What Hillary Clinton's Campaign Doesn't Want You to Know About the Convention

A report of how Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign gave wealthy donors privileged seating and other special access at the Democratic National Convention can’t be dismissed by retorting that men have always done such things, too.

Of course, they have. When President Obama campaigned to become the nation’s first black president in 2008, many of us silently excused his decision to forgo public campaign financing and rely on wealthy donors. After all, white male presidential candidates had always done that, too.

Sure enough, upon being elected, Obama chose financial and economic advisers, such as Laurence Summers and Timothy Geithner, who helped him to rescue the wealthy more than to change the financial and economic system that favors them beyond all reason or justice.

We should esteem Obama for many reasons, among them his cool-headed grace under enormous pressure and the profound dignity with which he's endured racism and pointed us beyond it. But he hasn’t been a corrector of the corrupted capitalism that would have appalled Adam Smith and John Locke, and we’re living with its mounting costs, not least among them the demagogy of Donald Trump, who promises to “fix” crises whose causes we seldom name.

How ironic for progressive champions of sexual and racial identity politics, then, that it was a 74-year old, white male who showed this year that a surprisingly effective campaign for economic change could be funded by millions of small donations averaging $27.00 each – even when the candidate seemed a bit clueless about diversity. What can we learn from that surprise?

First, that while racial and sexual diversity are absolutely necessary to justice, they’re also absolutely insufficient. A liberal or progressive diversity that touts breaking glass ceilings over reconfiguring walls and foundations, and that waves banners of diversity atop the whole faulty edifice, ends up speechless before glass-ceiling breakers such as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Governor Sarah Palin, CEO Carly Fiorina, and gay Silicon Valley venture capitalist (and Trump enthusiast) Peter Thiel.

Second, liberals and progressives have used racism and sexism as crutches quite as often as racist and sexist conservatives have done: to excuse or deflect confrontations with economic injustices that both sides fear or refuse to face. Throughout American history, the hideous consequences of race hatred and misogyny have been internalized deeply by too many of their victims and perpetrators, preventing (or excusing) many of us from naming the casino-like financing, predatory lending, and increasingly intrusive, degrading marketing that dissolve civic trust. “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, when wealth accumulates and men decay,” wrote Oliver Goldsmith in 1770.

Until Bernie Sanders insisted on saying all this openly, many liberals and notional leftists touted their own condemnations of racism and sexism, not only as the absolutely necessary preconditions of democracy that those confrontations certainly are, but, too often, as substitutes for confronting still-more daunting economic injustices that accelerate racism and sexism. Hillary Clinton deserves our respect and support for “fighting for children and families” and other good causes, but not for speaking as often as she does of “fighting” without quite naming the enemy she's fighting.

Third, some wealthy donors to Clinton's and Obama’s campaigns are themselves liberals or self-avowed progressives who’ve prospered a bit too well within our rigged system to want to reconfigure it enough to cost them their privileged seating. So they grasp at highly symbolic, moralistic gestures toward diversity that, absent real economic change, end up creating new divisions between some women and most women, and some people of color and most. 

Such evasions shadow "lean-in" feminism and other rationalizations of Clinton’s big-donor campaign, even the more serious rationalizations of Clinton’s big-donor campaign such as one offered by the historian Ellen Fitzpatrick on the New York Times op ed page on the same day that the news story reported the problem.

Oliver Goldsmith was right: When wealth accumulates, people decay. The too-often unnamed, too-easily excused distortions of free markets by greed and corruption and regimes that rationalize them are accelerating societies’ and the planet’s drift toward crisis and, in consequence, the false promises of tyrants. But also problematic are “glass ceiling” liberalism and racial and sexual identity politics that fight for better access to front-row seats in a leaky theater. We should vote for Clinton’s liberalism to check Trump’s nihilism, but not to rescue the wealthy donors to whom she gave the theater’s box seats.

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