The big "Hillary realism" lie: Clinton supporters present a false choice -- and misread our political moment

"Realist" vs. "idealist" talk misses the point: This is a time when change is not a dream, but what people demand

Published February 1, 2016 12:10PM (EST)

Hillary Cllinton, Bernie Sanders   (Reuters/Brian Snyder/Jim Young/Photo montage by Salon)
Hillary Cllinton, Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Brian Snyder/Jim Young/Photo montage by Salon)

“Democrats and Republicans are no different; they’re all beholden to big money interests, and so I’m voting for Jill Stein.” That is what a member of the Green Party told me as I stood in his front yard in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania, clipboard in hand. I remember protesting—explaining why I was supporting and canvassing for President Obama who, in my opinion, was far from a perfect candidate. The 2012 election was, in my mind, determinative of the fate of the fledgling progressive movement that had been awakened by Occupy Wall Street. Mitt Romney had to lose. Next cycle, I assured my host, progressives would put up a primary challenger. “You’re too young to realize the two parties can’t be fixed,” he replied.

But here we are four years later.

The Democratic presidential race has revealed a cavernous divide within the Democratic Party. Over the past few weeks, media outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times, as well as the usual talking heads, have been weighing in on the growing split between “idealists” and “realists”; Bernie’s dreamers against Hillary’s pragmatists. This dichotomy presents a false narrative. As a Bernie supporter, and especially as a millennial Bernie supporter, I am tired of hearing what I can only describe as pretended wisdom.

Few Americans alive today remember the New Deal’s unprecedented implementation, let alone the realignment that followed, which culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Great Society programs. Most people’s understanding of politics, and what policies are achievable, is largely informed by personal experience. Since the 1980s, the country has largely moved in one direction in terms of economic policies. The winds are beginning to shift, but many are having difficulty believing it.

Although poll data shows that Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont, performs better against the GOP field in a general election than the current Democratic front-runner, according to Real Clear Politics averages; although he draws the biggest crowds of any candidate in the race, and has set the record for most individual donations of any candidate in history; although many voters agree with his message, and trust him, his electability remains a concern among Democrats. Additionally, even if he were to be elected, many worry about the feasibility of his ideas.

Hillary Clinton has been distinguishing herself from the senator by playing up these fears that Sanders, a self-described “Democratic Socialist” is too far removed from ‘politics as usual’ to be a viable candidate.

But the ‘usual’ hasn't always been the usual. In the 1950s, talk of sweeping government reform, like what Sanders has proposed, was commonplace. The United States had just come through the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and World War II. The New Deal had been successful, and was incredibly popular, especially in the South due to its agricultural relief laws. It was this popularity that allowed the Democratic Party to pass civil rights legislation and the Great Society programs—arguably the furthest our federal government has ever reached.

There was a predictable backlash. This is where the“government is too big” narrative comes from: Southern resentment toward civil rights legislation, and by extension, the Democratic Party. The realignment of the South has made sweeping national reforms a political impossibility for the past 50 years.

It is this history that informs Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy. She points to the failure of the Democratic Party to pass universal healthcare in the 1990s, as well as the difficulty faced by President Barack Obama in implementing his agenda, as evidence that incremental change is the only path forward for the Democratic Party. In stark contrast to Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan “yes we can,” Hillary seems to be telling voters “no we can't.” Of course, it might be more accurate to describe her message as “we tried, but couldn't do it back then, so we can’t do it now—let’s settle.”

It is true that in the 1990s, a period of Republican narrative dominance, the Clintons and their New Democrats were able to get many things passed. However, this success was due to the policies they were pushing—Republican initiatives like cuts to welfare and bank deregulation. The New Democrats fashioned themselves as moderates who agreed with the general premise of the GOP’s small government narrative. That’s why in his 1996 State of the Union, President Bill Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over.”

But the New Democrats’ notion that the path to political success lay in the Third Way, or accepting the Republican narrative, or parts of it, was wrong. Third Way amounted to defeatism. Clinton completely ceded control of the frame to the Republicans, ensuring that his party would have to fight uphill battles over the coming decade for even the most basic of reforms. That’s why universal healthcare was dead on arrival in the '90s, and that’s part of the reason why the Affordable Care Act was such a difficult sell to the American people. Of course, the consequences were even farther reaching than just legislative difficulty.

Since the '90s many Democrats have become disheartened and disillusioned as a result of their party’s perceived weakness. Instead of digging their heels in, and preparing for the tough fights ahead, they now resign themselves to limiting their goals such that expectations and hope match only the incremental progress they perceive as feasible. This is dubbed “realism.”

But the “realists” have missed something critical; between 2008 and 2016 something has happened. The ebb and flow of American politics is once again moving left. Not only is the progressive wing of the Democratic Party growing, but the national dialogue has changed—the frame again shifted. That’s because there is an issue that is not being addressed, and a set of ideas whose time has come.

It took two terms with President Obama, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and a few Democratic primary debates with Bernie Sanders, but the corruption of establishment politics due to the influence of money, as well as the greatest wealth inequality our country has seen since the Gilded Age, are the defining issues of a new realignment. The rigged system is, as Amy Davidson of the New Yorker put it, the meta-issue that encompasses all others; it transcends party lines, ideology, generations, skin color, sexuality and gender. Even Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner—and a political outsider—is giving progressive talking points lip service. On the campaign trail he has been speaking out out about “hedge fund guys...getting away with murder,” and the need for the government to be able to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. But Trump isn’t the only Republican making surprising statements. House Speaker Paul Ryan recently said, “Today, if you were raised poor, you’re just as likely to stay poor as you were 50 years ago." The speaker of the House and the Republican presidential front-runner are a far cry from the 2012 GOP, which insisted that the American Dream was just as alive as it had always been, and such talk was “class war” or “the politics of envy.”

Just as the Southern realignment cleared the path for laissez-faire economics, the new realignment underway will make possible—indeed inevitable—the enactment of progressive policies.

And this situation is a serious problem for Hillary Clinton. In every sense of the word, she is the establishment candidate at a time when Americans are calling for an overhaul of the entire system, which will see the end of the current establishment. Though she’s not wrong to assert that change must be built upon, Hillary’s approach to that change seems defeatist to millennial Democrats as well as progressives who believe she is approaching the negotiating table from an already compromised position. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has not outright endorsed anyone in the primary, captured this sentiment when she appeared to tacitly criticize Clinton in a recent speech on the floor of the Senate:

A new presidential election is upon us. The first votes will be cast in Iowa in just eleven days. Anyone who shrugs and claims that change is just too hard has crawled into bed with the billionaires who want to run this country like some private club.

The reality of politics today is that in order to get even half of what you want, you need to ask for the whole farm. No matter how “reasonable” and “achievable” Clinton’s policies may be on paper, she will still face as much opposition as Bernie Sanders would from Congress. So the real question for voters to decide is which of the two candidates’ watered-down policies they prefer. Bernie’s single-payer system might very well get shot down by the GOP, but we could still end up with a public option from that battle—and that’s the point. We should at least have the debate.

Bernie Sanders is exciting people by presenting a contrast to Hillary’s Third Way defeatism. He is reviving the mantra of “yes we can!” Unlike Hillary’s “realists,” Sanders' “idealists” recognize the potential of what can and must be accomplished to save American democracy. Bernie Sanders as the face of the United States will send shockwaves through the political system that will have a ripple effect on the nation. We the idealists are the beginning of a new era, and we’re here to stay. Nobody is going to tell us what we can and cannot achieve. There is no stopping an idea whose time has come. The revolution is here, and the country will never be the same. That’s the reality.

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