Can Hillary Clinton Run as a Populist Democrat Despite Her Elitist Ties?

Hillary Clinton is an elitist, of this we can be sure. But whether she is an elitist in the Franklin D. Roosevelt sense, as she signaled this past weekend at her official candidacy announcement, or in the Mitt Romney sense, and whether this elitism disqualifies her as a populist leader, is a question that will be asked quite frequently over the next year and a half. The right has already decided to paint her as the female version of Mitt Romney; a filthy rich friend of Wall Street who craves political power and is disconnected from the real Americans struggling to make ends meet. The left hasn’t been much kinder. Clinton's ties to Wall Street are disheartening to anyone who hopes to see legitimate changes in the future, and not just corporatist solutions disguised as pragmatism.


Since 2014, the Clintons have made over $30 million in speaker fees, mostly paid by foreign and domestic corporations, including big banks like Goldman Sachs and Bank of America. What makes this especially shady is the fact that the Clinton administration was extremely friendly to Wall Street, signing the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 into law and refusing to regulate the dangerous and ultimately disastrous derivatives.

Of course, this was the Bill Clinton administration, but if Hillary Clinton is also raking in millions, is there any reason to think she will be any different? Whether she continues to run as a left-wing populist or falls back to the Clintonian center may help determine whether she is going to be another corporatist who preaches compromise, or a different kind of Clinton.

Before looking into what kind of elitist Hillary really is, it is important to acknowledge that being a so-called elitist does not disqualify someone from being a good populist leader. There are different kinds of elitists, and in many cases, Americas anti-elitist culture has done more harm than good, especially when targeting intellectuals.

Though it may risk being overly simplistic, elitism can be divided into two separate categories: the monied elite and the intellectual elite. The monied elite are the plutocrats; the billionaires or Wall Street executives or Kansan oil men who spend millions on lobbying and political campaigns to shape and mold Washington discourse. These elitists are elite in the material sense, and go back to the days of the Gilded Age, when uneducated men, such as Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt, became the most wealthy and powerful men of their time. Today, most of these monied elite are highly educated and determined to become dominant capitalists in the global economy. There can be no doubt that the monied elite are the most powerful people in America.

The intellectual elite, on the other hand, are elite in a non-material sense; they are highly educated, and are generally academics, writers, scientists, activists, lawyers, etc. When Senator Barack Obama was called elitist, it was not because he was wealthy, but because he was a highly educated academic. Here in America, we have a long and storied history of anti-intellectualism, going back to the Evangelical preachers of the 19th century to Joseph McCarthy targeting left-wing academics in the '50s. Today, this tradition continues with people like Mike Huckabee, who said on The Daily Show a few months back: “There's a real disconnect between people that live in the bubbles of New York, Washington, and Hollywood, versus the people who live in the land of the bubbas...there's a big difference between people who are well educated and people who are smart.” It can also be seen with issues like climate change and scientific education.

The intellectual elite have tended to be leaders and supporters of populist movements over the past century, evinced by the strong support of socialism and communism from academics and intellectuals during the first half of the 20th century. Elizabeth Warren is a good example of an intellectual elite leading the current populist fight, and has predictably been attacked for her academic history at Harvard. The monied elite, however, have rarely been supporters of populist movements, and generally stand in the way of social progress for the lower and middle classes. Today, after four decades of neoliberalism, it is clear that the monied elite have much more power than the intellectual elite, and have in many ways achieved this by embracing the masses distrust of intellectuals as well as racial prejudices.

A Populist Elitist?

Franklin Roosevelt is an interesting case study of an elitist, in both the monied and intellectual sense, turning his back on his own class to promote populist policies (although much of F.D.R. so-called populism was really just an attempt to save the capitalist system). Roosevelt was born to an old and prominent Dutch family that had been in America since the seventeenth century, and his father was a successful businessman. He went to Harvard, and spent his career in politics, serving under Woodrow Wilson and then becoming the 44th Governor of New York. He was, in every sense of the word, an elitist. However, though he came from a monied elite, he was more of a an intellectual elite, spending his career in politics after a top-notch education.

His presidency was no doubt a good one for the people, but at the same time, it cannot be said that he was a truly revolutionary leader. He fell somewhere in between the monied elite of his past and the intellectual elite who supported a more radical and socialist agenda. Today, of course, he looks like a leftist, and at the time, the business community felt this way too. The famous “Business Plot,” in which the business community attempted to stage a nonviolent coup of F.D.R. in his first year, was foiled by the heroic Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler (author of War is a Racket). 

Of course, while F.D.R. cannot be called a radical, he was indeed a true populist who fought hard for his administrations progressive vision. His famous clash with the Supreme Court shows that implementing populist policies is never easy here in the United States. In 1937, after the Supreme Court, controlled by five conservative figures (much like today), declared different pieces of New Deal legislations unconstitutional, to the great dismay of the people, Roosevelt introduced the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill, better known today as the court-packing plan. The plan would have given the President power to appoint up to six more justices, one for every member older than 70 and a half years of age. While the bill never went through, it is believed to have done its job politically, by pushing the normally conservative swing voter Josephus Roberts to vote in favor of the New Deal, though this has been denied by certain justices. 

F.D.R. was a traitor to his class and a hero to the people. But what about Hillary? Is she more of a intellectual elite or an monied elite? A populist or a corporatist? So far, she is running as the two former. But the biggest issue for Hillary is not how much she is worth, estimated to be in the $50 million range, but how she managed to build that wealth. After all, F.D.R. was a wealthy man, estimated to be in the range of $60 million. But he largely inherited his wealth, unlike the Clintons, who have made it through speaking engagements, in most cases for large corporations, and almost half of the speeches in foreign countries. And, as mentioned above, the financial industry has been the most common benefactor -- Bill has made 102 appearances for financial service firms, making nearly $20 million in the process, according to the Washington Post. Since leaving the State Department, Hillary has followed in her husband's footsteps. TD Bank and Goldman Sachs have been the most frequent financial sponsors for the Clintons.

Now, this, along with the pro-Wall Street environment of the Clinton administration, is very damaging to anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a populist, which is looking more and more like Hillary’s strategy. It is hard to believe the Clintons did not think about this when planning to run again for office. Did they assume these millions of dollars would go unnoticed?

Being a so-called elitist does not (and should not) disqualify someone from being a populist leader, but the fact that Hillary has never been a true populist or progressive in the past does make it seem she is simply a populist of convenience, as Greg Sargent wrote in the Washington Post. On the other hand, she could be evolving with the times. During the Clinton years, centrism was what won elections, so the Clintons embraced this ideology. Today, not only have social views evolved, but views of the economy as well. Inequality has increased drastically since the '90s, and the financial crisis put an end to the idea that an unregulated financial industry benefits all.

In this case, Clinton is reacting to societal changes and popular opinion. Recent polls indicate that inequality is a major problem for Americans across party lines, which means that any politician hoping to get elected on a national scale must speak out against this issue. Even Republicans have been pretending to care about inequality, and have ironically blamed President Obama for its increase (although they never give him any credit for the economies improvement).  

In Clinton’s recent speech at Texas Southern University, she made a fierce call for voter rights, and attacked the ongoing Republican strategy of suppressing and disenfranchising minorities, young people and poor people across the country. Clinton brought an intensity to the speech that almost felt like Elizabeth Warren; an outrage at the current war on voter rights, decades after former Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan fought for civil rights: 

“I wish we could hear [Barbara Jordan’s] voice one more time. Hear her express the outrage we feel about the fact that 40 years after [she] fought to extend the Voting Rights Act, its heart has been ripped out...we have a responsibility to say clearly and directly what’s really going on in our country—because what is happening is a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people, and young people from one end of our country to the other.”

And then there was Clinton’s official announcement this past weekend, where she evoked Roosevelt, saying: “President Roosevelt called on every American to do his or her part, and they answered...Democracy can’t be just for corporations and billionaires. It’s your time to secure gains and move ahead.”

Compare this to the 2008 Hillary, and it is clear she is planning to reinvent herself as a champion of the people. In 2008, she campaigned as the responsible and experienced candidate, and underestimated the younger but more charismatic Barack Obama. Her 2008 campaign was plagued with inner strife between her advisors, who largely disagreed on how she should run. Mark Penn, chief strategist and longtime Clinton advisor, advocated a more centrist strategy, and believed Margret Thatcher was the “best role model” for Clinton. Penn is viewed by many liberals as a centrism-promoting corporatist, and his admiration for the neoliberal Thatcher certainly does not attract progressive sympathy. Penn is no longer with Clinton, and so far, it seems her team realizes that running as the experienced and aloof candidate is not a winning strategy, especially in this time of populism. 

What Hillary’s sudden embrace of populism really shows is that she does not have a firm commitment to one ideology, and is very much a practitioner of realpolitik. If she is adopting a populist stance and advocating policies that will help the middle class, does it really matter whether she is a firm believer? The fact that true progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are pushing the true politicians like Hillary to embrace progressive ideology is enough cause to celebrate. As that other elitist once said, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

Of course, it is also possible that Hillary is full of it, and once she gets elected will use her powers to again help those monied elites who have made her a wealthy woman. It wouldn’t be the first time a politician turned her back on earlier promises. But with the current populism in the air, this seems less likely.

With today's wave of populism, it is becoming more and more politically beneficial to fight for the progressive cause. If elected as a progressive fighter, Clinton would no doubt have a harsh fight ahead of her, much like Roosevelt did in the '30s. The business community attempted a coup, while the conservative Supreme Court attempted to destroy the New Deal, but Roosevelt fought hard and eventually prevailed, with the support of the people. Clinton would face a similar struggle against a conservative court and an increasingly extremist GOP party, but it is quite possible that becoming a class warrior is the only way Hillary can win and then govern. 

Yes, Hillary is an elitist, who has made a lot of money speaking for monied elites. But ultimately, she is a politician, and if the progressive movement continues to grow and push the debate to the left, there is a good chance that Hillary might just become the next progressive champion. It is the job of progressives to make this the convenient and necessary step for Hillary.

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