An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton - 1

Dear Hillary,

We don’t know each other, although we have some contacts in common—my mentor, Carol Gilligan, and one of my co-authors on Mother Daughter Revolution, Marie Wilson. Of course, I say this to give myself a bit of legitimacy, because you are given advice from every corner—about as often as women are told to “smile” on the street—and why should you listen to me?

The personal and cultural dimensions of gender identity, intersected with class and race, have been my “beat,” so to speak. Identity and dignity are the passion drivers in this election. They call us to larger narratives and hopes for the future in which you, by virtue of your gender, race, and class, have played and are playing a dramatic, archetypal role. You seem to be a bit tone-deaf to the archetypal dimension of the campaign. You cannot paper over this with policies. It calls for something a bit different. Moreover, if you are elected, which I desperately hope, you will be likely to have nearly 50% of the voters against you. The issues surfacing in the campaign are not going to go away after November. In fact, they could get worse.

So, I am going to write a series of posts about this explosive—and potentially transformative—mess of gender, race, and class that is raging right now. I am going to use a lot of generalizations, because I am attempting to identify unconscious narratives that float under the surface. Perhaps it will be of use, and hopefully will shed light for others about some of the dynamics of the time we are in.

The big battleground states are in the Rust Belt, and this is no accident. I hail from Pittsburgh, where Mark Cuban, a billionaire reality TV rival to Trump, recently endorsed you. Look beyond the glittering buildings “dahntahn” or the beautiful riverside parks. This used to be coal and steel country: Eliza, the city’s blast furnace at J&L Steel, produced steel that was carried over the Hot Metal Bridge, built in 1887 and still used for car traffic. Pittsburgh is a beautiful city that survived the death of heavy industry and good union jobs. But there has been a huge cost to the working class and unskilled workers. All you have to do is go to the Southside to see the gap between the internet class and the original residents of the area.

For many millions upon millions of citizens, the American Dream is broken. This is a no-brainer. That doesn’t mean that America is not “great,” if you need to use that term, but that “greatness” needs to be radically redefined and sourced in something other than consumer values at home and military action abroad. Blame for the demise of the dream often lands with the boomer generation that came of age in prosperity and ended up hocking the future for Gen X and the Millennials. It’s true: in our wake, you have ballooning student loan debt, sky-high credit card debt, low-paying cashier/service jobs, and a disastrous housing collapse created by a predatory financial industry.

You and Bill are the poster kids of this phenomenon. But there is also another wrinkle to the story: Bill himself is a class traitor. And in the narrative of the white lower classes, you—as the big love of his life—are responsible.

When Nobel-Prize-winning author Toni Morrison famously called Bill “our first black president,” she was pointing to his class roots as white trash. (Yes, it’s a horrible term; more on that later.) As white trash, she said, Bill “was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp.” While it’s “okay,” for the old established elites to amass fortunes and engage in crony capitalism (because that’s their class function), it is not okay for someone like Bill. Morrison observes: “The message [to Bill] was clear: ‘No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot.’”

So Bill obliged. And then some. Reagan started the war on the working class by selling a libertarian masculine ideal of self-reliance (government hand-outs are for losers, not for real men) and then destroying the unions and industries that their lives were based on. However, few seem to remember Reagan’s role, because Bill Clinton took the ball and ran with it. Under the protective cover of his own class roots, he passed NAFTA, welfare reform, and stiff drug laws. From the outside looking in, he seems to have been handsomely rewarded.

I remember being appalled as Bill signed NAFTA surrounded by the smugly smiling money elites. Perhaps shifting to the right was necessary in the post-Reagan-Thatcher climate. But it was a sellout of a significant part of the Democratic base. More importantly to the 2016 election, Bill sold out his own people. He never went back to Arkansas, never took up the cause of the working classes and the poor, never gave back. Your family moved to a bedroom community to New York City (of all places!), in a fancy house, and Bill launched a glitzy Global Initiative that had him hob-nobbing with Saudia Arabian sheiks. Thanks a lot.

And as I said before, you, Hillary, are blamed. Why? Well, I draw on my experience with my own family. My mother was from hard-working immigrant stock. My father comes from white trash (perhaps the upper end of that eclectic and rowdy grouping), which fortunately taught me to take the rules and those who make them with a bit of salt. He believed that doing an honest day’s work was for chumps. If you are smart, you can beat the rat race. He drank. Schmoozing in a bar and playing softball were his true vocations. Scamming, “fibbing,” cheating at cards, and gambling were his life strategies. You do what you can get away with; being dumb is getting caught. No doubt he learned all this at his father’s knee. Nicknamed “Snakes,” Grandpap was quite a guy. On the payroll for the Democrats for getting out the vote (by giving street people booze, for instance), he had a cushy job where he didn’t need to do anything. He was, in his own milieu, very enterprising. Me: “Grandma, what was Grandpap doing when you first met?” She: “He was a bootlegger, a bookie, and owned a baseball team.” (Not a pro team, of course, but something local that you could gamble on.)

My mom was a hard-working, creative striver, dead set on getting out of the working class grind where her paycheck as a teen was pooled with her father’s and mother’s income to support the family. To my dad’s family, she “put on airs.” She thought she was better than they were. They hated it and disliked her.

You, too, put on airs, Hillary. They know that you think you are better than them. You are the higher class object of desire that a smart and charming white trash guy bent over backwards to please. It doesn’t matter if this is true or not. This is the narrative. Bill’s uncontrolled sexual impulses, his music and junk food, his “fibbing” and stretching the truth are trailer turf. I’m sure it’s not lost on the white trash segment that his sexual liaisons have pretty much all been with women with big hair, big boobs, big butts just like his mother. You may have landed him as a husband, but he chased tail all the way back home.

There has historically been a below-the-radar war between the white working class and white trash in America. The Ken Starr-Bill Clinton showdown was an archetypal clash of their different values: the (supposedly) honest, rule-abiding, church-going, industrious working class Ken and the sly, sneaky, charming, lying, philandering, white trash Bill. White trash sees the honest working class as stooges. The working class sees white trash as a threat to their dignity and hope for acceptance and mobility in American society. These two distinct demographics occupy the same low and often unstable rung on the economic ladder. Up until very recently, they only united against people of color because, for both, not being black was the only status they could find in our racist society.

But now, thanks to the neoliberal turn of your husband’s administration and those following, the proud working class has been felled. Their work is gone. And looking up at you and Bill on the world stage, it certainly seems that you don’t care. Too many working class people have dropped into the casual-labor, on-again-off-again, public-assistance-supported white trash. Crummy education and the horrible realization that there is no future for them in America have had a crushing toll on their health, sanity, and spirit, particularly for the men.

To add insult to injury, as white lower class men lost their economic dignity, 1970s feminism unleashed forces that destroyed their identity as protector and supporter of wife and family. Increasingly, women in this echelon have had less need for men. Who, then, are they supposed to be now?

So, step back, Hillary. You are in the midst of an archetypal battle embedded in narratives of the white lower classes. Unfortunately, you cannot merely take responsibility for what you have done and what you intend. You need to also take heed of what you represent, how you are unwittingly part of this archetypal narrative. From their victimized anger, you took one of their own and drove him through your class climbing to betray the people back home. They can feel your superiority. You two have robbed them and their children of a decent life and future. They’d expect this from a Bush or Cheney. But not from one of their own.

This may not speak to your reality at all, nor to your intent, but the narrative projected on to you that makes you an object of rage for so many uneducated white men will make it very hard for them to see you clearly. And as if this class struggle isn’t difficult enough, the additional projections about gender are blinding—and I will write more about that next.

What to do? You probably need a “come-to-Jesus” reckoning with the pain of these people who, however irrationally, see you as its cause. You have to deliver direct action to the problems they see. (Not: “We will pass the largest infrastructure bill since World War II.” But: “We will create X million jobs in construction and industry.”) Pittsburgh, as you saw, is thriving and creating a new economy that is crushing the people who once gave us coal and steel. Admit that the experiment and benefits of globalization have not worked as you had hoped and that you have learned from this. Walk into Trump country: listen, listen, listen to these people, let their anger touch your heart not your defenses. Ask them what they need and want. Policies can come later, now you need to address a much more basic need: their right to exist, be seen, and valued. Change the narrative that they know into a future that they can believe in.


Elizabeth Debold











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