The Clinton Cash scandal has spurred much discussion of the serial misconduct of Bill and Hillary Clinton. But the affair speaks to realities larger and more destructive than the political pathologies of one family. The Clinton Foundation saga marries liberalism’s core grandiosity to the impunity of the new high-flying elite and lays bare a class of global VIP forever celebrating its progressive good works while holding the common citizen in contempt.
Progressive grandiosity was born long ago with the socialist impulse to remake the world. It lives on in the liberal expectation of a savior who will set things right. Such political messianism makes it hard for many liberals to find fault with liberal leaders. While conservatives reject perfection and take human defects as given, many liberals see the shortcomings of a Barack Obama or a Hillary Clinton as a threat to their faith.
It’s easier, then, for liberals to downplay a progressive politician’s record and focus instead on their “meaning.” This goes a long way in explaining both the reelection of Obama and the continued support for Hillary, two liberal politicians stuffed to the gills with meaning and shot through with teleological purpose. They’re not admired for what they’ve done but for simply being objects of admiration—and inevitability.
It follows that liberal and conservative candidates respond to very different incentive structures. Jeb Bush must declare, “I don’t see any coronation coming my way,” lest he seem entitled. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, asks, “Don’t you someday want to see a woman president?” lest we forget her date with destiny. Not only is she already among the elect; it’s her selling point.
Today we recognize the elect by a particular set of associations. The Davostocracy that’s come to include rock stars, politicians, athletes, tech gurus, and CEOs puts out glossy books about charity, inclusiveness, and cooperation. On panels and talk shows they serve up their lives as inspirational tales in which outsize success is always tempered by gratitude and generosity. They build foundations to anchor their personal brands in popular concepts such as globalization and sustainability. The hope—and it seems usually to be fulfilled—is that ordinary folks outsource some degree of their own good sense and moral inclination to these pervasive media superstars. To be a fan of one of the elect is to indicate one’s own probity and sound judgment. Buy into a feel-good brand and you don’t have to worry about all the sticky details.
While pundits fret over the Bush or Clinton Dynasty, the more insidious threat to democracy is a beatified jet-set nobility to whom the rest of us hand over our stake in the culture and the country.
Among this nobility, the Clintons are the perpetual first family. In 1996 Hillary Clinton wrote a book titled It Takes a Village. Disguised as a how-to guide for helping the children of the future, the bestseller was a book-length advertisement for the Clinton brand. In 2007, during Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign, Bill Clinton put out a bestseller titled, hysterically, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World. Disguised as an account of selflessness, it was an advertisement for the now infamous Clinton Foundation.
Even before the Clinton Foundation appeared to be an international clearinghouse for high-stakes influence peddling, it was an opaque and self-serving project of the Davostocracy. According to some accounts, the foundation spent as little as 10 percent of its budget on charity in 2013. The opacity explains how the Clintons could go a decade and a half pulling money from scoundrels, not claiming donations, and misfiling taxes while earning only praise for their efforts.
Liberal messianism and elite-worship enjoy a wholly complementary relationship. Progressives expect to cede large realms of their lives to capable leaders who will deliver a fairer world. The Clintons have traded on both their meaning and their unquestioned elite status to earn pardons for a multitude of sins. While the world looked the other way Clinton Cash happened. Both ideas are there in Hillary’s campaign message: “Everyday Americans need a champion. I want to be that champion.” The Clintons have long thrived in the convergence of these trends. It remains to be seen if they will also be undone by them.