Word around the campfire is that the debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump this Monday night the 26th might be the most watched television program in history. Both candidates have an appeal to the various audiences that make up the United States (not to mention the world) beginning with Trump’s narcissistic populism and rank self-aggrandizement, and including Hillary’s “bitch persona” as Andi Zeisler explains in the New York Times.
The debate will devolve into two general strategic thrusts. One, we will at least fantasize about meeting our expectations on policy and issue stances. There will be some attempts to win debate points by a rather straightforward exchange of a few facts and arguments. But don’t expect this to last long and while this clearly favors Hillary it could work against her. Hillary Clinton is soaked in policy issues and Donald Trump doesn’t stand a chance. She is the grown up version of the high school debater carrying around a large suitcase of information and just waiting to pull out a little 3 x 5 fact card. I’m sure, bless her heart, she still thinks this form of discourse matters much. Somewhere in her soul she still believes that if she has one better fact than Trump, or makes the slightly better argument then she will “win.”
The problem is people don’t pay much attention to this form of communication any longer. Most of the population is incapable of taking part in such argument and, more to the point, don’t want to. Paradoxically, Hillary’s superior control of the substantive issues will do little more than classify her as “boring” or a “Washington policy wonk” who doesn’t understand the needs of real people. Moreover, Trump can escape this aspect of the debates unscathed because the expectations for him on these matters are so low. Even when it turns out he doesn’t know the difference between Turkey and his Thanksgiving meal he will emerge undamaged.
I suppose it is possible that Trump will pull an all-nighter and study for his big exams but I doubt it. This would be too against character. In fact, it might not serve him well because it would be contrary to his authenticity image which is based on a lack of fancy knowledge. Trump will do well if he just maintains some sense of equanimity. Then again, this too is against character.
But the name calling, personal attacks, and bullying will be the real fun. Both candidates have been wounded often enough that they take the shots pretty well. Trump will clearly try to bully Hillary but she’s also capable of being tough. This worked for Trump in the primaries and I’m sure he will continue to do “what got him here.” Trump will be at some disadvantage because of the moderator system rather me rabble rousing crowds. This is likely to subdue him which does not work to his advantage.
Hillary has to continue to drive home the theme that Trump lacks the manners and temperament to be president. Following the convention when she unleashed an aggressive series of ads around this theme was the time in which she had 10 point leads in the polls. These leads began to dissipate as soon as she scaled back that message. If Trump is calm on Monday night and even slightly appears presidential then that will be the best argument against Hillary’s claim that he is unfit for the job.
Unfortunately, the only way for Hillary Clinton to gain ground during the debate is to cause Trump to lose his temper or say something so outrageous that it reinforces Hillary’s claim that he is unfit for the job. Considered policy analysis and reasonable arguments that take place in the shiny and clean debating halls of justice are Hillary’s strength, but she’ll have to play outside in the dirt to beat Trump.
It is fashionable – especially for liberal academics – to decry the current state of politics crouching in fear as the beast Donald Trump slouches toward Bethlehem. The center is no longer holding. But just because it’s “fashionable” doesn’t make it any less true. Trump is a unique candidate who represents the accumulated intellectual and linguistic decline that has been fomenting in the background for a few decades.
This undercurrent has been creeping up on the culture but hiding itself in the small interactions of people, commercial culture, and media that structure and reproduce the nature of society. For example, a few of what we thought were ongoing debates or genuine contentions in our political culture that require critical analysis and defensible conclusions have now been either settled or are leaning so far in one direction as to constitute a tide. So, there was once a debate between “bias” and “objectivity” the goal of which was to clarify objectivity or move toward it as much as possible. But we woke up one morning and the tables were turned telling us that objectivity didn’t exist and everything was biased. The only issue was whose bias was going to overwhelm the other. Argument, the foundation of democratic processes and quality decision-making, has been enervated because when everything is considered “just your opinion” or “just the way you see things” then even quality evidence-based argument loses its standing. The best thinking is easy to ignore because there are no standards of objectivity only degrees of bias.
There also used to be a boundary between entertainment and civic life. Even the most insightful political operative did not assume that Trump’s television show “The Apprentice” would be a launching pad for his presidential run. But when exposure and recognition become equivalent to knowledge of history, politics, and policy then appearing on television is just as good. The increasing ease with which exposure is conflated with competence is one of those undercurrents that has finally bubbled to the surface as commercial media, and the logic of its presentation structure, has become the dominant form of information processing and organization.
Additionally, it is remarkable how the public has been separated into fact universes. People live in their own information enclave that includes a collection of their own facts and interpretations – or at least conclusions they believe to be facts. Somehow we got to the point where rather than observing and gathering facts and information and then interpreting upwards toward a conclusion, we start with conclusions and reason downward looking for confirming facts and ideas. We criticize politicians who change their mind rather than respecting them for learning something and adjusting accordingly. It is all part of the post-truth society.
Finally, and by way of one more example, the quality of public discourse (e.g. presidential speeches and advertisements) has shifted shapes so that now it looks more like bloated rhetoric then considered analysis. Trump is of course a good example of a speaker who is so befuddled that he has little left to do but lash out and call names. He reflects a specialized strand of reality, one in which when you are wrong you blame reality rather than yourself. It is the ultimate in the common characterization of Trump as a narcissist.
Trump continues to use fear appeals and scare tactics when it comes to Muslims and terror. And while he is minimally effective – and getting less so every day – his supporters are sympathetic others who are increasingly misinformed about terror and Islam. A piece of video footage showing Trump supporters at a rally had one fellow screaming at another that Islam was an “ideology.” The point was that Islam is a nefarious set of beliefs and practices designed to manipulate you into its belief system.
The dilemma here is that defining Islam as violent justifies an armed response when, in fact, the only response that will be effective is a long-term war of ideas pitting *Islamist extremism against liberal democracies. As Gutmann and Thompson have claimed in their highly recommended book Democracy and Disagreement,“of the challenges that American democracy faces today, none is more formidable than the problem of moral disagreement.” In other words, those who have sacred values and are what Scott Atran calls “devoted actors” rather than “rational actors” pose the biggest challenge to liberal democracies because conflicts over fundamental values are so resistant to resolution. You cannot simply subject the moral disagreement to the rational calculations of the marketplace.
But if wanton murder of men, women, and children is so fundamental to Islam why is it such a recent phenomenon on the world stage? Why doesn’t “jihadism” as it has come to be known have long history? Typically, Islamist terror is first associated with the 1979 Iranian revolution. But even the Iranian revolution can be analyzed as a clash of political ideologies where Islamists attach themselves to religious sounding terminology (“infidels,” “holy wars,” “party of God”) in order to give themselves religious justification.
It is true enough that Islamism is really a totalitarian movement that has hijacked some religious terminology in an effort to alter traditional Islam and challenge Western democracies. But Boroumand and Boroumand writing in the Journal of Democracy make the following emphatic statement and I quote in full:
“There is in the history of Islam no precedent for the utterly unrestrained violence of Al Qaeda or Hezbollah… To kill oneself while wantonly murdering women, children, and people of all religions and descriptions… has nothing to do with Islam and one does not have to be a learned theologian to see this… The truth is that contemporary Islamist terror is an eminently modern practice thoroughly at odds with Islamic traditions and ethics” (p.6).
I don’t mean to imply that traditional Islamic religious teachings hold an inclusive democratic vision for the world or that it resonates with contemporary ideas about liberal democracies and human rights. But the long view of any religious evolution has it moving toward a widening circle of inclusion and dignity for others. As of now, there are more than a few Islamic countries that are pluralistic but have no political concept of “pluralism.” For this reason they define rigid group boundaries and more nascent forms of control.
But as with most of the issues in this election, Trump is not the answer to anything.
*Terminology note: I use “Islamist” or “Islamism” to refer to those extreme groups or ideologies that justify violence and cherry pick the Koran to give their ideology a religious sounding façade. The term “Islamic” refers to the long political, religious, and scholarly tradition of institutional Islam.
When Donald Trump proposed that Ghazala Khan – the Muslim Goldstar mother of Captain Humayun Khan who was killed in Iraq – was not allowed to speak, ostensibly because of Muslim sexist control of women, he dehumanized Mrs. Khan. Interestingly, Trump dehumanized Mrs. Khan by assuming that Islam was responsible for her dehumanization thus projecting the issue to the foreground.
To “dehumanize” someone is typically thought of as portraying the other person as uncivilized and animal-like. It has historically been used to explain the psychological changes in individuals during times of war or atrocity. In order for genocide and mass murder to take place the perpetrator must see his enemy as less than human and thereby more deserving of being killed. And, dehumanization helps perpetrators justify their behavior since they are not taking the life of a “real” human being.
But in recent decades researchers have been more interested in subtle forms of dehumanization in which human characteristics (such as emotions) are denied to some other individual or group. This can happen on an individual as well as group basis. Freedom of expression, for example, is considered a natural “human” right and it is “dehumanizing” to deny the right. Most research is on racial and ethnic groups. For example, studies show that the association of one ethnic group with an animal (e.g. Blacks with apes) causes significant perceptual distortions such as the overestimation of children ages and criminal culpability. Such research helps explain police violence and the disparities of police violence toward different groups (for a review of dehumanization research see Haslam and Stratemeyer).
Immigrants and asylum-seekers are also dehumanized (Trump calling Mexicans coming over the border “rapists” and “drug dealers”) as well as an increasing number of groups such as psychiatric patients, homeless people, gay men, and older adults. Although dehumanization is related to stereotypes, they are not equivalent since it is possible to stereotype without dehumanizing and vice versa. Moreover, keep in mind that “super humanizing” someone is equally as dehumanizing since it defines them as “other than human.” The ascription of superhuman physical or sexual qualities to an ethnic group diminishes the recognition of their experience of pain and their capacities for sensitivity.
The consequences of dehumanizing are serious and persistent. More than a few studies report how dehumanization leads to increased punishment because offenders are considered less than human, as well as the endorsement of extralegal behavior such as torture for terrorists. Trump’s dehumanization of Mrs. Khan perpetuated a stereotype designed to challenge the authenticity of their sacrifice, and to categorize the Khans in such a way as to make them less deserving of sympathy. Individuals or groups who are dehumanized are assumed to be less worthy of respect and conciliation.
The combination of stereotypes and dehumanization makes for an explosive mixture producing distorted perceptions and easy justification of violence. But even in situations where violence is less implicated (the Trump example) there is a sort of psychological violence that makes it easier to overlook or ignore the potential for aggression and cognitive distortions.
The below was first posted in March of 2014. Thought it would have new interest given events in Turkey.
The photograph above is of Fethullah Gulen who Victor Gaetan writing in Foreign Affairs compared to the Muslim Martin Luther. Interestingly, I have been writing a little bit about Gulen recently in a book that I’m finishing up and during my research I had become a little intrigued with Gulen. You can find the article in Foreign Affairs here.
A typical descriptive statement about Islam over the last decade is that it never experienced a Reformation. It is true enough that Sufi-ism and scholars such as Said Nursi inspired new more humane schools of thought but they remain marginalized. Much of Islam, not all, is harsh and rooted in the political and military conditions of the ancient world and there has never been a moderation of these tenets by a Muslim Martin Luther. There has never been a Muslim Reformation. Martin Luther was an influential and controversial figure in the Christian Reformation movement. He was responsible for entire new lines of thinking in Christianity and set in motion a sort of enlightenment. Luther had a desire for people to feel closer to God and this led him to translate the Bible into the language of the people, radically changing the relationship between church leaders and their followers. Martin Luther is generally associated with rooting out corruption, preventing religion from being used as a tool for political power, and humanizing the church his anti-Semitism notwithstanding.
Even at the risk of exaggeration, many feel the contemporary version of the Muslim Martin Luther is Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is a Turk who has been in the United States since 1999. He has worked to promote a modern school of Islam and is an Islamic intellectual committed to secular education, economic development, democracy, and acceptance of scientific knowledge.
Gulen has taught that Islam should devote more energy to public service and be separated from politics as much as possible. His emphasis on helping others and doing good deeds in the community is consistent with much Koranic teaching and directs attention away from political organization. This is in sharp contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood whose ascendancy in the last half-century has argued that the state should be Islamic and armed struggle is a moral and spiritual obligation. Moreover, Gulen is committed to education, including science and math, and has over 1000 schools around the world with video and instructional material made easily available to students.
As you might imagine, Gulen is not popular with modern-day Islamists. He has been exiled in the United States for many years and clashed with Erdogan over foreign-policy and authoritarian politics. Gulen is a strong supporter of democratic dialogue and he has chastised Turkey and other Islamic countries for poor treatment of journalists and a failure to engage sufficient constituencies over issues such as the Gezi Park protests.
The Gulen movement upholds numerous liberal conditions such as the belief in the intellect and the fact that individuals are characterized by free will and responsibility to others. Not all of Islam divides the world up into categories such as dar al-harb (the house of war) and dar al-Islam (the house of peace) but understands humans as more coherent and integrated. A verse in the Koran states that “there is no compulsion in religion” which emphasizes the individual intellect and freedom of choice.
Gulen is both careful and brave. He will not be intimidated and continues to speak up even in the face of the easy violence that could confront him. While Erdogan continues to clamp down on Turkey with Internet censorship and control of the judiciary, Gulen continues to infuse Islam with the teachings of tolerance and democratic sensibility.
Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have to get over their aversion to loss. This is difficult because research on cognitive processing and decision-making indicates that people fear loss more than they value gain. Both sides have tried to minimize loss rather than take the risks of possible gains. The two-state solution – whose death is premature and has been exaggerated – will require both sides to operate against their natural inclinations.
But the two-state solution is the only real answer. It’s the only way both groups maintain their identity and have the opportunity to cultivate their own history, culture, and literature. And it certainly is the only way Israel remains democratic and Jewish. There is no way Israel can be a reasonably ethical liberal state if it has to lord over a minority group that challenges the nature of the state and whose religion and national history is contrary to the state. Below is an abbreviated account of some basic assumptions and principles that will facilitate the establishment of two states. Again, for this to work both sides have to orient toward gain rather than loss. For more and related information see the Quartet report.
- The Israelis and the Palestinians must begin by mutually agreeing and understanding that peace and solutions to their problems cannot be achieved with force. They can only be achieved by consistent recognition of both sides and freedom from violence.
- Both sides should reaffirm the unacceptability of acquiring territory by force. This includes the settlements whose legal standing might be a matter of argument but clearly are a serious threat to any comprehensive peace.
- The matter of refugees must be settled and both sides will lose a little. Israel will provide compensation and readmit a small number of people, and the Palestinians will surely not flood the state of Israel with large numbers of descendants and families claiming property rights.
- Efforts at Palestinian state building must be recognized and supported by international organizations as well as Israel. Palestine must make progress on the matter of developing institutions (educational, cultural, state) that are stable and consistent with the constitution of the state.
- The two sides must solve the problem such that it is an “end of conflict” status. In other words, they need to satisfy the obligations and expectations of both sides and resolve any questions of recognition, political status, and legitimate demands. This includes a negotiated end of conflict including issues related to refugees, borders, and legal standing. This end of conflict status will be based on the following issues:
- All planks of a negotiated end of conflict are facilitative of the desire to establish democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous states.
- Clear recognition of borders along the 1967 border guidelines with the acceptance of agreed-upon exchanges and swaps.
- Specified security arrangements.
- Rigorous control of terrorism.
- An agreement as to the status of Jerusalem which might include sharing Jerusalem as the capital of two states.
- Firm and fair agreements on outstanding issues related to water, electricity, and environmental concerns.
- Firm restraints on the incitement of violence.
For some period of time after negotiated agreements the two polities will engage in trust and confidence building designed to develop an atmosphere of cooperation. The two sides will work to achieve the full potential and possibilities of neighborly relations. This will include the development, for example, of trade and educational exchanges as well as systematic efforts to learn about the other culture.
Of course, many of these will be difficult to achieve and there will always be those who claim naïveté with respect to actually solving this prototypical intractable conflict. But if you have another way, show me.
One of the divides that has emerged more starkly from the Brexit debate and the candidacy of Donald Trump is the distinction between elite and popular discourse. Just being overly general for the moment, elite discourse is most associated with the educated and professional classes and is characterized by what is considered to be acceptable forms of argument, the use of evidence, the recognition of complexity, and articulation. Popular discourse is more ethnopolitical and nationalistic. It is typically characterized by binary thinking, a simpler and more reductive understanding of the issue, and an ample amount of cognitive rigidity makes it difficult to change attitudes. To be sure, this is a general characterization because both genres are capable of each.
Still, consistent with the well-known polarization of society is the withdrawal of each side into a comfortable discourse structure where the two codes are increasingly removed from one another and the gap between them cannot be transcended very easily.
Additionally, elite and popular discourses share some different sociological and economic orientations. Elites are more cosmopolitan and popular is more local and nationalistic. Elites live in more urban centers and are comfortable with and exposed regularly to diversity. Those who employ more popular discourse tend to live in smaller towns and are more provincial. They seem to resist cultural change more and are less comfortable with diversity.
These two orientations toward language divide the leave-remain vote over Brexit and the electorate that characterizes the differences between Clinton and Trump. But this distinction is more than a socioeconomic divide that reflects some typical differences between people. It symbolizes the polarization currently characterizing American politics and has the potential to spiral into dangerous violence as the “popular” form of discourse becomes more “nationalistic.” It lowers the quality of public discourse and typically degenerates into even more rigid differences and stereotypical exemplars of elite and popular discourse. Nationalist discourse substitutes close minded combativeness for elite debate which can be passionate but is geared toward deliberative conversation that can be constructive. Nationalism is the deep sense of commitment a group has to their collective including territory, history and language. When national “consciousness” sets in then one nation is exalted and considered sacred and worthy of protection even in the face of death. Trump’s catchphrase “make America great again” or “let’s take our country back” or his appeals to separation and distinctiveness by building walls that clearly demark “us” and “them” are all examples of a nationalist consciousness that glorifies the state.
The nationalism espoused by Trump and the “leave” camp during Britain’s vote on the EU question are the primary impediments to consolidating, integrating, and strengthening democracies. All states with any sort of diverse population must establish a civil order that protects those populations; that is, no society will remain integrated and coherent if it does not accommodate ethnic diversity. At the moment, Trump’s rhetoric is divisive and representative of a tribal mentality that clearly wants to separate in many ways various communities in the US. Trump’s references to Mexicans, Jews, Muslims, for example betrays his own nationalistic sentiments.
The two ways to handle ethnic diversity are either pluralistic integration or organizational isolation of groups. Isolating and separating groups is inherently destabilizing and foment ripe conditions for violence. Building a wall and making determinations about who can enter the United States and who can’t are all examples of isolating groups. Intensifying nationalist discourse and the privileging of rights for a dominant group is fundamentally unsustainable.
This gap in the United States between an elite discourse and the nationalist discourse has grown wider and deeper. Each side snickers at the other’s orientation toward language and communication and continues the cycle by reinforcing the superiority of his own discursive position.
The results of the most recent Washington Post-ABC News Poll are in and the news is certainly good for Hillary. She leads Trump by double digits and he seems to be declining precipitously. In a head-to-head matchup Clinton leads Trump 51% to 39% among registered voters.The results are informative and the poll also shows some interesting data that should be useful for Hillary.
If you are a Republican hoping to defeat Hillary Clinton in the fall you must be pretty dispirited. I mean Hillary is beatable – or at least it appears she was beatable. Her high negatives coupled with all the people who dislike her for reasons justified or not seemed at one point insurmountable. But then along comes the Republican Party and they behave the way the Democrats usually do. That is, when they want to form a firing squad they get into a circle. No political party choice has been so tin-eared about the temperament and qualifications of a candidate since McCain chose Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. Let’s take a closer look at the numbers and what they probably or potentially mean.
The most troubling data in the survey for Hillary is the net “new direction” data which indicate that 56% of those polled would like to set the nation on a new direction. This makes it difficult for Hillary to identify herself with the President and as a candidate that will continue Obama’s policies. But on the other hand, President Obama’s approval ratings at 56% are higher than since the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Obama is more popular than Bush was during the last days of his presidency. So using the President during the campaign – dependent of course on audiences and context – will generally be a safe bet for Hillary.
Just about two thirds of Americans think Trump is unqualified to be President. They believe his temperament is insufficiently stable and his comments about ethnic groups and women are unacceptable. It doesn’t matter if such comments are defined as racist or “politically incorrect” because his comments are considered inappropriate. The intensity of criticism for an opponent does not have to rise to racism; inappropriate is good enough. It marks the user as insensitive at best and incompetent at worst with no facility for basic civility or contextual awareness.
The majority of the populace considers Trump unqualified and astounding 64% do not believe he has the credentials to be President. Still, there’s a group of people who consider Trump unqualified for the job and disapprove of his comments about women, minorities, and Muslims but they plan to vote for him anyway. These are the people composed of two characteristics: extreme Obama hate which means they’ll vote for anybody who isn’t Obama or is associated politically with Obama, and those who want the country to move in a new direction. Hillary can probably safely pay little mind to one of these groups. The Obama haters are probably tinged with a little racism (at best) and it would be difficult to make progress with them.
But she has to convince the electorate that things are going to change for the better and new directions are in the offing. Hillary is the establishment candidate and easily defined as just “more of the same.” She shares an elite form of discourse with Obama and those of her politically competent generation which stands in contrast to Trump’s populism. Then again, she has Trump’s bumbling verbosity working to her advantage; that is, Trump could capitalize on the populist message if he knew how to communicate it. But my guess is Trump will continue to fail his party and his supporters by refusing to understand the difference between himself and his message. He will substitute authenticity for communicative effectiveness. And for Hillary to move toward stronger identification with supporters she should convince them that “she is with them” rather than “they are with her.”
How Group Membership Distorts Political Thinking and the Impossibility of Quality Political Communication
Watching citizens yell at one another during debates and political discussion has reminded me of something more than the loss of civility. It prompts me to recall the distorted communication that occurs so often during political conversation. These distortions in meaning and argument result from the ingroup mentality of belonging to a particular political party. People cling to their own beliefs as driven by reasoned analysis of the real world while the beliefs of others are the result of ideology, emotions, and biases. We easily divide political rivals into simplistic binary categories: red states or blue states, Democrats vs. Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Add to this the combustible mix of bloggers, talk radio hosts, and TV pundits and political discourse becomes hot and hostile rather than deliberative and respectful. Actually, labeling oneself as a member of a preferred group (e.g. “I am a conservative” or “I am a Democrat”) is dangerous and results in information distortions.
Party identifications are the result of people categorizing themselves as a member of an ingroup defined by certain characteristics. By categorizing myself as say “a Republican” I adopt characteristics of similar others, and embrace a list of appropriate beliefs and behaviors. I start to speak and behave in ways that I believe are consistent with my membership in this group called “Republicans.” When my group membership is coupled with motivations to enhance my own group’s self esteem, then I will produce favorable judgments and evaluations about my own ingroup, and unfavorable evaluations about outgroups. Thus, as a Republican I would consider myself a patriot and Democrats as socialists. This is a dangerous situation that produces serious errors and failings in political discourse. Let’s examine a few.
One thing that happens with strong group identification is that the social norms of that group become overly influential. If I identify as a “Democrat” then I will be more than usually influenced by how I imagine Democrats think and behave despite the merits of an issue. I will be more influenced by party membership than policy. In one research study Democrats and Republicans were given a policy statement and told that the policy was supported by either a majority of Democrats or Republicans. Subjects in the study disproportionately favored a policy when it was identified with their own political party. This means that political judgment is too influenced by group identification and not sufficiently the result of objective consideration and analysis.
Secondly, being a member of a political party causes partisans to make biased conclusions. People explain and judge political behavior on the basis of their own political worldviews. Hence, a conservative when confronted with someone from poor economic circumstances will easily attribute this to laziness or lack of ability where a liberal will cite unfavorable social circumstances. Again, the explanations for political events should be based on deep consideration of issues and more complexity (many things explain poor economic circumstances), not simply on consistency with my own group’s ideology.
Excessive suspicion and negativity toward politicians is a third bias of political party membership. During the healthcare debate Obama was called a socialist and even likened to Hitler (a strange confluence of political ideologies!). These extreme negative judgments about a politician’s character result when a politician from the other party (the outgroup) presents a position inconsistent with your own group’s position. Under these circumstances there is a tendency to exaggerate differences and attribute personal blame to the other.
Finally, political party favoritism has a strong emotional reaction because partisans are so motivated to favor their own group. For Democrats, their strong negative emotional reaction to George W. Bush diminished their ability to arrive at logical conclusions. If Bush was for something, Democrats were against it.
The healthcare debate, for example, has to be won on its merits. The above problems can be overcome by increased communicative contact with members of the other party and a widening of goals such that people see themselves more interdependently. Proper political communication is difficult and challenging but given the alternative it is a challenge we must meet.
I hear plenty of people blurt out that Hillary Clinton is “untrustworthy” or “they don’t like her” or even that she is a “liar.” But when I press them on this, when I say give me examples and ask them to explain why in any detail they usually can’t tell you. The least prepared will say something like, “I don’t know, I just don’t like her.” (That’s a compelling analysis!) Others will rush to the examples of her email or Benghazi, or if they’re old enough they will mention Whitewater and Vince Foster. These are all attacks on Hillary Clinton designed to damage her even though they have no basis in truth or blaming her is unjustified. It is about time she combats this image with more enthusiasm. The below is as good start and is re-posted from The Guardian
It’s impossible to miss the “Hillary for Prison” signs at Trump rallies. At one of the Democratic debates, the moderator asked Hillary Clinton whether she would drop out of the race if she were indicted over her private email server. “Oh for goodness – that is not going to happen,” she said. “I’m not even going to answer that question.”
Based on what I know about the emails, the idea of her being indicted or going to prison is nonsensical. Nonetheless, the belief that Clinton is dishonest and untrustworthy is pervasive. A recent New York Times-CBS poll found that 40% of Democrats say she cannot be trusted.
For decades she’s been portrayed as a Lady Macbeth involved in nefarious plots, branded as “a congenital liar” and accused of covering up her husband’s misconduct, from Arkansas to Monica Lewinsky. Some of this is sexist caricature. Some is stoked by the “Hillary is a liar” videos that flood Facebook feeds. Some of it she brings on herself by insisting on a perimeter or “zone of privacy” that she protects too fiercely. It’s a natural impulse, given the level of scrutiny she’s attracted, more than any male politician I can think of.
I would be “dead rich”, to adapt an infamous Clinton phrase, if I could bill for all the hours I’ve spent covering just about every “scandal” that has enveloped the Clintons. As an editor I’ve launched investigations into her business dealings, her fundraising, her foundation and her marriage. As a reporter my stories stretch back to Whitewater. I’m not a favorite in Hillaryland. That makes what I want to say next surprising.
Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest and trustworthy.
The yardsticks I use for measuring a politician’s honesty are pretty simple. Ever since I was an investigative reporter covering the nexus of money and politics, I’ve looked for connections between money (including campaign donations, loans, Super Pac funds, speaking fees, foundation ties) and official actions. I’m on the lookout for lies, scrutinizing statements candidates make in the heat of an election.
The connection between money and action is often fuzzy. Many investigative articles about Clinton end up “raising serious questions” about “potential” conflicts of interest or lapses in her judgment. Of course, she should be held accountable. It was bad judgment, as she has said, to use a private email server. It was colossally stupid to take those hefty speaking fees, but not corrupt. There are no instances I know of where Clinton was doing the bidding of a donor or benefactor.
As for her statements on issues, Politifact, a Pulitzer prize-winning fact-checking organization, gives Clinton the best truth-telling record of any of the 2016 presidential candidates. She beats Sanders and Kasich and crushes Cruz and Trump, who has the biggest “pants on fire” rating and has told whoppers about basic economics that are embarrassing for anyone aiming to be president. (He falsely claimed GDP has dropped the last two quarters and claimed the national unemployment rate was as high as 35%).
I can see why so many voters believe Clinton is hiding something because her instinct is to withhold. As first lady, she refused to turn over Whitewater documents that might have tamped down the controversy. Instead, by not disclosing information, she fueled speculation that she was hiding grave wrongdoing. In his book about his time working in the Clinton White House, All Too Human, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos wrote that failing to convince the first lady to turn over the records of the Arkansas land deal to the Washington Post was his biggest regret.
The same pattern of concealment repeats itself through the current campaign in her refusal to release the transcripts of her highly paid speeches. So the public is left wondering if she made secret promises to Wall Street or is hiding something else. The speeches are probably anodyne (politicians always praise their hosts), so why not release them?
Colin Diersing, a former student of mine who is a leader of Harvard’s Institute of Politics, thinks a gender-related double standard gets applied to Clinton. “We expect purity from women candidates,” he said. When she behaves like other politicians or changes positions, “it’s seen as dishonest”, he adds. CBS anchor Scott Pelley seemed to prove Diersing’s point when he asked Clinton: “Have you always told the truth?” She gave an honest response, “I’ve always tried to, always. Always.” Pelley said she was leaving “wiggle room”. What politician wouldn’t?
Clinton distrusts the press more than any politician I have covered. In her view, journalists breach the perimeter and echo scurrilous claims about her circulated by unreliable rightwing foes. I attended a private gathering in South Carolina a month after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. Only a few reporters were invited and we sat together at a luncheon where Hillary Clinton spoke. She glared down at us, launching into a diatribe about how the press had invaded the Clintons’ private life. The distrust continues.
These are not new thoughts, but they are fundamental to understanding her. Tough as she can seem, she doesn’t have rhino hide, and during her husband’s first term in the White House, according to Her Way, a critical (and excellent) investigative biography of Clinton by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, she became very depressed during the Whitewater imbroglio. A few friends and aides have told me that the email controversy has upset her as badly.
Like most politicians, she’s switched some of her positions and sometimes shades the truth. In debates with Sanders, she cites her tough record on Wall Street, but her Senate bills, like one curbing executive pay, went nowhere. She favors ending the carried interest loophole cherished by hedge funds and private equity executives because it taxes their incomes at a lower rate than ordinary income. But, according to an article by Gerth, she did not sign on to bipartisan legislation in 2007 that would have closed it. She voted for a bankruptcy bill favored by big banks that she initially opposed, drawing criticism from Elizabeth Warren. Clinton says she improved the bill before voting for passage. Her earlier opposition to gay marriage, which she later endorsed, has hurt her with young people. Labor worries about her different statements on trade deals.
Still, Clinton has mainly been constant on issues and changing positions over time is not dishonest.
It’s fair to expect more transparency. But it’s a double standard to insist on her purity.