Joe Biden’s approval rating has been consistently underwater for most of his presidency. Although there has been a bit of improvement, the president continues to trail Trump in most swing states. Eager to turn around his fortunes, Biden has enlisted the Clintons in his reelection bid—starting with Hillary, who hosted a $1 million fundraiser for Biden in her Georgetown home, and now expanding to Bill, who has been stumping for Joe Biden and his record. On one hand, this move seems a bit perplexing. Hillary Clinton is deeply unpopular and lost to the very candidate Biden is now trailing behind. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, faced myriad scandals that haunted his wife’s 2016 campaign. Viewed from another perspective, however, folding the Clintons into his campaign makes perfect sense. More than any other political figures, Bill and Hillary have set the contours of contemporary American politics by transforming the Democratic Party—not once, but twice.

From the mid-1930s through the mid-1960s, the Democratic Party was defined by a “New-Deal Coalition” that united white rural and blue-collar workers, religious minorities (Jews, Catholics) and, increasingly, African Americans. But following Republican Barry Goldwater’s 1964 capture of the South and Richard Nixon’s 1968 victory over Democrat Hubert Humphrey, Democratic Party insiders decided to rebrand the party—to form a new coalition centered around women, college students, young professionals, and racial and ethnic minorities. They doubled down on cultural liberalism, adopted a more dovish posture on foreign policy (to appeal to former anti-war activists, despite the fact that the Vietnam War was started and perpetuated by Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson). They de-emphasized ties to organized labor. Indeed, white rural and blue-collar workers increasingly came to be viewed as a liability rather than an asset. They were depicted by many party insiders as ignorant, bigoted, misogynistic and reactionary—an impediment to the party’s more enlightened future.   

Among these policymakers, the biggest political prize of them all was to win symbolic capitalists—elites who work in fields like law, consulting, media, entertainment, finance, education, administration, science, and technology. These are professionals who traffic in data, ideas, rhetoric, and images instead of physical goods or services. As Clinton’s Secretary of Labor Robert Reich argued in his 1991 bestselling book, The Work of Nations, the future belonged to these professionals. However, securing this voting bloc would ultimately require Democrats to “kill their populist soul,” as political analyst Matt Stoller aptly put it. And as they tried to transition to a new voting base, the party faced a long period of crushing political defeats.

Despite Democratic attempts to woo symbolic capitalists on cultural issues and foreign policy after the 1960s, most continued to support Republicans because of pocket-book priorities. Meanwhile, by emphasizing cultural conservatism, the GOP managed to capture those disaffected rural and blue-collar voters Democrats sought to leave behind. As a consequence, the Democratic Party spent decades in the political wilderness. In the quarter-century between 1968 and 1992, Democrats only managed to hold the White House for four years—narrowly squeaking out a 1976 win in the immediate aftermath of Watergate. Republicans, meanwhile, won landslide victories in 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988. Then Bill Clinton changed the game.

“Bill Clinton embodied how symbolic capitalists liked to view themselves.”

Bill Clinton embodied how symbolic capitalists liked to view themselves. He was relatively young (especially as compared to his Republican rivals in 1992 and 1996). He was smart and charismatic. He was a person from a humble background who managed to ascend into the upper echelons of power as a result of his elite education and savvy. Clinton emphasized the importance of education as a means of competing in the globalized symbolic economy. He surrounded himself with demographically diverse experts from elite institutions. He presented himself as a post-ideological technocrat—as someone who followed “the facts” without regard to what party insiders or his base wanted. Indeed, he regularly went out of his way to alienate remaining vestiges of the traditional Democratic base, or to align with his political rivals, in order to demonstrate his independence. In his 1996 State of the Union address, Clinton formally announced the death of the Democrats’ earlier New Deal coalition, declaring: “The era of big government is over.” And over the course of his administration, the Democratic Party shifted to reflect not just the values, but also the economic priorities of symbolic capitalists.

Four planks were central to Clinton’s vision of reorienting America around the symbolic economy: social investment (in skills, infrastructure, and research); enhancing market dynamism (through tax cuts, deregulation, privatization); international openness (in the form of trade deals and immigration reform); and macroeconomic stability (including by using US forces to uphold the global international order)—a platform now referred to as “neoliberalism.” Although versions of these ideas date back to the 1940s, and were first implemented under Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Clinton reoriented the Democratic Party around this vision—giving rise to what is now derisively referred to as the “neoliberal consensus” in Washington, and generating many of the fault lines that continue to define US politics.

For instance, the urban-rural divide intensified in the early ’90s, corresponding to the Democratic Party’s reorientation around the symbolic economy. In order to facilitate the rise of a new urban professional class, the Democratic Party dedicated itself to tough-on-crime policies—despite significant concerns from the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus about the disproportionate and adverse effects these policies would have on African Americans and other minorities. Simultaneously, the party committed itself to globalization and free trade, culminating in a series of international agreements that expanded China’s economic and political clout.

Fulfilling Clinton’s campaign commitment to “end welfare as we know it,” Democrats restructured aid programs, forcing millions of Americans, mostly women, to take dead-end and unstable jobs with low pay and poor benefits in order to continue qualifying for government assistance. Pushing low-income mothers out of the home and into the workforce led to significant increases in child mistreatment incidents and children being dumped into “the system.” But it also helped expand the pool of workers in the service economy and kept their wages low as a result of the increased labor supply. Simultaneously, the quality and accessibility of government benefits were significantly reduced, as Clinton pushed to “downsize” the federal government (and privatize its functions) in order to balance the budget. As a result of these reforms, many low-income Americans ended up with smaller household incomes despite working more, and the share of Americans in deep poverty increased substantially. But in the new and enlightened Democratic Party, it was much better to balance the budget by squeezing the poor than by taxing the relatively affluent.

Rather than worrying about workers, the party aligned itself firmly with the tech and finance sectors. The Clinton Administration cut many regulations on these industries, and reduced enforcement of those rules that remained. These moves contributed significantly to the dot-com bubble that burst in 2000, and to the housing and financial crisis that came to a head in 2008 (the latter of which had a particularly pernicious and enduring impact on the wealth of black families). Indeed, virtually all of the policies described above advanced the interests and priorities of those affiliated with the symbolic economy at the expense of others. The effects of these reforms fell especially hard on women and minorities. Clinton and his party made these moves nonetheless, confident that they would be able to retain female and minority voters because the Republicans were perceived to be even worse. And, for a while anyway, the bet paid off.

Under Clinton’s tenure, Democrats continued to enjoy roughly the same margins with lower-income and minority voters, but they were able to make significant gains with symbolic-economy professionals as well. According to Edison exit polling, in 1992 Bill Clinton became the first Democrat in decades to win a majority of those with postgraduate degrees. They began to drift back towards the Republican Party in subsequent races: Democrats won post-graduates by a margin of 14 points in 1992, by eight points in 1996, and six points in 2000. But Democrats have held a double-digit lead among these voters for every election since 2000, winning post-graduate voters by a margin of roughly 18 points in 2020. Barack Obama would further consolidate symbolic capitalists into the Democratic Party. In 2008, he became the first Democrat in decades to win a (narrow) majority among college graduates Again, these voters subsequently began drifting back towards the GOP in 2012. However, once Trump entered the electoral scene, college graduates shifted left once again, with Democrats winning these voters comfortably in 2016 and 2020.

The American National Election Study tells a similar story. Since 1992, the Democratic Party has seen sharp declines among non-college educated whites, and significant growth among college-educated whites. Interestingly, as political scientists Matt Grossman and David Hopkins observe, non-college educated whites made up roughly the same share of the Republican coalition as they did in 1992. The GOP saw significant declines among college-educated whites, but this was offset by gains among non-white voters, ultimately leading to non-college educated whites comprising roughly the same share of the party over the last 30 years. Given that both parties have been seeing significant growth with non-white voters (although Republicans have been making progress in overall electoral vote-share for many non-white groups since 2010), political struggles increasingly revolve around issues that divide college-educated whites from non-college-educated whites.  Cultural issues have played an especially important role in these struggles. 

 As symbolic capitalists have shifted towards the Democrats, they have also become more “culturally” liberal.  According to Pew Research estimates, only about 7 percent of postgraduates held down-the-line liberal views in 1994 (at the beginning of the Clinton realignment). By 2015, that number had more than quadrupled to 31 percent. The share of college graduates with uniformly liberal views increased nearly fivefold, rising from 5 percent in 1994 to 24 percent in 2015—and is significantly higher today. 

Bill Clinton’s reorientation of the party around symbolic capitalists set the state for its second transformation, which occurred during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. It is true that the Democratic Party platform shifted “left” during Obama’s reelection campaign, at the outset of what is today known as the “Great Awokening,” but Obama himself was largely focused on painting Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch vulture capitalist who cared too much about corporate profits and not enough about the struggles of ordinary Americans. Clinton took a different tack. Faced with criticisms of the neoliberal program embraced by her wing of the Democratic Party from both Bernie Sanders to her left and Donald Trump on the right, Hillary used cultural issues to change the subject. 

“Hillary used cultural issues to change the subject.”

In one striking case, Hillary Clinton asked, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow… would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?” The crowd roared back, “No!” And, of course, they were absolutely right.

Nonetheless, Hillary and her supporters faced a big problem, namely, the inconvenient views of non-elites. Excepting some people who took theorists from their college classes a little too seriously, most Black and Hispanic Americans consistently rate things like “ending racism” near the bottom of their political priorities, while issues like economics and public safety top their list of concerns. Even if a given measure wouldn’t “end racism,” most non-whites would prefer their elected officials to pursue policies that would improve their material prospects and conditions instead of waging cosmic wars against abstractions that progressives themselves often argue have been with this country from its outset and will likely never be overcome. Perhaps it should have been unsurprising, then, that despite Hillary Clinton mainstreaming “wokeness” in the Democratic establishment, the party saw exceptionally low turnout and unusually weak support in 2016 from the very people they proclaimed themselves as champions of: women and non-whites.

However, Clinton’s defeat proved insufficient to show Democrats the error of their ways. Instead, they doubled down on “social justice” gesturing in the years that followed. After Trump was sworn into office, symbolic capitalists held protests across the country wearing pink “pussyhats” in reference to the President’s history of misogynistic words and behaviors, while female Democratic lawmakers started wearing white to evoke the suffragist movement. Erstwhile law-and-order Democrats like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris started talking about “systemic racism.” Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and current Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer knelt in kente-cloth stoles when announcing a criminal justice reform bill they ultimately failed to pass.

This woke symbolism and rhetoric has not resonated any better with the genuinely marginalized and disadvantaged over the last eight years than it did in 2016. Quite the opposite. As the Democrats have leaned into the culture wars at the expense of kitchen-table issues, they’ve seen accelerated losses among non-white, working class, and low-income voters, as well as religious minorities. Nonetheless, Joe Biden still hopes to revitalize his campaign by appealing to the two public figures who helped launch the modern political era: Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Perhaps his gambit will even pay off. Last week, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama joined Joe Biden for a fundraiser in New York. Together, they raked in $26 million—more than has ever been raised in any single political event on record. It seems the Clinton magic remains strong – at least among the growing numbers of deep-pocketed Democrats (most of whom are, themselves, symbolic capitalists). Whether the “Clinton charm” still works on the rank and file remains to be seen.

Musa al-Gharbi is a Compact columnist and an assistant professor in the School of Communication and Journalism at Stony Brook University.


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