I was disappointed to hear that Rolling Stone had endorsed Hillary Clinton, but I also understood. In many ways, the endorsement by my boss and editor, Jann Wenner, read like the result of painful soul-searching, after this very magazine had a profound influence on a similar race, back in 1972.
Jann explains this eloquently in “Hillary Clinton for President“:
“Rolling Stone has championed the ‘youth vote’ since 1972, when 18-year-olds were first given the right to vote. The Vietnam War was a fact of daily life then, and Sen. George McGovern, the liberal anti-war activist from South Dakota, became the first vessel of young Americans, and Hunter S. Thompson wrote our first presidential-campaign coverage. We worked furiously for McGovern. We failed; Nixon was re-elected in a landslide.”
The failure of George McGovern had a major impact on a generation of Democrats, who believed they’d faced a painful reality about the limits of idealism in American politics. Jann sums it up: “Those of us there learned a very clear lesson: America chooses its presidents from the middle, not from the ideological wings.”
But it would be a shame if we disqualified every honest politician, or forever disavowed the judgment of young people, just because George McGovern lost an election four decades ago.
That ’72 loss hovered like a raincloud over the Democrats until Bill Clinton came along. He took the White House using a formula engineered by a think tank, the Democratic Leadership Council, that was created in response to losses by McGovern and Walter Mondale.
The new strategy was a party that was socially liberal but fiscally conservative. It counterattacked Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, a racially themed appeal to disaffected whites Nixon tabbed the “Silent Majority,” by subtly taking positions against the Democrats’ own left flank.
In 1992 and in 1996, Clinton recaptured some of Nixon’s territory through a mix of populist positions (like a middle-class tax cut) and the “triangulating” technique of pushing back against the Democrats’ own liberal legacy on issues like welfare, crime and trade.
And that was the point. No more McGoverns. The chief moral argument of the Clinton revolution was not about striving for an end to the war or poverty or racism or inequality, but keeping the far worse Republicans out of power.
The new Democratic version of idealism came in a package called “transactional politics.” It was about getting the best deal possible given the political realities, which we were led to believe were hopelessly stacked against the hopes and dreams of the young.
In fact, it was during Bill Clinton’s presidency that D.C. pundits first began complaining about a thing they called “purity.” This was code for any politician who stood too much on principle. The American Prospect in 1995 derisively described it as an “unwillingness to share the burden of morally ambiguous compromise.” Sometimes you had to budge a little for the sake of progress.
Jann describes this in the context of saluting the value of “incremental politics” and solutions that “stand a chance of working.” The implication is that even when young people believe in the right things, they often don’t realize what it takes to get things done.
But I think they do understand. Young people have repudiated the campaign of Hillary Clinton in overwhelming and historic fashion, with Bernie Sanders winning under-30 voters by consistently absurd margins, as high as 80 to 85 percent in many states. He has done less well with young African-American voters, but even there he’s seen some gains as time has gone on. And the energy coming from the pre-middle-aged has little to do with an inability to appreciate political reality.
Instead, the millions of young voters that are rejecting Hillary’s campaign this year are making a carefully reasoned, even reluctant calculation about the limits of the insider politics both she and her husband have represented.
For young voters, the foundational issues of our age have been the Iraq invasion, the financial crisis, free trade, mass incarceration, domestic surveillance, police brutality, debt and income inequality, among others.
And to one degree or another, the modern Democratic Party, often including Hillary Clinton personally, has been on the wrong side of virtually all of these issues.
Hillary not only voted for the Iraq War, but offered a succession of ridiculous excuses for her vote. Remember, this was one of the easiest calls ever. A child could see that the Bush administration’s fairy tales about WMDs and Iraqi drones spraying poison over the capital (where were they going to launch from, Martha’s Vineyard?) were just that, fairy tales.
Yet Hillary voted for the invasion for the same reason many other mainstream Democrats did: They didn’t want to be tagged as McGovernite peaceniks. The new Democratic Party refused to be seen as being too antiwar, even at the cost of supporting a wrong one.
It was a classic “we can’t be too pure” moment. Hillary gambled that Democrats would understand that she’d outraged conscience and common sense for the sake of the Democrats’ electoral viability going forward. As a mock-Hillary in a 2007 Saturday Night Live episode put it, “Democrats know me…. They know my support for the Iraq War has always been insincere.”
This pattern, of modern Democrats bending so far back to preserve what they believe is their claim on the middle that they end up plainly in the wrong, has continually repeated itself.
Take the mass incarceration phenomenon. This was pioneered in Mario Cuomo’s New York and furthered under Bill Clinton’s presidency, which authorized more than $16 billion for new prisons and more police in a crime bill.
As The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander noted, America when Bill Clinton left office had the world’s highest incarceration rate, with a prison admission rate for black drug inmates that was 23 times 1983 levels. Hillary stumped for that crime bill, adding the Reaganesque observation that inner-city criminals were “super-predators” who needed to be “brought to heel.”
You can go on down the line of all these issues. Trade? From NAFTA to the TPP, Hillary and her party cohorts have consistently supported these anti-union free trade agreements, until it became politically inexpedient. Debt? Hillary infamously voted for regressive bankruptcy reform just a few years after privately meeting with Elizabeth Warren and agreeing that such industry-driven efforts to choke off debt relief needed to be stopped.
Then of course there is the matter of the great gobs of money Hillary has taken to give speeches to Goldman Sachs and God knows whom else. Her answer about that — “That’s what they offered” — gets right to the heart of what young people find so repugnant about this brand of politics.
One can talk about having the strength to get things done, given the political reality of the times. But one also can become too easily convinced of certain political realities, particularly when they’re paying you hundreds of thousands of dollars an hour.
Is Hillary really doing the most good that she can do, fighting for the best deal that’s there to get for ordinary people?
Or is she just doing something that satisfies her own definition of that, while taking tens of millions of dollars from some of the world’s biggest jerks?
I doubt even Hillary Clinton could answer that question. She has been playing the inside game for so long, she seems to have become lost in it. She behaves like a person who often doesn’t know what the truth is, but instead merely reaches for what is the best answer in that moment, not realizing the difference.
This is why her shifting explanations and flippant attitude about the email scandal are almost more unnerving than the ostensible offense. She seems confident that just because her detractors are politically motivated, as they always have been, that they must be wrong, as they often were.
But that’s faulty thinking. My worry is that Democrats like Hillary have been saying, “The Republicans are worse!” for so long that they’ve begun to believe it excuses everything. It makes me nervous to see Hillary supporters like law professor Stephen Vladeck arguing in the New York Times that the real problem wasn’t anything Hillary did, but that the Espionage Act isn’t “practical.”
If you’re willing to extend the “purity” argument to the Espionage Act, it’s only a matter of time before you get in real trouble. And even if it doesn’t happen this summer, Democrats may soon wish they’d picked the frumpy senator from Vermont who probably checks his restaurant bills to make sure he hasn’t been undercharged.
But in the age of Trump, winning is the only thing that matters, right? In that case, there’s plenty of evidence suggesting Sanders would perform better against a reality TV free-coverage machine like Trump than would Hillary Clinton. This would largely be due to the passion and energy of young voters.
Young people don’t see the Sanders-Clinton race as a choice between idealism and incremental progress. The choice they see is between an honest politician, and one who is so profoundly a part of the problem that she can’t even see it anymore.
They’ve seen in the last decades that politicians who promise they can deliver change while also taking the money, mostly just end up taking the money.
And they’re voting for Sanders because his idea of an entirely voter-funded electoral “revolution” that bars corporate money is, no matter what its objective chances of success, the only practical road left to break what they perceive to be an inexorable pattern of corruption.
Young people aren’t dreaming. They’re thinking. And we should listen to them.