The agonies of the Hillary Clinton campaign are rendered—mostly in boring detail—in the new book Shattered. Most of the pages are given over to the kind of campaign gossip and staff backbiting that would have been forgotten if Clinton had won. What stands out is the Clinton campaign’s refusal to try to win over white, working-class swing voters in crucial states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. This choice has baffled and annoyed Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and it might well have delivered the White House to Donald Trump. So what explains it? Maybe it was entirely the doing of Clinton’s arrogant campaign manager, Robby Mook. Or maybe Clinton had trouble prioritizing working-class whites because of her status as a rich, liberal white person who gained her wealth from influence-peddling.
First, let us set the scene: Clinton’s GOP opponent had not been endorsed by either of the two living former Republican presidents. At one point or another in the general election, a vast array of Republican elected officials had either unendorsed Trump (often to reendorse him sheepishly later), suspended their support for him, or otherwise found ways of communicating that they found him to be the least acceptable Republican nominee in living memory. Clinton had a huge money advantage and a united party (even Bernie had endorsed her) against a novice candidate and a party whose elected officials obviously despised their nominee. And yet, many white, working-class swing voters who had voted for Obama at least once (and sometimes twice) voted for Trump. Why didn’t Clinton win them over? Why—as has now been revealed—did she choose a strategy of not even trying to win them over?
The answer may be found in R. R. Reno’s explanation of the anxieties of liberal elites. Reno writes:
“Diversity” is one of the pillars supporting the legitimacy of our ruling class. (The other is technocratic competence or “merit.”) In our present situation, the President of Yale justifies his power by appealing to his competence—and to his commitment to “diversity.” The same goes for CEOs of major corporations, heads of major philanthropies, and most political leaders. “Diversity” serves to block accusations that the control of power (and wealth) is an inside game that favors insiders. No, says the ideology of “inclusion,” we hold power, yes, but we do so with a self-sacrificial commitment to use it to empower others.
That description of the ruling class doesn’t fit every American politician, or even every Democrat, but it sure fits Hillary Clinton. She was a rich white woman, but she hadn’t made her money by building a business. Her wealth was dependent on her access to political power, and her political power was based on winning elections with votes drawn disproportionately from darker-skinned voters. She was an unusually greedy insider who needed to justify her privileges. She tried to do it through technocracy—the talk of all her policy papers—but she knew technocracy wasn’t enough.
She sought to justify her status by being a champion of diversity. There is a moment in Shattered when Clinton is reenergized by hugging a little girl and telling her that her unauthorized immigrant parents won’t be deported. That is what rich, liberal white women are for.
But, as Reno pointed out, there are limits to this use of the word “diversity.” Unauthorized immigrants are “diversity.” Black Lives Matter activists are “diversity.” Working-class white voters are not “diversity.” Being seen to chase working-class white voters would have opened Clinton up to accusations that she was abandoning her darker-skinned constituents to gain the votes of ignorant, dangerous, Trump-curious losers.
The truth is that the overwhelming majority of nonwhite voters or elected officials would have had no problem with Clinton’s appealing to working-class whites. Unfortunately, even a small number of radical activists could have derailed an endless number of news cycles just by making the accusation. It was easier to follow Robby Mook’s strategy of staying away from working-class whites and hope that demographic change had made them electorally irrelevant. Oops.
Conservatives shouldn’t draw too much comfort from this story. Other kinds of center-left (or even radical-left) politicians won’t have Clinton’s problem. Barack Obama passive-aggressively condemned Clinton’s strategy of ignoring working-class white voters. Obama pointed out that he had won larger-than-expected margins among working-class whites, just by showing up where he wasn’t expected and talking to people about their problems.
In one sense, it was easier for Obama. Since he was the first African-American presidential nominee, his moral legitimacy was less open to question than was Clinton’s. The pseudonymous blogger Spotted Toad perceptively wrote:
As the broader population, in the country and in the world, shifts demographically to resemble the elite less and less in ancestry, religion, and temperament, the contortions required of the elite to establish itself as worthy of trust are ever more extreme.
Obama was more representative of that demographic change, and paradoxically that made it easier for him to reach out to working-class white swing voters without fearing that his legitimacy would be undermined by small groups of radical race hustlers.
There are other ways liberals could work around the problem. The class-based politics of Bernie Sanders at least offers guaranteed government health care—but there is a cost. A Clinton who adopted the politics of Bernie Sanders would not have pocketed as much in speaking fees from the Wall Street banks.
Clinton demonstrated that it can be tough out there for a rich, white, liberal crook. But conservatives shouldn’t get cocky. Not all of our liberal opponents will be rich, or white, or crooked.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.