From reading the torrent of progressive post-mortems since the presidential election, it is hard to believe there ever was anything good to say about Hillary Clinton.
Not her lifetime of tireless work devoted to the welfare of children and families, nor her widely praised performances as a U.S. senator and secretary of state.
Instead of Clinton, some say, the candidate should have been Bernie Sanders because he would have better aligned with the populist fever gripping the nation. Of course that ignores how folks on the center left, let alone genuine swing voters, would have reacted to his primal advocacy of unabashed socialism, his support for taxpayer-paid college tuition and so forth.
Or at least, others argue, Clinton should have more strongly distanced herself from the identity politics of social and cultural issues and instead focused laser-like on the economic issues most important to the now-famous, non-urban, blue-collar white voter.
Wait, isn’t that what Russ Feingold tried?
In a visit with the Cap Times editorial board five weeks before the election, Feingold described in detail many meaningful interactions on main streets and coffee shops about pocketbook issues with Wisconsin residents of varied political stripes.
Feingold visited every Wisconsin county in 2015 and again in 2016. He focused on economic issues such as paid family leave, raising the minimum wage, making college more affordable. He was also an outspoken foe of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which became a de facto bogeyman for those who think American workers have been sold out by international trade deals.
And if Clinton was stiff and lacked charisma, Feingold was a comfortable campaigner, personable and quick-witted, a Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Law grad in a flannel shirt, yet someone who never condescended.
And, here’s the thing: He still lost, and by a greater margin than Clinton did in Wisconsin.
No, much criticism of Clinton since the election seems to me to fall under the heading of “mansplaining,” which for those unfamiliar describes a man telling a woman the way things really are in a way that is really patronizing. Some of that has even appeared in the Cap Times.
I suspect many women believe sexism had much to do with Clinton’s demise — that her gender helps explain why she was seen as “unlikable” and “untrustworthy.” Those same women have likely noticed a barrage of friendly fire directed at Clinton by second-guessing progressive males since Election Day.
These voices bring to mind the old saying about editorial writers — they come down out of the hills after the battle to shoot the wounded.
No, something much bigger than Clinton’s flaws, whatever they were, faces Democrats, and it was partly explained in a thought-provoking essay after the election in the Harvard Business Review: “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class.”
In it, Joan Williams, a legal scholar at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, contended that the so-called “class culture gap” hurt Clinton for a reason I had not understood.
Her thesis also helps explain why Scott Walker has been able to win elections by demonizing Wisconsin’s educated elite even though he is financed and manipulated by the state’s truly wealthy, the kind of people who have come to dominate Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and other right-wing organizations in order to ensure average workers are deprived of the benefits of collective bargaining.
Williams explains that the white working class generally resents highly educated professionals, often liberal-leaning, because they resemble managers who hassle them at work every day.
She quotes Alfred Lubrano from his 2004 book titled “Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams,” where he writes that workers often perceive such managers as college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job.”
Williams cites multiple sources in asserting how blue-collar folks do not similarly resent the truly wealthy. The truly rich have achieved financial independence because they earned it, this reasoning goes. You know, people like Donald Trump.
In this framing, Democrats, including Clinton, resemble their entitled managers: “Hillary Clinton … epitomizes the dorky arrogance and smugness of the professional elite.”
“Worse,” Williams writes, “her mere presence rubs it in that even women from her class can treat working-class men with disrespect.”
"Manly dignity is a big deal to working-class men," Williams writes. Trump promises a return to an era “when men were men and women knew their place.”
Still, no one is attributing all of this to sexism. It would be a mistake to haughtily condemn these attitudes without seeking a path to help such men — and women — navigate the fast-evolving and, for them, unfriendly global economic terrain.
I suspect many Democrats recognize they need to be less defined by identity politics even as they continue to fight racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. But they need to do so with the economic well-being and security of all Americans at the forefront of their plans and in their messaging.
A big obstacle to getting there is that making the case for better schools and roads and clean air and water requires a foundation of trust. Voters would need to embrace the common good, to approach public affairs with open-mindedness, a sort of altruism.
But Republicans have cleverly — brilliantly even — managed over many years to smear anyone who enters politics other than those who vow to tear it down. (Think about the laughably named “Freedom Caucus,” a hateful collection of tea partiers in the U.S. House.)
No, the path is fraught.
It will take time for Trump’s backers to realize that his tax plans are designed to benefit the wealthy, not them, that his promise to resuscitate U.S. manufacturing is a ridiculous hoax, and that, instead of making us safer, his belligerent anti-Islam rhetoric is in fact a potent recruitment tool for terrorists.
Yet, progressives must recognize that in turbulent times, Trump and his backers have a big edge in the visceral, no-nonsense product they’re selling — fear and short-term self-interest.
That’s an easier message to sell than earnest plans to invest in education and infrastructure, to equip young people and displaced adults for the global, technical economy, and for a widespread spirit of unity and shared sacrifice.
Those real solutions will be difficult and take time.
For now, it’s easier just to mansplain about Hillary.