Today, Hillary Clinton turns the big 7-0. Save your streamers though: this birthday is wrapping up a rather sad year.
In the fall of 2016, Hillary looked poised to win the biggest present of all: the White House. Then James Comey and a bunch of mad-as-hell, white working-class voters in the Rust Belt dropped an electoral atomic bomb into her birthday cake. In the aftermath, millions of conservatives breathed a sigh of relief, and even now console themselves amidst the circus-like atmosphere of Donald Trump’s administration that “at least we don’t have Hillary!” Meanwhile, millions of liberals are still alternating between sadness and anger over their heroine’s unexpected defeat.
Yet the most revealing response today to the life and times of Hillary (and her husband) is coming from young left-wing voices, many of whom were mere children during her and Bill’s presidential reign (and her 2002 Iraq war vote). Left-wing Twitter and Facebook exploded when Hillary released her bestselling executive summary of What Happened—and not in a good way. As soon as Clinton opens her mouth on national television, leftist voices swarm social media to silence her. Rather than seeing her the way garden-variety liberal Democrats do—as a wrongfully denied Madam President—it seems today’s young progressive left is as “ready for Hillary” as your average right-wing dittohead.
I myself have some pretty strong thoughts on the Baby Boomer generation’s staunch refusal (among both conservatives and liberals alike) to exit the field and allow Gen Xers and Millennials a turn at bat. And it should be said that in the past, there would be nothing offensive or ageist in asking, even demanding, that a losing non-incumbent candidate accept his loss and go away. When Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and Bob Dole were defeated by popular incumbent presidents or VPs, they never again presumed to speak as decision-maker faces or voices of their parties. (Ditto almost-candidates like Mario Cuomo and Ann Richards.)
But that changed forever with Bush v. Gore. John Kerry, John McCain, and Mitt Romney all followed the Al Gore playbook to a T, with McCain and Romney becoming the mainstream media’s official Republican Grownups in the Room. So if privileged white men like Gore, Kerry, Romney, and McCain still get to play Ingrid Superstar even after their humbling defeats, why the double standard? Why should only Hillary have to crawl into a spider hole never to be seen or heard from again, and be shamed, not only by the conservatives who have always loathed her, but by ascendant Democrats, too?
The insightful Millennial left theorist Emmett Rensin recently wrote an article satirizing What Happened by reviewing it in the narrative voice of someone who’d never heard of Hillary Clinton before. Let me take up Rensin’s theme from a slightly different angle. If I were a man from Mars who had no idea who Hillary Clinton was, save for reading Jacobin and Thomas Frank and from watching Jimmy Dore and Cenk Uygur, I would think Bill and Hillary were a hardline conservative presidential couple who were hated and almost impeached because of their constant and sadistic betrayals of their progressive left base.
I’ll simply quote noted historian Steven Gillon, who actually interviewed a typical “Red America” voter in the early 90s about why he didn’t cotton to Bill Clinton. His answer was succinct: “Because he’s a womanizing, truth-shading, non-inhaling, Elvis-loving, draft-dodging, war-protesting, abortion-protecting, gay-promoting, gun-hating Baby Boomer!” And Hillary was a shoulder-padded, non-maternal, feminist lawyer who didn’t stay home and bake cookies. Simply put, the loudest critiques of the Clintons during their actual heyday had almost nothing to do with why they are so passionately hated by young progressives today. They were initially despised because they shattered the 1950s-style “norms” of the presidency in the eyes of many older, religious, and conservative Americans—almost as much as Trump is accused of doing today.
For nearly three full decades, from 1980 to 2008, the only Democratic couple to live at 1600 Pennsylvania had the last name Clinton. But while they were infuriating the right, they were also cementing their disconnect with the progressive wing that truly brought them to the party. One thing that left-handers like Thomas Frank and Rick Perlstein are 100 percent correct about is that progressive economic policy was in fact erased from the entire political dialogue for most of the 1990s—especially after the calamitous failure of Hillarycare and the furor over NAFTA in 1993 and 1994. That’s largely because, for better or worse, there was simply no mainstream political will in either party to push hard for real economic progressivism before the 2008 meltdown. Deregulation, privatization, free trade, and budget-balancing were lauded in the post-Cold War era by virtually every “serious” pundit from Time and Newsweek to National Review and Fox News. And the crushing Democratic defeats of 1984, 1988, 1994, and 2000 at the hands of economic conservatives only underlined it again and again. You cannot blame the Clintons alone.
Fast forward to 2016. Many progressives would consider Hillary’s ultimate sin to be running a cautious, compromising, 1990s campaign even after everyone else had clearly shifted to a post-Great Recession world. And there is a lot of validity to that criticism. But what you won’t hear people admit is that in order for the young Millennial left to get where they are today, Hillary not only had to lose, Donald Trump had to win.
Of course I’m not saying that most lefty young Twitterers and opinion columnists felt happy or vindicated upon Trump’s victory, or indulged in any real schadenfreude. But if Hillary had won, there would be no hashtag #Resistance. There would be no weekly rallies and marches and round-the-clock social media campaigns in major U.S. cities. Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers would still be doing harmless frat-house jokes and game show skits with Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler. And if Hillary had won, and if she did indeed want to revert to her old “neoliberal” ways, then I have no doubt how summarily she would have treated the young turks who didn’t vote for her or who voted for her while holding their noses. As Judge Judy says to her bailiff: “Put ‘em out!”
Bottom line: If Hillary had won, nobody would be going around today tossing back as a final checkmate: “Bernie woulda won!”
In the academic film and TV urban dictionary, there is a meme called “fridging,” based on the slasher-movie trope of finding a dead body or severed head in a refrigerator. (Happy Halloween.) It refers to when the Final Girl sees her dead boyfriend or bestie gal pal cut into fish sticks, or when the Dirty Harry/Charles Bronson/Walker Texas Ranger finds his teenage daughter murdered—not really to illustrate how sad it was for the actual victim, but merely as the plot point for our hero to develop his or her character, and to find the righteous anger and strength to beat the baddie in the end.
Today’s Bernie/Elizabeth Warren narrative plainly needed the fridging of Hillary Clinton. That way the fight for the $15 minimum wage and single-payer and resisting Trump at all costs would become absolute litmus tests for the post-Hillary Democratic Party—so the real hero could put on the super suit. Now that that has happened, Hillary needs to go off uncomplainingly into the sunset so the real stars can kick ass and take names.
And that’s why today’s ascendant left must silence, dismiss, and, yes, “erase” Hillary Clinton. Young progressive leftists are using the exact same tactics that the Clintons used to take over the Democratic Party 20 years ago, and that Roger Ailes and the Koch Brothers used to create the Tea Party 10 years ago. Rush Limbaugh, Ailes, and the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus told us for years that the only way to lose an election was to not be authentically conservative enough. Now, today’s left-wing voices say that the only way for the Democrats to lose is not to be expressly left enough.
So Happy Birthday, Hillary. Though the hard left may diss all those supposedly weak-tea and “sellout” positions you had, and the hard right may be sick and tired of being sick and tired of you, in the end, we just can’t quit you. No matter how much some people might want to.
Telly Davidson is the author of a new book on the politics and pop culture of the ’90s, Culture War. He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series Pioneers of Television.