Several weeks after the new Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, took office, the New York Times did a profile on him. The article itself was not momentous or even memorable (it faithfully chronicled Trudeau’s life and rise to power) but what stayed with me was one reader’s comment at the bottom of the article in which Trudeau was described as a privileged member of the elite who had spent his youth snowboarding and smoking pot and his adulthood changing careers. The commentator stated that Trudeau had only gotten elected because of his father’s legacy and his own charisma and went on to say that for most North Americans elections are very much a personality contest. At the time I remember thinking that although cynical, these remarks hold a lot of truth. In both the US and Canadian elections the candidates’ charisma, sense of humour, and ability to inspire are given as much weight – if not more – as their track record, their vision for running the country, and their platforms. This made me think of Hillary Clinton’s second attempt at winning the democratic nomination and my indifference towards it. Is it that I am opposed to her proclaimed convictions or proposed policies? Or is it in fact due to her lacking the ability to inspire?
Hillary Clinton has achieved more in her lifetime than I would ever dream of in three lifetimes. Graduate of the top-ranking women’s college, a Yale-trained lawyer, and the first female senator for New York, Hillary Clinton has spent her life in public service. At the beginning of her career she worked at the Children’s Defence Fund defending adolescents incarcerated in adult prisons. She advocated equal education opportunities for disabled children in the same organisation and continued to champion the rights of families and children after her move from Massachusetts to Arkansas to start a family with Bill Clinton. Back in 1993, long before Obamacare, it was Hillary Clinton who headed a task force to oversee health care reform during the presidency of her husband. When that effort failed due to vociferous opposition from insurance companies and special interests groups, she worked bilaterally with Republicans to provide health care to millions of children. After losing the democratic nomination to Barak Obama in 2008, she set aside a hard-fought campaign and answered his call to service as Secretary of State with utmost loyalty.
One cannot doubt Hillary Clinton’s deep democratic convictions or undermine her life-long dedication to public service. Yet when watching her speak it is hard to get past the composed façade and grasp her passion for social justice or the ideals that have driven her for over forty years. After she released her second memoir in 2013, I watched an interview of hers with Peter Mansbridge on CBC and I remember being incredibly impressed by her answers to questions pertaining to policy and her experiences as Secretary of State. But despite her keen mind, her impressive record, and her detailed platform, she does not resonate with many young people, a significant portion of whom are women. Although there are no polls to quantify it, even in her traditional base of feminist baby-boomers, there is anecdotal evidence of ambivalence. The negative adjectives that I have often come across in articles and opinion pieces are “not authentic” and “robotic”.
Hillary Clinton far from being charismatic is an over cautious politician who relies on hundreds of advisors to inform her every word, every move, and every facial expression. In 2008, during her campaign to win the democratic nomination, after the polls indicated that the public found her soulless she unleashed the famous Hillary cackle. Her politics too are cautious and smack in the centre. She did not get on-board with gay marriage until 2013 after polls showed the majority of Americans support it. Some have argued that this was a calculated change of positions although Clinton herself has claimed it was a personal evolution. Her speeches too are very carefully crafted. She is experienced enough to know that going head-to-head with powerful lobby and special interest groups is an up-hill battle. But next to Bernie Sanders’ revolutionary rhetoric, this type of pragmatism is uninspiring.
But the power to inspire, charisma, and promise of radical change all seem to be the ideals that evoke interest in the younger generations. Charismatic leaders have the ability to mobilise public opinion, to instil in people the aspiration to tackle grand goals. Goals so grand they seem unachievable in one lifetime. Human history is peppered with examples of men and women who have changed its course with their passion and charisma, sometimes delivered in a single momentous speech. Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Keir Hardie, and Martin Luther King Junior all managed to unify a vast number of people under a single banner and to march them toward a common good. Justin Trudeau may be inexperienced for his position but there is nothing he cannot learn from dozens of advisers and experts who surround him. His value lies in having led the Canadian Liberals to victory through his charismatic rhetoric and fresh vision for the country.
In an ideal world we should only have to worry about a candidate’s character, convictions, and proposed platform. However, we do not live in an ideal world and charisma matters in the context of a competitive political landscape. Hillary Clinton is the first woman in history to have a real shot at becoming the leader of the free world. But that in itself is not inspiring if she does not find a way to counter the elation surrounding Bernie Sanders’ call for revolutionary change and the frenzy surrounding Donald Trump’s populist rhetoric.
Until then, I have to admit, I too am ambivalent.