Politics — From the April 2016 issue

Nor a Lender Be

Hillary Clinton, liberal virtue, and the cult of the microloan

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That was my first experience of the microclimate of goodness that always seems to surround Hillary Rodham Clinton. The mystic bond between high-achieving American professionals and the planet’s most victimized people, I would discover, is a recurring theme in her life and work.

But it is not her theme alone. Regardless of who leads it, professional-class liberalism seems to be forever traveling on a quest for some place of greater righteousness. It is always engaged in a search for some subject of overwhelming, noncontroversial goodness with which it can identify itself, and under whose umbrella of virtue it can put across its self-interested class program.

There have been many other virtue objects over the years, people and ideas whose surplus righteousness could be extracted for deployment elsewhere. The great virtue-rush of the 1990s, for example, was focused on children, then thought to be the last word in overwhelming, noncontroversial goodness. Who could be against kids? No one, of course, and so the race was on to justify in their name whatever your program happened to be. In the course of Hillary Clinton’s 1996 book, It Takes a Village, for example, this favorite rationale of the day — think of the children! — was deployed to explain her husband’s draconian crime bill as well as more directly child-related causes such as charter schools.

You can find dozens of examples of this kind of liberal-class virtue quest if you try, but instead of listing them, let me go straight to the point: this is not politics. It’s an imitation of politics. It feels political, yes: it’s highly moralistic, it sets up an easy melodrama of good versus bad, it allows you to make all kinds of judgments about people you disagree with. But ultimately it’s a diversion, a way of putting across a policy program while avoiding any sincere discussion of the policies in question. The virtue quest is an exciting moral crusade that seems to be extremely important but at the conclusion of which you discover you’ve got little to show for it besides NAFTA, bank deregulation, and a prison-building spree.

For all that, the Clinton Foundation event I attended gives us a context in which to understand Hillary’s most important moment as a maker of policy — her four years as Barack Obama’s secretary of state. Although her purview then was foreign policy, we can see from her deeds at State how she intends to tackle the great economic question of our time. The themes will be familiar to anyone who follows Democratic politics closely. She cast herself as a high-minded ally of Silicon Valley. She enshrined a version of feminism in which liberation is, in part, a matter of taking out loans from banks in order to become an entrepreneur. And between these two doctrines, it seems clear that income inequality has little role in the grand sweep of her political career.

In emphasizing these aspects of her tenure at the State Department, I do not mean to brush off the conventional diplomatic triumphs that Hillary Clinton engineered, like the international effort to isolate Iran. Nor do I mean to soft-pedal her conventional diplomatic failures, like the cataclysmic civil war in Libya, a conflict Clinton worked so hard to stoke that the Washington Post in 2011 called it “Hillary’s War.” But I want to focus for a moment on one of her early initiatives as secretary of state: something she called “Internet Freedom.” This was to be the very “cornerstone of the 21st century statecraft policy agenda,” according to the State Department, and Clinton returned to the principle frequently. In a high-profile speech in January 2010, she declared that, henceforth, the United States would stand “for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” Committing ourselves to defending this unified Internet from all who would censor it, she continued, was a logical extension of what Franklin Roosevelt had been after with his Four Freedoms; it wasn’t all that much different from the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights either.

Now, understanding the Internet as a force of pure nobility is a pundit tradition in the United States, and in the days when Clinton declared humanity’s Internet Freedom, those ideals were on the lips of every commentator. In the summer of 2009, the Iranian regime had violently suppressed a series of enormous street protests — protests that, the American pundit community immediately determined, were as much a testament to the power of Twitter as they were about any local grievance having to do with Iran itself. The so- called Twitter Revolution fit neatly into the beloved idea that new communications technologies — technologies invented or dominated by Americans, that is — militate by their very nature against dictatorships, a market-populist article of faith shared everywhere from Wall Street to Silicon Valley.

Then there was the economic side of the single, unified Internet, and it, too, was all about liberation. For the “people at the bottom of the world’s economic ladder,” Hillary Clinton averred on that day in 2010, the Internet was a savior. She knew of farmers in Kenya who were using “mobile banking technology,” and of “women entrepreneurs” somewhere else in Africa who were getting “microcredit loans,” and of a doctor who used a search engine to diagnose a disease. I guess she hadn’t heard about what these same technologies were doing to the livelihoods of journalists or musicians or taxi drivers in her own country, but I quibble; as long as this technology was free, anyone could see that it pushed in one direction only, and that was up.

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wrote the Easy Chair column for Harper’s Magazine from 2010 to 2014. This is an excerpt from his new book Listen, Liberal (Metropolitan Books).

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