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Bill Clinton: Yuppie White Trash

Clinton's supporters set out to stage an ideological coup d'tat inside the Democratic Party, dislodging perceived vestiges of liberal to radical thought.
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #2, October 1992

Last week local papers made a front page story out of the U.S. Office of Civil Rights' decision that UC-Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law relied excessively on race in determining admissions policy. Prompted by right-wing Orange County congressman Dana Rohrbacher, the office's investigation was clearly intended to be another attack on affirmative action, its decision another victory for conservatives. Like so much else that has 'happened' in the last twelve years, this is a disturbing, depressing action. That the Democratic Convention offered little evidence of a desire to refute or counter its underlying assumption - that white people have been the ones discriminated against in post-60s America - inclines us to despair even more. Thus Tim Redmond's assessment of the convention in The Bay Guardian (July 22): "What struck me most, beyond the lack of energy or excitement, was the way Clinton's 'New Covenant' symbolized exactly what the Democrats need to avoid this fall. It placed the blame on the victims." Redmond thought Clinton "managed to alienate a sizable chunk of the traditional Democratic electorate" at the convention, specifically the 'non-white' vote. Writing in the Express (July 24), Larry Bensky concurred with Redmond, concluding that Clinton's supporters "set out to stage an ideological coup d'tat inside the Democratic Party, dislodging perceived vestiges of liberal to radical thought, as well as those 'special interests' so scorned by editorial-page pundits: blacks, labor, etc., thereby catering to the 'Reagan-Democrats' by any means necessary," in the process "abandoning most of the few remaining meaningful distinctions between Democrats and Republicans." Writers for many left-independent papers throughout the country expressed similar sentiments. Now, with the possibility of ousting Bush more and more real every day, even Clinton-haters have become less willing to jinx 'our' chance by offering such incisive critique. This is why I'm recalling it now.

I believe that Clinton's campaign strategy and, yes, even the decision by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights should not be reduced to their most negative ideological aspects. There is emancipatory potential in even the most blatantly right-wing attacks on identity politics, however submerged it may be; it is our task as bad subjects on the left to extract and mobilize it. Thus we find that precisely the hyper-mainstreamed, exclusionary politics of the Clinton campaign constitute a revitalizing of that seemingly unamerican notion: class. Furthermore, in working hand in hand with right-wing forces to reconceptualize America's white middle-class as a class discriminated against, as a majority that functions as a minority, the Clinton campaign's strategy may be planting the seeds of politically viable coalition-building that transcends traditional collective identities. In other words, if the Clinton campaign succeeds in representing the 'average' white American as a member of a class oppressed by the Reagan-Bush hegemony, then this 'average' white American may truly come to realize her or his affinity with other oppressed peoples. Indeed, this possibility makes it imperative that we bad subjects articulate similarities that will unite these oppressed groups with the admittedly far less oppressed 'average' white American. When things begin to get better for her or him this possibility will probably no longer exist.

Looking more closely at Clinton's campaign strategy, it becomes apparent that it aims to perform the sort of articulation, fusion within white America that our politics seeks to achieve for the U.S. as a whole. A polished, well-spoken Baby-Boomer with a strong, independent wife, Clinton initially appears the consummate Yuppie. When addressing bureaucrats, leaders in high- tech industry, educators, and other professionals, it is this appearance that Clinton cultivates. At the same time, however, Clinton is also the son of a lower middle-class Arkansas woman who married four times. Emotionally scarred by an abusive stepfather, born far from the 'loop' of power and success, this Clinton rises from obscurity to fame without forgetting his humble roots. He remains regionally-fixed, an outsider. Thus we have a Yuppie Clinton on the one hand, a 'White Trash' Clinton on the other. How can these two identities be linked together?

In his address to the convention, Clinton suggests that they can be linked discursively. In other words, he intermingles the fashionable high-tech language of Yuppies with the religiously inflected, humble yet hopeful language of what the Cultural Elite derides as 'White Trash America'. America's 'oppressed' middle- class consists of those who "play by the rules and keep the faith": Yuppie game-theory language is made synonymous with the language of Ol' Time Religion. Similarly, Clinton gestures toward an America full of high-tech jobs, but labels its promise a 'New Covenant'. At this point in the campaign this sort of intermingling of discourses is working, Every day it seems a new bunch of high-tech executives flock to Clinton's camp while the Bush campaign's 'family values' strategy fails to win a majority of the White Trash Reagan-Democrats appealed to in the New Covenant. Regardless of whether it is coherent of theoretically unified, Clinton's campaign strategy seems to be working because it links radically different elements of white America on a discursive level.

In closing, I would like to emphasize that we bad subjects must find ways of linking all oppressed Americans together, not just white ones. Clinton's apparent success suggests a model for this undertaking, despite the exclusions it practices rather than because of them. Looking at the Clinton campaign's appropriation of popular music, we can see both its strategic intelligence and politico-moral limitations. Clinton had Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop Thinkin' About Tomorrow" played at the end of the convention. This quintessential Baby-Boomer song was juxtaposed to Clinton's obsession with that quintessentially white trash icon, Elvis, whom Clinton identified himself with in his speech, saying Al Gore felt he was doing the "warm-up for Elvis." Like matter and anti-matter, these are two kinds of music that normally shouldn't be brought into contact with one another; it is, however, precisely this fact that makes their juxtaposition so compelling. Still, both artists remain very mainstream and very white, even if their 'whiteness' differs radically. Clearly it will be a lot harder to find third, fourth and fifth songs that forge links to non-white groups which we can 'add to the mix'; it must, however, be done if we are ever to truly mix things up and avoid 'mix-ups' like last May-Day in L.A.

Copyright © Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.