The real question facing Iowa Democrats: Can the party survive as is, or is it barreling toward a political revolution?

Clinton vs. Sanders is not about pragmatism vs. idealism, but about the power they wield over the party's survival

Published January 28, 2016 6:19PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)
(Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

As we head into the final weekend before the Iowa caucuses, the argument being waged within the Democratic Party is finally coming into focus. After months of squabbling over relevant but non-foundational issues — such as gun control or single-payer health insurance — the conversation has settled on the real difference between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. It’s not policy; it’s politics.

The two are interconnected, of course. So it would be wrong to say that Clinton and Sanders have identical policy positions. They don’t. But what differences there are don’t stem from disagreements about policy in an intellectual or abstract sense. Rather, they are the result of the two candidates’ fundamentally different visions of how politics not only is — but also should be — done.

The question has generally been framed around Sanders and his so-called theory of change. But that may suggest that Sanders views are idiosyncratic or eccentric, which they are not. In some ways, in fact, his perspective may be more hard-headed and realistic than Clinton’s, despite all of her campaign’s protestations to the contrary. Because Sanders is concerned with fixing what he sees as a structural flaw in the Democratic Party in a way that Clinton simply isn’t.

The flaw can be reduced to a single word: organization. And the question the Democratic Party needs to grapple with — at least in Sanders’ telling — is how it can regain its progressive bona fides in the absence of a healthy and engaged union movement. This is where Sanders’ oft-repeated talk of a “political revolution” is important. It’s not the equivalent of “secret sauce,” as some pundits have argued. To say as much is to sell the Sanders campaign short.

The lack of understanding of what “political revolution” means is to a real extent the Sanders campaign’s fault. Running for office isn’t like writing a policy brief, I know; but I still wish the senator were a little more forthcoming. Because one of the more common criticisms thrown his campaign’s way is that he doesn’t have an answer for how he’ll deal with a recalcitrant, GOP-run Congress. But he does have an answer, if only he’d give it.

His answer, basically, is that he wouldn’t work with or around a Republican Congress. Instead, he would replace it. That’s what “political revolution” means in this context; it means a wave election for Democrats, one that changes the balance of power in Washington and resets the boundaries which decide what is and isn’t “realistic.” The Sanders campaign won’t just say this explicitly, however. I’d imagine they have their reasons; but because they haven’t shared them, I can only guess.

The fuzziness, however, may hurt as much as it helps. Because it’s this lack of forthrightness that allows the Clinton campaign to keep the focus on how a hypothetical President Sanders would operate in the political world as we currently know it — one in which concentrated wealth is far better organized, with a much more vibrant national infrastructure, than anything you’d find today on the left.

The Clinton campaign, and most elite pundits, take this state of play as a given. And they argue that big ideas — such as single-payer health insurance, for example — don’t have a chance in Washington unless they’re zealously pushed by a disciplined political and social movement. Right now, no such thing exists (at least not on the scale that would be necessary). That leads the Clinton campaign to describe Sanders as a fantasist, and to suggest he’s putting the cart before the horse.

But as I noted on Twitter, this isn’t quite right. Sanders has considered this problem. His answer is that it’s Clinton and those like her who have got it backwards. You don’t build political infrastructure and then decide on what policies to advocate, he says. By his thinking, that would be getting the order twisted. First you discover which policies inspire people — and then you take those inspired people and you help them turn themselves into an organized movement:

What Sanders is saying, in effect, is that the way the Democratic Party functions right now is unsustainable; that instead of defending organized labor, its institutional backbone, or politicizing and mobilizing a new constituency to replace it, the party has transformed itself into a vehicle for a more technocratic, elitist form of government. That’s the Democratic Party Clinton envisions for the foreseeable future. To no small degree, she helped create it.

The Clinton campaign and its supporters have at times all but acknowledged that this understanding of politics is neither exciting nor romantic. But such is life, they believe; and we must be realistic. The status quo may seem excessively grim, but change happens slowly, haphazardly, fitfully. It often looks a lot easier — and a lot more beautiful — in retrospect than it does in the moment. Unless something miraculous happens, which is what Sanders is banking on, this is as good as it gets.

That’s the Clinton view, and it’s one of the reasons why the campaign has taken such pains to portray itself as the heir to the Obama presidency — and, in particular, its frustrating mix of progress and disappointment. But the Sanders campaign would say that this is the narrative that’s truly unrealistic. And it’s part of the reason why American government has become so disturbing plutocratic. It is not sustainable; it is a recipe for political apathy and, potentially, the destruction of the Earth’s very climate.

What caucus-goers in Iowa will have to decide soon, ultimately, is which of these two stories strikes them as closest to the real world. Is the Democratic Party on the verge of collapse — as a progressive entity, that is — like the Sanders theory suggests? Or is Clinton closer to the mark by describing it as unpleasant, yes, but durable? Do we need a “political revolution”? Or can the world keep spinning, as fucked up as it is?

What Hillary Clinton Would Say to a Bernie Sanders Supporter

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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