Bernie Sanders thumped Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, winning almost 60 percent of the vote. But among voters who said that the candidate quality mattering most to them was “honest and trustworthy,” Sanders took an astounding 91 percent of the vote.
What’s up with that? Clinton critics will point to her long record of secrecy and dissembling, from Whitewater right up to the recent email-server scandal. But I’d like to suggest a different explanation: Clinton’s own generation made personal honesty and authenticity into a sine qua non for politics itself. And now it’s coming around to haunt Clinton, especially among voters in the generations after hers.
To get a sense of this, have a look at the 1969 commencement address by Wellesley College’s first-ever elected class speaker: Hillary Diane Rodham, later to become Hillary Rodham Clinton. Rodham had been preceded at the podium by Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, who denounced “coercive protest” on college campuses. He also chided student demonstrators as a “curious hodgepodge” of radical elements, “irrelevant . . . to the realities of American society in our time.”
Nonsense, Rodham replied. Campus protest actually contained a strong “conservative strain,” which called the country back to its “old virtues”—especially, the student said, the ideal of “human liberation.” By protesting America’s deviations from that goal, both at home and abroad, student protesters had revived—not rejected—the nation’s founding principles. And they had even set an example for the rest of the globe, which was likewise struggling to implement the universal ideals at the heart of the American dream. “It’s such a great adventure,” she said. “If the experiment in human living doesn’t work in this country, in this age, it’s not going to work anywhere.”
At first, Rodham’s speech seems to highlight the differences between her generation of campus activists and our own. Rodham doesn’t flinch from criticizing America (or from calling out a patronizing U.S. Senator!), but her remarks communicate a sense of national possibility—even, of national greatness—that’s often missing from today’s college conversations. What drew people to Rodham then—and, I think, now—is her unwavering optimism, her cheerful insistence that Americans could build a better country and a better world.
But there’s also a part of her speech that’s concerned with individual identity and especially “authentic reality,” as she called it, not just political power and social justice. To Rodham, it isn’t enough to bring down the poverty rate or to help more minorities go to colleges like Wellesley, two goals she mentioned in her speech. Americans needed to develop a whole new way of being, she said, rooted not in greed and accumulation but in honesty, trust, and respect. “Our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the university, is not the way of life for us,” Rodham explained. “We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.”
That raised the stakes considerably, because you needed to be good rather than simply act good. And, ironically, it has also become a stake in the heart of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Polls show that even people who share her politics often don’t believe in her. They think she’s a poser, a fake, a phony. She isn’t what she seems..
With Sanders, of course, it’s the opposite. Whether they agree with him or not, almost everyone thinks Sanders is real. Bernie is gruff, Bernie is rumpled, Bernie is plain-spoken. You might not like what he says, but you don’t doubt that he means it.
Sanders was a product of the student Left, too, but he came of age a few years before Hillary Rodham did. And timing is everything in these things. In the early 1960s, when Sanders was staging sit-ins against segregation, there was less overall concern with questions of individual authenticity. The most urgent task was to fight social injustice, not to find new forms of interpersonal communication and connection.
But the late 1960s had a different spirit. If you look again at her speech, you’ll see that Hillary Rodham was in some ways more radical than Bernie Sanders was. She urges us to fight injustice, too, but she doesn’t stop there. She imagines a society with more honest and meaningful human relationships, not just with a more equitable distribution of resources.
But it’s hard to create a stable or meaningful politics on those terms. How do you know what’s really going on inside of someone else? The quest for authenticity in some ways harkens all the way back to the Puritans, who said that political leadership should be reserved for people who had cleansed their souls. And their own society became unglued (see: Salem Witch Trials) when nobody could figure out—for sure—who was truly holy, and who wasn’t.
You can hear a similarly Puritan tone in some of the recent campus protests, which likewise insisted that our universities purge themselves of sin—mainly, the sin of racism. In “listening sessions” and other events, stone-faced administrators proclaimed their commitment to “diversity,” “inclusion,” and so on. But many protesters demurred. Their leaders were empty suits, students said, mouthing platitudes and homilies to placate the crowd. They weren’t real.
Hillary-haters who read her Wellesley speech will probably focus on her comments about acquisitiveness and corporate greed, and then say something snarky about her Wall Street speaker fees. But I think they’re missing the main point here. The reason we’re arguing about who Hillary Rodham Clinton “really” is has nothing to do with her politics, as we used to understand that term. It’s because her own generation made authenticity the measure of all things. And we still haven’t figured out a way to measure it.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at New York University. He is the author of “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education,” which was published in 2015 by Princeton University Press.