Note: Blog posts reflect the views and opinions of their authors and not necessarily those of Penn Democrats as an organization.
Single payer health care. Overturning Citizens United. Free college tuition. A $15/hour minimum wage. The same platform that has galvanized millions of Americans to support Bernie Sanders is the one under attack from the Clinton campaign. The issue, Hillary argues, isn’t so much that Sanders’ democratic socialism is bad policy, but that it’s bad politics. Bernie’s grand vision for America, while well-intentioned, is ultimately naive, and he should stop filling Americans’ heads with such fantasies. If Bernie believes his own rhetoric, he is dangerously naive. If he doesn’t, he is willfully misleading the public. Either way, he is not a man who can deliver on the promises he has made.
The case for Clinton, then, starts from the premise that both candidates share a similar progressive agenda. The billion dollar question becomes: who stands a better chance of actually implementing that agenda in spite of a hostile Congress? The answer, easily, is Hillary. She’s whip-smart and ultra-qualified. Most important, though, are her uncanny political instincts. Hillary knows how to play the game. She is probably the most scrutinized person in politics, and has emerged from an 11-hour hearing on Benghazi and an email scandal unscathed. The woman is just about bulletproof. Republicans despise her, and she rightfully wears that truth as a badge of honor – the ultimate mark of both her staunch progressivism and fierce pragmatism. She is strategic, tenacious, cunning… the total package. Unlike Bernie, she will be prepared for the kind of resistance her policies will face in Congress. While Bernie’s plan is contingent on the arrival of some nebulous “political revolution,” Hillary offers a less thrilling but decidedly more adult strategy of incremental change.
To buy in to the pragmatic case for Hillary, though, is to accept several questionable arguments, oftentimes in succession. Aside from sounding thoroughly uninspiring, the entire notion of incremental change is rooted in conjecture, not fact. While a $12/hour minimum wage may be more palatable to Republicans than a $15/hour one, negotiating from a more favorable starting point may quite reasonably lead to a more favorable resolution. Bernie will certainly not glide through four years in the White House without compromise or rejection; if he asks for a mile, he may get a foot. But when Hillary asks for a yard, she may only get an inch. President Obama’s major legislative accomplishments like the stimulus package and the ACA were far from incremental. On the other hand, his more conciliatory approaches to gun control and Guantanamo Bay got him nowhere.
The most glaring flaw in the case for Clinton, though, is in its premise. Hillary and Bernie’s proposed directions for the country do diverge in some important ways. Bernie has been relentless in his advocacy for radical change in American politics and, by extension, in American society. He vows to dramatically expand the role of government in America in the way that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal did. He hopes to import European models of health care and education systems. He sees the current levels of income inequality as not only morally repugnant, but as a fundamental threat to a healthy democratic system. He demands an honest reevaluation of an American foreign policy that has often been arrogant, counterproductive, and exorbitantly expensive. Hillary has not been willing to match Bernie’s positions in any of those areas, but worried about alienating a youth vote that has wholeheartedly embraced Bernie’s platform, she has been reluctant to engage him in a battle of ideology. Instead, she is content to drift leftward, masquerading as not only a progressive, but as the responsible, pragmatic progressive.
However, Hillary is not the hero that the progressive movement needs. The concern with her is not that she isn’t progressive enough, it’s that she may not be a progressive at all. Her focus on progressive issues over the course of her campaign has been truly admirable, but that commitment is often stronger in word than in deed.
She showed tremendous compassion towards the people of Flint, MI in the wake of their lead poisoning crisis, but not much when NAFTA (the free trade agreement she supported as First Lady) gutted the city’s industrial base. Today, she supports the TPP. Kind of. Well, she definitely did at one point. Looking forward, Bernie’s infrastructure plan is much more robust than Hillary’s and stands a much better chance of preventing the next Flint. While the Clinton name will guarantee Hillary the loyalty of many black voters, her record on racial issues is also checkered. She often recounts her attendance at an inspirational Martin Luther King, Jr. speech in the 1960s, but that experience didn’t stop her from campaigning for Barry Goldwater. In the White House, she also supported the omnibus crime bill that expanded the racially targeted policies of incarceration. She preyed on the racial fears and contempt of white and suburban America by referring to kids as “superpredators” and by advocating for a rollback of welfare payments. The staggering speaking fees she has collected from Wall Street reveal troubling corporate ethics that should make voters highly skeptical of her stated desires to overturn Citizens United and rein in the excesses of the financial sector. As Secretary of State, she ignored human rights concerns to orchestrate unprecedented weapons deals between defense contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin and countries like Algeria, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia that contributed to her foundation.
Hillary’s plutocratic tendencies are worrying because they have often made America’s foreign policy more militaristic, trade policy more neoliberal, and criminal justice policy more discriminatory. The simple presence of a (D) beside her name in the voting booth does not automatically make her a champion of the marginalized. Voters should not take for granted that a vote for a Democrat will translate into policies that will advance the interests of the working class and minority communities. Not all regressive or discriminatory legislation can be traced back to the Republican Party, and Democrats must continue to push for a fair society that empowers all Americans. It’s worth noting that despite her shortcomings, Hillary is undeniably brilliant and qualified. Voters can certainly make strong arguments for supporting her, but not on the grounds that she is a more pragmatic version of Bernie Sanders.