Privilege Isn't An Effective Argument For Clinton

Over the course of this election cycle, the concept of privilege has been oft-invoked in support of Hillary Clinton's candidacy; accusations of support for other candidates coming from a place of privilege were first levelled at supporters of Bernie Sanders, and even Bernie himself, and now have been targeted at those contemplating a vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein or other Left third party candidates. Notwithstanding the substance of the argument, its use as a tool to convince supporters of Left candidates to support Clinton exemplifies a serious misunderstanding of the rationale for voting for Sanders or Stein: The distinction between Left voters and Clinton voters is not necessarily a matter of policy, but rather one of ideology, the lens through which they view the world; broadly speaking, Left voters embrace a class politics, while Clinton voters embrace an identity politics.

As a result, the language of identity politics will not likely persuade many supporters of either Sanders or Stein to now back Clinton. It is, certainly, true that Sanders and Stein are to the left of Clinton--depending on who you ask, substantially so--but this is not the basis upon which most voters have decided their preferences. As FiveThirtyEight noted, Sanders supporters were not significantly more liberal than Clinton supporters were. There has been little to no polling done on Stein supporters, but it is possible that this remains true, though less so, for them as well.

This difference between Clinton and Sanders did appear in the primary, though not as such. Clinton's campaign and Sanders' detractors attempted to paint him as a "single-issue candidate"--too focused on economic inequality. This is entirely off the mark, if only because the "issue" of economic inequality encompasses everything from free tuition at public universities to stricter regulation of the financial and banking sector to higher taxes on the wealthy. So, "economic inequality" is a "single issue" in the same way that "social policy" is a "single issue." (It was also misleading because it was simply not true, as Sanders offered a full platform.)

But this does reveal something notable about Clinton's, and her surrogates', perspective: That "economic inequality" is a "single issue," to be subordinated or at the least placed on equal footing with every other issue, like marijuana legalization. For Sanders' supporters, on the other hand, economic inequality is more than a "single issue," and not only because properly addressing it requires the implementation of a wide range of policies. Rather, for many of them, economic inequality is the issue facing them, which explains in large part why a supermajority of voters under the age of 30--who are burdened with debt and face economic conditions far worse than their parents did--backed Sanders over Clinton. It was also the 2008 financial crisis which was to blame for the ruination of their fortunes. This has imbued young voters--and many of the other segments of the Sanders coalition--with the sort of class-consciousness the Sanders campaign represented.

Moreover, if you happen to believe, as I and many others do, that the source of a vast array of social problems, from crime to health to, yes, even a substantial part, though certainly not all, of racial injustice, is economic inequality, treating economic inequality, even were it a "single issue," as a paramount concern, even the central theme of a campaign, is an entirely sensible move. Moreover, as Michael Sandel has pointed out,

[A]s money comes to buy more and more--political influence, good medical care, a home in a good neighborhood rather than a crime-ridden one, access to elite schools rather than failing ones--the distribution of income and wealth looms larger and larger. Where all things are bought and sold, having money makes all the difference in the world.

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets 8 (2012). Certainly this understanding of the significance of economic inequality was an approach that resonated with 12 million Democrats. It is hardly surprising, then, that a non-insubstantial number of Sanders voters have turned to Stein following the end of the primary: The focus of Stein's campaign so far has been on forgiving student debt, raising the minimum wage, and instituting single payer healthcare.

But the class politics of the Sanders campaign, and the identity politics of the Clinton campaign, were not limited to the prioritization of certain policies over others: They manifested as ways of identifying the driving forces behind what they believe to be the problems facing our nation. For example, Sanders certainly recognized the importance of racial justice, but the lens through which he saw race issues was one of class. To Sanders--and for many of his supporters--a substantial portion of racial injustice flows from the unequal distribution of wealth in this nation. As his campaign website explains:

Communities of color also face the violence of economic deprivation. Let's be frank: neighborhoods like those in west Baltimore, where Freddie Gray resided, suffer the most. However, the problem of economic immobility isn't just a problem for young men like Freddie Gray. Despite hard-work and the will to get ahead, millions of Americans spend their entire lives struggling to survive on the economic treadmill. . .Let us not forget: It was the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior on Wall Street that nearly drove the economy off of a cliff seven years ago. While millions of Americans lost their jobs, homes, life savings and ability to send their kids to college, African-Americans who were steered into expensive subprime mortgages were the hardest hit.

In light of this rationale, and in light of the imminent situation of many, suggesting to Sanders supporters that they were blinded by their privilege in supporting Bernie even in the primary was the height of absurdity. This privilege argument entirely fails to meet Sanders supporters where they are.

The situation in the general election is much the same as it was during the primary, although admittedly not identical. Without Sanders in the picture, disaffected Left voters do not really have anywhere to turn except to the marginal Left third party candidates: Clinton represents an identity politics which deliberately attempts to obscure any serious economic analysis and a continuation of the economic status quo. Clinton's campaign has, throughout, eschewed any serious meditation on the responsibility of Wall Street and the ultrawealthy for the financial crisis and the impoverishment of whole swaths of the United States. Instead, she insists, we are "Better Together":She is unapologetic about her connections to banks and what Sanders called the billionaire class.

As Clinton continues to moderate her tone to attract Republican support, the cleavage apparent in the primary has become all of the more obvious. By contrast, Stein and other Left candidates have continued to campaign on student loan forgiveness, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and a renewed embrace of the New Deal. This is not to suggest that these candidates are viable or even ideologically desirable in every case. They do, however, have an understanding of the significance that class politics now plays in this election--an understanding that the Clinton campaign either lacks or has deliberately ignored.

If Clinton supporters genuinely want a united front against Donald Trump, they must recognize the fact that millions of voters no longer have the privilege of simply maintaining the status quo and living to fight another day--they are, on the contrary, already fighting to live another day. Rather than condemning these voters as ignorant or selfish, they must be engaged on their own ground. The Clinton campaign must recognize the economic pain of a substantial portion of Americans--across all identities and communities, but especially among those communities hardest hit, like African Americans (among whose youth she struggles)--and put forth a vision of American that is not simply another eight years of what we've had; perhaps a vision in which the wealthy are subject to the same rule of law as everyone else.