The Democratic Primary miracle: Why Sanders vs. Clinton is just the beginning

For the first time in ages, a primary is centered around substantive differences. It's a bigger deal than you think

Published February 2, 2016 10:57AM (EST)

Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Mark Kauzlarich/Mary Schwalm/Photo montage by Salon)
Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Mark Kauzlarich/Mary Schwalm/Photo montage by Salon)

Political reporters might have written their template for post-Iowa Democratic primary pieces last summer. Everyone was fairly confident that the caucuses would signify the first step to a coronation of Hillary Clinton; the only unknown was which demographically appropriate running mate she would choose. Plug in the numbers for the also-rans later and voila, instant think piece.

But that’s not how it turned out. A 74-year-old self-proclaimed Democratic socialist drew the biggest crowds. Iowa ended up as the place where Clinton needed a victory to shift her opponent’s momentum in the first in the nation primary in New Hampshire. And Iowa ended in a virtual tie, which considering where the race began is a monumental achievement.

It may be important to consider why the comfortable narrative went off the tracks, why the anointed candidate didn’t have as smooth a ride as expected. Maybe it was just a pre-vote flirtation, a dalliance similar to the infatuation with Howard Dean in 2004. But I think it’s something more dramatic. I think it’s the culmination of more than a decade of progressive organizing on something quite unusual in politics: policy.

It might sound strange to suggest that policy doesn’t normally play a major role in party debates. But the 2008 Democratic primary was largely about affect and identity; the two leading candidates didn’t differ much on policy. Prior to that, Democratic elections were often characterized by a split between “beer-track” and “wine-track” voters, between candidates who appealed to wealthy white liberals (Hart, Bradley, Dean) and those who sought and received support from the poor and working classes (Mondale, Gore, Kerry). Incidentally, it’s notable that polls show Bernie Sanders capturing those white working-class voters, if not a similar share of African-Americans and Latinos.

Point being, those prior elections were decided more on the basis of allyship than an ideological preference. But since the beginning of the Bush years, a large contingent of progressives, with a perspective typically excluded from the traditional media, found one another online and used new publishing tools to proclaim their beliefs. They didn’t buy the case for war with Iraq. They didn’t believe Social Security was in crisis, and if anything they saw a case for expansion. They envisioned a society with humanity toward people of color, immigrants, and the LGBT community. They thought the linkages between Democratic Party elites and corporate executives damaged the party’s message and its ability to push beyond a narrow, technocratic range of solutions to pressing problems. They wanted higher wages and a more egalitarian country, where finance shrunk as a proportion of the economy and corporate power was more muted.

These general principles started on blogs. While that energy splintered out to more professional organizations and the larger “netroots,” Occupy Wall Street brought in a more diverse set of voices. Anxiety about debt, particularly from students, amplified the critique. It’s worth pointing out that the Sanders grassroots coalition features many leaders of the Occupy movement, and the spirits at least mirror one another, if they don’t match.

Since the summer, these more disparate energies focused on the first contested presidential primary on the left in eight years. If Sanders wasn’t the standard-bearer for this, it would have been someone else. Because we’re seeing an actual debate over not means but ends.

Hillary Clinton supporters want to elide these differences, and say that every Democrat shares the same goals, only with different methods to get there. Clinton wants universal health insurance but through building upon the Affordable Care Act. Clinton wants a safer financial system but through adding some tweaks to Dodd-Frank. She wants debt-free college but wants students to work at least 10 hours a week to qualify.

Sanders supporters don’t see it that way. They prefer a health care system without insurance company middlemen. They prefer a structural redesign of the financial system, with banks focused narrowly on core activities and unable to wield as much political power or use the government safety net as a gambling stake. They prefer universal benefits for higher education or retirement security or family leave, rather than means testing. They think differently about how the economy should be structured.

And that’s perfectly OK. Supporters of either candidate, which represent two poles within the party, shouldn’t downplay these differences in favor of the concept of “theories of change.” I don’t believe that Democrats are debating the best tactics for getting to the same place. I think the two leading candidates, and more to the point the two coalitions they represent, just want different things. The presidency, which leads the executive branch and its bureaucracy, allows you to accomplish a sliver of those things, irrespective of the other two branches of government. And voters are making choices based on their preference of which of those programs they would like to see put into action.

I wish everyone was more honest about this. Reducing this debate to one of tactics mistakes real differences in kind for differences in degree. Technocrats will only frustrate the progressive left more by making a cloying argument during primaries and downshifting into a narrow, comfortable stasis when in charge.

Not only is it OK for each side of the party to want different things, it’s also OK to not have a precise or even coherent vision of how to get there. We don’t fully know how change happens. Sometimes a wedge issue about the right to marry in 2004 becomes the accepted and even popular law of the land eleven years later. But in my view, the best theory of change, the one that’s most tangible to people, is to express your beliefs and preferences consistently until you find enough allies to make it happen. It may never happen – politics is a tough business – but there aren’t many alternatives.

One of the ways to gauge the success of such a long-term project is to have these periodic tests, competitions that evaluate where the rank-and-file are. The insistence on the part of Clinton and her allies that they share the same goals as Sanders shows how the locus of the party has moved. But it’s just not correct. The healthier way to deal with intra-party differences is to hash them out. That’s what primaries are for.

I’m confident that Democrats will come to a rough consensus this year and move forward. But the ideological fight, the “battle for the soul of the party” as it’s so often termed, is really just beginning. Parties that figure out what they want can better tell that story to voters. Having the debate instead of hiding it is the best possible outcome.

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders Race in Iowa Was 'Historically Close'

By David Dayen

David Dayen is a journalist who writes about economics and finance. He is the author of "Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud," winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize, and coauthor of the book "Fat Cat: The Steve Mnuchin Story." He is an investigative fellow with In These Times and contributes to the Intercept, the New Republic and the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in the Nation, the American Prospect, Vice, the Huffington Post and more. He has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, CNBC, NPR and Pacifica Radio. He lives in Los Angeles.

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Aol_on Bernie Sanders Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton Iowa Caucuses 2016 The Democratic Primary