Hillary Clinton may be the first woman to be presumptive presidential candidate, but it’s not a moment to savour, writes Joyce McMillan
On Tuesday night, after a California primary election in which she swept 55 per cent of the votes to Bernie Sanders’s 43 per cent, Hillary Rodham Clinton stepped up to the podium at a rally in Brooklyn as the first woman ever to become the presumptive presidential candidate of one of the United States’ two main parties. It was a moment of which feminists and women’s rights campaigners have dreamed for decades; one for which Hillary Clinton herself has been preparing ever since she was a student, back in the 1960s. And while her record on many other issues is variable, it is hard to fault Clinton on her unwavering commitment to the basics of women’s emancipation since the 1970s - on access to contraception and abortion, on equal pay enshrined in law, and on the global education and empowerment of women, a cause she did much to support and advance during her years as secretary of state, in Barack Obama’s first term.
Yet even among the most passionate of feminists, the rejoicing at the news of Clinton’s historic success was anything but unconfined. “As a feminist, I should feel a thrill right now. I grieve that I don’t,” tweeted the great left-green writer and campaigner Naomi Klein, in the early hours of Wednesday morning. She wasn’t alone, as millions of women across the world pondered why this moment of triumph seemed so qualified, so profoundly unsatisfying.
And the story of that muted response contains within it the whole irony and tragedy of western politics since the 1980s, an era during which governments of the right and of the “new” centre-left led us through a period of huge economic growth, and vastly increased personal freedom and rights for some; but also presided over a massive growth of income inequality, critical levels of environmental destruction, and an eventual economic crash to which the elites of the west responded, in classic 1930s style, by imposing yet more austerity on those least able to pay. So when Hillary Clinton talks now about empowering women in America, and creating unlimited equal opportunities for all, many who support those goals respond with something like the brutal first line of Naomi Klein’s historic tweet. “Bull,” she wrote. “Not under the plutocracy you represent.”
What we’re seeing this week, in other words, is a hugely significant example of the political shift away from the centre, and from the late-20th-century political establishment, that is now sweeping the west. Among other things, that shift is beginning to expose the limits of identity politics, and to make it clear that support for women, for racial equality, or for gay rights eventually begins to ring hollow, when it is combined with uncritical support for an economic system that often punishes female and minority workers more harshly than any others. Hillary Clinton talks about empowering women at work, for example, but for many years sat on the board of Walmart, one of the most notoriously anti-union and exploitative employers in America, with a predominantly female workforce; she remains close friends with the Walton family today.
Then secondly, this new era in politics has seen the return of an increasingly powerful traditional left, represented in the United States by Bernie Sanders, and in Britain by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. And it goes without saying that this is a type of grass-roots politics, strongly critical of the prevailing model of capitalism, that centre-left politicians of the Clinton-Blair generation find extremely difficult to handle. Essentially, they are politicians of the 1990s good times, who spent their early careers ditching the kind of grass-roots politics Sanders now embraces, and persuading voters that governments could somehow modify the worst aspects of capitalism without confronting it, or even seriously regulating it; a view more or less discredited by the crash of 2008, and its aftermath.
And then thirdly, this moment is seeing the rise of a rampant right-wing populism - not only anti-establishment, but anti-feminist, anti-immigration, and often openly racist and Islamophobic - which politicians of Clinton’s style and generation simply lack the tools to oppose. She can protest against some of the outrageous comments made by Donald Trump, of course; her presidential campaign, when it comes, is likely to consists of little else.
The rage that Donald Trump is channelling, though, comes from a place in American politics that an establishment figure like Hillary simply cannot reach. She cannot offer the socialist or strongly social-democratic answers to the pain and misery caused by underemployment, poverty wages and desperate job insecurity that come naturally to a Bernie Sanders or a Jeremy Corbyn; she has to ignore the anger and misery that is now driving American politics, because she has abandoned the ideology, and the type of political organisation, that would enable her to turn it against its proper target.
None of this means, of course, that Hillary Clinton cannot win against Donald Trump; every poll suggests that a large majority of women voters will choose her over her misogynistic opponent whatever their reservations, and that that support could be crucial in bringing the Clintons back to the White House, this winter.
That very word “back”, though, speaks volumes about the elite politics of our times. Now, the politics of rage against those who have been helping themselves to the wealth of nations - and against the generation of politicians who have befriended that elite, rather than standing in solidarity with those they exploited - is beginning to find its twin voices, on the left, and on the xenophobic right that associates itself with Donald Trump’s run for president, with Britain’s Brexit campaign, and with right-wing nationalist parties across Europe.
And although Hillary Clinton may make it into the White House this time, we can be sure that regardless of her gender, she will never speak with either of those emerging voices; and that if they represent the forces battling to shape of our political future, then she will increasingly look like a president from the past, and a woman who – in her politics and her very person – represents yesterday’s answer to questions people stopped asking, the day the last economic boom died, for good.