At last night’s Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton invoked an unexpected figure: Henry Kissinger. “I was very flattered when Henry Kissinger said I ran the State Department better than anybody had run it in a long time,” she said, in an off-hand aside. It wasn’t an endorsement of Kissinger, or really much of anything. It was just a little brag that would have played well in a different room.
The sort of room it would have played well in, really, is the sort of room in which the worst people in the country congregate. The fact that Clinton lapsed into speaking as if she were in that room is more or less why she’s having trouble, once again, convincing the Democratic electorate to nominate her for the presidency.
Henry Kissinger, for the record, is a bad man, who waged a terrible and illegal war in Cambodia, supported a horrific right-wing strongman in Chile, and generally ran America’s foreign policy apparatus in the most amoral way possible, as a point of pride. However, in the bubble of elite American society, the bipartisan consensus, shared by politicians and members of the media alike, is that he’s simply a respected elder statesman.
The point I’m making here is not, [Glenn Greenwald voice] HILLARY CLINTON SUPPORTS A WAR CRIMINAL. (Trust me, I know Kissinger isn’t moving many votes in New Hampshire.) It’s that Hillary Clinton exists in a world where “Henry Kissinger is a war criminal” is a silly opinion held by unserious people. Her problem? Lots of those silly and unserious people want to wrest control of the Democratic Party away from its current leadership, which is exemplified by people like Hillary Clinton.
Bernie Sanders’ critique of Clinton is not that she’s cartoonishly corrupt in the Tammany Hall style, capable of being fully bought with a couple well-compensated speeches, but that she’s a creature of a fundamentally corrupt system, who comfortably operates within that system and accepts it as legitimate. Clinton has had trouble countering that critique because, well, it’s true. It’s not that she’s been bought, it’s that she bought in.
This isn’t some damning revelation of the secret “true” Clinton beneath the surface. Hillary Clinton is a liberal. (One problem afflicting our online discourse is that many of her dimmer fellow liberals in the press keep being baffled at Clinton opposition from leftists who extensively criticize the institutions of American liberalism. This is also why the Sanders-started semantic argument over the term “progressive” was so deeply stupid.) But she’s also plainly a member of a Democratic Party establishment that a large—and, I think, growing—number of would-be Democratic voters reject as unrepresentative of the principles and interests of non-wealthy Americans.
These people may indeed be “unserious,” in the sense that Clinton’s theory of “progressive change” is more realistic—that is, it has a better chance of leading to policy changes that have tangible positive outcomes for large groups of people—than Sanders’ theory of bottom-up “revolution,” at least in our current political climate. But no one is satisfied with the current political climate, and lots of people are looking for leaders who seek to fundamentally reshape it, not work within it.