Clinton, Sanders, and Theories of Change

clinton sanders

Despite vast rhetorical differences between the two contenders for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders ultimately advocate similar things. They both support overturning Citizens United, cutting carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, and allowing undocumented immigrants to purchase insurance under the Affordable Care Act. The relatively few policy disagreements tend to arise from a difference in opinion about how to reach the same goal, like expanding access to college. Sanders and Clinton have both noted that either of their administrations would be leaps and bounds better than a Republican president. By these facts, this nomination process should have been restrained and uneventful.

Why, then, is this primary season such a divisive one? Part of it stems from the ad hominem criticisms levied primarily against Secretary Clinton, deriding her as a corporate shill who cannot be trusted to take on moneyed interests. Then again, many of the most prominent progressive economists and journalists believe that Clinton’s plan for Wall Street, with particular care given to regulating non-banks, is broader in scope than Sanders’s. Another grievance by detractors is Clinton’s long and troubling history of supporting military interventions abroad.  But it is unclear that Sanders’s foreign policy would look too different than Clinton’s, and his foreign policy outline lacks much clarity at all. The much more fundamental difference between Clinton and Sanders lies in two widely divergent beliefs about how political change happens.

The Sanders campaign firmly believes it can usher in a “political revolution” defined by high voter turnout and large progressive majorities in Congress. Sanders himself hopes to convince working and middle class white voters to vote in accordance with their economic interests rather their social policy preferences, breaking a decades-old trend that began with Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy. In a speech to Liberty University, Sanders suggested that while “we disagree on [abortion and gay marriage]… there are other issues out there that are of enormous consequence to our country.” He has good reason to believe this could work. In the race to become Burlington’s mayor in 1981, self-described socialist Sanders defeated a five-term incumbent by engaging blue collar white voters in a state Ronald Reagan had carried by six percent the year before. Now, the senator from Vermont hopes that by raising the class consciousness of working people, progressives can gain the seats in Congress necessary to enact his program.

Hillary Clinton has no such ambitions. Just as Sanders’s personal experience in Vermont characterizes his understanding of change, Clinton’s beliefs were formed during the first term of her husband’s presidency, and, in particular, in their failed efforts of health insurance reform. She believes in powerful and intractable interest groups and thinks that opportunities for landmark reform are rare. In 2008, then-Senator Clinton mocked then-Senator Obama on the campaign trail, declaring that she had “… no illusions about how hard this is going to be. You are not going to wave a magic wand and have the special interests disappear.” Her cynicism explains, beyond her intelligence and experience, why Clinton understands the minutiae of policy better than pretty much any public official alive today. She believes that the most important policy happens in ways that cannot be captured by fiery speeches. She understands gridlock as a fact of life in American politics and therefore dedicates herself to circumventing it through obscure rules and footnotes. And despite her best efforts, regulating asset-backed commercial paper markets will never be as sexy as “breaking up the banks” and “making Wall Street pay.”

Ultimately, both candidates are right. There is no singular theory of change. Different moments in history demand different progressive responses. I believe that in the current moment, progressives should nominate a candidate who can best defend the tremendous achievements of the Obama presidency. For now, efforts to convince working-class whites of the virtues of multiculturalism and social safety nets will be fruitless while the far right politics of fear are ascendant and persuasive to many. This is not the time for grand compromises or sweeping electoral gains. The battle of ideas is currently being waged in the trenches of congressional appropriations and regulatory agency appointments, not on the open fields of huge ideas like Medicare for All. To acknowledge this fact is not to be a reactionary or unimaginative—it is to recognize the historical moment.

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