The Sanders Offensive


The Democratic primary race isn’t a struggle between competing theories of change, as my friend and fellow Progressive writer Andrew Tynes asserts in his recent article. It is instead a struggle between competing visions—one defensive, the other offensive—of how the Democratic Party should respond to the historical moment in which we find ourselves today. U.S. political discourse has moved consistently rightward over the past few decades, during which evangelical Christian and libertarian conservatism have thrived as New-Deal-era progressivism has effectively disappeared from mainstream politics. Hillary’s response to this development is to stick with the approach previously adopted by Bill and Barack, deciding which policies she supports based on what she expects an increasingly conservative Congress would allow her to pass into law. Bernie’s response is to directly challenge this growing popularity of the Right by leading what he hopes will become a political revolution and striving to inspire a renewed progressive movement. Clinton’s vision is thus based not on a theory of change but a commitment to continuity with the Democratic leaders that preceded her, in contrast to which Sanders’ commitment to redefining the Democratic party platform draws its appeal.

Hillary Clinton, like her husband during his presidency and most Democratic politicians since the Reagan revolution, takes conservatism’s rise as a given and endorses a compromising response it. Her aim is no more than to anchor political discourse at a reasonably centrist point in the political spectrum as the Overton window continues to move rightward. Insofar as her ideals are actually progressive, a proposition that lies in stark contrast to her political record, her progressivism is a fundamentally defensive one. She hopes to mitigate the effects of conservatism’s increasing popularity without offering a plan for how to combat it.

For example, Clinton wants to merely expand on the reforms included in the Dodd-Frank bill and “further rein in major financial institutions,” rather than take on a deregulatorily-inclined Congress and challenge the very existence of “too big to fail” banks. Her willingness to antagonize the financial sector is thus certainly limited, even though her specific plans for banking reform may, for now, be more detailed than those proposed by Sanders. Clinton also wants only to “defend the Affordable Care Act” from Republicans’ attacks and further improve upon it, rather than trying to replace it with the more progressive Medicare-for-all plan which she suggests would be preferable, if politically feasible. “The last thing we need is to throw our country into a contentious debate about health care again,” she argues.

Sanders, however, encourages exactly that kind of debate. He recognizes the strength of the conservative tide and identifies the need not for compromise and pragmatism, but a coherent Democratic response to the Right—an ideological offensive launched by progressives against conservatives. He lambasts not just the Republican administrations that have taken advantage of the conservative turn in U.S. politics since Reagan in order to, for example, gather support for militaristic ventures in the Middle East. He is also critical of the Democrats who have failed to adequately respond to the continued rightward shift in political discourse, abandoning their support of the basic welfare policies and New-Deal progressivism that defined the Democratic Party during the Great Depression and postwar years. “We need a mass grassroots movement,” he proclaims, “that looks the Republicans in the eye and says, ‘If you don’t vote to demand that your wealthy people start paying their fair share of taxes, if you don’t vote for jobs, raising the minimum wage and expanding Social Security, we know what’s going on, we’re involved, we’re organized, you are outta here if you don’t do the right thing.’” In this sense, Sanders’ campaign is committed to changing the way in which the Democratic Party, and the American Left more generally, deals with the growing appeal of conservatism to the U.S. electorate. His calls for “revolution” are for a transformation of the Democrats’ self-conception from that of a party of liberal moderacy to a party of committed progressivism.

It is with this interpretation of Sanders’ campaign in mind that progressively inclined college students like myself prefer Sanders over Clinton as the Democratic candidate in the 2016 presidential elections. The Democratic Party must finally put its foot down and challenge the continuing rightward shift in American politics. Whatever congressional obstacles that Sanders might encounter while trying to implement his policies, and however impractical his reforms may appear to future policy wonks in the Economics department or the Woodrow Wilson School, he is the only candidate trying to fundamentally challenge the growing popularity of conservatism. Clinton’s campaign represents only a promise to keep us anchored where we are, under threat from a movement that will ultimately nominate a race-baiting demagogue or a conservative ideologue as its presidential candidate. The impracticality and idealism of Bernie’s platform are thus features, while Hillary’s commitment to continuity with Bill, Barrack, and the Democratic establishment is a bug.

In this sense, as skeptical as I am about the efficacy of his old-fashioned brand of progressivism, I support a Sanders ticket in the 2016 presidential elections. Those of you who are similarly tired of the Right’s political and ideological advance in recent years should too.

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