Strategies of the less powerful
Ezra Klein, via Rebecca Traister’s excellent article on Hillary Clinton, is beginning to recognize that Clinton’s political style is different from what he and many others expect in a candidate. The reason is that our mental picture of a presidential candidate is gendered male. We expect male behaviors, although when a woman adopts many of those behaviors she is perceived to be wrong.
Style is often an outcome of substance, and the substance of politics is strategy. Clinton’s style is different because her strategies are different from what we are accustomed to as well. Because behavior and strategy are intertwined, women must use different strategies.
Although Clinton has held many powerful positions, she developed her strategies when she was young, when she was less powerful and when the differential in privilege between white men and every other group was larger than it is today. It is still large, as Klein’s article begins to recognize, but we are coming to a place where we can talk about it. Because that gap remains, Clinton cannot use similar strategies to those of white male candidates.
Privilege is the power conferred on a person by his membership in a group. Individuals hold more or less power, despite privilege, but privilege determines their options. Clinton understands this.
In contravention of the strategic maxim not to demonstrate one’s abilities at card tricks to one’s poker partners, I am going to expand on some of the strategies that the less powerful learn. They come from my own experience and analysis. They all have appeared in general strategic analyses – Sun Tzu, for example. But the powerless must put them together in particular ways. As those of lower privilege come to positions of national power, it is helpful that we all understand these things. They can even lead to better governance.
First, the strategies of the other two contenders for the presidency. Donald Trump’s is I Am The Best, The Most Powerful. Bernie Sanders’s is I Have The Key To The Revolution. Both are powerful with particular constituencies. Both have large vulnerabilities: Trump’s can lead to authoritarianism, and Sanders’s requires a great deal of planning that he seems not to have done. Both are strategies that the privileged can use more easily than others. People are more likely to believe those simple assertions when they come from the privileged.
Here are some precepts I see in Clinton’s strategy.
Know the opposition. Understanding the more powerful is utterly necessary to the less powerful. Slaves must understand their masters. Wives must understand their husbands. At a very basic level, you must understand those who can easily wreak harm on you.
Do your homework. You will be questioned and doubted at every turn. The facts are the only way you can deal with those questions and doubts. The privileged are less questioned and can turn questions away more easily.
Develop a thick skin. Not only will you be questioned and doubted, you will be attacked when you respond. You will be attacked before you respond. Homework is your friend, but you will have to endure the attacks.
But don’t look like it. Smile a lot. Don’t whip out those facts unless you have to. Make it look easy. It keeps the opponents off-guard.
Develop allies. Reach out to those who can help. Cooperate. Understand their concerns. Their friendly questioning will help you to prepare for the less friendly kind.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. You will be criticized for being too intense, too shouty, too wonky, too one-issue. If you attack too much, you will put people off. You must learn to wait for opportunities and to seize them.
No more f**ks to give. The fatigue of being attacked for who and what you are, the nonsense and ego spouted by the privileged, can be converted to serenity. This helps with waiting for opportunity and allows a sunnier disposition and healthier mental set.
Barack Obama and Clinton have combined these precepts in their own ways, very effectively. Osama bin Laden used the waiting game effectively. Muhammed Ali floated like a butterfly. Obama has been very effective during his presidential period of no more f**ks to give. Clinton’s speech last week was well-timed and hit all the targets Trump has been handing to her.
This combination of precepts can also lead to a much more collaborative and democratic leadership style. Those who have had to understand the more powerful will remain alert to changes in their environment. Diffusion of power means that more people will feel they have a personal stake in your program.
The Trump and Sanders strategies tend to center power and weaken ability to deal with changes in external conditions. Although Trump and Sanders promise quick change, that quick change requires widespread buy-in. At the same time, since Trump and Sanders individually are the carriers of their messages, that buy-in becomes less likely.
Matt Yglesias recognizes some of these strategic factors in assessing Clinton’s coming campaign against Trump. As more non-white-men move into positions of power, they will normalize a wider variety of strategies and behaviors that we think of as leadership.
Graphic by Laura Olin, commemorating Clinton’s winning a majority of delegates.