Why Bernie Was Right

Wikileaks’ latest document dump vindicates Bernie Sanders' critique of Hillary Clinton and the Washington establishment.

Bernie Sanders on a campaign stop last September. Michael Vadon / Flickr

This past April, just days before the critical New York primary, the Bernie Sanders campaign released a new ad it hoped would help overcome its rival’s home-state advantage and take the Vermont senator over the top: 

Wall Street banks shower Washington politicians with campaign contributions and speaking fees [an unseen narrator declares]. While Washington politicians are paid over $200,000 an hour for speeches, they oppose raising the living wage to $15 an hour. Two hundred thousand dollars an hour for them, but not even 15 bucks an hour for all Americans. Enough is enough.

The pointedly unsubtle attack hit upon the central theme of the Sanders campaign, and its critique of frontrunner (and eventual nominee) Hillary Clinton. Making note of Clinton’s lucrative speaking fees from Wall Street banks it also employed coded class rhetoric to charge her — and by extension the entire Washington political establishment — of enjoying an incestuous, transactional relationship with powerful private interests at the expense of average Americans.

This was the essence of the populist, social-democratic message upon which Sanders founded his presidential campaign. The “rigged economy” of which he spoke was not only one in which corporate greed conspired to create a deeply unequal and unfair society, but also one underpinned by a symbiotic, mutually enriching relationship between plutocrats and politicians in both major parties.

And few seemed more emblematic of that relationship than Hillary Clinton.

In her time between leaving the State Department in 2012 and launching her own presidential campaign, Clinton personally pocketed a whopping $22 million — nearly four hundred times the median household income in 2015 — from speeches given almost exclusively to interest groups that had recently lobbied the government. (Even this figure paled in comparison to the combined $153 million the Clintons made from paid speeches, many of them to banks, since Bill left office.)

While Clinton sometimes made populist gestures in public, they appeared to contrast sharply with her activities in private — especially when it came to her seemingly cozy relationship with Wall Street and the wider financial-corporate complex.

During the primaries the Clinton campaign and its sympathizers variously dismissed, punted, deflected, or minimized the issue of her speaking fees along with the wider charge that she was too close to corporate interests. Even superficially critical analyses, like the one offered by Vox’s Jeff Stein, sought to characterize Clinton’s paid speeches as an example of poor political judgment rather than outright corruption.

In any case, it somehow proved controversial to assign blame for national problems — from deep and abiding inequality and poverty to the interminable assembly line of corporate-friendly legislation coming out of Congress — to the very visible nexus linking politicians and the wealthy. Through a combination of meddling, obfuscation, and fear-mongering, Democratic National Committee elites and liberal media figures successfully performed damage control and eked out a Clinton win in the primaries.

With the Sanders insurgency and its populist message neutralized, many no doubt assumed the issue had been safely put to bed. But in recent weeks, a near continuous stream of documents published or sent to the press by Wikileaks (and several other sources) has, at the very least, rendered that assumption premature — and put the innards of the rigged economy into a much sharper view.

The Podesta Emails: A Sketch

The sheer volume of emails, transcripts, and internal campaign communiqués that have emerged, particularly over the past several weeks, is simply staggering. Taken together, they document the inner workings of the Clinton machine and offer a window into the incestuous, often transactional relationship between corporate America and many of its ostensible political masters.

Perhaps most strikingly, they lay bare the banal duplicity of Democratic politics and the contempt many senior Democrats have for their party’s base and its ambitions. Were it not for the apocalyptic prospect of a Donald Trump presidency, the leaks could well have sent Hillary Clinton’s campaign into an irreversible tailspin.

Wikileaks’ latest document dumps contain emails related to campaign chairman John Podesta — a longtime Clinton ally, lobbyist, and chair of the Democratic Party–friendly Center for American Progress (CAP). Because of Podesta’s central role in the campaign, a series of hacked email exchanges and accompanying attachments have finally given us, among other things, a look at Clinton’s secretive speeches and interactions with corporate and financial patrons.

Most eye-catching are remarks from a 2013 speech to the National Multi-Housing Council in which Clinton discusses the need to adopt different positions in public and in private:

I mean, politics is like sausage being made. It is unsavory, and it always has been that way, but we usually end up where we need to be. But if everybody’s watching, you know, all of the back room discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least. So, you need both a public and a private position.

On their own, these words could almost be interpreted as innocuous — the remarks of a hard-nosed pragmatist adept at political brokerage. But a comparison of Clinton’s private statements and her public stances suggests that the former represent a sincere articulation of her political outlook.

Accepting the Democratic nomination last July, Clinton declared, “Wall Street can never, ever be allowed to wreck Main Street again.” But in a 2013 speech to Goldman Sachs, we find her doubting the idea that Wall Street wrecked anything to begin with:

That was one of the reasons that I started traveling in February of ’09, so people could, you know, literally yell at me for the United States and our banking system causing this everywhere. Now, that’s an oversimplification we know, but it was the conventional wisdom. And I think that there’s a lot that could have been avoided in terms of both misunderstanding and really politicizing what happened with greater transparency, with greater openness on all sides, you know, what happened, how did it happen, how do we prevent it from happening? You guys help us figure it out and let’s make sure that we do it right this time.

(Goldman Sachs, which in 2009 received a $10 billion bailout from the American public, recently admitted to massively defrauding investors in the housing market, though no individuals involved will be charged or even named. In addition to speaking fees, the firm has also donated almost $1 million to various Clinton campaigns over the years.)

To take another example, in 2015 Clinton declared her support for a Senate bill that took aim at the “revolving door” between Wall Street and financial regulatory agencies, writing in an op-ed: “If you’re working for the government, you’re working for the people — not for an oil company, drug company, or Wall Street bank or money manager.”

But speaking at Goldman Sachs’ Builders And Innovators Summit in 2013, she laid out precisely the opposite view, arguing that financial executives face too many regulatory obstacles in moving between the private sector and government:

You know, part of the problem with the political situation, too, is that there is such a bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives. You know, the divestment of assets, the stripping of all kinds of positions, the sale of stocks. It just becomes very onerous and unnecessary.

At the firm’s Alternative Investments Symposium that same year, Clinton told bankers that financial reform “really has to come from the industry itself . . . the people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry.” Elsewhere, we see her apologizing to the firm for the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and saying it “had to pass for political reasons.”

Just weeks before announcing her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, Clinton dismissed concerns about the project as the whimsical objections of “radical environmentalists” who supported her rival, declaring: “My view is I want to defend natural gas. I want to defend repairing and building the pipelines we need to fuel our economy. I want to defend fracking under the right circumstances . . . I want to defend this stuff.”

Yet Clinton, who has since received more money from the oil industry than Donald Trump, ran an ad ahead of the New York primary in which she promised to “stand firm with New Yorkers opposing fracking, giving communities the right to say ‘no.’”

In other paid speeches, Clinton praised Walmart (whose board she once sat on) for helping foster a “spirit of community that I think is absolutely essential to the maintenance of our democracy, our freedom, our strength.” (As Zaid Jilani and Naomi LaChance note, the vehemently anti-union firm has in fact devastated many local communities, displacing at least four hundred thousand jobs and allowing the Walton family — which has also made donations to Clinton — to amass a fortune that surpasses the wealth of the bottom 40 percent of Americans.)

While the Democratic Party platform backs a $15 minimum wage, emails show that a senior Clinton aide not only advised against it but likened the Democratic base to the Red Army for favoring it. And even though Clinton’s campaign ostensibly supports an expansion of Social Security, emails reveal she praised the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan (which specifically called for cuts to the popular program) during remarks to Morgan Stanley in 2013.

A public position and a private position, as they say.

A Rigged Economy

In each of these cases, Clinton’s sympathy with, and affinity for, corporate America and the interests of some of its worst actors sits in plain view. But beyond the very obvious deceit, they also give us a glimpse of just how calculated and cynical her progressive gestures truly are.

The overwhelming impression gathered is that Clinton and her machine — increasingly indistinguishable from the Democratic Party itself — have adopted the populist stances favored by their party’s base only when circumstances left them no other choice; that she has little will or desire to see any of them through; and, perhaps most importantly, that her Straussian courtship of Wall Street is firmly rooted in ideological belief rather than pragmatic consideration.

To the average Sanders supporter, the Podesta emails contain nothing particularly new or revelatory save for a few interesting and amusing details. But to Democrats and liberals who’ve argued in earnest that there’s nothing especially wrong or compromising about their party’s relationship to corporate America, the private missives should be cause for serious self-examination.

Not only do they corroborate the Sanders critique of Clinton, the DNC, and Washington politics in general, but they vindicate the theory of progressive change his campaign championed. Its central premise — that the transactional relationship between moneyed interests, politicians, and party machines produces a rigged economy that serves and enriches a tiny, insular elite at the expense of everyone else — couldn’t find a more vivid depiction.

In contrast to Sanders’s more militant and populist approach, Clinton touted her own individual experience, administrative competence, and the notion that political progress can only be achieved through painstaking, centrist incrementalism.

Though her campaign and its sympathizers seemed to vacillate on whether this represented a total repudiation of Sanders or merely a much lengthier means to the same end, its subtext was clear: anyone who pursues sweeping, structural change — by fighting for single-payer health care, championing radical financial reform, or challenging corporate power more broadly — is engaging in an unrealistic and dangerously naive enterprise. There is simply no alternative to traditional elite brokerage punctuated by populist flirtations that are quickly doused in cold water once their purpose in an election cycle has run its course.

This attitude, representing more or less the prevailing orthodoxy among the liberal intelligentsia, media figures, and the DNC leadership, is typically packaged as the prudent embrace of reality rather than the symptom of a deeply conservative political outlook.

But the Podesta emails make the actual reality of Washington’s institutionalized shell game all too clear.

The system is rigged, and Bernie Sanders was right.