The Populism of Hillary Clinton

Bernie Sanders has seized the opportunity to represent everyday Americans, but is his strategy less effective than the frontrunner’s?

Jim Cole / AP

Pick a year from the lives of the top two Democratic candidates, and they’ll present a study in contrasts. 1964: Bernie Sanders, a year after participating in MLK’s march on Washington, spends some time on an Israeli kibbutz. Hillary Clinton does volunteer work for Barry Goldwater. 1979: Hillary Clinton becomes the first female partner of Rose Law Firm and makes scads of money from cattle futures contracts. Bernie Sanders makes a documentary about the Socialist Eugene Debs. 1987: Bernie Sanders releases a recording of “We Shall Overcome.” Hillary Clinton serves on the board of Walmart.

Sanders, who has remained loyal to his progressive ideals, has authenticity by virtue of continuity. Clinton on the other hand has been fickle at best and a conservative in sheep’s clothing at worst. But the race doesn’t feature a populist pitted against an ersatz liberal. It shows two politicians, both populists, expressing their populism in different modes.

Populism, by one common definition, is the support of the rights of the powerless against the elite. Segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, who infamously resisted federal integration policies, is an example of a right-wing populist. Bernie Sanders, waging a crusade against the financial sector in a bid to close the income gap, is rhetorically left wing. But what connects Sanders and Wallace isn’t just that both, in their differing ways, rail against what they perceive as the Goliath of overwhelmingly powerful interests. They also stake out positions that, ironically, struggle to muster mainstream appeal. When Wallace ran a third-party, dark-horse campaign for president in 1968 he only received 13.5 percent of the vote. And Sanders, despite his recent surge, still trails Hillary Clinton in polls. Even in an election cycle that pundits claim is defined by the issue of economic mobility, Sanders, the populist who has been beating the redistribution drum the longest, is still a long shot.

If Sanders is a rhetorical populist, then Clinton is one in a different, and more literal sense: She actually tries to cater to the majority of likely voters. The Clintons have a reputation for obsessing over the public mood, with Bill catching blowback during his presidency for relying “too much on constant temperature-taking, even scripting his message—right down to his actual words—to polling and focus groups.” That reputation has followed Hillary. Reason recently classified her as a “Focus Group Democrat,” and it isn’t hard to find comments on articles accusing her of believing “what the polls and focus groups tell her to believe.”

But isn’t this barometric sensitivity just a sophisticated method for responding to the largest possible coalition of voters? It’s a coldly efficient way of giving the people what they want, calculated to upset as few as possible.

Politicians aiming for the center mass of public opinion aren’t a recent development in Anglo American politics. The 19th-century British journalist Walter Bagehot fawned over conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel’s ability to do just that: “From a certain peculiarity of intellect and fortune, he was never in advance of his time. Of almost all the great measures with which his name is associated, he attained great eminence as an opponent before he attained even greater eminence as their advocate.”

Bagehot goes on to write that when it came to the great issues of the day—Catholic emancipation, the Corn Laws, criminal code reform—Peel was against them “as long as these questions remained the property of first-class intellects” such as philanthropists, speculators, and “austere” Whigs. Peel later advocated the same measures as soon as they “by the progress of time, the striving of the understanding, the conversion of deceptive minds, became the property of second-class intellects.”

Hillary Clinton, like Peel, is no prophet raging in advance of a cause. Instead, both politicians pursued synchronicity with the demands of the electorate, never outpacing the collective moral imagination with their own desires, and reframing compromise as virtuous inclusion.

Clinton’s style parallels that of Sir Robert Peel with respect to the big issues of the present day. In 2013, after spending the previous decade advocating civil unions for gay couples and claiming that marriage should remain between a man and woman, Clinton announced her public support for gay marriage. Why did she flip-flop? Because the public did. Gallup found that the majority of Americans began to support gay marriage right around the same time that Clinton changed her own position. PolitiFact gives her a “Full Flop” on the issue, which is a misleadingly simplistic way to frame it. A more useful description might be that Clinton has been in lock-step with the public, attempting to facilitate popular will, however fickle it might be.

The same holds true for Clinton’s nascent gestures at economic progressivism. Many progressives question the authenticity of her positions—which are to the left of her 2008 presidential platform and lack the heat of  Sanders’s fulminations. But what she lacks in consistency, she gains in articulating a clear, albeit muted, approximation of the vox populi. Clinton aims to build coalitions large enough to win elections.

Bernie Sanders may be the man of the season, but it’s almost purely by accident. His platform, which he has consistently advocated for decades, has finally caught on with a national audience. But this only means that he was, as Macaulay said of Edmund Burke, “right too soon.”

Of course, “compromise” is the key word here. Building a winning coalition of a majority of likely voters isn’t nearly as romantic as setting a crowd aflame with the heat of your rhetoric. Pundits complain that Clinton is boring. Margaret Carlson wrote in Bloomberg View that Hillary intends to “run the most boring campaign ever,” Jennifer Rubin, attacking both Clinton’s authenticity and her enthusiasm, asked in The Washington Post whether she is “really boring or whether she’s just using boredom as a tactic.”

But playing it safe wins elections. A primary vote for Clinton has the same value as a vote for Sanders, regardless of the voter’s emotional intensity. Garry Wills described this process of racing to the middle of the road in Confessions of a Conservative when he wrote: “The voting process succeeds—it expresses a consensus; but only by stripping away the debatable, the new, the risky, the different. It returns people to the safe few things they agree upon.” The catch, of course, is that the politician must know what those few points of common consensus actually are. It is Clinton’s heightened awareness of these mundane commonalities that defines her version of populism.

The power of understanding what doesn’t offend shouldn’t be underestimated. When #BlackLivesMatter protestors disrupted an interview with presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, he gave the worst possible response possible by saying that “all lives matter.” He failed to appreciate the protestors’ point that while, yes, all lives do matter, it’s the lives of black people that are being specifically undervalued. Bernie Sanders offered the same answer during an NPR interview a few weeks earlier. It was a remarkably tone-deaf remark for a progressive crusader who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. But crusaders don’t worry so much about tone—they root their appeal in speaking their minds.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, recently told a crowd in South Carolina without mincing words that, “Yes, black lives matter.” Clinton’s echoing of the popular slogan was just as revealing as Sanders’ gaffe. Sanders was just talking to voters. Clinton was speaking for them. It might be boring and safe, but that’s exactly what many voters long to hear. Understanding that has helped Clinton channel a populism that is, well, more popular than the version that Sanders champions.