Beyond the Clinton Era

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
and Spirit Matters, and co-author, with Cornel
West, of Jews and Blacks: Let the healing begin (Putnam,

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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