The idea that personal virtue creates economic success is often associated with conservatism. But the Democrats' 2016 presidential nominee just showed that liberals have their own warped version of this bogus myth, too.
At a conference in India over the weekend, Hillary Clinton was asked about the forces that led to Donald Trump's presidential victory. In the middle of a long answer, she said this: "I won the places that represent two-thirds of America's gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward. And his whole campaign, 'Make America Great Again,' was looking backwards. You know: 'You didn't like black people getting rights, you don't like women, you know, getting jobs, you don't want to, you know, see that Indian-American succeeding more than you are, whatever your problem is, I'm going to solve it.'"
Clinton's numbers are right. While far fewer counties voted for her, those counties accounted for a whopping 64 percent of America's GDP. Crudely put, pro-Clinton areas are responsible for two-thirds of America's economy.
Now, this doesn't mean that wealthy people supported Clinton and poorer people supported Trump. In fact, Trump actually had a slight edge among voters who make more than $100,000. And obviously, there are plenty of wealthy Republicans in blue counties.
But there's still a clear pattern. The economy is doing better in blue communities, while many communities that went for Trump are left behind, as Clinton put it.
To what does she attribute this? Optimism, diversity, dynamism, "moving forward."
This is just the liberal version of Republican claims that self-discipline, hard work, and traditional lifestyles drive economic success. Clinton simply removed the classic conservative virtues and substituted characteristics and ideals championed by college-educated urban liberals instead. (As such, it took near-cosmic chutzpah for the Republicans to get huffy over the remarks.)
But both sides' narratives still lead to the same conclusion: If communities are suffering, it's not the economy that needs to be fixed — they need to be fixed. The demise of unions, a stagnant minimum wage, cuts to regulations and public investment, Wall Street-friendly monetary policy, or rising monopoly power all go unmentioned. Instead, economic success or decline is chalked up to cultural je ne sais quoi.
I do not bring this up to rehash tired arguments over whether Clinton was a bad candidate or a bad person. My point is that, as the Democrats' 2016 nominee, and one-half of a family political dynasty that has dominated Democratic politics for 25 years, her thinking obviously reflects that of the party and liberalism at large. Scratch a lot of liberal commentary around the economics of immigration and cities, for example, and you'll find a self-congratulatory tale about how progressive cultural norms inevitably lead to growth, innovation, and profits. The implication that policies to restore jobs in small towns and rural communities are just a waste of time — that maybe these places should die for the good of national productivity — isn't that far below the surface.
Has the economic good fortune bestowed on culturally progressive communities so easily tempted Democrats and liberals into the belief that market success is proof of virtue?
Now, if you watch the full video, Clinton acknowledges how the 2008 financial crisis devastated millions of Americans, and how the total failure to punish financial elites left many Americans enraged. But this just highlights her inability to connect the dots: The aftermath of the Great Recession was a textbook example of political elites (under a Democratic administration) colluding with business elites to throw Americans under the bus to spare Wall Street.
Clinton wonders why so many Trump voters feel they're in a zero-sum game; why they look at gains for women, African-Americans, LGBT Americans and other minority groups and assume those advances will make them worse off. Perhaps it's because policymakers in both parties have implicitly told them life is zero-sum for decades? That their jobs and wages and livelihoods have been siphoned off to far-flung urban economies, but we can't afford to hike the minimum wage or raise taxes on the wealthy or spend money on public investment?
The truth is, where money does and doesn't go in the U.S. economy often results from the capriciousness of power. But acknowledging that is unpleasant. It requires naming names, aggressively forcing change, and picking a lot of fights. It requires admitting that large swaths of the country (plenty of whom voted for Trump) really are being exploited so that elites (plenty of whom voted for Clinton) can make out like bandits. It's much more comfortable to retreat to the myth that the market "works" — that economic flourishing comes from being a "good" person or a "good" community, however one's political tribe happens to define "good."
If Clinton was going to bring up this statistic at all, it should've been to say that the U.S. economy is profoundly broken. It should've been to say that this injustice needs to be fought and overturned. And it should've been to acknowledge that calling Americans to that battle is the way to unseat Trumpism.
But then you'd have to ask why Clinton and the Democrats didn't do that when they had the chance.