrey: the most important thing was getting a Democrat into office at all costs.
No, she says that “[i]nstead of waiting for a revolution, the kind of change this girl needed was … ‘a strong and slow boring of hard boards.’” The entire history of socialists and radicals doing precisely that kind of hard, slow work in building the labor movement, the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement whose legacies she seeks to appropriate is ignored.
Furthermore, she complains about protestors affiliated with Black Lives Matter disrupting her talks because they wanted her to take responsibility for supporting the 1994 crime bill that helped created mass incarceration. She goes on to defend both the crime bill as a “tough compromise,” and throws in a defense of her husband’s destruction of welfare for good measure. This sums up Clinton’s “practical solutions”: policies that devastate black and working-class communities. She scolds the protestors for not “engag[ing] constructively,” unlike the “leaders” she met with who back neoliberal education reforms that tear apart black and Latino working-class schools.
The chapter “Turning Mourning into a Movement” highlights this insincerity and condescension. She seeks to impress her readers with how much she listened to family members of victims of police violence and how deeply she felt their grief, then goes on to assure us that “I feel strongly about this: the vast majority of police officers are honorable, brave public servants who put their lives on the line every day to protect others.” She then turns the whole issue into a discussion of gun control, ignoring that the Black Lives Matter movement started to protest precisely those murderers who are armed and funded by the state.
One of the most insidious things about the book is the way Clinton appropriates the struggles of ordinary people in order to try to convince us that her interests are the same as ours. She complains about emotional labor, a concept originally meant to explain the experiences of female service workers. However, for Clinton it is a problem for “women CEOs” and “women heads of state” who might have to serve coffee at a meeting, not for the women who stand on their feet serving coffee every day and don’t earn six-figure salaries. And she credits female politicians’ experience in this “emotional labor” for allowing them to form better coalitions in Congress than their male counterparts. The nature of these coalitions, however, is left unspecified: should we celebrate Congress voting to drop bombs or deport immigrants because they were brokered by women?
Hillary also succeeds in what might seem like the impossible task of attacking Trump—from the right! She indulges fully in paranoia about Russia, comparing the United States to a body whose immune system has been weakened: “Now that the Russians have infected us and seen how weak our defenses are, they’ll keep at it. . . . Their ultimate goal is to undermine—perhaps even destroy—Western democracy itself.” In order to protect our precious bodily fluids, “we need to get tough with Putin,” by increasing US intervention in Syria and Ukraine and bolstering NATO. (No appeals to “emotional labor” here!) She warns that Trump will not “face this threat head-on” and begs us not to dismiss her discussion of Russia “as me trying to shift blame for my loss in 2016.” In a way, she’s right—while she is trying to shift the blame for her loss, she’s also trying to present herself to the rest of the ruling class as the best manager of US imperialism. She presents herself as the defender of the American-led order as a whole, which “defended universal human rights, defied totalitarianism, and delivered unprecedented peace, prosperity, and freedom.” This neglects the millions killed by the US in the Middle East, Latin America, Asia, Africa, Europe, and the U.S. itself over the course of the twentieth century—but perhaps we can assume Chileans or Palestinians or Vietnamese had it coming for not engaging constructively.
Along with the cops, the military, and the intelligence agencies, Clinton finds much in common with the politicians on the “other side”. She gushes about how warm and comforting George W. Bush was during the inauguration. She finds inspiration in Theodore Roosevelt, the white supremacist and imperialist, whom she praises as “a shrewd politician who managed to fend off the demands of angry populists on his left, who wanted to go even further toward Socialism, and conservatives on his right, who would have let the robber barons amass even more wealth and power.” Clinton clearly sees herself in this mode, bragging about her “defense of the American system of free enterprise” in the Iowa primaries. However, if anything socialists should be heartened by these passages—prominent U.S. politicians now feel the need to openly attack socialism, rather than simply ignore it.
Let me close with one good piece of advice Clinton writes in this book: “Find an organization that’s doing work you believe in. … If it doesn’t exist, build it.” Like nothing else, the bankruptcy of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party as a whole in the face of the horrors of the Trump era proves the need for our own, working-class organizations. So fight the right, build the left, join the socialists!