As I write this, polls show that 59% of the American people have an unfavorable opinion of Hillary Clinton. Other than Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton is disliked by more Americans than any other candidate for president in recent history. What accounts for this?
As far as I can tell from the press accounts, the public’s dislike seems to stem from Clinton’s tendencies to
- Shade the truth — as with the continually evolving explanations for her use of a private email server
- Tell different things to different audiences — as revealed in her comment that it was necessary to have “both a public and a private position” on controversial issues
- Manipulate the levers of power to favor herself — as when she influenced the Democratic Party’s activities to hamper the Sanders campaign and benefit her own
- Change her commitments when doing so is advantageous — as with her flip-flopping on same-sex marriage and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and
- Skirt the edge of what is legally permissible — as with everything from her cattle futures investments to the Clinton Foundation influence peddling.
But if these are the reasons that the public dislikes Hillary Clinton, then a moment’s reflection shows that she is getting a bum rap. In effect, Hillary Clinton is being subjected to opprobrium for doing her job well.
Hillary Clinton is a politician. Her job is to get votes; specifically, to get more votes than her opponents in the primaries and the general election. Shading the truth, telling different things to different audiences, manipulating the rules, changing commitments as public sentiment shifts, and cutting legal corners are all effective means of doing that.
If a steadfast adherence to principle caused people to vote for her, I’m sure Clinton would be a highly principled politician. But in the real world, there is a term for a highly principled politician: loser.
There is nothing new or surprising in these observations. Friedrich Hayek articulated them in 1944 in chapter 10 of The Road to Serfdom, entitled “Why the Worst Get on Top.” As Hayek explained, adherence to principle means that there are some things one will not do to attain one’s ends. Such an individual is at a disadvantage in the winner-take-all process that determines who wields political power.
As the more principled individuals reach the lines that they will not cross in the tournament for power, they are washed out of the competition until the only players remaining are those willing to do whatever is required to win. Stalin’s accession to power in the Soviet Union was not a coincidence. And this is just as true in our “democratic” tournament as it is in more autocratic ones.
Bill Clinton expressed Hayek’s insight more succinctly when he responded to Bob Dole’s complaint about the false attack ads Clinton employed during the 1996 presidential election by stating, “You gotta do what you gotta do.”
Criticizing a politician for taking the steps necessary to entice a majority of the electorate to vote for him or her is like criticizing a boxer for hitting people. Mohamed Ali was idolized for being the best purveyor of violence of his generation. Yet Hillary Clinton is excoriated for being one of the best political artists of hers.
Why is this?
In the classic movie Chariots of Fire, there is a scene in which the sprinter Harold Abrahams is upbraided by the master of Cambridge’s Trinity College for violating the amateur spirit by employing a professional coach. Commenting on their hypocrisy, Abrahams responds, “You yearn for victory just as I do. But achieved with the apparent effortlessness of gods.”
That pretty much explains the public’s attitude toward Hillary Clinton. People want to retain the unrealistic, idealized conception of democracy as beneficent self-government with which they were indoctrinated in elementary school. But doing so requires them to scrupulously avoid recognizing that a system of government that awards power to whoever gets the most people on his or her side necessarily rewards duplicitousness. As a result, the public projects its disapprobation onto the candidates for responding effectively to the incentives of democracy, rather than onto democracy itself. And because Hillary Clinton responds to these incentives more effectively than almost anyone else, she incurs a proportionally larger share of the public’s contempt.
This phenomenon also explains why the public continues to religiously support democracy even though, election after election, it is dissatisfied with the results. For it is only by studiously keeping their gaze focused on the individual politicians that the members of the public can fail to perceive that if the people who win elections continually tend to be mendacious, uncivil, self-serving ideologues, the problem might reside in the democratic system itself.
During this election cycle, Donald Trump has been roundly (and justly) criticized for frequently lying. But in one respect, Trump was clearly telling the truth. For, if the current polls are correct and he is heading for a loss of historic proportions, then he was entirely truthful when he said that he was no politician.
Addendum: I was wrong. Donald Trump is a consummate politician. Please replace Clinton’s name with Trump’s, substitute examples of his duplicitous behavior for hers, delete the last paragraph, and re-read.