The Democratic Party is locked in a titanic struggle for its soul – an existential battle over the true meaning of what it means to be a Democrat, to be a progressive, to be a liberal.
Clinton versus Sanders has, for many reasons, brought the old fight to the surface. It’s worth working through if only because the end result can and should be a united party that firmly stands for something. But what is that?
There are four views of change, four visions of progress, which separate Sanders and Cinton.
Is this difference dramatically over-stated? We’re lefties, no matter what we call ourselves, so we tend to hyperventilate a bit over things like this. More importantly, we’ve been having this fight more or less since Jimmy Carter, a Christian Southerner, captured the nomination in 1976. It’s never been resolved. Through the resurgence of Teddy Kennedy in 1980 and the arrival of the Clinton DLC in 1992 we’ve opted more for mush, being primarily not-Republicans.
Yes, we got Obamacare in 2009. Aside from that, it’s hard to find a single truly progressive piece of legislation that Democrats alone have championed and passed.
The pent-up energy is real and the debate between the supporters of Clinton and Sanders constantly spills over everywhere on the ‘net. All Democrats are weary of being not-Republicans and can sense that the opposition is a completely spent force. It’s up to us to define who we are and make our case. So who are we? It seems to break down into these debates over and over, depending entirely on the personalities involved at any given moment.
1. Idealism versus Pragmatism
The simplest breakdown between candidates and supporters is a view of how change is created, managed, and realized. Does fundamental and real change in big leaps forward or in increments hard won at every step?
This argument often breaks down demographically by age. It’s far too easy for Clinton supporters to see Sanders’ team as young and naive, unaware of the time spent in the trenches that it took to win the small victories we have achieved over the last generation. That argument is, reasonably, frustrating when it far too easily becomes patronizing. After all there is a case to be made for large scale systemic change especially given how much change is being digested socially and economically already.
There is a good case to be made for government to be in front of the obvious changes that shape the world today. Our political system, however, favors the development of consensus and necessarily moves slowly. More importantly, Republicans are not going to go away tomorrow.
The easiest way to resolve this debate is to say that there is room for both – for the ideal and the deal, the energy of youth and the experience of age. But doing so does more than punt – it makes a strong case for Clinton to the extent she portrays herself as both a liberal and a pragmatist.
2. Executive Leadership
This is a view that I tend to espouse, and have articulated in Barataria. The principle is that the system we have, like it or not, is based on a strong executive that necessarily has to balance many competing views in order to actually get things done. This view sees managing change as an attempt to balance different interests and pull them along as necessary.
The Sanders counter is that intellectual leadership, a new way of seeing and doing, is far more important than ever. Call this the “revolution lite” view of Sanders, it stresses his consistency over the years as a champion of working people – even as they kept taking it on the chin.
Which style of leadership is the most important? Again, it’s easy to punt and see both, but the true Sanders followers often pull out the “power corrupts” card at that stage. They don’t trust Clinton because she’s been too quick to make a deal, which is to say that what could be seen as her greatest strength they see as her greatest problem. She’s already sold out, long ago, and can’t be trusted.
3. Follow the money!
This position was articulated very well by Paul Krugman in his regular column. It comes down to this – what is the greatest problem facing the US today?
If you say it’s the way money has corrupted our political system, the odds are you are for Sanders. If you see the problems we have as a nasty cauldron of intolerance and separation, you’re probably for Clinton.
This view tends to cleave the supporters along racial lines, which is to say lines that are poisonous to the cause, the party, and the nation. White people with some level of investment in the system see the corruption as a huge problem largely because they don’t see any other real barriers to their success. Non-whites see many other barriers to their success built into the system, essentially racism in many different forms.
There is no resolution to this debate. Both sides have a good point, but talking past each other or, even worse, deliberately antagonizing each other will pull us apart. More on that later.
4. You say you want a revolution?
Some Sanders supporters do not have much time for the political system we have. They see this as a revolution, a war of sorts between “The 1%” or “The Banksters” and the rest of the world. You’re either on one side, or the other.
In this view, Clinton is part of the system and as good of an emblem as to what has to be overcome for real progress as anyone. There isn’t a lot of difference between her and the Republicans, it goes, given that she has been bought and paid for by the same ruling class.
This view takes at least two forms, which I’ll call the light side and the dark side. On the light side, it’s critical to push the revolution wherever we can. We wont’ win Congress over right away? We’ll get it next time. It’s better to stand up and fight to show that we can first take a stand, for once, and win over people where we can.
On the dark side we have the “Bernie Bros”, the name for the harshest warriors. They are dismissive of those not “on their side”, as you’d expect from revolutionary believers. People who haven’t seen the light? Tools. The actions of this group have cause Sanders, himself a decent and respectful person by nature, to apologize to the Clinton campaign.
Whether from the light side or the dark side, there is no dealing with the hard-core. They believe the nation is divided and the lines of war are drawn. At their worst, they believe what is essentially right-wing rhetoric that the nation is divided and engaged in a cultural war. There is no room for a call for unity because unity is impossible. At their best, they get to call the Clinton team the naive ones – the ones that can’t see the war in front of them.
Which view of change will win out in the end? The fourth group may not ever be brought fully into the Democratic Party fold if Sanders is not the nominee. But the others can be if we all focus on what it important. Progress is possible, but condescension and exclusion won’t get us there. Leadership is essential in many forms if we are indeed to ever make progress, too. And there are many problems in this nation, some of which are indeed made much worse by the fundamentally corrupt systms we rely on at all levels.
It all depends on your view of change as to where you are now. But the future depends on your respect and commitment. If you care about progress this is a debate you should care about – but not to the exclusion of views that are different from yours.