Stephen Metcalf is the host of Slate's culture podcast. He worked as a speech writer for Hillary Clinton during her first campaign for the U.S. Senate.
America feels like a place where no one has a claim on a fixed identity any more, not, at least, until he or she becomes famous. At that point they harden, not into marble, but into wax. The permanently famous – Jack Nicholson, Martha Stewart – enter the wax museum.
This election is the first wax museum election in American history. At issue is whether the American voter will see beyond the logic of the wax museum, and choose (this is the new meme in the liberal American press) a flawed but normal candidate or an abnormal and dangerous one.
In 1999 and 2000, I worked for the "normal" candidate. I was sort of a gopher, sort of a low-level policy associate, and something of a speech writer, on Hillary Clinton's campaign for a New York seat in the U.S. Senate.
Anybody can see what Ms. Clinton's strengths are as a candidate, what are her weaknesses. Behind the scenes, she is hyper-competent; she can be robotic on the trail. The suspicion accompanying her is that beneath the hydraulic smile lies someone whose innermost principles are fixed.
As someone who once tried to write words for her, I have a different perspective on what supposedly ails her as a politician. As I remember, we faced a challenge that had nothing to do with her – nothing other than that, as an intelligent woman and a Democrat, she was expected to run her campaign on the substantive issues. That meant, however, finding ways to tell complicated truths to anxious and skeptical voters.
The biggest was speaking to the economic anxieties of upstate New Yorkers, who live (as I now live) in the remnants of the Empire State, as New York was called back when it was what China is now, one of the world's industrial furnaces. The honest truth – that her opponent then, New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, and her opponent now, did not want to admit – is that old union jobs were gone and not coming back.
Upstate New York, the vast north and westward reach of the state, that has nothing to do with "the city" other than resenting it, that eventually tapers out toward the Great Lakes and shares a border with Quebec –that state had played one role in the global economy, and would need to find another one. It was the New Economy or no economy.
We live in two Americas, and they don't map neatly onto the old binaries. Left-right, north-south, or even, strictly, rich-poor – these are less and less relevant next to fluid/relevant versus solid/irrelevant. Fluid and relevant America is porous and cosmopolitan. This is the world of avocado schmears, Tinder and post-hierarchical work structures.
This America preaches the saintliness of the "local" because it knows, deep down, it is anything but. Put most bluntly, this is the America, whether it be represented by Goldman Sachs or a Brooklyn kimchee guru, that has been liberated by the forces of international money. And then there is local America. Not the local of craft IPA and grass-fed beef, but real local America. And it has been left behind by global money and is becoming a landscape of village depletion to rival anything out of Georgian England.
As fluid America thrives, solid America is left behind; and so it reaches defensively for the ever-more solid. At its best, this means a communitarian and self-reliant spirit. At its worst, it means paranoia and ethno-nationalism. I live at the crossroads of these two Americas, on a country road that at one end has a barn sporting a magnificently and obnoxiously large Confederate flag, and at the other has a magnificently and obnoxiously large French-style chateau, on sale for $15-million (U.S.). A president is president of both ends of my road, like it or not.
That means mediating a common reality between flag and chateau, and negotiating America's national interests in the context of a hyper-global economy. Ms. Clinton faces, in other words, the same dilemma she faced when I wrote for her: You can be evasive with voters, or you can tell them the truth. If you choose to tell the truth, you have to make a complex historical and sociological reality comport with a soundbite.
Ms. Clinton has become, for both left and right, a stand-in for every anxiety we have about a fluid, maybe even collapsing world. To the left, she is a "neoliberal," selling us down the rivers of global finance. To the right, she is the very devil itself, selling (white) American interests down the river to foreigners of one kind or another.
As a pragmatist standing between the fluidity of global capital, hyper-capitalism and the needs of local America, she can be neither fluid nor solid. I feel for her as I felt for her then. She is forced by impossible circumstances to be this awful simulacrum. To be true to reality, she has to be made of wax.