On the Social Harms of Hillary Clinton’s Past Politics


WHEN IT COMES TO SOCIAL ISSUES, Hillary Clinton runs a pretty progressive show. True, her track record isn’t perfect; it’s important to note that she was a supporter of the Defense of Marriage Act — until very recently. But she has long pushed for reproductive rights, including the legality of abortion and access to birth control. She’s been a steady advocate for affirmative action programs. She co-sponsored the original Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2002-2003, which would have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. She now supports same-sex marriage. And, with the exception of same-sex marriage, her voting record backs up these positions.

Unlike her 2008 campaign strategy, which did not emphasize her sex or women’s issues, this time around Clinton is coming out of the gates with women’s issues at the top of her list. She gave her first campaign speech at the Women in the World Summit, highlighting such issues as equal pay, reproductive rights, and the problem of sexual assault.

For many reasons, at least on the surface, voters for whom progressive social policy is a priority have something to be excited about in Clinton beyond the fact that she’s a woman. However, Clinton’s commitment to women and other marginalized groups, both nationally and globally, can be called into question based on her politics in other areas — particularly, her economic and foreign policy positions.

Clinton has long been a staunch supporter of free trade — opening up markets as far and wide as possible. As Secretary of State, she was a main advocate of Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the much-debated and controversial free trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 other countries currently up for fast-tracking in the Senate.

Progressives tend to be wary of trade agreements like the TPP that are modeled after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which is linked to job losses at home due to offshoring, lower wages in the U.S., a host of human rights abuses against foreign workers, and environmental degradation. These consequences disproportionately affect women and the poor, both here and abroad. These staggering statistics show the extent to which those consequences are felt: in the U.S., 74.2% of jobs lost in the apparel and textile industries – industries vulnerable to competition from low-wage countries – belonged to women before NAFTA was enacted, and 112% of net new jobs created in the mid-90’s were lower-wage service jobs.

Most notably, Mexican women have suffered significantly under NAFTA. Reports throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s state that women working in export zones earn 20-30% less than men, work 50-80 hours per week, and suffer frequent physical and sexual abuse, as labor, safety, and other human rights laws are regularly ignored.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is not NAFTA; it’s bigger, and there is more emphasis on the protection of labor rights and the environment. Since running for election, Clinton has pulled back her support for the agreement until environmental and labor protections are beefed up. However, one troubling aspect of the TPP stands to undermine such regulations: the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) system, which allows multinational corporations to sue governments over regulations that could inhibit profits. This could ultimately lead to a weakening of such regulations.

It seems that, as with other free trade agreements, the TPP would be good for corporations but not for human beings — especially for women and the poor. And it seems that Clinton’s hesitancy can be chalked up to campaign strategy.

Clinton’s economic platform isn’t the only part of her politics that is in tension with her progressive social policy. Writing for CounterPunch, Sophie Stephenson calls into question Clinton’s claim that “[w]omen and girls … [are] central to our foreign policy” based on the impact that Clinton-supported U.S. military interventions have had on the rights of women in Middle Eastern and North African countries. Clinton is notably hawkish when it comes to foreign policy, having supported the use of military force in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and potentially Iran in recent years. Stephenson points to Libya and Syria in particular, stating that rights for women in those countries have been “rolled back by decades” due to the rebel groups the U.S. helped bring to power in those countries.

A similar line of argument has been waged for other countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Based on research conducted in Iraq in 2010 by Human Rights Watch, the organization reports that “[t]he deterioration of security has promoted a return to some traditional justice practices and religiously inflected political extremism, which have had a deleterious effect on women’s rights, both inside and outside the home.” The organization attests to widespread sexual exploitation of women and girls, intimidation from participation in public, rising abuses against media workers, and abuse of detainees. And, while it remains to be seen whether things will start looking up for women in Afghanistan with Ghani as president, the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance and president Karzai upheld Sharia law, while the people of the nation confronted the ravages of war, leaving women assaulted on two fronts.

One final intervention I’ll note is the less-widely-discussed coup that Clinton supported in Honduras in 2009. With her blessing, and with the intention of ramping up the War on Drugs, the Obama administration provided military support to a rebel group and backed the installation of a new government — both of which have committed egregious human rights crimes against women, journalists, and political opponents.

Whenever complex economic or foreign policy matters arise, there are many factors to consider, and unintended consequences are often inevitable. Free trade policy and the many military conflicts of the past two decades are objectionable on a number of fronts; we should acknowledge that harm to women and other marginalized communities is one of them.

If social issues are your highest concern, it’s not enough to look at the explicit social policy positions of a candidate. Because, to the women in Mexico, Libya, Syria, the Middle East, and anywhere else affected by U.S. free trade and interventionist policies, Clinton’s commitment to progressive social policy at home doesn’t mitigate the harm of her politics as a whole.

For these and other reasons, I plan to cast my vote for Bernie Sanders in the primaries.

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