Hillary Clinton’s political privilege problem

In the spotlight.
In the spotlight.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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Privilege. It’s an uncomfortable quality for an American politician. At the latest GOP presidential debate on Feb. 25, US senator Marco Rubio attacked Republican frontrunner Donald Trump for just such a quality. “If he hadn’t inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now? Selling watches in Manhattan,” Rubio said, seeking to puncture Trump’s image as a businessman who created his own wealth.

And if Rubio faces Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the national election (a long shot at the moment given his poll numbers), it isn’t hard to imagine him attacking her on the same grounds—privilege.

Clinton is not just any candidate; she is the exceedingly rare politician able to trace her political career back to the White House. Indeed, Clinton resembles not Britain’s prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who lacked family connections or wealth, but India’s Indira Gandhi, who as the daughter of the country’s first prime minister, had both when she launched her own successful prime ministerial bid.

Remarkably, even as privilege visibly helped Jeb Bush’s campaign both soar and sink, Clinton has yet to face too many hard questions about the role of privilege in her swift rise in politics.

In packaging its candidate, the Clinton campaign has not surprisingly cast Hillary Clinton as a sympathetic figure, attacked for being both a woman and a Clinton. In this telling, Clinton built her career through intellect and sheer hard work. She is every woman who has had to fight harder for a promotion, or who has agonized over the right clothes to wear. She is a candidate who has faced relentless attacks ever since she became First Lady more than two decades ago. In supporting her, we are offered the opportunity to make history by electing the first woman president of the United States.

It’s a great pitch, but there is more than a whiff of inauthenticity in framing Clinton purely as a gender-breaking feminist icon, or even as representative of “every woman.”

Reframe the story and here is what emerges: the wife of a powerful politician chooses to run for office after her husband steps down because of term limits. She has a famous last name, strong connections to the political elite, and easy access to deep pocketed donors. In short, it she is continuing the family business.

This is a familiar tale in many other parts of the world. In South Asia, in particular, daughters and spouses have routinely won national elections on the strength of their family names and connections. Apart from India’s Indira Gandhi, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto (daughter of a prime minister), Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike (widow of a prime minister) and Chandrika Kumaratunga (daughter of two former prime ministers), and Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina (daughter of a prime minister) and Khaleda Zia (widow of a president) became heads of state or government by capitalizing on their family connections.

None of these women tried very hard to hide the advantages of their family names and positions. On the contrary, they won office by promising to build on the family legacies of their spouses or fathers. They were not asking for votes based on gender barriers. Many cannot even be considered feminists.

In Her Way, a 2007 book detailing Clinton’s first presidential campaign, authors Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. wrote that former president Bill Clinton studied both Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto’s careers as examples of the power of political family legacies. Gandhi and Bhutto’s genius was in convincing millions of impoverished voters that, despite their enormous family privilege, they empathized with and understood their issues.

In the US though, privilege is a particularly uncomfortable notion. We choose to remember stories of independent pioneers forging their new nation through pluck and hard work, not the fact that our founding fathers were from wealthy, privileged backgrounds. We want to believe in the stories of Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, not talk about the elite worlds of John and John Quincy Adams, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt or George H. W. and George W. Bush. Privilege, traditionally, has no role in the American dream.

There’s no question that speaking about Clinton’s privilege could reduce some of the excitement surrounding our first potential woman president. But it is also true that for younger women who have grown up with a woman speaker in Congress and women governors in many states, Clinton is so embedded in the establishment that it is harder to think of her as a groundbreaking woman politician.

A more authentic narrative would include Clinton pointing out even she, with her many advantages, has had to face gender based criticism. Even privilege does not shield women from being attacked on the basis of her hairstyle or clothing.

More importantly, in choosing to sidestep her privilege, Clinton may have missed a real opportunity to connect with millions of women who are in, or grew up in, dual career families. The Clintons represent in some respects a very modern American family, one in which both spouses support each other’s careers. It’s a novel message for a candidate—just the kind of message in fact that the first woman president should be spreading. It is also a message that would be inarguably authentic.

Could Clinton have climbed the political ladder based solely on her own merit? Clinton’s campaign depicts a highly experienced candidate. Without her charismatic husband, however, it is hard to imagine how Clinton could have paved her own way to the White House. Without privilege, in fact, it’s far more likely that we would have been celebrating the accomplishments of Supreme Court justice Hillary Clinton.