Why I believe Hillary's billionaire backers support her reforms

Published on June 05, 2016

Over the course of Hilary Clinton's presidential campaign, lots of people have expressed doubts about the sincerity of her proposed reform. A major sticking point is her obviously strong connections to elite financiers and the contributions they've made to both her campaign and to the Clinton foundation. It seems like such strong financial support from those most benefitting from the system of great inequality would undermine her ability to achieve the reforms she's outlined. And she has outlined lots of serious reforms around college and healthcare, which will, according to Hillary's official campaign website, "be fully paid for by limiting certain tax expenditures for high-income taxpayers."

I struggled with this discrepancy until I compared her promises to those made during the progressive era in the early 1900s, as I was reading "A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn. Zinn claims that the reforms initiated in the early 1900s (such as worker's compensation, santiation inspections of food and workspaces, and limits on weekly working hours) were initiated with the support of the same large businesses that would be regulated. According to Zinn, their primary intentions weren't to improve the lives of their employees, but rather to diffuse the great political energy that was gathering for fundamental reform. The modest concessions aligned with the long term interests of the wealthy and powerful.

In an example given in Zinn's book, Theodore Roosevelt once wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge about railroad lobbyists opposing the Hepburn Act, which allowed the federal government to regulate and limit railroad fares. He said "I think they are very short-sighted not to understand that to beat it means to increase the movement for government ownership of the railroads." Roosevelt believed measured reforms would placate demands for fundamental change, and they did.

It was a time when there was a major sentiment that the system was rigged, and when socialism was a viable political option. Today, we find the two most popular candidates beyond Hillary are a socialist and an anti-free-trade, anti-establishment maverick. There is clearly a tide of energy in the country questioning the obscene levels of economic inequality, the absurd price of higher education, and the grim stagnation of real wages. The 2016 presidential election really seems to be a choice between upheaval and incremental improvement. So when Hillary claims to want to make state universities debt-free for all students willing to work ten hours per week, I really do believe that the wealthiest elite support her in pushing a modest goal to help out American citizens - and making sure they don't challenge the system.

Whether that's good enough for you is another matter. There's definitely appeal in promises of radical change. But when it comes to the credibility of the promises made by the presidential candidates, Hillary's promises seem the most credible in historical context - because of her ties to those perched atop the inequality in America.