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False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Review

We’ve been asking ourselves for years why certain voting blocs vote for the Republican Party apparently against their interest.  The economic platform of the GOP does not seem to serve working class white men, but the racist dog whistles and socially conservative “family-values” appeals draw these voters in election after election.  The neoliberalism of Hillary Clinton suggests that this same question should be asked of traditional Democratic voters who feel compelled to vote for the Democratic nominee to protect specific rights associated with identity politics. 7 intraparty caucuses are listed by the DNC in 1982, Donna Murch notes in this volume: “women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays, liberals and business/professionals” (92).

One contributor asks whether, if Roe were settled, many feminists would feel any compulsion at all to support the Democratic candidate cycle after cycle.  Maureen Tkacik (“Abortion: The Politics of Failure”), founder of Jezebel, argues that this is the one issue that seems to unite women to the Democratic Party, despite the fact that Democrats haven’t been very good at making abortion safe and accessible to women. Tkacik maintains that the right to abortion is easier to exercise in Mexico, a country where that right does not exist.  “This is telling because Hillary Clinton owes her chances at the presidency to abortion: and she’s not alone–it’s often Democrats’ unique selling proposition to women” (113).

But abortion cannot be the sum of feminist politics.  Far more significant and far more central in making women’s lives, workers’ lives, people of color’s lives precarious are the neoliberal policies long supported by Hillary Clinton.  Neoliberalism is the political and economic view that uses government to support and protect corporate interests, devolving risk to individual workers, who can be deemed too expensive to support.  Tkacik concludes that it is telling that abortion has become the rallying cry of Clinton’s feminism:

Yet it makes sense from an insular Beltway fundraising perspective to focus on an issue that makes no demands–the opposite, really–of the oligarch class; this is probably a big reason why EMILY’s List has never dabbled in backing universal pre-K or paid maternity leave; a major reason “reproductive choice” has such a narrow and negative definition in the American political discourse. (123)

This collection of essays edited by Liza Featherstone reminded me of how central was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s role in bringing the neoliberal state of affairs to American politics and making it commonplace.  In three specific areas-education, welfare, and crime policy- Hillary and Bill Clinton were catalysts  of change in American thinking such that these issues appear incontestable yet are severely damaging.


Megan Erickson (“Waging War on Teachers”) reminds us that in 1983, Bill made Hillary the chair of a task force to reform education in the state.  The task force met 75 times in 3 months to determine the agenda for economic reform and most of the recommendations were implemented.  The central component was statewide standardized tests for students coupled with competence tests for teachers.  Polling run by Dick Morris (which reminded me of how the Clintons were notorious for pursuing policy through polling) suggested that the reforms would be more widely accepted if accompanied by competency testing for teachers.  The testing was funded by a sales tax, a regressive tax that burdens the poor.  During this same period, various actors in Arkansas, including the Walton Family Foundation, run by the owners of Walmart on whose board Hillary served, began campaigning for charter schools and “school choice.”  The thing about these reforms is that they were not supported by any research.  Reform through testing was part of outcome-based education programs, which remain the standard today.  Yet studies show that money and other resources including smaller class sizes have a verifiable effect on student learning.  The task force didn’t consider that Arkansas teachers were the lowest paid in the country, living on food stamps.  Since black teachers were most likely to lose their jobs, the competency testing provision was condemned by civil rights organizations.

This move toward testing, which the Clintons eventually took nationwide, was a political one, a political one that was staged as an apolitical one.

Of the many infractions against meaning and language committed by contemporary education reformers, the most insidious has been the apparent transformation of the words “standards” and “accountability” into a matter of apolitical bookkeeping. (67)

Hillary Clinton led the charge on this move.  In 1989, the Clintons attended the Charlottesville Education Summit, along with Dick and Lynne Cheney and Christopher T. Cross, a political appointee at the Republican Department of Education.  Cross praised Bill Clinton at that event for work he had done in Arkansas, work done under the direction of the task force Hillary chaired.  The argument for testing is that students aren’t prepared for college.  But this, Erickson argues, is a legitimation myth for policies meant to control.

Forcing teachers and students to produce results is not about improving education or making it more equitable; it is about controlling current and future workers–teachers, a group of unionized public sector workers of significant social capital, and, of course, children, who make up the workforce of the future. (70)

Lest we say this is Bill’s policy not Hillary’s we should remember that Bill deferred to Hillary in education policy once he became President, explaining, “She knows a lot more than I do about this stuff” (71).  Tressie McMillan Cottom (“The Great Ambivalence”) explains how neoliberal racist and classist thinking is at work in the Clintons’ higher education policy as well.  Cottom argues that for-profit universities make money from social inequalities: such universities “sell a voucher for insurance against social and economic inequalities.  And they do this by leveraging our collective faith in education” (83).  The corporate shareholders of for-profit colleges extract public moneys for their private profit by “manufacturing demand for credentials from those most vulnerable in a labor market where there is little social insurance left for workers” (83).  Neoliberalism in effect helps for-profit colleges do better–more insecurity for the vulnerable coupled with the demand that each individual be responsible for her job success multiplies the demand for degrees.  Laureate International Universities has paid Bill Clinton $16 million in speakers fees and donations to the Clinton Foundation.  Bill Clinton became the honorary chancellor an d when he stepped down, he said, “Laureate students represent the next generation of leadership” (84).  Everyone is up in arms about Trump University because it didn’t follow through on its promise.  But if Trump University had followed through on its promise and acted like Laureate International, it would be in lockstep with the Clintons’ neoliberal education policy.


Welfare might be the policy area that best demonstrates how the Clintons were early and continuing advocates of neoliberalism. Frances Fox Piven and Fred Block (“Ending Poverty as We Know It”) explain the Clintons work on welfare in the context of the political situation of the 1980s, where the Republicans had built a coalition that tapped into resentment against black people and the poor in the language of “states rights” and “anti-government” commitments.  The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was founded in the early 1990s in response.  Instead of criticizing this approach as racist and wrong-headed, the DLC conceded ground.  Bill Clinton ran promising to “end welfare as we know it.”  The expansion of the earned income tax credit was a help to low-income houses, supplementing their earnings (my family benefited from this tax credit when I was growing up).  But in 1994, Gingrich assumed leadership in the House and proposed programs to eliminate Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the cash assistance program to the poor, serving mostly women and children, and Bill Clinton conceded under pressure from Hillary.  As part of that program, federal courts allowed eligible households to sue to force local officials to provide benefits.  With this backstop in place, local officials were called to account when benefits were denied.  The Republicans wanted to eliminate this right to appeal and to make it a block grant to states, who could use the funds for other purposes and thus would have an incentive to deny benefits.  Twice Bill Clinton vetoed it.  Hillary advocated that he sign it against the advice of Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.  The third time the bill–Temporary Aid for Needy Families–came to Bill’s desk, he followed Hillary’s advice and signed it.  Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, who today endorses Hillary, said at the time that Bill’s “signature on this pernicious bill makes a mockery of his pledge not to hurt children” (62).

This program worked in the 90s when the labor market was tight, but the slide into recession in the early aughts made it difficult for the working poor to make it out of poverty, and with no help, their situations got worse.  The difficulty in getting aid was such that even in 2007 when unemployment was at 10%, 16 states saw declines in their TANF rolls from 2007-2011, even though the number of unemployed had risen by 70%.

The real unfortunate part was how language of dependency furthered shamed the poor, who were made to feel responsible for their own situation and given little help getting out.  The reigning discourse was that welfare produced dependency, which as Pivens and Block point out, is a feature of human existence despite the American myth of meritocracy (a term Catherine Liu reminds us was originally a term of satire used by British socialist Michael Young to describe postwar oligarchies (78)) and the self-made man who pulls himself up by his boot-strap.  This idea that one shouldn’t be (the poor) and is not dependent (the rich) today justifies government support through rents and policy and tax advantages for the rich at the expense of the poor.  Pivens and Block point to the history of welfare extending back to Dickensian England, where employers of low-wage labor insisted on “less eligibility”–no one receiving public assistance should be better off than the lowest paid worker.  Otherwise, why would they work?  Pivens and Block call this principle a “ritualized insult,” turning the poor against themselves.

While individuals were shamed for their dependency, as First Lady, Hillary Clinton followed the counsel of Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to excise the language of “corporate welfare” from speeches in order to appeal to the business community, as Katherine Geier (“Hillary Clinton, Economic Populist: Are You Fucking Kidding Me?”) notes.

Along with the language of dependency was Bill and Hillary Clintons’ willingness to accept the view that social problems should not be solved with government financial support.  As Pivens and Block point out, efforts to establish a guaranteed income for all citizens in Latin America, including in Brazil and Mexico has shown poverty rates to drop across Latin America from 48.4% to 31.4%.

Moreover, the boost in public spending was accompanied by an increase in wage income.  If anything, these programs seem to prove that giving the poor money does not make them lazy and dependent; on the contrary, protecting them from hunger and homelessness helps them to be more productive.  It is just possible that these efforts could be the first steps toward institutionalizing a global basic income established through international cooperation as a strategy to fight both poverty and the devastating consequences of climate change. (55-56)

As Pivens and Block conclude, “social problems can be solved by throwing money at them, contrary to the rhetoric of dependency” (56).

Crime Policy

The devolution of responsibility to individuals in already precarious situations aligned with policies that produce this vulnerability is illustrated by the Clintons’ approach to drug policy, law enforcement and prison policy. Donna Murch (“The Clintons’ War on Drugs: Why Black Lives Didn’t Matter”) captures the Clinton thinking in Hillary Clinton’s response to Black Lives Matter activist Daunasia Yancey who confronted Clinton about the “health and human services disasters in impoverished communities” caused by the Clintons’ approach at home and abroad to the war on drugs.  Hillary responded that the policies of mass incarceration and the war on drugs were drawn up to address “the very real concerns” of communities of color and poor people (90).  Murch charges Clinton with “deflect[ing] the charge of anti-black animus yancey-clinton$smallback onto African Americans themselves” with this response that makes the state seem to be charitably responding to the needs of the very communities devastated by these policies (90).  In fact, Murch argues, the real reason behind these policies was to help Bill Clinton get elected and then re-elected.  They were political strategies at the heart of the Democratic Leadership Council which Bill was the chair of as governor of Arkansas meant to shore up the Clintons’ “law and order” bona fides in an attempt to appeal to lower and middle class white voters in light of the Democrats resounding defeat of Dukakis on the basis of anti-crime political advertising in 1988 (90).  In the process, the Clintons accepted whole hog the anti-black sentiment of voters and made political hay out of policies that would harm black people, for example, denying public housing to entire families if any member was suspected of a drug crime and imposing strict restrictions on parolees (97).

Yasmin Nair (“Marry the State, Jail the People: Hillary Clinton and the Rise of Carceral Feminism”) picks up on this sense in which Hillary uses “the very real concerns” of communities of color to use the state against those same communities. The state justifies itself as serving those it controls and oppresses through legitimation discourses that make the law and incarceration the sole solution without considering how they harm the communities of the victims they claim to protect.

Nair argues that when Bush redirected welfare money into marriage classes for poor people, he is following a template of responsibility politics set in place by the Clintons.  Moreover, Nair argues, Hillary takes this appeal to the law vision of emancipatory politics abroad where it becomes imperialist, for example, vowing to cut off aid to countries “that did not hew to US-defined ideas of ‘gay rights,'” despite calls from African activists not to use economic measures that would harm the most vulnerable in the country including those the sanctions were meant to protect (110).  Saving the downtrodden, Nair concludes, “is only cover for the same laws that allow for the easy flight of capital across borders.  Capital flows unimpeded while the surplus bodies, the most marginal and disposable that enable its movement, are scrutinized, surveilled, and ultimately brutalized into the ever-expanding prison industrial complex” (111).


This election raises questions about how we make decisions about what a candidate will do in office.  We all recognize that candidates say things when they run in order to win, and we try to judge what we can believe of that rhetoric.  We make those judgments on the basis of their record, and yes, on what we think of their character.  (I agree that many claims made about Hillary’s character are misogynist, but I don’t think that means that character judgments are off the table in judging her suitability for president. Many of the strongest arguments against Trump are based on his character, and rightly so.)  Pushed in public to be more progressive, Hillary uses the language of progressivism (a progressive who gets things done, but what?), language which leads us to ask whether her record supports that.  Defenders of Hillary say that Bill’s record is not hers, that she has always been more progressive.  Witness, they say, her effort to get universal healthcare through.  When Bill ran in 1992, people like my conservative parents were upset with the influence Hillary had in the administration because, they said, the American people hadn’t voted for her.  But the Clintons were very clear that they were a package deal from the beginning.  The President of the Arkansas Education Association said they called the Clintons Billary because they were never sure whether an idea had originated with him or with her.  Hillary uses Clinton’s presidential experience when discussing her qualifications, she has supported his work in the Clinton Foundation, she chaired the education task force in Arkansas, advocated strongly for the welfare reform bill, and spoke strongly in favor of Bill’s crime policies.  Many of the contributors in this volume speak to the various ways that the Clintons have always claimed to be in it together.  Not only does it speak to how they claimed to be in it together, they provide evidence for how Hillary pushed Bill toward supporting neoliberal policies in education, social welfare support, and law enforcement and prison policy.

The persistent theme in this book is that some language and easily supportable policies for most feminists, like abortion rights, become the front for policies that make women across class and race divides more individually responsible for child care, education, and their systemically-rooted situation of poverty in ways that make them more dispensable, both politically and in their very lives.  The essays collected here remind us again and again of political motivations for policies introduced under the cover of helping communities they ended up hurting–schoolchildren, the poor, those affected by crime, and what I haven’t discussed as much here, women abroad.  This book leaves us asking what it means to put our political energies and our political affects into a candidate with this record.


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