Any discussion of why Hillary Clinton lost, or what the Democrats must reform, is woefully incomplete if it excludes this issue.
To pitch her book, Hillary Clinton is sitting down this week for a series of media interviews, mostly with supportive TV personalities, such as Rachel Maddow, to discuss her views of “What Happened,” the book’s title. Calls for Clinton to be quiet and disappear are misguided for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that she is a very smart, informed, and articulate politician, which means her interviews — especially when she’s liberated from programmed campaign mode — are illuminating about how she, and her fellow establishment Democrats who have driven the party into a ditch, really think.
An hourlong interview she sat for with Vox’s Ezra Klein is particularly worthwhile. Clinton, for good reason, harbors a great deal of affection for Klein, which she expressed on multiple occasions during their chat. But Klein nonetheless pressed her on a series of criticisms that have been voiced about her and the Democrats’ stunted political approach, banal policies, status-quo-perpetuating worldview, and cramped aspirations that seem far more plausible as authors of her defeat than the familiar array of villains — Bernie Sanders, Vladimir Putin, Jill Stein, Jim Comey, the New York Times — that she and her most ardent supporters are eager to blame.
Despite being illuminating, Klein’s discussion with Clinton contains a glaring though quite common omission: There is not a word about the role of foreign policy and endless war during the entire hour. While some of this may be attributable to Klein’s perfectly valid journalistic focus on domestic policies, such as health care, a huge factor in Clinton’s political career and how she is perceived — as a senator and especially as secretary of state — is her advocacy of multiple wars and other military actions, many, if not all, of which were rather disastrous, rendering it quite strange to spend an hour discussing why she lost without so much as mentioning any of that.
This is not so much a critique of Klein’s specific interview (which, again, is worthwhile) as it is reflective of the broader Democratic Party desire to pretend that the foreign wars it has repeatedly prosecuted, and the endless killing of innocent people for which it is responsible, do not exist. Part of that is the discomfort of cognitive dissonance: the Democratic branding and self-glorification as enemies of privilege, racism, and violence are directly in conflict with the party’s long-standing eagerness to ignore, or even actively support, policies which kill large numbers of innocent people from Pakistan, Libya, and Somalia to Yemen, Iraq, and Gaza, but which receive scant attention because of the nationality, ethnicity, poverty, distance, and general invisibility of their victims.
But a major part of this minimization is a misperception of the domestic political importance of these policies. From the beginning of his candidacy through the general election, Donald Trump rhetorically positioned himself as a vehement opponent of endless war, inveighing against both parties when doing so.
Though there is now a revisionist effort underway to falsely depict those who pointed this out as being gullible believers in Trump’s dovish and antiwar credentials, the reality is that most of us who warned of the efficacy of Trump’s antiwar campaign theme made explicitly clear that there was no reason to believe Trump would actually be dovish if he were elected. Indeed, from Trump’s history of endorsing the wars he was denouncing to his calls for greater and more savage bombing to his desire to nullify the Iran deal, there was ample reasons to doubt that he would usher in dovishness of any kind. But the point was that Trump’s antiwar posturing was a politically potent approach because of how unpopular endless war and militarism have become:
These warnings — about the efficacy of Trump’s attacks on America’s bipartisan posture of Endless War — largely fell on deaf ears. Clinton continued to defend the virtues of her record of militarism, and even now, those topics are excluded almost completely from discussions of why Clinton lost.
What makes this exclusion particularly notable is that empirical data suggests that questions of endless war and militarism played a big, if not decisive, role in the outcome of the 2016 election. A study published earlier this year by Boston University political science professor Douglas Kriner and Minnesota Law School’s Francis Shen makes the case quite compellingly.
The paper notes that Trump did not run as any kind of pacifist but rather as someone who “promised a foreign policy that would be both simultaneously more muscular and more restrained,” yet “promised to be much more reticent” in committing the U.S. to new, foreign military adventures. The scholars argue that not only military families but Americans generally have grown increasingly hostile to these policies:
In one sense, all Americans have been affected by fifteen years of nearly continuous war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans of all stripes have watched each conflict’s developments unfold through extensive media coverage, movies, and personal stories from veterans returning from combat. Indeed, so great are its posited effects on American society that some analysts have proclaimed the emergence of an “Iraq Syndrome,” echoing the public skepticism about the efficacy of the use of force and the growing popular reluctance to employ it that emerged after Vietnam.
Clinton was uniquely ill-suited to channel this widespread sentiment given that she has vocally supported almost every proposed U.S. war and military intervention over the last 20 years (including ones Obama rejected in places such as Syria and Ukraine and, of course, Iraq). For that reason, she was one of the leading symbols of war and militarism, perhaps its most potent one, and Trump — however deceitful and cynical it might have been — positioned himself as her opposite.
From these premises, the authors argue that had the U.S. fought fewer wars, or at least experienced fewer casualties, Clinton would have won those three states and thus won the election:
One need not uncritically accept this maximalist conclusion to acknowledge the vital point: Clinton specifically and Democrats generally are perceived, with good reason, to be proponents of endless war policies that critical constituencies now despise. From a policy perspective, endless war and militarism shape virtually every key issue, from budgetary priorities and tax policy to corporatism and lobbyist power, making it inexcusable on the merits to ignore or downplay them. But also as a political matter, any discussion of why Clinton lost, or what the Democrats must reform, is woefully incomplete if it excludes these questions.