Hillary vs. Bernie: What Liberals Need to Know

I have been a longtime admirer of Mrs. Clinton, and who wouldn’t be? Strong, principled, experienced, and smart as hell, Hillary Rodham Clinton has broken through many barriers for women, showing us that the sky’s the limit. Or almost the limit: she is trying to break through the last glass ceiling, trying to become commander-in-chief of the most powerful nation in the world, a country that has not yet had a female president or prime minister. She has the knowledge of five people, knows America and the world inside and out, knows the common people (given her own middle class roots and her activism for underprivileged children) as well as those at the top. Many hate her simply because she is a woman, and an ambitious one; she has endured invective that no man could ever possibly endure.

However, there are those who raise a legitimate criticism: Madam Secretary is disliked not due to her gender, but due to her links to power. Again, we must distinguish here that this criticism is not about her being a woman who desires to be politically powerful. Rather, it is that she is allied with the forces that possess tremendous power in this country, power that is simply inaccessible to the vast majority of Americans. Those who dislike her say that she is part of the establishment, the 1%, makes tremendous amounts of money and receives tremendous amounts of money to support her campaign from questionable and influential sources. Objectively, one cannot deny these facts.

This is what provides strength to the campaign of Bernie Sanders, someone else whom I admire greatly. Senator Sanders has truly led a life of simplicity and commitment to public service. Originally an independent “democratic socialist,” he has a long track record of taking concrete action to help the common man and woman, and fighting for social justice. Sanders runs, unhypocritcally, on a platform of transparency and sincerity. One cannot deny that his campaign has been a grassroots one, with his claim that the average contribution made to his campaign is merely $27 and that he does not accept money from super PACs. His ideas for helping the middle class – and all non-wealthy Americans in general – are extremely necessary, sane, and in line with the rest of the civilized industrial world. It is very reassuring to know that we have a politician who is really working for us, and is willing to take on Wall Street and the institutions that really work to our disadvantage. Sanders gives visibility to “the rest of us,” the honest, decent, hard working people who want a better society and who despise a system that favors financial corruption in the hands of a few.

But the question is, can such a “man of the people” (who until recently flew economy class) really succeed without big money behind him? I believe the answer is that liberals who have made it to the top usually have one foot in the corporate or mainstream/establishment door. Being a grass roots activist alone will not enable someone to have the power necessary to make large-scale social change. It is one of the “dirty” secrets of our country that even the most liberal-minded social activists need to realize. Or perhaps it is not so dirty, but a necessary and resigned acceptance of how the structures in American society work.

There are many noteworthy examples of people who have had one foot in each door. Rachel Maddow was very leftist and involved in LGBT and women’s issues, even writing a thesis on AIDS, then became a Rhodes Scholar and journalist, accepting the opportunities offered to her by Air America and then corporate giant MSNBC. A Stanford friend who developed a program to send medical supplies to Bosnia during the time of war later worked in corporate finance. Another friend who is works in bonds and is one of the 1% had worked for a feminist think tank in college. We can also look at our politicians. Barack Obama grew up in developing country Indonesia, and was a community organizer in Chicago in his earlier days. Al Gore has straddled both high-level politics and environmental activism. So has California Governor Jerry Brown. Even the most wholesome of nonprofits receive funding from corporate sources.

Even Bernie Sanders has contributions behind him from Apple, Amazon.com, and the U.S. Navy, according to opensecrets.org. Also noteworthy is the fact that Sanders implicitly acknowledges that he accepts money from PACs, just not super PACs. A super PAC not approved by him called Billionaires for Bernie formed last year, though it seems to have dissipated. Certainly, there are millionaires and billionaires who do support Sanders’s vision; some might find this hypocritical, while others find it commendable. And the Washington Post recently reported that the average contribution made to his campaign is slightly over $27.

This is in no way meant to speak ill of Sanders, who is a very commendable politician. Rather, it is to remind liberals that even our most honest politicians do have to work with big money. Also of note, liberals need to know that the Ivy League and elite schools train students to be able to contribute to the community in a sincere way, understand poverty and disadvantage (many students come from such backgrounds themselves), but are inescapably allied with the establishment and its institutions of politics and corporations. Many liberals are quick to tar and feather anybody who works in finance or corporate America. While these people are often worthy of great scorn and even punishment, too many white-collar criminals get away unpunished, and our tax system favors the ultra rich, there are still many commendable individuals in these fields. Though I personally wish the system and structures would change, I would encourage liberals to understand how the country works and not to make sweeping generalizations or dismiss everyone in the establishment. Study economics, finance, and political science, even law. Don’t be blind to how things really work, and don’t underestimate how difficult it is to climb to power while maintaining a liberal agenda.

As we wait on the edges of our seats to see who the Democratic candidate will be, at least we can talk about Sanders’s greatest accomplishment so far: bringing national visibility to- and discussion of social issues and ordinary people’s contempt for the establishment that takes advantage of them.

Either way, be it Hillary or Bernie, we will be in good hands.

First Lady, Second Priority: The Dumbing-Down of the President’s Wives

My college reunion books are peppered with comments by admirable women who left their careers as doctors or lawyers or bankers who say their children are more satisfying than their job ever could be. These are women who were at the top of their game with their careers, highly educated women who are as intelligent as any man and still bring life into this world. A magnificent combination!

However, what I cannot understand is this: the forced exile from the workplace of our First Ladies. In the recent administrations, the First Ladies have been highly intelligent, educated, well-read, sophisticated, and professional career women who often took a backseat to help further the political aspirations of their husbands. Some of these women could have been presidents themselves. True, the presidential families may have wished for one parent to be more present and at home for the children while the other parent is away traveling the country or the globe, attending summits and talks or attempting to rectify communities after natural disasters.

But we are not talking about normal families here; we are talking about families that have access to literally the best resources in the world, who have ability to pull strings to have any lifestyle adaptations they wish, and whose family dynamics will naturally be different than ours. These families could have a mother who works a professional job part-time, or from home, or who is very vocal about political interests of her own. This does not have to be a conflict of interest. Instead, these women are stifled for whatever reasons. The bottom line is that John Q. Public and the American establishment still cannot accept a First Lady who pulls her own weight equal to her husband’s. The First Lady cannot be involved in politics like her husband.

Naturally, Eleanor Roosevelt must spring to mind when anyone thinks of a dynamic, active First Lady. Her role seemed almost a counterpart to FDR’s, and perhaps she really ran things behind the scenes when her husband’s health did not enable him to do so. Mrs. Roosevelt’s career even continued after her husband’s death, and she was an equally acclaimed woman in her own right. Perhaps it was the only benefit of the war, in that women at that time had a certain degree of public presence and worked when the men were fighting overseas.

Jacqueline Kennedy — though Sphinx-like, feminine, graceful, and in a sadly traditional marriage that tolerated rampant cheating–was extraordinary in her championing of the arts. In her quiet way, she developed a culture and served as the impetus for other institutions that brought high culture to America, as well as boosted American’s profile overseas. Well read, multilingual, and intelligent, it wasn’t till later in life that she got the chance to use her knowledge when she worked as a book editor in New York.

Betty Ford was also an arts lover. A bohemian former dancer and divorcée, she supported equal rights for women, various “liberal” social causes that are considered normal today, and made alcoholism and its treatment a visible issue through her own struggles before founding the Betty Ford Clinic. But certainly, she came under criticism for discussing taboo issues in public. It was possibly one of the first times that a First Lady showed the cracks in the façade, showed that she was human and not simply an elegant figurehead to host state dinners.

But then jump ahead a couple of decades to the fiercely intelligent and accomplished Hillary Rodham Clinton. There had been no one quite like her before coming to the White House, as she arguably could have shared the job of president with her husband. Mrs. Clinton tried to embark on major health care reform and tried to get seriously involved with policy matters. Unfortunately, she was bullied, criticized, and harassed for trying to hold equal role of her own in the White House. The White House experienced a setback with Mrs. Laura Bush. She returned to a more traditional role, championing reading and literacy, which were more “safe” causes. This is not in any way to criticize Mrs. Bush’s intelligence, for if you have heard her speak, it comes across very strongly and she is well read. Some might even say that she is more intelligent than her husband!

With Michelle Obama, we have again revisited a situation not unlike that of Mrs. Clinton. She is a brilliant woman who made her way from Southside Chicago to Princeton to Harvard Law School, then to a law firm and then the University of Chicago. Granted, she has two small children and she is clearly a very devoted mother who has her kids as a priority. But why is this brilliant woman not encouraged to use her legal knowledge to do more for society and hold a strong position of her own? She has certainly done great work with military families as well as tackling childhood obesity and healthy eating, which is extremely crucial at this time. But the point is–

These highly educated– women who should not be criticized if they choose to spend more time with their children or if they want to ease off on the stress of having a career–should also have the option to pursue a dynamic career while in the White House that utilizes their previous training. Jill Biden, the Vice President’s wife, is a wonderful example, as she has a doctorate and teaches full time at a community college while still being involved in helping military families as her “cause.” First Ladies should not be expected to only take on “neutral” causes that are “safe.” They should be allowed to help make policy, serve in the cabinet, etc., because after all, they did support their husband in his campaign to become president, are obviously in the same political party, and are often extremely knowledgeable themselves about politics. And often overseas, presidential/prime ministerial spouses hold their own independent careers such as Joachim Sauer, Angela Merkel’s husband, who is a chemistry professor.

We need to rethink the role of the presidential spouse, especially because there is a possibility in 2017 we will have a First Man!   William Jefferson Clinton has already served in the highest position in the country, so will he have to relinquish everything, including the Clinton Global Initiative, by his own independent work? He knows more about the White House and presidency than anybody, so why not put it to use?

Naturally, there are going to be lots of questions as to what are the ethical boundaries of this role and where is there a conflict of interest? These are things that will have to be worked out, and that will be a large cause for debate. However, this is a necessary step in empowering that rarest gem of a woman, the First Lady.