As I’ve been reading Hillary Clinton’s What Happened, her bestselling memoir, I experienced a curious and disturbing feeling.
That I’d been here before.
That I had felt these feelings not so long ago, concerning events here in Canada.
I am posting this, mostly to try to articulate this feeling. I can’t help reading the title not in a calm Hillary Clinton voice as a declaration, but with a question mark after it (as in “What happened?!!”) to be muttered or moaned in the morning-after agony. While she’s in a great position to tell her own story, I’m not sure she really gets what happened, if indeed anyone does so soon after the event.
Add this to your list of explanations for November 2016, when an election didn’t go quite as predicted. There are already a series of factors that are invoked to explain what happened to the American election campaign, as though it weren’t actually the choice of millions of people in the electorate, but something created by some sort of conspiracy.
- It might be the Russians.
- It might be the voter suppression.
- It might be the unprecedented intervention of the FBI Director in the last couple of weeks, swaying voters.
You already know all that, right?
So let me add my small something to the conversation. In 2011 we had a federal election in Canada, one that pushed some of the same buttons of outrage and despair.
- Michael Ignatieff led the Liberals
- Stephen Harper led the Conservatives
- Jack Layton led the NDP
- Gilles Duceppe led the Bloc Quebecois
- Elizabeth May led the Green Party
I inhaled the coverage like an addict, and –recalling the days when I used to smoke—not enjoying the sensations at all. I’ll point to some striking similarities to the current American election, observed after the fact as I started experiencing something like déjà vu in thinking about Hillary and her defeat last fall. Our system is totally different from the American one, our discourse substantially different as well, so you may not accept the parallels I make, connections that are personal for me.
At the time of the 2011 election no one seemed to expect that
- The Liberals would be annihilated, in their worst ever showing
- Layton’s NDP would become the opposition in their best ever showing
- Harper’s Conservatives would build on their minority standing to take a majority
- Duceppe was smacked down, caught in the NDP crossfire
- And May’s Greens took their first seat
The exciting good news — Layton & May– did not compensate for the main story, Harper’s accession to a virtual throne, and a terrifying period of abuses of power. How does any of this resemble what happened to the USA and Hillary Clinton? I see at least two parallels, even if one may be irrelevant.
- While Ignatieff’s platform was activist, he was outflanked on the left by Layton & the NDP, very much the way Clinton’s thunder was stolen by Bernie Sanders: but I don’t think this matters very much.
- The main similarity that I can’t forget is in the way the conservative discourse –whether in attack ads or through the actual media coverage—dictated the popular perception of the candidate, and framed the conversation.
And so it didn’t matter what Hillary Clinton or Michael Ignatieff proposed, not when the predominant discussion was entirely shaped by various forms of negative attack discourse:
- Ignatieff was introduced to the electorate a couple of years before the 2011 election via Conservative attack ads that suggested Ignatieff wasn’t coming back for us, that he was really more in it for himself. The Liberals were never able to shake this off, never able to define Ignatieff successfully, never able to fully escape from the damage of ads like these, as their discourse was often caught up in replying and debating the questions as framed in the attack ads. It must have been very humiliating.
- The conversation between Trump and Clinton in 2016? From here it seemed that Clinton was doing well according to the polls. Both candidates had attack ads. For example, here’s one of Trump’s
The election is over. If it were a matter of whose ads were subtler? I think Hillary deserves to win. But does an opera reviewer get to decide elections? i don’t think so.
Here are two different ads, just for the fun of it.
And I watch this ad below, and then wonder.
My mind still boggles that any Democrat supporter who saw that could have missed voting. Yes she won the popular vote, but not by much, and not in the states that might have swayed the outcome (meaning Wisconsin & Michigan, to name two). How could the election be so close? Why wasn’t it a landslide?
Let’s set aside the conspiracy theories, that Russian hacking might have tipped the election in Wisconsin & Michigan, or the suppression of voters via the rules such as they are.
But I wonder if you see why I’m reminded of Ignatieff, a candidate whose political career is overshadowed and indeed framed entirely by the way he was portrayed by the opposition. The word in my head as I think of Ignatieff as a precursor of Hillary’s 2016 run, is “emails”, meaning the largely bogus question that dominated the American campaign. It doesn’t matter what Ignatieff promised he would do, as he never had the chance to really show us.
Ditto Hillary. While there was a huge constituency who did hear what Hillary was promising the voter turnout apparently let her down. I tend to be a skeptic, to adhere to the notion of Occam’s Razor: that the simplest explanation is usually the right one. I don’t believe in conspiracies usually. Maybe this is nothing more than the combination of electoral polls predicting Hillary’s victory combined with GOP legwork on election day, getting out their vote, with the help of voter suppression, a very troubling activity that is legal and therefore not to be confused with a conspiracy.
Like Ignatieff, like George McGovern before her, Hillary is a series of hypotheticals, a poignant series of possibilities that will never be realized. My big hope for Ignatieff now is not political but artistic, the slim possibility (depending on my ability to persuade a particular collaborator) that Ignatieff ends up in an opera I hope to write, about a larger than life icon.
But I am very conflicted reading this book, What Happened. It reminds me of what might have been, a future that can never be. Yes it sometimes makes me laugh but the laughter is painful.