This election is about the system, not the candidates: Robert Reich clarifies the Clinton-Sanders debate

Robert Reich explains what's driving the election — it's about whether Americans really want to change the system

Published January 27, 2016 4:14PM (EST)

Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton   (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)
Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)

Robert Reich is one of the saner, most lucid voices in our political discourse. A Democratic policy wonk, Reich is constantly asked whose policies make the most sense for the middle class: Hillary Clinton's or Bernie Sanders's? This is another way of asking him who he thinks liberals and progressive should vote for.

In his latest blog post, Reich gets as the core of the Clinton-Sanders debate. The choice between these candidates is a complicated one, whether progressives admit it or not. Much depends on how cynical or hopeful you are about the prospects for change in this country. It's certainly easier to be cynical, given the intransigence and corruption in Washington. Reich elaborates:

“Detailed policy proposals are as relevant to the election of 2016 as is that gaseous planet beyond Pluto. They don't have a chance of making it, as things are now. The other day Bill Clinton attacked Bernie Sanders's proposal for a single-payer health plan as unfeasible and a 'recipe for gridlock.' Yet these days, nothing of any significance is feasible and every bold idea is a recipe for gridlock.”

Reich is right, of course. If it were merely a matter of deciding who has better ideas, a better vision for the country, the choice would be far simpler. We're not electing a dictator, though, and nothing of import is achieved in Washington without compromise. Obama has done more than anyone could've expected, given the rank obstructionism he's had to face, but there's no doubt he had to capitulate to entrenched interests in a thousand different ways to accomplish what he did - that's how our broken system works.

Asking what's desirable is not the same as asking what's possible, and that's really what this choice is about. If the question is, who is best equipped to manage the mangled system we have, the answer is Hillary Clinton – she's very much a product of that system. If the question is, who is best equipped to manage the system we should have, it's Bernie Sanders. Reich puts it well:

“This election is about changing the parameters of what's feasible and ending the choke hold of big money on our political system. I've known Hillary Clinton since she was 19 years old, and have nothing but respect for her. In my view, she's the most qualified candidate for president of the political system we now have. But Bernie Sanders is the most qualified candidate to create the political system we should have, because he's leading a political movement for change. The upcoming election isn't about detailed policy proposals. It's about power – whether those who have it will keep it, or whether average Americans will get some as well.”

I'm not sure the stakes of this election could be summed up any better than that. Every election the conversation centers – at least on the Democratic side – on policy. But, as Reich points out, research shows that the “preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically nonsignificant impact upon policy.” Policymakers are in the grip of monied interests, and the typical citizen is a passive observer. (Side note: the study Reich cites covered the years before Citizens United, which means citizen impact on public policy is even less now).

This election is not about the candidates; it's about the system. Again, Reich explains it better than I can:

“If you're one of the tens of millions of Americans who are working harder than ever but getting nowhere, and who understand that the political-economic system is rigged against you and in favor of the rich and powerful, what are you going to do? Either you're going to be attracted an authoritarian son-of-a-bitch [Trump] who promises to make America great again by keeping out people different from you...Or you'll go for a political activist [Sanders] who tells it like it is, who has lived by his convictions for fifty years, who won't take a dime of money from big corporations or Wall Street or the very rich, and who is leading a grass-roots 'political revolution' to regain control over our democracy and economy.”

If this election is indeed about the system, then the real choice is between Sanders and Trump, two outsiders who (for radically different reasons) can't be bought off. The difference is that Trump is an independent billionaire pawning himself off as a populist, whereas Sanders has an unimpeachable record in politics stretching back half a century. Trump feeds on half-uttered grievances; Sanders is inspiring millions of voters to re-engage in the process and return our democracy to the people in whose name it was erected.

Reich is right that Clinton is the most qualified candidate for the system we have. She's vastly superior to all the Republican alternatives, and if real change isn't possible, she may well make the best president. But it's clear by now that the system can withstand establishment politicians on either side without sacrificing much. I don't know if Sanders can win. And I don't know if he can enact the sort of changes we need. Sanders himself is skeptical, which is why he's trying to bring so many new people into the process, which is the only way anything significant gets done.

In any case, Reich did everyone a service by clarifying what this election ought to be about. Clinton is the best candidate for the world we live in; Sanders is the best candidate for the world we want to live in. That's what this debate is about.

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By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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2016 Elections Aol_on Bernie Sanders Democratic Party Hillary Clinton Robert Reich