Susan Bordo: There's a strange effort afoot to muzzle Hillary Clinton when she discusses her failed 2016 campaign
Clinton may have been a lightning rod, but we need to face the threats to democracy that thwarted her candidacy
Editor’s Note: Susan Bordo is the Otis A. Singletary Chair in the Humanities and Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky. Her new book is “The Destruction of Hillary Clinton.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Watch Anderson Cooper’s interview with Hillary Clinton tonight at 8 p.m. ET on “AC360.”
Something very strange is going on in post-mortems about the 2016 election. On the one hand, the hard evidence is piling up that a combination of factors largely outside of Hillary Clinton’s control were responsible for her loss to Donald Trump. On the other hand, many apparently don’t want Hillary Clinton to talk about any of that.
Every day, we hear fresh reports of the extent and insidious nature of Russian interference in the promotion of fake news stories and nasty accusations about Hillary Clinton’s character – a smear campaign that was bound to have had an effect on voters’ perceptions (why else would the Russians invest so much energy and money?). But when Clinton mentions the Russians, she’s accused of shuffling responsibility away from herself.
Studies by respected think tanks such as Harvard’s Shorenstein Center have documented a negative bias against Clinton in ordinary news reporting. This was not “fake news” but a daily, repetitive media buzz of (often GOP-inspired) “scandals” and “suspect” activity, which always had Clinton hiding something, from her basement server to her pneumonia. And this obscured coverage of her policy speeches and core messages.
But she dare not talk about that, lest she be seen as boo-hooing about unfair treatment by the press.
Pollster Nate Silver has published data highly suggestive of the disastrous effect of James Comey’s eleventh-hour revival of the media’s email obsession – an announcement made just as Donald Trump’s post-“Access Hollywood” polling numbers plummeted and Clinton’s momentum revived. But when Clinton mentions Comey, it is taken as just one more complaint in a litany of “blaming others” for her own mistakes.
Instead we’re told – and what we’re told Clinton herself refuses to acknowledge – that the real problem was Clinton herself. It’s usually a one-dimensional narrative. She didn’t reach the “working people.” She had no “economic message.” She was too “establishment” in a year when people wanted change. She didn’t go to the right states during the last week of the election.
And, of course, the old go-to: she just wasn’t likeable enough. (Let us pause to recall here, that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote over Donald Trump by 2,864,974 votes.)
And now, because she’s published a book in which she has the audacity to present her own multi-dimensional account of the election, she’s being advised, by colleagues as well as pundits, that she should stop “re-litigating” the past, and that it’s time to “move on.”
Interesting that no one criticized the authors for “looking backward” when “Shattered,” a book that puts the blame squarely on Clinton and her campaign, was published. Or when Bernie Sanders, who now suggests “it’s a little bit silly” to talk about the election, published his own diagnosis a week after the election. Yet on Sunday, Susan Chira, in The New York Times, called Hillary Clinton “the woman who won’t go away,” and as I write this, the day after publication of Clinton’s new book “What Happened,” the annoyed, often vicious customer reviews are piling up on Amazon.
Why are people so angry with Clinton for having the chutzpah to tell her story? Gender certainly plays a role – but words like “misogyny” and “sexism” require much more precise analysis than I can provide here (I get into it in my book), and without that precision are dull weapons that shut down people’s brains.
So let’s put those in the background, as atmospheric elements that conditioned virtually everything that happened – including the daily drumbeat of media mantras: “untrustworthy Hillary,” “unpopular Hillary,” “evasive Hillary,” Hillary who couldn’t command the crowds of a Sanders or a Trump, who didn’t know how to “reach people.”
And let’s also acknowledge that the 2016 election wasn’t the first time that Hillary Clinton, who has been a national presence since the early 90’s, has drawn fire from the mass media.
But at the same time, there have also been broad periods in her recent political career – strikingly, when she was elected (twice) to serve as a US senator from New York, and then appointed Secretary of State – when her approval ratings were dazzlingly high. At that time the first lady who had the temerity to request an office in the West Wing while she tried to garner support for universal health care was forgotten – a dim historical reference to a new generation of voters.
Indeed, in 2014, a year before she announced her intention to run for president, a Times/CBS News poll reported that 82% of Democrats favored her over either Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren, and John McCain told CNN that “if the election were held tomorrow, Hillary Clinton would most likely be the President.”
Then Hillary announced, and the attacks began – attacks that introduced Hillary for the first time to generations that knew little about either her past achievements or the backlash that her feminism and progressivism had elicited.
Moreover, with political opponents far more unscrupulous than ever before in exploiting the rush for headline news, and a media preference – particularly in the rough-and-tumble world of online news – for “optics” ascending over careful investigation, the brakes came off in an unprecedented way.
The fact is, consumers of the popular media – and not just Fox – were virtually bludgeoned into dislike and suspicion of Clinton. Even the most sympathetic op-eds invariably would genuflect to her “flaws.” The caricatures, no matter how ill-founded, became nailed into popular consciousness. So should we be surprised to see them surface yet again in reaction to her book?
The mainstream media has also yet to speculate – let alone diagnose – what seems perfectly obvious to anyone with an ounce of common sense: that Clinton’s electoral college loss was certainly not primarily due to whatever mistakes she may have made, but an unusually multi-faceted and highly potent combination of disparate assaults: from the left, the right, the Russians, the FBI, a flagrantly lying opponent who made a chant of her suitability for prison, and yes, the media itself.
I mean, really: How could anyone have survived all that? It was, as she herself describes it, a perfect storm. Yet nearly 66 million stood by her, many of whom remain intensely devoted supporters.
When, too, has any election culminated in a greater disaster for democracy? No wonder the Democrats, the pundits, and the voters themselves are so eager to disown their own complicity and to cast Clinton as the sole cause of our present situation.
“She gave us Trump,” disgruntled Sanders supporters like to say. No, Trump’s win is the result of many things, and we would do better to try to unpack them with precision and a view to complexity rather than scapegoat Clinton or her campaign.
Hillary Clinton may have been a special kind of lightning rod, but the elements that brought her down are still bristling in our atmosphere, ready to strike again, and we need to face them. The fact is that is it only when we’ve done that that we will be able to truly “move on.”