The Democratic primary race has pitted two different visions of progressivism against one another. Hillary Clinton represents the center-left tradition of late twentieth-century liberalism in American politics. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, offers an unapologetic social democratic vision, a throwback akin to Franklin Roosevelt’s muscular New Deal liberalism.
These policy differences are real, but they are ultimately matters of degree. Sanders demands nothing short of single-payer healthcare; Clinton is willing to build upon ObamaCare’s market-based approach. Sanders wants free college for all; Clinton prefers to guarantee a debt-free education for the poor and middle-class. Sanders wants a $15 minimum wage; Clinton is more comfortable with a gradual increase from $12. Clinton’s progressivism is a cautious one, whereas Sanders’s is unflinchingly bold, but they both share a progressive vision for the direction of the country.
The real disagreement is over how much progressivism we can expect in the near term. And at the core of this disagreement are two very different understandings among the candidates and their supporters about how policy change happens.
Clinton believes systemic change happens incrementally—a belief grounded in cold-blooded political realism. In 2008, Clinton was the candidate tossing buckets of cold water on Obama’s audacity-of-hope campaign. “Maybe I’ve just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be,” she said. “You are not going to wave a magic wand and have the special interests disappear.”
Clinton more readily accepts the political status quo and looks for openings and opportunities to advance progressive priorities. The GOP-controlled House with safe, gerrymandered districts; the filibuster-plagued Senate; the message and money of special interests in the legislative process—these are all structural impediments that are unlikely to change. Recognizing these constraints, Clinton intends to grind away at a Republican Congress and private sector stakeholders to extract just as much progressive reform as the system will bear.
Clinton largely accepts the political structure as it is and aims to buckle down for hard-fought battles for partial but significant gains. Sanders, on the other hand, wants to upend the political structure entirely. He sees change happening through bursts of progressive legislation on the heels of active and popular mobilizations that rock the system. According to Sanders, D.C.-led political change is hopeless because “it’s too late to do anything inside the Beltway. You gotta take your case to the American people, mobilize them, and organize them at the grassroots level in a way that we have never done before.”
With the people mobilized, all progressive change is possible. The structural impediments—Republican obstruction in Congress, special interests buying up the seats at the table, big money in politics—would be swept away by a populist electoral wave. When the people hold the politicos’ feet to the fire while demanding real reform, there is suddenly far less resistance to progressive change in the political system, producing policy outcomes that are more purely progressive. Single-payer instead of ObamaCare. Free college instead of tax credit subsidies. Ashes of big banks instead of tighter regulations.
Sanders draws inspiration for this type of transformative change from Roosevelt’s New Deal. In a speech last fall laying out his conception of social democracy, Sanders harkened back to the 1930s when “Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that put millions of people back to work, took them out of poverty and restored their faith in government. He redefined the relationship of the federal government to the people of our country. He combatted cynicism, fear and despair. He reinvigorated democracy. He transformed the country.”
Clinton, on the other hand, positions herself as an inside-the-game technocratic do-er in the vein of Lyndon Johnson. In the 2008 race, she stirred up a mini-controversy by negatively comparing Obama’s hope-and-change campaign to what it took to pass the Civil Rights Act, casting herself as LBJ and Obama as Martin Luther King. “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,” she said. “It took a president to get it done.”
This time around, Clinton again made it clear that she has little interest in fundamentally changing hopes and dreams. When she met with a group of Black Lives Matter activists, she opened up to them with her beliefs about how policy change happens. “I don’t believe you change hearts,” she said. “I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart. You’re not.”
This argument over how change happens—Clinton’s theory of steadfast incrementalism, Sanders’s case for a populist surge—was nicely distilled recently by a debate among the commentariat centered on health reform. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones wrote a provocative piece accusing Sanders of conning his supporters with his theory of change. “[I]f you want to make a difference in this country,” Drum wrote, “you need to be prepared for a very long, very frustrating slog. You have to buy off interest groups, compromise your ideals, and settle for half loaves — all the things that Bernie disdains as part of the corrupt mainstream establishment.” To Drum, progressive change in the United States is the product of “work[ing] your fingers to the bone for 30 years and you might get one or two significant pieces of legislation passed.” Sanders’s assurances to the otherwise were fanciful deceits from a pol who should know better.
At The Week, Ryan Cooper rose up in defense of Sanders by blasting Drum’s “Abandon Hope, All Ye You Enter Here” (Cooper’s terms) style of center-left politics and the policies it has produced. He pointed to ObamaCare as the epitome of half-loaf liberalism failing to fully capitalize on political opportunity: “ObamaCare — a basically mediocre program that is still a big improvement on the status quo — reflects its political origins. It’s what milquetoast liberals had settled on as a reasonable compromise, so when George Bush handed them a great big majority on a silver platter, that’s what we got. It was Bush’s failed presidency, not 30 years of preemptively selling out to the medical industry, that got the job done.” To Cooper, under the true arc of change, “[t]he left half of the political spectrum decides on a compelling set of ideas, and through a combination of luck (read: conservative failure), strategy, and popular mobilization, wins a brief mobilized majority that passes lots of good stuff very fast.”
Drum replied to correct Cooper’s truncated history of health reform in the United States, detailing a half-century slog beginning with JFK’s proposal (and failure) to provide guaranteed care of the elderly, through plans from Nixon, Carter, and Clinton, to Obama finally enacting the best version of health reform that he could muster through Congress. (Though Drum could have reached all the way back to Theodore Roosevelt’s calls for universal healthcare in 1912.) “[T]housands of Democrats—politicians, activists, think tankers, and more—have literally spent decades working their fingers to the bone creating plan after plan; selling these plans to the public; and trying dozens of different ways to somehow push health care reform through Congress. [. . .] [I]n the end, all of these hacks and wonks have made a difference and helped tens of millions of people.”
Drum’s account best fits with the actual history of health reform. Liberal presidents from FDR through Johnson pushed for universal healthcare, but only ended up achieving coverage for the poor and elderly. Medicaid and Medicare may have been half-loaves of universal coverage, but were still two of our great progressive achievements.
Senator Ted Kennedy spent his career fighting for universal healthcare, but when comprehensive reform proved politically untenable, he settled for positive, incremental reforms like coverage for the unemployed and guaranteed treatment for those with emergency illnesses. When President Clinton’s push for universal care collapsed, Kennedy picked up the pieces to at least extend coverage for children.
As I’ve written, these half-loaves and incremental reforms ingrained little by little the principle in American life that health care is a right and not a privilege. After Kennedy’s wins on behalf of the ill, the unemployed, and the young, “the ethos behind [his] slew of small-scale healthcare achievements made it much harder to deny granting the right to healthcare to the rest of the country.”
In 2009, the Obama administration and congressional liberals were determined to finally extend this right to Americans writ large. With a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate and a large majority in the House, liberals enjoyed the most favorable political conditions imaginable in our political environment. Admittedly, these conditions were brief and tenuous, hanging in the balance by Al Franken’s razor-thin and contested victory to a sixtieth Senate seat and Kennedy’s deteriorating health. But even with control of both chambers of Congress, the best health reform liberals could heave over the finish line was ObamaCare’s market-driven, three-legged stool, no-public-option approach.
To Clinton and Drum, this is what policy change looks like: a century-long fight for reform; piecemeal progress arising out of large-scale defeats, culminating in a compromised version of the liberal ideal limping to the president’s desk.
In his defense of Sanders’s political revolution theory, Cooper draws on the work of Princeton historian Matt Karp. Karp argues that progressive reform arises from short fits and bursts. “The simple truth is that virtually every significant and lasting progressive achievement of the past hundred years was achieved not by patient, responsible gradualism, but through brief flurries of bold action,” he writes. “The Second New Deal in 1935–36 and Civil Rights and the Great Society in 1964–65 are the outstanding examples, but the more ambiguous victories of the Obama era fit the pattern, too.”
This is undoubtedly true—the political stars must align for any progressive change to happen in Congress. Even so, the bygone eras of progressive triumph had their ambiguities, too. As Karp acknowledges, the great social insurance programs of the New Deal only saw the light of day because liberals made a devil’s bargain with Southern Democrats to cut predominantly black professions out of the benefits. After universal care was stymied under FDR and Truman, Medicare and Medicaid were strategically pushed by LBJ because they provided the greatest degree of universal coverage that could survive medical industry opposition. The “ambiguous victories of the Obama era”— financial reform that leaves big banks intact, health reform that doubles down on private insurance, stimulus that’s too small—fit comfortably in this tradition of liberal pragmatism.
Sen. Kennedy began pushing for universal health insurance in the 1960s, advocating for a single-payer scheme that would cover everyone. In 1971, President Nixon countered with a plan not all that dissimilar from what ultimately became ObamaCare: a mandate on employers to provide private health insurance to their workers, coupled with subsidies to individuals who could not afford insurance.
Kennedy turned down Nixon’s deal, insisting on single-payer. He came to regret this decision as one of the biggest mistakes of his life. “That was the best deal we were going to get,” Kennedy said. “Nothing since has ever come close.”
Kennedy ultimately realized that single-payer care just wasn’t going to happen in the United States. Insurance industry opposition, systemic path dependency, and widespread individual satisfaction with private health insurance all meant that single-payer was a nonstarter. It was then that he turned toward his incremental accomplishments—CHIP, COBRA, EMTALA—that made up some of the ground lost in the missed opportunity in 1971.
For those who wish for a more progressive—even social democratic—America, the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. The reform on the table might not be perfect, but quite often it’s one worth taking. When Kennedy passed up positive compromise health reform, millions remained without healthcare for another forty years, waiting for a political revolution that never came.
It’s a lesson worth keeping in mind in 2016 when sorting out whether progressive change Feels the Bern or Trudges Up the Hill in America.