With many months to go before the conclusion of the US presidential primaries, battles lines in the Democratic party have become deeply entrenched. Just as right-wingers love to claim that Hillary Clinton is a radical liberal disguised as a moderate, so too are many progressives inclined to see her as a conservative corporatist whose liberal stances merely pander to the Democratic Party base. This is partially because her 2016 campaign received contributions from various wealthy interests. But it also stems from the clear way that her ideology has evolved from centrist to progressive over the past quarter-century. It is tempting to characterize this evolution as proof that she lacks core convictions—especially if one is a Bernie Sanders supporter or a jaded liberal.
But there is another way of looking at Clinton’s ideological past. At a time when the Republican Party is being overtaken by the kinds of socially regressive attitudes fueling Donald Trump’s impending nomination, Clinton’s success among a majority of Democrats demonstrates how our party has evolved with the times.
First, a brief history lesson. It’s important to remember that the Democratic Party entered the 1990s having just lost its third presidential election in a row. Ronald Reagan’s landslide victories were widely interpreted as having pushed America to the right. A movement of so-called New Democrats concluded that the party of Franklin Roosevelt needed to move to the center to accommodate this reality.
When a New Democrat named Bill Clinton won the presidential nomination in 1992 and was subsequently elected, and re-elected, the zeitgeist among Democrats in the post-Reagan era became one of acquiescent centrism. For eight years, this new brand of liberal worked cautiously to try and create a more progressive society—economically prosperous, technologically innovative, and maintaining the ethos of diversity it had cultivated since the 1960s—while still not going as far left as they could have.
The original Clintonian ideology reflects this outlook. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell didn’t allow LGBT service members to openly serve in the military, but it was better than the previous anti-gay ban. NAFTA may have disempowered American labor and welfare reform may have increased extreme poverty. But these un-progressive acts were matched by progressive ones, including raising the minimum wage, passing the Family and Medical Leave Act, and creating the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Hillary Clinton herself underwent an evolution at this time, chucking the pugnacious progressivism that had defined her career in the 1970s and 1980s and moving to the center with her husband. Whether this shift was in accordance with the dictates of the time or out of sincere conviction, only she knows for sure.
While this mindset may have been an effective governing tool, it bred apathy among mainstream Democratic voters. The 1996 presidential election was the first to have turnout fall below 50% since the 1920s. And the 2000 election—in which left-wing defections to Ralph Nader helped George W. Bush defeat Al Gore, despite losing the popular vote—wasn’t much better.
The tragedy of September 11th scarred Americans so badly that many went along with the Bush administration (at least at first) when it waged a controversial war in Iraq and eroded our civil liberties. Meanwhile, the economy remained sluggish. And when the financial crisis hit late in Bush’s second term, the same government that had cut taxes for the rich focused on bailing out the banks rather than helping ordinary Americans. Marginalized groups—particularly non-whites, women, the LGBT community, and the poor—realized that they weren’t being represented in positions of power throughout society.
It was during this time that Democrats began to truly move to the left again, in large part because of young people. As a Pew Research poll published in February explains: “From 2000 to 2015, the share of Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters describing their political views as liberal increased by 15 percentage points, from 27% to 42%.”
As an undergraduate at Bard College (a school the Princeton Review once deemed the most left-wing university in America), I recall this phenomenon clearly during the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. When he first emerged on the political scene during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama appealed to myself and my peers as a statesman who seemed to embody diversity and multiculturalism. He opposed Bush’s unpopular foreign policies and vowed to eliminate a status quo that favored the rich.
He was certainly a change from the parade of safe Democratic candidates we’d seen in previous election cycles: Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry. While Bard may have been ahead of the curve in 2004, by the time the last of my Bard friends graduated in 2008, much of the party had come to resemble our campus. Obama had seized the nomination from Clinton by holding her New Democrat concessions, such as supporting the Patriot Act and the Iraq War, against her.
Viewed through the lens, it’s possible to remain convinced Hillary Clinton’s move to the left is an act of deliberate deceit or insincere expediency. And yet, this belief disregards the other option: that the same conditions that pushed Democrats to the left could just as easily have had the same effect on Clinton, whose career as a major figure in national politics covers the same period.
Certainly my own views have evolved considerably from the 1990s through the present. I too supported the Iraq War at first, and at one point I might have nodded along with Clinton’s now infamous “super predator” comments, whereas I now actively support the ideals of the Black Lives Matter protesters. Does this change invalidate my current pro-civil rights stances or beliefs on foreign policy non-interventionism? I would say absolutely not. It merely reflects my ability to grow and mature intellectually.
I would imagine that this is true for many Democrats who’ve been politically conscious in turn-of-the-millennium America, including our own president. When Barack Obama first took office in 2008, he supported the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It wasn’t until public opinion began to take a pro-gay rights turn that he followed suit. Even Sanders, despite his reputation for ideological purity, has flip-flopped on issues like gun control, first voting for granting gun manufacturers legal immunity and opposing mandatory waiting periods before switching sides. He also voted for the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the same law that Clinton has been so heavily criticized for (and which sparked her super-predator comment).
In short, if Democrats are going to hold up ideological consistency throughout the decades as the chief measure of a presidential aspirant’s worthiness, the chances are that no one is going to be found truly worthy of high office.
Of course we should hold Clinton accountable for her past policy mistakes. And it is perfectly logical that many progressives (including myself) might initially opt for a more liberal alternative in the primaries. That said, this attitude becomes illogical when—in the name of trying to choose the candidate most likely to implement liberal policies—we reflexively distrust anyone whose record shows any type of shift.
While such evolution could indicate craven expediency, it could also simply indicate that the candidate in question has an open mind, or at least has been willing to adapt to the political realities of his or her time. If this is the mindset we would prefer applied to ourselves, it is patently unfair and unrealistic to fail to extend it to others—particularly in an election like this one, in which the stakes are so high.
The Obama era alone has brought about the election of the first African-American president, a broader proliferation of movements for racial justice, a significant economic improvement from the nadir of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, an end to the war in Iraq, the national legalization of same-sex marriage, and the passage of comprehensive health care reform, to name only a few achievements. If Clinton is elected in November, we will also be able to add the election of our first female president to that list.
We cannot know for sure whether she is a centrist in disguise or simply a politician and human who changed her opinion on major issues, along with millions of Americans. But she deserves the benefit of the doubt. If we are unwilling to give her that, then we implicitly deny America’s main progressive party—and millions of its voters—the ability to make progress as well.