I had occasion yesterday, for the first time in ages, to revisit the second piece I wrote for Bad Subjects, way back in October, 1992. I had distanced myself from it because of the buttons it pushes and my memories of having written it very quickly. But, as I shared it with a student writing about shifting notions of masculinity during the Clinton Era, we realized that it was strangely prescient, particularly in light of the direction his wife Hillary's 2008 Presidential campaign has taken:
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.
Given the success which Hillary has had among people over fifty, including those who were Yuppie thirty-somethings still back in 1992, I wonder if it makes sense to regard her come-from-behind strategy as an attempt to activate nostalgia for her husband's approach to whiteness. Maybe all the talk about Bill's popularity among African-Americans deafened us to the real strength of his politics, namely its realization that there are enough white people who might vote Democratic under the right circumstances to counterbalance those who refuse to do so.