MasterClass, the online-learning platform, would probably not exist without a culture shaped by meritocratic mythology. It’s not college but something better—video lessons without the burdens of student-loan debt or the awkwardness of dorm life. Nobody earns a degree from MasterClass, which sells individual subscriptions for $180 a year, but credentials aren’t really the point. MasterClass supplements the grind of work and life with a certain egalitarian flourish. Here, anyone can learn to succeed. Anyone can sit down in front of their computer and watch a video. Anyone can improve themselves.
Founded by David Rogier and launched in 2015, MasterClass does more than advertise an opportunity to learn. The company’s model is simple: it sells access to experts whose bona fides are proven by their fame and by the fact that they are teaching a class. Margaret Atwood teaches writing; Malala Yousafzai, “creating change.” Karl Rove and David Axelrod are co-teaching a class on campaign strategy and messaging. Subscriptions account for 100 percent of the company’s revenue, according to TechCrunch, and it has raised more than $460 million from venture capital to date. MasterClass is now valued at $2.75 billion, CNBC reported in 2021.
With its new White House series, the MasterClass model reaches a new pinnacle. The series begins with Bill and Hillary Clinton, who teach, respectively, “inclusive leadership” and “the power of resilience.” George W. Bush is teaching a class on leadership, with assistance from former First Lady Laura Bush; Condoleezza Rice is an instructor, too. Having the White House on a résumé is apparently enough to satisfy the minds behind MasterClass. It’s harder to tell what’s in it for the instructors. They’re paid (the contract details aren’t publicized, though a 2017 piece in the Hollywood Reporter says that instructors make $100,000 to begin with and receive a portion of the proceeds from their class), but money by itself doesn’t seem like much of a motivation for a couple like the Clintons, who already have plenty. For them, MasterClass seems like an exercise in brand management: an attempt to polish a legacy.
In Bill Clinton’s lecture, the facts of his presidency fade, replaced by the trappings of an expensive-seeming office. Clinton sits in an armchair, ready to impart wisdom. “What does it mean to be a leader?” he asks. “I’ve pursued the answer to this question all my life.” Leadership, he adds, “is about more than personality traits. It’s about what you do, and how you do it.” Absent from this definition is any notion of accountability.
Clinton plows on. He urges students to develop a “framework” for leadership, a set of beliefs that will guide their actions. “For me,” he says, “the framework is that this is a highly interesting and interdependent world with good and bad elements”—whatever that means. To speak of Clinton’s framework as a set of principles or convictions would be to overstate the case. He appears to have none. “If you made a mistake that has calamitous consequences and you won’t own it, well, that’s one thing,” he announces. Bereft of substance, Bill’s class occupies the space between business school and self-help seminar.
Clinton presents a selective view of his presidency and long public life. He’s happy to talk about striking deals with Republicans or how to assemble an effective team, but he’s mostly silent about his failings, such as his abuse of power over Monica Lewinsky and his decision to lie about the same. To judge Clinton by his own, flawed definition of leadership is to find him wanting.
Hillary’s class, by contrast, is more biographical, and its appeal rests on her personality as much as on her qualifications. There is no reason for the average person to take the class unless they buy into its central conceit, which is that Clinton is “resilient.” During the class, she sometimes appears bitter, and not entirely without reason. Even a critical perspective on Clinton must acknowledge the trap in which she found herself. As a person with her own ambitions and political convictions, she became a public target in a country accustomed to seeing political wives as accessories. By the time she entered elected office, the right wing had spent decades whipping up misogynistic conspiracies. This is precisely why Clinton frustrates as well as fascinates. Her radical potential remains unrealized.
In her life and career, the seeds of a more consequential political figure are present. Yet her MasterClass opens with a personal complaint. “My entire life has been captured in job titles and sound bites and a seemingly endless parade of people with lots of opinions about what I should or shouldn’t do, but not very much context,” she says early in her first lesson. She goes on: “This is a chance to share with you the why. Why did I choose the path that I took? Why I feel so strongly about the values that I believe in. And why did I keep going when things got hard?”
Context matters, certainly, but it never really arrives. Instead, we hear the beats of familiar cant. Clinton is no longer on the campaign trail, and despite periodic rumors to the contrary, I think it’s unlikely that she will ever run for office again. Yet Clinton the celebrity is indistinguishable from Clinton the candidate. She explains, as she has many times, that her mother left school in the eighth grade to clean houses. She touts her early commitment to ending child poverty, her professional ambitions as an attorney. She offers up banal definitions and observations. “Values are things that you believe are important in your life, in your work, in your community, that you stand up for, speak out for, work for, defend,” she says. Examples include “bravery, kindness, integrity, honesty, service.” She adds, later, “You just have to believe in yourself.”
Elsewhere, she airs old grudges. “If you are on social media, or if you follow certain people in the press who make absolutist claims from various points on the political spectrum, they set it up so that if you negotiate, you’re somehow conceding that your position isn’t 100 percent perfect, and you’re giving ground to somebody who has a different point of view,” she says. Like her husband, she remains committed to the triangulation that characterizes Clintonesque politics.
The Clintons are experienced at “giving ground,” as she puts it, and this customarily means giving ground to the right. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996, for example—which was crafted alongside Newt Gingrich, signed by Bill, and championed by Hillary—adopted the right’s language of “personal responsibility,” attached onerous work requirements to welfare, and pushed the most desperate Americans further into poverty. In 2016, the Washington Post reported on research from Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer that indicates that hundreds of thousands of Southern families are now living on $2 or less in cash a day as a direct result of the welfare-reform law. That disastrous outcome does not appear to trouble either Clinton; indeed, neither of them mentions welfare reform even once in their classes.
The Clinton approach undermined progress in the 1990s, and there’s no question it would do so now. An ideal negotiation is one where people can save face, Hillary says, which might be true in a boardroom but does not, for the moment, hold in Congress. There, one party is composed, increasingly, of aspiring authoritarians. A negotiation that allows fascists to save face is a negotiation that has failed the American public.
Such issues are absent from the Clintons’ classes. What matters to MasterClass is that the Clintons rose to the top, not that they’ve accomplished anything meaningful for the voters they once served. Their titles are proof of their merit. And the Clintons have bought into their own personal brands.
Hillary speaks later of ambition, assuring her audience that it is not a dirty word for either men or women. Like so much of what she and Bill impart to the listener, this is a true statement on its own. In context, however, it gets more complicated. MasterClass advertises Hillary as a “barrier-smasher,” and she is—but did she smash those barriers for us, or for herself?
The class brings in Huma Abedin, Clinton’s longtime aide and friend, to speak of Clinton’s sympathetic qualities as an employer. That is what we’re meant to admire in Clinton or even aspire to become ourselves: she is a good boss. To Clinton, politics is a boardroom, and the stakes are correspondingly small. In her world, politics is not a site of conflict but a ladder to climb. Even Clinton’s advice on how to manage sexism centers on supporting women in professional meetings. There’s nothing subversive here, nothing collective, nothing real to grab onto. The Clintons today appear to operate in a space where politics is actually suspended. They offer the pursuit of power for power’s sake, wielded benevolently over others. To truly “smash barriers” would be a radical gesture indeed. But doing so would dethrone the Clintons from their high position. It would rip the ladder out from under them, and then burn it.
By the end of both MasterClasses, I was ravenous for substance—a thing the Clintons, and MasterClass generally, can’t offer me. The classes are symptoms of a mordant political culture in which power transforms a person into a celebrity. The Obamas, who have entered the entertainment industry for their second act in public life, represent the logical end point of this trend. They and the Clintons occupy the same strata as Anna Wintour, who teaches a MasterClass on creativity and—you guessed it—leadership: their fame is now the most consequential thing about them. They have narrowed themselves, a fate not predestined but chosen.
Fame doubles some people. Just beyond the public self, there is a shadow: an authentic person. The Clintons, meanwhile, have sold their shadows. In American politics it is common to manufacture a personal myth and then inhabit it so strongly there is nothing else left. Watching both classes, I understood the Clintons believe in their own pablum. Maybe it’s all they have left.
Sarah Jones is a senior writer for New York magazine, where she covers politics. Her first book, The Sin-Eaters, is forthcoming from Avid Reader Press.