There is a troubling trend afoot among supporters of Hillary Clinton. In their haste to embrace her as the avatar of all women in her quest for the White House, many articles have surfaced that claim the main or only reason people truly oppose her candidacy is because she is female. In so doing, there is a not-so-subtle effort underway to brand her opponents as universally sexist and to conflate every character criticism and policy objection with sexism. While there is no doubt that some of her opponents are sexist, just as some of Obama’s are racist, this overall conflation that all critiques of Clinton are borne of sexism is dangerously misleading and, ultimately, an effort to silence legitimate and important objections to her candidacy.
This kind of identity conflation is nothing new. It’s seen most prominently and actively in the conflation of all opposition to Israel with anti-Semitism. When hard-line right-wing Israeli leaders are pushed on the treatment of Palestinians, they retreat to lumping their critics in with Hitler to avoid talking about the real issues. This is equally prominent in debates with US-based supporters of Israel, and perhaps more so. Never mind that the most virulent objections to Israeli policy come in the internal domestic debate inside Israel and that by this logic, many Jews in the Knesset are also anti-Semitic. A government capable of blaming the entire Holocaust on the Palestinian people (reframing occupation of Palestine as a new front of World War II rather than a sadly ironic lack of compassion) has no problem using the notion of anti-Semitism as a blank check for all dubious activities, many of them racist. While this conflation is often effectively stifling to speech, it is utterly illogical.
It’s a difficult thing to talk about, because there are actual racists and sexists out there. There are some people who oppose Obama primarily because he’s African-American and some who oppose Hillary primarily because she’s a woman. And yes, society has subtle and insidious ways of making us more racist and sexist than we’d aspire to be. But no one thinks Elizabeth Warren or even Sarah Palin is a flip-flopper on issues just because there are sexists out there. We think this of Hillary Clinton because she has changed her opinion on almost every significant issue in this campaign. Because even now, her most avid supporters are openly embracing the idea that she’s lying about her stance on TPP to beat Bernie Sanders. Because she equivocates on almost every position even once she’s changed it. “I didn’t have a position on Keystone until I had a position on Keystone” is an actual quote from the debate she allegedly dominated. We aren’t worried about these stances because she’s a woman; we’re worried about them because they indicate that we have no idea whatsoever what she would actually do or advocate for in the White House.
The sting of this concern is especially strong following the last two Democratic Presidents, at least from the progressive perspective. Obviously Obama’s first term was a sad little shadow of what we were promised in the Hope and Change campaign of 2008. Gitmo, accelerated drone strikes, a health-care reform package that prioritized corporations over everything and was barely negotiated, and a stirring lack of social reforms or advances all combined to make left-wing critics of Obama’s policies. These people were not racist. Many of them voted for Obama. Was there a racist among them? Sure. Were some people perhaps in denial about race creeping into their criticism? Sure. But should their objections have been excluded from the discussion because a racist agreed with them sometimes? Of course not.
And of course a lot of the reason we (I guess I should say I here) worry about Hillary Clinton is because of her husband, who did more to move the Democratic Party right on the political spectrum than probably anyone in history. A champion of centrism and double-talking, his time in office was marked by little besides scandal, obfuscation, and DOMA. Yes, the economy thrived while he happened to be in office, but the limited connection between a President’s policies and the contemporary economy is well-documented. And much of that thriving was the vaunted irrational exuberance of the dot-com bubble, that burst late enough in his term to keep him away from blame. The best that can be said about Bill’s Presidency is that he did nothing in office, just took up space for eight years and survived impeachment. While there are some who want that from the President, just to let everything happen and get out of the way and smile for the camera, progressives tend to want more solutions from their leaders. The Bill Presidency is a little too like the Freedom Caucus – content to fiddle while the country does whatever it does. I really don’t think we want 4-8 more years of that.
Which is not to say that Hillary would definitely do what her husband did. There are many claims out there that she’s more progressive than Bill, though the record doesn’t really seem to bear that out with her joining the gay marriage movement very late indeed and her stated desire to utilize the military early and often. Regardless, we’re also all in recovery from seeing a second Bush Presidency that was even more Bushy than the first, doubling down on the mistakes and pushing harder into wars for oil. A similar doubling down on the first Clinton Presidency is nearly as worrisome.
It is important to talk about these concerns. It is vital to talk about where Hillary’s money comes from and how that diminishes her credibility when she says she’s going to take on Wall Street (yes, Bernie missed a chance to dunk the debate by not pointing this out). It is essential that we continue to ask Hillary for her stance on issues she’d rather not comment on, or that she gave a different audience a different answer last week. It is critical that we discern which wars she’s likely to start, who she wants to bomb and kill, so we can determine if that’s really where we want the next 4-8 years to be spent.
Hillary is not the first politician for whom pure ambition seems to be the driving factor. Nor do all of the other politicians who seem driven by this force skate by just because they are generally men. Ambition and power for their own sake are never appealing characteristics. Most of those pointing out that this seems to be Hillary’s desire are not doing so because she’s a woman, but because that seems to be her only motivation. It didn’t seem to be Sarah Palin’s motivation, nor Elizabeth Warren’s. It also doesn’t seem to be Bernie’s motivation, making the contrast especially strong in this primary race. Not because of Bernie’s chromosomes, but because of his character. As with all royal families, the Bushes and the Clintons seem to care, first and foremost, about the empowerment and enrichment of the Bushes and the Clintons. And it is reasonable, and not sexist, to be wary of both Jeb and Hillary on these grounds alone.
Where there is racism or sexism behind an objection, it’s good to observe that. We just must be very careful not to conflate the notion of criticizing anyone with prejudice against their identity group(s).