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Hillary Clinton’s History Problem

As recent comments showed, Clinton tends to downplay the role of radical activism in fomenting social change.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Like Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton has a theory of political change. But unlike his much-discussed “political revolution,” her thoughts about how democratic transformation happens rarely get fleshed out. Yet if we attend to Clinton’s own words, she has a distinctive view of how history works. While Sanders emphasizes grassroots mobilization, Clinton is much more inclined to see politics as a matter of leaders forging a consensus—and of social progress being made when those leaders are moved to do the right thing.

Clinton’s argument that she’s a proven pragmatist who can get things done—a lynchpin of her campaign against Sanders for the Democratic nomination—rests on a view of history that highlights leaders at the expense of social movements. This often leads her to tonally off-key statements that put her at odds with her own party’s base, many of whom have been shaped by the social activism of the civil rights, feminist, and LGBT rights movements. The crucial question is whether Clinton’s comments offer a window into how she really thinks about social change—or if this is simply the way she frames issues in an effort to speak to the broader electorate. 

Clinton’s elite view of history caused some consternation during her first run for president eight years ago, when she appeared to give greater credit to President Lyndon Johnson for civil rights laws than the movement lead by Martin Luther King. “I would point to the fact that Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done,” Clinton said during her heated contest with Barack Obama. “That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became real in people’s lives, because we had a president who said we are going to do it and actually got it accomplished.”

This past weekend, Clinton made two statements that echoed those remarks. Interviewed by MSNBC upon the death of former First Lady Nancy Reagan, she said, “it may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan, in particular Mrs. Reagan, we started a national conversation, when before nobody would talk about it.”

This strange interpretation of history was met with an immediate backlash from the LGBT community, and from others with strong memories of how the Reagan administration neglected the HIV/AIDS crisis until nearly the end of the Republican president’s term in office. It wasn’t the quiet beneficence of Nancy Reagan that awoke the nation to the reality of HIV/AIDS, they pointed out, but rather the very vocal and radical activism of groups like ACT-UP and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. 

To her credit, Clinton not only quickly apologized but also, on Saturday night, issued a detailed statement that offered a much more accurate account of the history of AIDS and the role activism played in making the world aware of the urgency of the crisis. Still, the view of history in the repudiated Nancy Reagan statement echoes that of Clinton’s professed view of civil rights and LBJ: It’s that idea that historic change is made by those in power, or in proximity to power, who decide to do what is best for society. 

Also on Saturday, Clinton issued a statement on the violence at Donald Trump rallies that bespoke an elite theory of history: 

Last year in Charleston, South Carolina, an evil man walked into a church and murdered 9 people. The families of those victims came together and melted hearts in the statehouse and the confederate flag came down. That should be the model we strive for to overcome painful divisions in our country.

The problem with this statement is that it elides the decades of heated struggle and activism that finally led to taking down the Confederate flag in South Carolina. It turns history into a fairy tale in which the innocent (the families of the victims) melt the hearts of the powerful (the legislators in the statehouse) and solutions to old problems magically come to fruition. In actual fact, the movement to retire the flag included a 15-year boycott of South Carolina led by the NAACP—and culminated in activist Bree Newsome taking direct action by scaling the pole in the state capital and taking down the flag herself. Previously, Clinton had given credit to activists (and Newsome by name), but her words on Saturday offered a far more sanitized version of history—one in which primacy is again given to the personal decency of officeholders.

Last August, when Clinton first met with Black Lives Matter activists, the candidate showed an narrow and limited view of the role activists play in pushing the powerful from the outside. She made it clear that, in her view, the young activists could only be successful if they came up with concrete “plans” that could win “common ground.” “So the consciousness-raising, the advocacy, the passion, the youth of your movement is so critical,” Clinton said. “But now all I’m suggesting is—even for us sinners—find some common ground on agendas that can make a difference right here and now in people’s lives, and that’s what I would love to have your thoughts about, because that’s what I’m trying to figure out how to do.”

The question is whether Clinton’s tendency to downplay social activism as an agent of history is mostly a rhetorical tic, or whether it reflects more deeply held convictions. If it is a rhetorical tic, it is probably located in a reflexive centrism that doesn’t want to scare away moderate voters by bringing up the importance of radical protest. Yet if it comes from Clinton’s genuine ideology, it could have have serious repercussions for her presidency—and for the progressive possibilities that it could open up or shut down.  

Social change in American history has always come when progressive leaders in positions of power were responsive to radical activists—whether it was Abraham Lincoln with the abolitionists, Franklin Roosevelt with the trade-union movement, or Lyndon Johnson with the civil rights movement. Crucially, these presidents all accepted the fundamental legitimacy of the protest movements. In prior eras, abolitionists, trade union members, and those pushing for civil rights had been regarded as extremists or troublemakers. Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Johnson accepted these activists as having as legitimate a voice in politics as the traditional elite stake-holders. These presidents weren’t interested so much in finding “common ground” (in Clinton’s sense) as in expanding the field of democracy. 

Can Clinton be as expansively democratic in welcoming social protest? It’s a critical question, considering that we live in an age of renewed activism: of the Dreamers, Black Lives Matter, and a reborn feminism. Will Clinton be inclined to listen to these movements and work with them—even to goad them on? Or will she sideline radical activism because of her more top-down view of leadership, in which the president is focused on forging consensus and making only low-key, nudge-nudge efforts to change the national conversation? 

Those who hope that the next Democratic president will build on Obama’s progressive legacy have reason to worry. Unless Clinton can more convincingly show that she appreciates the role radical activists play in moving the progressive consensus forward, there’s every reason to fear a “common ground” presidency that aims to be squarely centrist.