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Hillary Clinton’s Politics Of Virtue


Now that Hillary Clinton has clinched the Democratic nomination, the conventional wisdom suggests she’ll tack back to the political center. A long primary battle against self-avowed socialist candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders forced her to lurch leftward and reverse long-held policy views on free trade and entitlement reform, reflecting a rising progressive populism among the Democratic Party’s base.

And maybe she will. After all, Clinton touted herself as a centrist “New Democrat” to New York voters when she ran for the Senate in 2000 on the heels of what now seems like the decidedly middle-of-the-road presidency of her husband.

But even if Clinton moderates some of her new-found progressive policies in a bid to appeal to independents and Trump supporters in the GOP, voters should realize that her basic political philosophy hasn’t changed. She believes not only that government should cure all manner of societal ills, but that doing great good requires amassing great power.

Clinton’s Religious Roots Shaped Her View of Government

To appreciate how consistent Clinton’s basic philosophy of government has been, one must go back to the early 1990s, to the flush of Bill Clinton’s first term and the possibilities it awakened in Hillary’s imagination. In April 1993, she gave an odd speech in Austin, Texas, that called for national spiritual renewal, couched in the hazy rhetoric of something she called the “politics of meaning.”

Decrying a “sleeping sickness of the soul,” Clinton proclaimed America was suffering from a “sense that somehow economic growth and prosperity, political democracy and freedom are not enough—that we lack at some core level meaning in our individual lives and meaning collectively, that sense that our lives are part of some greater effort, that we are connected to one another, that community means that we have a place where we belong no matter who we are.”

She then asked, “Who will lead us out of this spiritual vacuum?” and answered that it must be “all of us… redefining what our lives are and what they should be.” The task would require Americans to be willing “to remold society by redefining what it means to be a human being in the twentieth century, moving into a new millennium.”

The late Michael Kelly recounted this speech in a profile of Clinton, “Saint Hillary,” for the May 1993 issue of New York Times Magazine. The piece is a careful dissection of her motivations for wanting to do good on a grand scale. (It’s also serves, decades later, as a corrective to Rebecca Traister’s mildly fawning profile of Clinton last month.) While most politicians strike a compassionate pose to some degree, wrote Kelly, “there are two great differences in the case of Mrs. Clinton: She is serious and she has power. Her sense of purpose stems from a world view rooted in the activist religion of her youth and watered by the conviction of her generation that it was destined (and equipped) to teach the world the errors of its ways. Together, both faiths form the true politics of her heart, the politics of virtue.”

Written early in her White House years, today the piece helps illuminate Clinton’s response to the leftward pull of today’s Democratic base, conceding long-held views to secure the nomination and maintain her grip on power. It also explains her reaction to the ongoing email scandal and FBI investigation. Recall that when the government asked her to turn over her emails last March, Clinton herself decided which to disclose and which to destroy. “I went above and beyond what I was requested to do,” Clinton said last year after turning over 30,000 emails to the government and deleting some 31,000. “I believe I have met all of my responsibilities,” she said, and that was that.

The Power To Make People Good

The email scandal, like all Clinton scandals, is really a matter of power. Kelly’s profile delves into Clinton’s religious roots in the United Methodist Church, where she was steeped from an early age in the theology of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. The former helped her articulate, in her Austin speech and elsewhere, what she felt to be a crisis of meaning and alienation in the modern world; the latter informed her sense of the legitimate uses of power needed to ameliorate it.

Kelly interviewed the Rev. Donald G. Jones, the youth minister at her United Methodist Church in Park Ridge, who not only imparted the teachings of Tillich and Niebuhr but also took his students, including a young Hillary Rodham, through rough areas of Chicago to talk with black and Hispanic gang members and visit with immigrant workers, showing them first-hand all the good that needed to be done. The Rev. Jones told Kelly:

My sense of Hillary is that she realizes absolutely the truth of the human condition, which is that you cannot depend on the basic nature of man to be good and you cannot depend entirely on moral suasion to make it good… You have to use power. And there is nothing wrong with wielding power in the pursuit of policies that will add to the human good. I think Hillary knows this. She is very much the sort of Christian who understands that the use of power to achieve social good is legitimate.

It’s sometimes said of President Barack Obama and other progressives that they have an unrealistically optimistic view of human nature. They think humanity and society are essentially good, and thus perfectible. In the last year they have taken it a step further, suggesting that perhaps we have no “nature” at all and can mold ourselves into whatever we chose. If a man identifies as a woman, he should have access not only to women’s bathrooms but also women’s locker rooms, showers, and sports teams. We are as we wish to be. The government, then, must be powerful enough to ensure each citizen’s self-actualization, whether to become a woman or drop out of the workforce and become a poet.

This is not the right way to think about Clinton. She doesn’t quite subscribe to this progressive view of human nature. She believes there is something wrong with us, “that we lack at some core level meaning in our individual lives and meaning collectively.” We are not, in the end, all that good. To fix that, to make us good, to connect us to “some greater effort,” will require the use of great power.

As a practical matter, this philosophical difference might not produce policies that diverge much from those of the Obama administration, which has not shied from coercion to achieve some good, large or small. But as Clinton begins reaching out to general election voters, it’s worth remembering that she believes she’s on a mission to do good in a world beset by evil. She wants the country to be strong, but she defines strength collectively. “We’re stronger when every family in every community knows they’re not on their own, because we are in this together,” Clinton said in her victory speech Tuesday night. “It really does ‘take a village’ to raise a child—and to build a stronger future for us all.”

In that sense, Clinton sees herself today just as she did two decades ago, even if she would never speak as candidly now as she did then. She believes that it falls to her to wield great power in the name of great good—as she defines it. To that end, rules that would bind ordinary people might not apply to someone whose ambition, as Kelly wrote, is “so large it can scarcely be grasped.”