Angie Maxwell, a political science professor and director of the University of Arkansas’ Diane D. Blair Center for Southern Politics and Society, moderated the conversation with Hillary Clinton on Nov. 30, 2022. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate).
Finding a place for trusted, accurate information is one of the biggest problems facing our democracy, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a sold-out crowd at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville Wednesday evening.
It’s “a dagger at the heart of democracy” and there’s no easy answer for how to solve it, Clinton said.
“If you live in a world of disinformation and you have no idea who to believe or who to trust, by definition a democracy can’t work because a democracy requires at least a minimum of discussion, debate, listening to one another and maybe trying to reach principled compromise to get something accomplished,” she said.
As the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, Clinton said she learned a lot of lessons about disinformation and said she didn’t know what was happening online until it was too late.
One example is Pizzagate, a conspiracy theory that Clinton was part of a child trafficking ring that operated out of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. A North Carolina man who believed the story, drove to the restaurant to investigate, where he fired an assault rifle. While no one was injured, he was sentenced to four years in prison.
People combatting disinformation need “to understand better how to deprogram people” who believe false information like this, Clinton said.
“We know the big lie works if you repeat it enough, and social media is the big lie on steroids if you’re selling a big lie,” she said. “And so we have to do a lot more to fight back however we can.”
Angie Maxwell, a political science professor and director of the University of Arkansas’ Diane D. Blair Center for Southern Politics and Society, moderated Wednesday’s discussion.
The lecture was presented in conjunction with We the People: The Radical Notion of Democracy, an exhibition that features historical documents like original prints of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence alongside works of art.
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The United States is still debating what “we the people” means and who it includes, but those arguments are healthy because there’s been a constant pressure to expand the meaning of “we the people,” Clinton said. But there’s also been resistance to that expansion.
“We have seen the kind of pushback that has resulted in all sorts of claims about elections that were without basis in fact or evidence, but motivated by a deep fear of expanding ‘we the people’ to include all of us,” she said.
The push and pull that results in progress sometimes and regression at others is “an inherent, central struggle in the American journey,” Clinton said.
For example, members of the LGBTQ community are still fighting for inclusion, as exemplified by ongoing legal challenges across the country. A trial against Arkansas’ first-in-the-nation ban on gender-affirming health care for transgender youth resumed this week.
In Washington, the Senate approved legislation Tuesday to enshrine same-sex and interracial marriage in federal law. The House approved the original bill but must vote again after the addition of religious liberty protections by the Senate.
“As comforting as it is to see what the Congress did yesterday on a bipartisan vote in both houses, it’s not over,” Clinton said.
That’s because social and cultural movements rooted in privacy, autonomy and individual decision-making run counter to what many people, including several members of the Supreme Court, want to see, she said.
In June, the court overturned Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion. The court issued what Clinton called “a very badly argued, badly reasoned opinion” in which Justice Samuel Alito argues the right to an abortion is not included in the U.S. Constitution.
“It is troubling to me that the court took that position, obliterating basically the right to privacy because the right to privacy, yeah it’s not mentioned in the constitution, but neither are AR-15s,” Clinton said.
Despite all the challenges, Clinton said she believes democracy will “absolutely” survive.
“I think we saw some good examples of that in this midterm election in lots of places, and it didn’t happen by accident,” she said. “People were willing to run, people were willing to stand up and speak out.”
‘Committed to it’
A number of Arkansas’ Democratic legislators and former candidates were in the audience Wednesday, including Chris Jones, the party’s gubernatorial candidate who lost to Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanders in November.
“It was really good to hear her put our sort of contemporary situation into historical context with a view toward what we can actually do,” he said after the lecture.
Upon spotting Jones after Clinton’s lecture, several audience members lined up to shake the former candidate’s hand and take photos. He mingled with the crowd for about 20 minutes and the impromptu scene felt similar to some of his campaign rallies.
As for what comes, Jones said he’s not sure.
“The race is over, but the commitment continues,” he said. “I’m in Arkansas, we’re committed to it. She gave some good wisdom and advice on what one can do to make sure we move the agenda forward.”
One thing Clinton urged people not to do is avoid the political process just because it’s hard.
“I don’t think any political defeats or victories are permanent,” she said. “They become permanent if you don’t contest them, if you don’t speak out, if you don’t make a case, if you don’t try to be part of a smart, effective opposition and if you don’t also pay attention to what the people you’d like to represent are interested in.”
Video of Clinton’s lecture is available in its entirety at www.crystalbridges.org.
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