The Super Tuesday results are in. On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won a fierce battle over Senator Bernie Sanders, taking home a majority of delegates in seven states compared to her rival’s four. In this heated campaign, you’d think that the stakes of the contest between Clinton and Sanders couldn’t be higher.
While you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, there is the chance that while making this observation, you’d inadvertently miss a much bigger point – namely, how much they have in common, and why that is especially important in this election year.
Let’s start with the big issues. According to a Gallup poll last month, Democrats and Republicans agree that the top four issues in this campaign are terrorism and national security; the economy; employment and jobs; and health care and the Affordable Care Act. Additionally, the poll found that Democrats are disproportionately focused on education and income inequality. To round out this list, we should also add racism, sexism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia, all of which have been brought into particular prominence by the demagogic rhetoric of the Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump.
So how do Clinton and Sanders stack up?
We can start with their economic plans, which despite significant differences in scale ultimately strive to reach the same goals using comparable methods. Much has already been made of Sanders’ support for democratic socialism, which would invest $1 trillion in infrastructure spending to create 13 million jobs, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, establish worker-owned cooperatives to assist aspiring small business owners, strengthen protections for labor unions and workers who wish to form them, and eliminate free trade policies that have enabled companies to move American jobs overseas. While Clinton’s proposals are less radical than those of Sanders, their thrust is essentially the same – she wants to invest $275 billion in infrastructure to create as many as 3 million new jobs, raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour, create a $1,500 tax credit for every appreciate that a firm hires, offer tax breaks to companies that promote employee ownership, fight tech companies that attempt to undermine labor regulations, and oppose the same free trade deals that Sanders has denounced. (Although, on this one issue, there is merit to the charge that Clinton has a history of flip-flopping.)
When it comes to health care reform, Clinton and Sanders likewise agree that the government has a responsibility to protect the economic well-being of its citizens, even if they disagree as to the scope of that obligation. If elected, Sanders would strive to replace the Affordable Care Act with a single-payer system that would expand Medicare to cover all citizens; Clinton, by contrast, supports Obama’s health care reform policies and would fight Republicans in Congress so as to keep them in place. On college affordability, Sanders wants free tuition at all public colleges and universities, while Clinton emphasizes “debt-free” tuition adjusted according to family income. Perhaps their only stark contrast is on national security and terrorism, where Sanders advocates American disassociation with Middle Eastern geopolitics (opposing U.S. intervention to fight ISIS, withdrawing troops from Afghanistan) while Clinton supports those policies.
Before moving on to their shared opposition to Trumpian bigotry, it’s worthwhile to reflect on the precise nature of how Clinton and Sanders differ on the aforementioned issues. As you may have noticed, the running theme in any compare-and-contrast between the two candidates is that Sanders tends to support intensified versions of Clinton’s policies (or, if you will, Clinton advocates a watered down version of Sanders’ approach). Unlike their Republican counterparts, who are uniform in their desire to cut the social safety net for working class Americans in order to cut taxes for the wealthy, Clinton and Sanders would both strive to improve it. They side with the unemployed who need well-paying jobs over the rich who don’t want to pay more in taxes or wages, with the uninsured who can’t receive quality health care coverage over the insurance companies who would repeal Obamacare and loathe a single-payer system, with struggling college students who strive for an affordable education over student loan agencies and even the federal government itself.
In short, regardless of whether you prefer Sandersian democratic socialism or Clintonian moderate progressivism, both ideologies agree on the basic problems facing ordinary Americans and on which side the Democratic Party ought to take.
Nowhere is their contrast with the GOP brand more striking, however, than in their staunch opposition to the bigotry that has swept over that party thanks to the presidential candidacy of its likely nominee, Donald Trump. Whereas Trump launched himself into the stratosphere of his party’s polls by erroneously declaring that Mexican immigrants were more likely to be rapists, Clinton and Sanders have joined forces in advocating for progressive immigration policies that empathize with rather than vilifying undocumented Americans. Similarly, when Trump gained political mileage by calling for bans on Muslim immigration and abridging the civil liberties of Muslim citizens, Clinton and Sanders were united in denouncing his positions as the basest kind of fearmongering. Both candidates have also acknowledged the prevalence of systemic racism in America and, instead of inflaming it for political gain like Trump, have vowed to proactively fight it from the White House. Finally, although Clinton supporters have accused the Sanders campaign of sexism and the Sanders campaign has vehemently denied those charges, it’s hard to argue that either of them have been as deplorable as Trump, who regularly demeans women who criticize him.
When the narrative of the 2016 presidential election has run its course, these are the contrasts that will truly matter the most. Regardless of whether Clinton or Sanders is nominated, they will be the spokesperson for racial, religious, and gendered pluralism against a man who has gone out of his way to embody opposition to those very values. Even if the ideological differences between Clinton and Sanders were much greater than actually happens to be the case, this contrast will be incredibly important. Both Clinton and Sanders have devoted their political careers to the belief that the exclusionary politics being resurrected by Trump are a thing of the past. If Clinton is nominated, she will aim to be the first female president running against an outspoken misogynist; if Sanders is the nominee, he will aspire to be America’s first unabashedly "socialist" president running against a man who has embodied the concept of selfish wealth in our cultural consciousness for almost four decades.
In light of these stakes, it behooves all Democrats to recognize that the outcome of the Clinton-Sanders primary matters far less than the need for the eventual Democratic nominee to best Donald Trump in the subsequent general election. The 2016 Democratic presidential primaries will indeed be a great battle – and Clinton and Sanders supporters are entirely justified in being swept up in it – but no matter what happens at the end of it, we must not forget that it will be followed by one of the most important political wars of our lifetime.