Beyond the Clinton Era

Bill Clinton's broken promise of a politics of meaning exacerbated the cynical individualism of the '90s. It's high time we got idealistic again.

| January 19, 2001

Eight years ago we greeted the Clinton/Gore team with guarded enthusiasm and hopefulness. We had seen the contradictory signs in the campaign, but we also allowed ourselves to hope that this could be the moment in which the aspirations of the progressive elements in the generation of the sixties might be actualized through the actions of a new political leadership.

We were wrong.

Most political analysts say that the Clintons were too liberal and expansive in their first two years, and that their excessively liberal health care plans generated a negative reaction which led to the ascendancy of the Gingrich-revolution. A variant on this story: Hillary was the liberal and once her health care plan bombed Bill decided to give her less power (a story Hillary herself tended to promote).

These are completely distorted pictures. The reality is far more complex. Bill and Hillary entered the White House in 1993 with a set of inner conflicts about how to be realistic and preserve self-interest while doing as much good as they possibly could. Their conflicts were not atypical of most who had been involved in the movements of the sixties and been disappointed.

The experience of actually having an impact on shaping public events -- creating the climate within which the Civil Rights legislation, environmental legislation, anti-sexist regulations, rights for the disabled, and an end to the funding of the War in Vietnam could get passed -- helped many people momentarily recognize that ordinary people could be the creative force in history and not just passive recipients of what others were doing to us.

Yet the process didn't feel good. On the one hand, undercover police agents played on feelings of guilt ('we're not doing enough to end the racism against Blacks or the genocide of Vietnamese -- so we ought to escalate the level of our struggle') to provoke violence and to belittle all that was being accomplished through non-violence. On the other hand, our own conditioning as Americans had led us to expect a kind of instant gratification that imagined the revolution would take only a few short years, and that we could personally instantaneously become the fullest embodiment of our own ideals. When, instead, we found ourselves surrounded by people who were just as limited and screwed up as everyone else, we were furious at each other and ourselves for not yet being the perfect embodiments of anti-sexist, anti-racist, ego-transcendent beings.

Well, duh... What made us imagine that the moment people get a sense of higher ideals they can immediately become their fullest embodiment?

It was this screwed up expectation -- perfectly symbolized in the oft-quoted (but misunderstood) Pogo cartoon which said 'We have met the enemy, and he is us' -- that created such disappointment. We were too young and naïve to realize that any social change would necessarily have to be made by imperfect people, because that is all there is on the entire planet.

The result: a pervasive demand for 'political correctness' in which everyone felt perfectly ok about brutalizing each other for our failures to be all that we had hoped to be. Leaders were trashed as elitists, men were trashed as chauvinists, whites as hopelessly racist, heterosexual couples as being inherently oppressive to homosexuals,' And the PC-ers lacked compassion for themselves or for anyone who didn't already share their values -- so the movement started to feel as totalitarian as the culture which it critiqued.

Few people were willing to tolerate that kind of brutality for long, and the movement collapsed into a set of interest groups contending with each other about which was 'the most oppressed.' Rebelling against the utopianism (both its good side and its hurtful side) of the '60s, millions of people supported the social change movements to take a more narrow framework -- to fight for narrowly construed legal rights and entitlements. Absent a larger transformative vision, those struggles were sometimes successful, but they also were easily portrayed by America's ruling elites as nothing more than selfishness and a pursuit of 'special interests,' and the media jumped in to argue that the whole venture of the '60s itself was nothing more than a generation pursuing its narcissistic aims. The Reagan/Bush years convinced many that nothing more than selfishness was possible, and if social change would be possible at all it would only be through hooking to narrow self-interest (e.g. the selfish desire for political power).No wonder that people were so excited when the Clintons embraced a Politics of Meaning and talked about overcoming the selfishness of the Reagan/Bush years. If hope and idealism were on the agenda, people would respond. And they did, not only by electing Clinton but by telling pollsters in overwhelming numbers that they would be willing to pay higher taxes to ensure that everyone had adequate health care. But the Clintons themselves began to give out a different message in the first months of their administration: they abandoned their promises to gays, environmentalists, civil rights groups and others, and did so by letting it be known that their study of 'focus groups' made them feel that standing for their principles might hurt their popularity and damage their self-interest. It was in this context that the health care proposal was put forward -- a proposal that was flawed precisely because it rejected Politics of Meaning assumptions and instead sought to placate the health care and insurance industries by guaranteeing them huge profits and power.

I was in the White House in this period and watched after Hillary's initial embrace of the Politics of Meaning was countered by advisors who urged the Clintons to be 'realistic' and recognize that people only cared about money and power and not really much about love and caring and spiritual reality and meaning. The Clintons experienced the same two voices that we all hear: one urging them to go for their highest hopes, the other warning them that it would be 'unrealistic' to imagine that people could respond to anything as high as 'caring for others' and 'overcoming materialism and selfishness.'

But as they began to distance from their own hopefulness, tens of millions of their supporters felt abandoned and exposed. When people begin to suspect that their own ideals are unrealistic, they back away. Some lose interest in politics and imagine that they can fulfill all their needs by making it financially and building their personal lives. Others respond to the appeal of tax-cutting conservatives. The reasoning is easy to understand: 'if our ideals can't be actualized in some communal way, why not keep my money so I can use it for my own personal and family needs?'

Political energy always flows either to hope or to despair, and when it flows to despair about ideals, people turn to the Right. It was that dynamic which led to the Gingrich revolution and which now leads to the elevation of George Bush to the presidency.In the Bush years, people may look back with nostalgia on the Clinton presidency, pointing to all its accomplishments. They are missing the point. Sure, the Clinton administration passed some good legislation, promulgated some decent presidential edicts, and had good people in the cabinet who did some good things while in office. But little of this legacy stands much of a chance of surviving in a climate of cynicism. The most important way to judge any administration is in terms of whether it sowed hope or despair-whether it empowered people to understand their situation and fight for their ideals or whether it made people cynical about the possibility of change and the possibility of transcending selfishness and moving toward communal idealism.

The Clintons sought to be 'realistic,' and for them that meant moving away from any ideology of hope and transformation. Instead, they often framed their struggles in a discourse that was shaped by the conservative ideologues and by the 'common sense' of the media (particularly its assumption that the only thing that motivates people is narrow material self-interest). So the primary legacy of the Clinton years is a deeper cynicism about the possibility of public life and higher values. Clinton's involvement with Monica Lewinsky was an outgrowth of that cynicism, not its cause. Realism had won out over idealism, and with it came the narrowing of focus to how to take care of oneself and a cynicism about higher purpose.

Gore's campaign, and the narrow way he framed the post-election struggle for votes, only deepened that cynicism. He joined Bush in supporting major tax cuts, and only argued about whose tax cut plan would put more money into the pockets of middle class consumers.

No wonder, then, that Gore ran such an uninspired campaign. When critiqued by Bush as a supporter of 'big government,' Gore had a unique opportunity to say something like, 'We Democrats have been listening and feel responsive to the many criticisms that Americans have about a government that has gotten out of control, become unresponsive to ordinary citizens, taken on a bureaucratic set of interests of its own. But yes we do believe in something more than just narrow self-interest -- we believe that most Americans want to use government as a vehicle to show our caring for each other, and as a way of showing that America is not just a bunch of isolated I's, but a community, a We that stands for some common values that even transcend our specific religious differences and ethnic differences and link us together as a national community.'Instead, all Gore could do is respond by protesting that he had cut 300,000 jobs from government, that he wanted to downsize it, and that he was going to do a better job than Bush of taking money from the government and putting it into the pockets of individual consumers. Similarly, in the post-election fight for Florida, instead of asking the Supreme Court to step in on the side of democratic processes, he opportunistically opted for a 'states' rights' argument to allow the Florida courts to decide the outcome. In short, Gore played to the ethos of selfishness and materialism that had seemed the only possibility once the Clintons abandoned a Politics of Meaning. Gore and many other Democrats never understood that if people perceive that we are in period of selfishness and materialism, they will find conservative arguments and politicians more appealing.

Psychological reductionist accounts of the Clinton years miss this important dimension. When I spoke to Hillary and Bill Clinton, they were open to moving in a more idealistic direction. But they felt that there was no one to support them in so doing. The absence of a visionary, meaning-oriented movement that could give them the kind of framework that had made it possible (and necessary) for Kennedy, Johnson and even Nixon to support progressive legislation created in the Clintons a fear that they would be isolated and ridiculed should they fight for their highest values. They needed us to be more visible to them.

And that's why in the final analysis, the failure of the Clintons was our failure to move beyond our personal lives or self-interest politics and build a movement that was unashamedly utopian and idealistic.

That could still happen now. Lets turn Inauguration Day, January 20th, into a day for massive protests, not only at the lack of respect for democratic processes (evidenced by the way votes were discarded in Florida) but also against the selfishness, materialism and crass opportunism that characterized so much of the post-election debate. We should organize non-violent civil disobedience in Washington, D.C. but also in every community -- and begin a national campaign for a new bottom line of love and caring in a society that has lost its moral and spiritual moorings.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is an Utne Visionary and editor of TIKKUN. He is the author of The Politics of Meaning and Spirit Matters (Hampton Roads, 2000), and co-author, with Cornel West, of Jews and Blacks: Let the healing begin (Putnam, 1995).

To subscribe to TIKKUN, send $29 to TIKKUN, 2107 Van Ness Ave, Suite 302, SF, Ca. 94109. Or visit

Rabbi Michael Lerner is an Utne Visionary and editor of TIKKUN. He is the author of The Politics of Meaning and Spirit Matters, and co-author, with Cornel West, of Jews and Blacks: Let the healing begin (Putnam, 1995).

To subscribe to TIKKUN, send $29 to TIKKUN, 2107 Van Ness Ave, Suite 302, SF, Ca. 94109. Or visit To respond directly to Lerner, email him at

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