Presidential elections are not just about electing a president. They are about choosing a political culture and battlefield for the next four years. They are about selecting which policies will be the strongest, which existing ones will be most endangered, and which group of Americans will have the most say or suffer the worst indignities.
We have been taught, in no small part by a media that treats our politics as a TV entertainment contest, to obsess over the characters of the major participants while ignoring the effects either might have on our policies or which one will respond best to rational public pressure.
We are not just electing Trump or Clinton but everything that will happen as a result of their being in office, including our capacity to influence events.
It’s not necessary here to reiterate the damage a Trump presidency will do to our society. But what is far less clear is the positive effect a Clinton presidency could have, despite an impressive list of personal failings.
An essential – and undiscussed – aspect of this is that a major portion of the current political struggle is one of generations.
For example, a 2014 Gallup survey found that the percentage of Americans who were Republican didn't even reach 40% until in the over 40 age category.
Both candidates represent the end of an era, but the effort to cling to this era (or even move further back) is far stronger in the GOP. And while, in the primaries, Clinton successfully prevented an age rebellion (led ironically by an older Bernie Sanders), she is politically conscious of what happened and has already begun to change some of her views.
For example she now supports a public option in healthcare insurance while having attempted two decades ago to pass a rotten insurance industry sweetheart measure.
While the latter may easily be seen as a good reason not to vote for her, history suggests another possibility, something I was fortunate enough to observe first hand.
In the summer of 1957, as a 19 year old Washington radio news reporter, I covered the buildup to the first modern major civil rights bill, enacted shortly after I returned to college. The debate included the longest filibuster in history and a Senator Majority named Leader Lyndon Johnson playing both sides: getting it passed and weakening it.
But what was extraordinary was that he had anything to do with it at all. As historian Robert Caro has put it:
For no less than 20 years in Congress, from 1937 to 1957, Johnson’s record was on the side of the South. He not only voted with the South on civil rights, but he was a southern strategist, but in 1957, he changes and pushes through the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction. He always had this true, deep compassion to help poor people and particularly poor people of color, but even stronger than the compassion was his ambition. But when the two aligned, when compassion and ambition finally are pointing in the same direction, then Lyndon Johnson becomes a force for racial justice, unequalled certainly since Lincoln.
Thus the first major civil rights bill in 82 years was passed thanks in no small part to a politician certainly as cynical and untrustworthy as Hillary Clinton and driven, like her, by presidential ambitions.
While I would love it if politics were simply a matter of the will and interests of the people, you can’t hang around it long without realizing that this isn’t true. Virtue is only one reason that politicians do the right thing. Their perceived place and moment in history is a much greater cause.
As I would explain later, the two American politicians who got more good legislation passed in the least time were probably Lyndon John and Adam Clayton Powell – and you wouldn’t want either one of them near your daughter.
Hillary Clinton is now in a place in history where her interest and ours have moved far closer than in the past. She badly needs the support, for example, of the young, and Bernie Sanders showed her how to do it. What she really believes we may never know but if you want a new agenda for a new generation of Americans, then the best way is to get her into the White House and build the pressure for change as the condition of support.
The day after her election – assuming we pull it off – the Sanders coalition, the young, black, latino, women, ecologists and union members must come together and give her an agenda upon which her success will depend. This is what happened when I returned to Washington journalism in 1964 after serving in the Coast Guard. LBJ had been in the White House for less than a year. Already a new generation was defining his and America’s agenda. And while he wrongly rejected it on Vietnam, on other issues such as civil rights he helped to create a truly new and greater society.
I strongly suspect something similar can happen this fall. Another new generation has grown weary of waiting and needs a government it can help define. It will not be a matter of asking Clinton to do things, but giving her few better choices other than to listen what this new generation has to say.
History can be messy and not pretty as we like. But it would be tragic, if due to apathy, anger or self-righteousness triumphing over pragmatism, we lost this chance to change America in a way it hasn’t seen in years. Don’t think of Clinton as a candidate, but rather as a tool for us to use.