Some commentators think Hillary Clinton’s problem in wooing the progressive young is her lack of authenticity. I disagree. In the way she talks about political change, Clinton is entirely authentic. She believes in working inside the system for incremental change. She always has. Were Hillary Clinton a college student today, she’d probably vote for Hillary Clinton. Unfortunately for her, she has run up against a generation of liberals who have lost the faith she has had her entire life.
Hillary’s reputation as a one-time radical who feigned moderation in order to gain power dates from the 1990s, when people like David Brock (then a Clinton hater, now a Clinton employee) uncovered her supposedly militant 1960s past. But Clinton’s serious biographers paint an utterly different picture. They depict a woman who, although politically progressive, had little patience for revolutionaries. As an undergraduate at Wellesley, Clinton preferred Martin Luther King to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After King was murdered, Wellesley’s most radical students vowed to boycott classes until the college pledged to recruit more African American students and faculty and improve the living conditions of African Americans living nearby. Instead of joining that effort, Hillary worked with school administrators to broker a compromise. In one classmate’s words, “She co-opted the real protest.” As Carl Bernstein writes in his biography, A Woman in Charge, “Hillary’s methodology and goals in terms of politics were reform, not radical change.”
Clinton said so herself. In her Wellesley thesis, she criticized the radical left for indulging “the luxury of symbolic suicide.” Jeff Shields, Clinton’s then-boyfriend, told Bernstein, “If challenged philosophically, she proclaimed, ‘You can’t accomplish anything in government unless you win!’”
When Hillary followed Bill to Arkansas, she eschewed the gadfly radicalism that characterized Bernie Sanders’s early days in Vermont. Instead, she went to work for Little Rock’s tony Rose Law Firm, where she represented powerhouse local companies like Walmart and Tyson foods. By 1989, Bernstein notes, she was earning $200,000 on the side from serving on six corporate boards.
This isn’t to say that Clinton ceased being a progressive. In 1977, she founded a nonprofit called Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, and she spent much of the 1980s chairing the board of Marian Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund. But as in college, Clinton sought change by working within powerful institutions rather than seeking to overturn them. Then, as now, Clinton was—to borrow Chris Hayes’s useful dichotomy—an institutionalist rather than an insurrectionist.
Clinton’s problem today is that many progressive Millennials feel that they’ve tried it her way. In 2008, they cheered their hearts out for Barack Obama, an institutionalist who through his rhetoric and personae made incremental, inside-the-system-change inspiring. But Obama’s incrementalism hasn’t helped them much. The unemployment rate among 18- to 34-year-olds is down but still significantly higher than it was before the Great Recession. Wages for younger workers have barely risen during the weak Obama recovery. The average graduating college senior is $10,000 deeper in debt than their 2009 counterpart. All of which helps explain why record numbers of adult Millennials are still living with their parents.
It’s no surprise that the two most important progressive moments of the Obama years are Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street. Both were led by young people who, having seen the most liberal president in their lifetime fail to curb police violence or Wall Street’s power, decided that only revolutionary grassroots activism could bring systemic change. Bernie Sanders is to Occupy what Eugene McCarthy was to the student radicals of the 1960s: a way to change the system without being compromised by it. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, represents compromise. She always has.
“They want radical. It’s what they came for,” writes Molly Ball in her terrific essay about Sanders’s youth appeal. And radicalism is one attribute that Hillary Clinton—long falsely pilloried as a radical—can’t feign.