The Big Dog is getting old, and a little scruffy. Bill Clinton returned to New Hampshire, a natural adrenaline boost in the past, on the first working day of the new year and could barely be heard, despite the amplification. His voice, never a reliable instrument, had abandoned him. He was gaunt and gray, with salmon skin, dressed in a brown tweed jacket and V-neck sweater over a checked shirt, looking very much like a retiree. He descended the steps from the stage at the Exeter town hall gingerly. A vegan now, he seems desperately in need–spiritually, at least–of a cheeseburger.
He is still brilliant, of course. He can still cut through the most complicated policy snarls and make them comprehensible–especially to what political scientists call “low information” voters, the blue collar guys who used to admire his McDonald’s and lounge-singer lifestyle but have drifted Trumpward this year. (Note to Donald: Bill Clinton’s sex life has never hurt him with the vast majority of the public and seems decisively grandfathered now.)
The message was pretty much the same as ever, with a nod to the current rhetorical ugliness. It’s still the economy, stupid. “If everyone has a job, it reduces tensions,” he said in Exeter, implying that paycheck migraine is causing the anger rampant in the country. But, he said, there were all sorts of hopeful opportunities out there. Climate change was an opportunity to build a “modern infrastructure” and create jobs. Equal pay for women, family and medical leave, early education–his wife’s favorites–were “an economic strategy.” The argument felt as frail as he looked.
Clinton’s is a mild version of an eternal theme on the left: the upper class divides and conquers the workers by pitting them against one another. Bernie Sanders said it plainly on Face the Nation in December: “What Trump has done with some success has taken that [class based] anger, taken those [economic] fears–which are legitimate–and converted them into anger against Mexicans, anger against Muslims.” No doubt, there is some truth to this. But I wonder if the Democrats aren’t missing a much larger boat in 2016.
Over the holidays, I read a book called Pandaemonium: Ethnicity in International Politics, by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. It is a slim but pungent volume, published in 1993, allowing Moynihan to celebrate the end of the Soviet Union, an event he had long predicted. The supersonic dissolution of the Evil Empire and Yugoslavia gave him fresh fodder for a theory he’d peddled for much of his life: that ethnicity was a more profound force than social class in the affairs of humans. He was a stubborn tribalist. It is an argument that seems freakishly prescient after the international dissolution frenzy of the past 20 years. Just ask the Kurds, Houthis, Czechs or Slovaks. It was not a force that Moynihan particularly liked, but one he respected, and worried about, particularly here, in the world’s great bulwark against antic tribalism, the United States.
Moynihan would be having an anthropological field day in the current presidential campaign, a contest in which race and tribe have–dare I say–trumped economics at the bleeding heart of the matter. Sanders can argue all he wants that white workers cheer Trump’s anti-immigrant tirades because of the jobs the Latinos “take,” but the real heat is being generated by changing demographics, a nation slipping from white to polychrome–and further splintered by new electronic tribes: Fox, ESPN, BET, Univision.
Despite their vaunted inclusiveness, a word Clinton used frequently in New Hampshire, the Democrats have slipped into a backdoor tribalism as well. On its web page, the Democratic National Committee lists 18 different affinity groups you can affiliate with–according to race, ethnicity, disability, gender and gender choice. During the 2014 election, I heard Democrats proposing policies that appealed to many of these groups, but few that appealed to Americans as a whole.
I suspect tribal fears will dominate class inequities this year, as they usually do. We seem a perpetually unhappy place, filled with bilious voters. You might be curious about the last time we were happy, when a majority of Americans thought the country was on the “right track.” It was in April of 2003, as we went to war in Iraq, according to New York Times/CBS News polling–by 56% to 36% we were a nation of happy warriors, our tribes temporarily subsumed. There is a lesson in that: there is joy in unity, however foolishly forged. “[We’re] atomized and hunkered down in our bunkers,” Bill Clinton said in Exeter, pining for a country where, as he always says, “the things we have in common are more important than the things that divide us.”
This appears in the January 18, 2016 issue of TIME.
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