Chelsea Clinton on her pony in Arkansas. From Hillary Clinton’s Instagram.
Maybe you saw the new excerpt from Hillary Clinton’s new book What Happened where she “owns” Bernie Sanders with a joke she saw posted on Facebook about Bernie raising unrealistic hopes among the Democratic base. Hillary mentions incrementally more ambitious Sanders programs for infrastructure and job training, but you can bet she’s mostly talking about single-payer healthcare, a $15/hr national minimum wage and free university education.
As you can see, lots of people thought that Hillary’s pony anecdote showed her complete disregard for the aims of the Democratic Party’s progressive base. It also displays a dunderheaded, flabbergasting, mind-warping lack of introspection and even a basic inability, even with the help of staff, researchers, ghostwriters, editors and assorted lackeys, to even get an analogy right.
Yes, Hillary’s comparison of cherished progressive goals to a spoiled child’s request for a pony is insulting. But no matter what Hillary meant the pony to stand for, the analogy doesn’t work.
Note that Hillary didn’t invoke a nonexistent animal like a unicorn or a dragon, or even an endangered one like a tarsier or a giraffe, or even a commonplace but dangerous beast like a coyote or a bat. She said pony. We live in a world where ponies are plentiful and easily available. You can pick up a nice pony for less than $10,000. Even if you don’t have acreage for a pony to roam or a barn for a pony to sleep in, you can board your pony in a well-run, loving facility – every major city in America has several. In Cleveland, you can board your pony at the Rocky River Stables, a very nice equestrian center inside the city limits just 15 minutes’ drive from the airport, for $475 a month.
Now look, something that costs around $10,000, plus $475 a month, not to mention veterinarian bills and riding lessons, is a lot of money for a middle-class American family to spend on their kid’s choice of sport. Plus, horses live a long time, like 30-40 years, so it’s not something that you buy for a kid who’s not committed. Horses need company and attention and training, you have to ride the pony, brush its mane, pick rocks out of its hooves, and a bunch of other time-intensive bullshit that, let’s be honest, an 11-year-old horse-crazy little girl would probably be thrilled to do.
I don’t know about you, but I grew up with kids who had horses. Not all the kids, mind you, not a majority of the kids, but yeah, sure, some of them. And yes, there were some kids (mostly girls) who were crazy about horses but whose parents either couldn’t or wouldn’t indulge their equine fascination.
So in Hillary’s analogy, both Hillary and Bernie are parents answering their kids’ request for a pony. Their kids almost certainly go to a school where there are other kids whose parents have already bought them ponies. America isn’t the poorest family with kids at that school–in fact, it’s one of the richest.
Bernie, the doting dad, the old softie, wants the kids to have a pony. There’s no question that the family can afford a pony, or that the Democratic base wants a pony. But no-nonsense mom Hillary pooh-poohs the idea. Hillary doesn’t care what the other kids have, we’re not going to buy our daughter a pony just because she wants one. Hillary doesn’t argue that America can’t afford to have a pony though. Of course we could buy America a pony, that’s not the point. So Hillary replies to Bernie with a bunch of rhetorical questions that, frankly, aren’t really rhetorical questions, but a fairly succinct description of the type of thing a US President is supposed to be sorting out on behalf of the voters. Hillary asks these questions to suggest that Bernie hasn’t thought this pony idea through — it’s not like you just go out and buy a pony (although, in the real world, as long as you have the money and a love for ponies, that’s exactly what it’s like). How will you pay for the pony? Where will the pony come from? How will you get Congress to agree to the pony?
How will you pay for the pony? Dear, we’re the richest family in town. Families less well-off than us have ponies. We can afford a pony if we want one.
Where will the pony come from? Honey, it’s 2017. Go to fucking www.horseclicks.com. There’ll be a pony in the driveway tomorrow morning.
How will you get Congress to agree to the pony? Look, we’ve seen Michael Moore’s Sicko. We were around for the Obamacare debates. We know that Congress has been bought off by the insurance companies, by the student lending lobby, by the fast-food lobby. We know it won’t be easy and there are powerful forces arrayed against us. We know there’s a good chance we won’t succeed. But a presidential candidate isn’t supposed to tell the voters that they should forget about their dreams and settle for less than they deserve because some powerful assholes might be against it. It’d be like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saying “Sure, we all have a dream that a man be judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin, but let’s focus on something more realistic, because the white people in the South really seem like they’re gonna be against it.”
So in Hillary’s telling, the best candidate for president of the United States is the one who knows her supporters want something, knows it’s something that will benefit them and is within the realm of possibility, but won’t advocate for that thing because it’ll be hard, and it will require going up against some powerful opponents, and why bother? The kids will soon outgrow their pony obsession and be distracted by something else (Hillary’s got a few foreign wars she’s been hankering to start – that’ll make America forget about ponies for a while), so let’s just all agree to say as little as possible about a P-O-N-Y until this blows over. Mommy Hillary believes that Daddy Bernie is a jerk for telling America she can have a pony. “Are you happy now Bernie? Look what you’ve done. Now all we’re going to hear about is ponies until she gets one, and you know that I and all my friends have been paid a shitload of money to make sure that America never, ever gets a pony.”
It’s also, in a nutshell, an anecdote that perfectly illustrates the malignant tumor that is American Centrism today. I remember my dad telling me as a kid that one of the ingenious mechanisms of our beautiful American political clockwork was that the progressives want change, and the conservatives want to keep things the way they were, creating a constant push-pull that ensures that America keeps moving forward, but not at such a speed that people can’t adjust.
But now the Centrist system has become sclerotic, hidebound, free of ideas and incredibly hostile to any concept that might significantly improve the economic deal that anyone upper-middle-class and below has lived with for the past 40-50 years. The debate has been stamped into the earth by the boot of money and compliant media apologists. The only changes that are allowed are those that benefit the 1%–the slow death of unions and job security, the outsourcing of manufacturing and even service jobs, preferential treatment of capital gains over earned wages, the spiral of personal debt, the mass influx of Third World workers who are desperate enough to work in oppressive conditions with no legal status, the lack of investment in public infrastructure that rich people don’t need or use. The corporate world and the ultra-rich donor class have things just how they like it–maybe they’d like to have just a little more freedom for cross-border flows of capital, goods and services, but everything is pretty-pretty-pretty good.
So the system is fighting back. It’s too dangerous for the American people to actually–gasp–want things that cost money. No, no, no. Those tax dollars are to be used for imperial adventures abroad and domestic surveillance at home, not ponies. Unless you’re a member of the donor class, you’re not supposed to be asking politicians for anything to do with economic conditions. You’re not supposed to want changes that might reduce your anxiety about job loss, wages, retirement, the cost of housing, paying for your kids’ education or what happens if you get sick, what wars we should be fighting, etc. You’re supposed to be arguing about transsexual bathrooms, abortion, Internet censorship, Game of Thrones, whether tax rates should go up or down 5 percentage points, outrage over Black Lives Matter or Confederate monuments, what foreign dictators might be laughing at America today–anything but the American economic deal.
And the Centrists LOVE identity politics. For a couple reasons. First of all, it meshes very well with the way corporate America markets its own products. Take Carnival Cruise Lines. They don’t run a national TV ad saying “Come on down and take a cruise, everyone! We’ve got swingers cruises! We’ve got gay cruises! We’ve got singles cruises! We’ve got Disney cruises! We’ve got Fundamentalist Christian cruises! We’ve got jazz cruises! We’ve got heavy metal cruises!” No, they atomize the market, figure out what each group wants to hear, and advertise the cruises separately. Even though, duh, it’s the same boat, same itinerary, same food, same crew – same product. The people who book a gay cruise don’t want to think about the Fundamentalist Christian guests who were on the boat last week, and vice versa. Lots of things are marketed like that.
Secondly, identity politics are a perfect example of a conflict that, as long as it’s not allowed to turn chaotic, can occupy people’s attention forever. If you’ve ever traveled in the former Yugoslavia, you go from Serbia to Croatia to Bosnia-Herzogovinia to Montenegro and, officially, there’s a different national language in each of those countries (Serbian, Croatian, Bosniak, Montenegrin) and a different ethnic group. Except there’s not–the languages are all the same, really, and there’s not really any racial characteristics distinguishing them, at least not that an outsider would notice. From corporate America’s point of view, it’s great to have a version of the same thing in the United States (without the civil war of course)–a citizenry focused on superficial differences that don’t impact economics, rather than on deep common interests that do.
And what’s remarkable about Hillary’s anecdote is that she’s fully internalized this. If she were able to see herself as others see her, she’d be thinking, “well sure, with the amount of money the insurance companies are shoveling at D.C., hell will freeze over before there’s ever going to be a single-payer healthcare system in America–that would put the insurance companies out of business! But of course I can never say that out loud, because then my supporters would want me to fight it, and that’s a fight I’ll never win.”
But no, Hillary actually thinks Middle America will chuckle along with her at the absurdity of a politician actually expressing a desire to use America’s wealth to make the lives of the American working and middle classes a little easier. Of course those ideas should be crushed! They shouldn’t even be mentioned! Bernie’s a traitor! Minimum wage of $15 an hour? If McDonald’s workers start earning a living wage, that’s a victory for Vladimir Putin! Bernie’s just as much of a Kremlin stooge as Trump is! And the alt-right too! AAAARRRRGGGGGHHHH OUR SYSTEM IS UNDER ATTACK!
Now, does that mean that I’m denying that the Kremlin is against the Centrist establishment and wants it to be attacked by forces on the political left and/or the right? No, I don’t deny that. The Russians make no secret of the fact that they don’t like the American Centrist establishment. But the Russians’ beef with the Establishment is much more limited: foreign policy. As opposed to the Soviets, who would have considered it a dream come true for America to embrace Socialism and a nightmare if America turned to hyper-nationalist fascism, today’s Kremlin doesn’t really care what the US does domestically. If the United States builds a border wall and glorify Confederates, fine. If it becomes a Democratic Socialist paradise with free higher education and a guaranteed basic income, super. Russia is just gambling, out of desperation, that whatever political forces replace the Centrists will bring with them a different foreign policy, which they expect will be better for Russia than what exists now.
Frankly I think that’s a pretty risky gamble for Russia to make, but I also don’t think that either the left OR the right are invalidated by Russia promoting their side over the Centrists. If they’re invalidated, it’s on the merit of their positions, and what the American people want. I take heart in the ridicule and mocking that Hillary Clinton and other Centrist apologists are being subjected to. Do they deserve it, personally? Maybe not–some of it is pretty cruel, albeit clever. At any rate, they’re public figures, so they should have a thick skin. But the politics they stand for, and the way they treat the voters, definitely deserve to be mocked and ridiculed into oblivion. America may never get its pony, but a President should never tell Americans that they aren’t allowed to want one.