Clinton and Sanders: Two Theories of Change—And Why Both Will Be Critical for Post-Obama Liberalism in an Era of Conservative Hyper-Obstruction

The contrasting theories of change offered by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will be crucial for the furtherance of post-Obama liberalism and effective progressive governance in an age of nihilistic hyper-obstructionism by the GOP.


If there’s one big takeaway from the Democratic debate last week is that the two leading candidates to be the party’s presidential standard-bearer in 2016, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, spent a dearth of time in outlining an effective pathway for progressive governance in the face of GOP hyper-obstruction. Now, the reasons for this glaring inadequacy, on the part of both candidates, on how they would practically solve the right-wing obstructionism gripping the Beltway to get effective governance—let alone liberal reforms—”moving again” are myriad. The reasons include the format of the debate, the scope of the moderator’s questions, and to the simple fact that Clinton and Sanders each had different debate aims that weren’t necessarily conducive to flesh out the issue more rigorously. (Clinton’s primary goal was to protect her left flank from Sanders by taking up the liberal mantle in the debate. While for Sanders, his key aim was to expand his coalition by highlighting his policy bona fides on issues of importance to key Democratic constituents—namely African-American and Latino voters—who are, at the moment, favorably disposed toward the former secretary of state.)

While Clinton and Sanders each failed to articulate, with specificity, their respective paths to forge a progressive agenda in the face of formidable, conservative gridlock in Congress, they did, however, consistently articulate broad themes that touched upon this issue. Their themes—though not as robustly fleshed out as some people would have like—did give debate viewers a window into their theories of political and legislative change in a hostile right-wing environment presently paralyzing government in Washington, D.C.

Hillary Clinton: It’s about a story

For Clinton, one of the most consistent themes—and one appreciated by liberals, in particular those with a concern for the nuts-and-bolts of effective politicking that, if done right, can aid in opening a political lane for achieving a liberal agenda—that she emphasized throughout the debate, with unequivocal firmness, was to highlight the pernicious obstinacy by the Republican congressional leadership.  In particular, an obstinate leadership who, for far too long, has catered to an unyielding faction, within the GOP caucus, who zealously embraces a reactionary, anti-government nihilism against functional, competent and progressive governance itself.

Essentially, Clinton forcefully told an emphatic story and, without reticence (unlike President Barack Obama during the early years of his presidency), explicitly named the “who” in her narrative that are the sources behind the gridlock that’s stymying the ability to govern in the nation’s capital for the past several years. Specifically, for Clinton, the sources behind this logjam in the Beltway are politicians aligned with a dogmatic right-wing faction, in Congress, who are more interested in empty political symbolism and cheap sloganeering than basic governing in their efforts to turn back the clock and undo much of the 20th century’s liberal reforms from the Progressive Era to the Great Society. 

Throughout the debate, Clinton punctuated her narrative with forceful rhetoric, such as “President Obama . . . has laid out an agenda that has been obstructed [italics added] by the Republicans at every turn,” “the most important fight we’re going to have is defending [Social Security] against continuing Republican efforts to privatize it,” and “[Republicans] don’t mind having big government to interfere with a woman’s right to choose.” All in all, with firm clarity, she laid bare, again, as to not only who bears proper responsibility for the government impasses of the past several years, but also emphasized the extremism of those responsible.

In essence, Clinton articulated a much-needed story acknowledging a crisis—the dysfunctional obstruction of government—that many Americans are all too familiar with now, with one decisive element: she unequivocally and explicitly identifies the villains in her story who are the sources behind the problem highlighted by her narrative. And she justly indicts the Republicans—and, along the way, exposes their hypocrisy in which the GOP rhetoric about “leadership,” “liberty,” and “small government” belies the harsh reality that their shambolic record in Congress has stood for maddening dysfunctional gridlock and hardline anti-choice fervor using heavy-handed tactics through the machinery of government vis-à-vis congressional hearings.

Now, to many uninitiated observers of contemporary American politics, the above point may be quite unremarkable. But for liberals who have had to frustratingly endure with President Obama naively clinging, early on, to an unjustified faith that congressional Republicans believed in political comity and compromise (which explains, in part, his past reluctance to call them out no matter the direness of their misdeeds), it is remarkable—and pleasantly refreshing for those on the left and center-left—that a major Democratic politician would emphatically call out the GOP, without apology or hesitancy, as being the source behind the present problem hampering the ability to run government. This is in sharp contrast to certain actions taken by far too many Beltway Democrats (in particular those embracing the pro-corporate accommodationism of center-right third way politics).

Too many prominent Democrats, at times, continually fail to forcefully name the “villains” in their story in highlighting the problems gripping Washington, D.C. (Emory University Prof. Drew Westen, in his 2011 New York Times opinion piece, provides an example of this by highlighting a tendency that permeated President Obama’s early years in office: “[Obama’s] stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem [italics added], who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others’ misery has no agency and hence no culpability.”).

Moreover, many Beltway Democrats take it upon themselves, in a needless apologetic fashion, to shoulder a significant part of the blame for any political impasses in circumstances where the responsibility either lies exclusively or predominantly with the Republicans. This is a result, in part, of a tacit, uncritical acceptance of the GOP narrative that points to supposed liberal partisanship and overreach as being the main culprits behind the gridlock on Capitol Hill. This acceptance manifests itself with a significant number of centrist and conservative Democrats diagnosing the paralysis in Washington, D.C. by laying the fault at the feet of liberals. In particular, center-right Democrats assert that a robustly dominant liberalism, from the party’s so-called “progressive ideologues,” allegedly controls (in a pervasive manner) the institutional machinery of the Democratic Party. The effect of which—according to the Democratic center-right perspective—steers the party away from the broad middle of American voters who supposedly favor the idea that Democrats in Washington, D.C., no matter the circumstances, should always compromise with the Republicans such that moderately conservative to right-wing policies are favored.

In light of all of this, Clinton’s posture is both light years away from—and a conscious repudiation of—the Democrats’ penchant, at times, for unwarranted political self-flagellation and of throwing liberals under the bus that both ultimately fail to explicitly and forcefully point out, in warranted circumstances, the GOP’s short-sighted, single-minded (counterproductive) intransigence toward governing (i.e., the “rule or ruin” political syndrome) and antipathy against government itself. At the end of the day, considering the tendencies by some Democrats (in particular, third way Democrats), Clinton’s rhetorical offense is a remarkable feat in and of itself where, to play on one of Ronald Reagan’s most famous words, she, in effect, communicated in no uncertain terms during the debate the following point: The GOP is not the solution to our problem; the GOP is the problem. 

As such, Clinton embraces a theory of legislative and political change in confronting the Republicans’ suffocating paralysis of government that, at its core, calls for a forceful narrative of naming and shaming them. The efficacy of her narrative lies with the fact that it compellingly explains the problem by clearly identifying the source behind Washington’s dysfunction that counters the GOP’s counter-narrative to the crisis. Before any candidate for public office can plausibly persuade a frustrated (and skeptical) electorate to convince voters to pull the lever for him or her on election day, one must, among other things, not only name and explain the problem that is of concern to voters, but also emphatically state who caused it as well. As Prof. Westen points out (in his previously mentioned New York Times piece), one of the crucial techniques behind FDR’s success as a potent, effective politician stemmed from his compelling, explanatory ability of directing the public’s attention to the sources behind the national crises of the day: “Franklin D. Roosevelt offered Americans a promise to use the power of his office to make their lives better and to keep trying until he got it right. Beginning in his first inaugural address, and in the fireside chats that followed, he explained how the crash had happened, and he minced no words about those who had caused it [italics emphasis added].”

At the end of the day, however, this “naming and shaming” theory of change, alone, will probably not make any immediate liberal legislative inroads on Capitol Hill considering the likelihood that the Republicans will still keep both the House and Senate after 2016 with their (still) committed obstinacy unabated. And the mind-numbing lack, within Clinton’s narrative, of consistently and repetitively making a robustly explicit, substantive indictment against conservatism itself will, in the long run, be proven politically short-sighted.

By failing to attack conservatism, as defined and practiced by the GOP today, as a failed ideology, the ability to affirmatively reinvigorate a dynamic liberalism will seriously be hampered. The crucial effect of this ensures that attempts to dislodge the conservative creed, as the default political center, will wind up in failure. This is a catastrophe for the Democrats if they refuse to explicitly engage in a direct argument against conservatism with the dismal result of failing to shift the Overton Window from the right to the left to ensure a more favorable policy environment for the historic party of affirmative government, public action, positive liberty, and liberal reform.

In fact, one of the most glaring—and problematic—aspects of the first Democratic debate was that there was no explicit mention of either word “conservative” or “conservatism by any of the candidates on stage on Tuesday night (though, Sanders did use the the word “right wing” once) as a segue to a sustained, direct attack on contemporary conservatism itself, as a stagnant political credo, unable to fashion a credible, responsible, and practical alternative that can cope with the serious challenges facing America in the 21st century. These challenges include, among others, unsustainable inequality, the rise of ISIS, the lack of wide-ranging criminal justice reform, and climate change.

In sharp contrast, during the first GOP primary debate this past August, there was a direct, unambiguous broadside against liberalism itself where the word “progressive” was explicitly mentioned a few times, at least, by the insurgent candidate Dr. Ben Carson. (At one point, during the GOP debate, Carson articulated the standard movement conservative talking point by saying that he would “help people to actually understand that it is that progressive movement [italics added] that is causing them the problems.”)

It is inexcusable political malpractice for any Democratic candidate, who’s a member of a party that historically stands for positive government action and liberal reform (for much of its modern history at least), to fail in countering such withering rhetorical assault by neglecting to do two critical things. First, making an affirmative case for modern American liberalism and its core values (positive liberty, progressive internationalism, pragmatic and reformist governance, social progress, the common good, pluralism, progressive civic citizenship, and fair equality of opportunity). Second, indicting contemporary conservatism that has degenerated into a zealous pro-corporate, anti-freedom and anti-government ideology far removed from both Goldwater social libertarianism (pro-LGBTQ and pro-reproductive rights) and Taftian pragmatic conservatism (that rejects broad, knee-jerk antipathy against positive government action and public programs). So long as Democrats, unfortunately like all the Democratic contenders on stage during last Tuesday’s debate, fail to explicitly challenge conservatism head on and make an affirmative, robust case for liberalism, as a pragmatic and progressive public philosophy of responsible governance/activist reform, their ability to renew and advance a Democratic liberal agenda will be seriously circumscribed by the political center being continuously defined by center-right or right-wing ideas, values, and policies.

With all that said, despite its limitations as outlined here, what Clinton’s theory of change crucially does do—in an atmosphere of divided and contested government—is to give a critical argument through a compelling story. Specifically, it is a narrative that places the full weight of responsibility on GOP hyper-obstructionism for Capitol Hill’s dysfunction—a story that has a grounded potential of persuading the public to side with Clinton (should she win both the upcoming Democratic primary race and general election) and her fellow Democrats, in 2016 and beyond, in the ongoing public dispute about the paralysis of American governance. This is something that is not insignificant.

Critically, Clinton’s narrative creates a favorable political opening such that the electorate will be more likely than not to not only agree with her story about who is causing the crisis in governing, but also lays the groundwork to build political credibility and trust among voters such that they’ll be willing to give a Democratic White House and its congressional allies a more favorable hearing to the Democrats’ policy agenda and prescription to resolve Washington’s gridlock that can lead to legislative Democratic majorities in the 2018 midterm elections and afterward. This electoral success must occur if there is to be any realistic hope that the former secretary of state (should she, again, become the Democratic presidential nominee who wins the 2016 general election) can push much-needed progressive reforms through Congress which will legitimate the Clintonian narrative that the Democrats, not the Republicans, are the responsible party of effective government and constructive, progressive reform. In other words, a party who offers practical solutions, rather than cheap soundbites, in tackling the myriad of challenges facing America. In essence, being a governing progressive party (to borrow one of Clinton’s memorable lines from the debate) that “gets things done.”

Bernie Sanders: It’s about a movement

Differing from the former secretary of state, Bernie Sanders, during the debate, articulated his theory of political and legislative change to counter conservative congressional gridlock as one based upon a highly engaged, mobilized (mass) grassroots movement that can counter corporate special interests and pressure Congress to act on behalf of Main Street rather than Wall Street. In articulating his theory, Sanders laid out the vision for his campaign: “What this campaign is about is whether we can mobilize our people to take back our government from a handful of billionaires and create the vibrant democracy [italics added] we know we can and should have.”

Moreover, the Vermont senator crystallized his point by laying out the challenge facing ordinary citizens:

I have a lot of respect for president Obama. I have worked with him time and time again on many, many issues. But here’s where I do disagree. I believe that the power of corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of the drug companies, the power of the corporate media is so great that the only way we really transform America and do the things that the middle class and working class desperately need is through a political revolution when millions of people begin to come together and stand up and say: Our government is going to work for all of us, not just a handful of billionaires [emphasis and italics added].

Furthermore, he articulated why an organized mass movement of ordinary citizens is important to achieve progressive reform (emphases and italics added):

[T]he only way we can get things done is by having millions of people coming together. If we want free tuition at public colleges and universities, millions of young people are going to have to demand it, and give the Republicans an offer they can’t refuse.

If we want to raise the minimum wage to $15 bucks an hour, workers are going to have to come together and look the Republicans in the eye, and say, “We know what’s going on. You vote against us, you are out of your job.”

Essentially, Sanders’ theory of change attempts to mobilize a broad-based army of ordinary citizens. Specifically, it is an army engaged in both electoral action and non-electoral activism that can apply much-needed pressure on congressional Republicans such that they’ll think twice before embracing policies antithetical to the bread-and-butter economic concerns of everyday Americans rather than facing the political risk of doing otherwise.1

However, what Sanders’ theory of change is lacking is an essential detail that raises the following question: How can a mobilized mass movement cut through the conservative-engineered government shutdowns in a GOP-dominated Congress through political pressure bearing on elected officials? Specifically, can Democratic pressure be effective on elected conservatives in the right-wing-dominated House when they’re gerrymandered into favorable districts where the pressures from their conservative constituents and an organized, grassroots right are quite equally (if not more) potent in comparison to pressures from the progressive left (let alone the liberal center-left)? The liberal commentator, Paul Waldman, writing in The Washington Post, compellingly describes the glaring shortcoming of Sanders’ theory:

Let’s say [Bernie Sanders] succeeds in creating a mass movement behind parts of his agenda. Is he really going to be able to raise the political risk of opposing something like free public college tuition high enough to overcome House Republicans’ personal inclinations and their constituents’ wishes?

Imagine you’re a Republican representative who hails from a conservative district in Alabama or Idaho or Tennessee; we’ll call him Jim. Jim is right now stopping comprehensive immigration reform, which the GOP as a whole knows it needs to pass in order to have any chance of appealing to the growing Hispanic population. But Jim won’t sign on, because though that might be good for the party, it’s bad for him. His conservative constituents don’t want it, he personally doesn’t want it, and the only political risk he fears is a primary challenge from the right.

Is Jim really going to be scared and/or persuaded when a bunch of young people in America’s cities — even if there are millions of them — create a movement behind President Sanders’ plan for free college tuition? Don’t bet on it.

Other than Waldman’s off-base, snarky comment (“young people in America’s cities”) characterizing the base of Sanders’ grassroots movement (which is more broad-based than Waldman’s words suggest), his main point nonetheless hits the mark.

Yet, despite this valuable criticism, Sanders’ movement-fueled theory of change still possesses a salient potency. Why? Because the Vermont senator’s theory does, ultimately, resolve Waldman’s critique by its other aspects that were not fleshed out during the debate but have been nonetheless raised—directly or implicitly—by the candidate himself and his large, passionate throng of committed supporters throughout the Democratic primary campaign.

One aspect involves making the movement, as envisioned by Sanders and his supporters, as something that will continue to exist beyond 2016, regardless of the outcomes of the upcoming Democratic primary race and general election. In other words, the creation of a long-term movement not centered around a singular personality based on one or two campaign cycles but rather one motivated by the permanence of shared policies, ideas, and political values, i.e., a sustainable, issues-driven grassroots (mass) movement. Now, the other aspect of the movement is one in which its focus, in addition to applying political pressure on congressional Republicans, is to push the national conversation and public debate to the left and move the political center toward the progressive end of the spectrum, thereby pushing the Overton Window leftward.

Now, how do these two aspects of Sanders’ theory of change resolve Waldman’s macro criticism that such theory will not break the fever of GOP obstructionist intransigence in Congress? Well, they do so by their implicit understanding of the importance of 2020—a presidential election and census year. (The outcome of that electoral cycle will determine which party controls the critical process of congressional redistricting.) The understanding among both Sanders and his supporters is that building and sustaining a movement is a long-term project that takes a practical, long view of progressive politics.

As such, if done right—and the mobilized movement is able to achieve one of its critical goals (pushing the political dialogue and debate in the U.S. to the left) through sustained advocacy and activism (electoral and otherwise), disciplined communication/messaging, and continuous engagement with the issues in 2016 and beyond—then this creates a dynamic where more liberal perspectives will set the agenda, conversation, and issues for the critical 2020 election cycle. In other words, having that election be fought on a liberal terrain (rather than on a conservative landscape). And if this does occur, which inures to the benefit of both liberalism and Democrats savvy enough to adjust themselves to a changing political environment that allows them to ditch the center-right third way playbook (as Hillary Clinton has remarkably done, on many issues, this year), the consequences will be a significantly boon for both the Democratic Party’s electoral fortunes and the advancement of a renewed liberalism in America.

Now, one effect of this is that if the Democrats will be fighting the 2020 presidential year—with some electoral fundamentals already built-in to their benefit, such as a higher level of voter engagement that exists during this type of election as opposed to midterms—in a political atmosphere dictated by progressive issues, then more likely than not this will beneficially impact the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party at the federal level. The impact, of which, arises from motivating, even more so, significant core constituencies of the party (like liberals and youth voters) to vote in even larger numbers that further increase the Democratic share in the electorate at higher levels beyond the ones that typically exist in a presidential election cycle. And if this does occur, then the significant higher turnout rates, among Democratic voters, will also positively impact down-ballot races such that the crucial result will be that the Democrats, rather than the Republicans, will be in a stronger position to win control of a significant chunk of governorships and state legislatures.

By achieving these electoral gains at the state level, the Democrats will be in the strong position in many states, again, to shape the redistricting process, such that the myriad of GOP congressional districts can be made more competitive. And, as such, finally break-up the obstructionist Republican grip in Congress with its pathology against the smooth and efficient running of government by removing the key source of the problem: the electorally uncompetitive, highly gerrymandered conservative districts that tend to send unyielding, hyper-ideological right-wing Republicans to the House of Representatives who are more interested in political theatrics and bluster than responsible governing and compromise.

Additionally, by raising the rates of voter participation, especially during midterm elections, can only further, over time, chip away at the Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress during each electoral cycle going forward in the post-Obama era. (Even beyond the aforementioned positive impact for Democrats from increasing voter turnout among Democratic-friendly constituencies, raising the voting rates in general, in particular among non-voters and lower-income Americans, as a policy white paper by Sean McElwee of Demos persuasively shows, positively contributes to increasing the likelihood of enacting progressive policies.)

As such, the aspect of Sanders’ theory of change—a sustainable, politically engaged mass movement—plays a crucial part in providing a practical pathway to solving the problem of GOP obstructionism. This is key because the existence of such a movement is critical to provide a grassroots organizational framework that can help sustain high levels of energy, interest, activism, and electoral engagement among large segments of Democratic-inclined voters (liberals, the youth, working class union members, people of color) whose voting rates tend to significantly drop off during non-presidential election cycles.

Essentially, Sanders’ vision of movement politics entails creating a permanently mobilized (highly motivated) grassroots force that is continually engaged in the electoral process and on advancing progressive issues capable of shaping and directing the policy and political orientation of not only the Democratic Party but the country as well. (This dynamic is similar to the effect that the amateur liberal Democratic club movement had on the California Democratic Party and upon Golden State politics, in general, that coalesced around the California Democratic Council [CDC] during the 1950s and 1960s).2  The practical effect of all this is to also set up, hopefully, through a vigorous grassroots citizens movement, a formidable and broad social base for the Democratic Party that the labor movement—in particular its more progressive segments, like the UAW (who embraced Walter Reuther‘s vision of social unionism)—once did, at its zenith, for the Democrats (from the New Deal era to the Reaganite ’80s). The existence, of which, can revitalize the party to become, once again, a sturdy electoral vehicle and social force for a robust liberalism.

At the end of the day, Sanders’ movement-centric theory of change is going to be crucial for the advancement of practical progressive politics and the renewal of liberalism in a post-Obama era that, unfortunately (more likely than not), will still be defined by Republican gridlock. Without a mobilized mass movement, among other things, any hope among Democrats that there’ll be a practical path to defeat conservative Republican obstruction is illusory.

The one-two punch: It’s about a story and a movement

When all is said and done, both Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’ respective theories of change show much promise and potential, despite some of their (unresolved and resolved) shortcomings. Nonetheless, individually, the theories of change proffered by Clinton and Sanders may not be sufficient, alone, in solving the so-called “elephant in the room” that has befuddled Democrats and stymied the advancement of the liberal agenda. Specifically, it is the issue of how to defeat the Republican gridlock in Congress.

However, by combining both theories into a formidable political pincer strategy, the consequences of which will be positively twofold. First, it will put Republicans on the defensive by publicly naming and shaming them which, taken as a whole, indicts the GOP by faulting them as the source of government impasse and dysfunction, exposes their extremism, and, hopefully, goes to the next step by making an explicit, public argument against contemporary conservatism as a failed ideology. Second, it will undermine the GOP majorities in Congress through an engaged and mobilized mass movement that maintains meaningful levels of motivated energy, among a large swath of the Democratic coalition, beyond 2016, so as to increase the party’s voter turnout in the 2018 midterms and the all-important presidential cycle and census year of 2020. This pincer strategy has the compelling promise of undermining Republican obstructionism that, for the past several years, has bogged down government to a standstill and arrested the furtherance of President Obama’s second-term agenda.

At the end of the day, the Democrat who quickly grasps that it isn’t an either/or proposition as to which theory of change is the more effective route that can counter Republican intransigence (it’ll require the deft embrace and energetic advocacy of both) may very well be the candidate who can offer the more plausible solution to defeat GOP obstructionism. Which, ultimately, may result in persuading Democratic voters to elect such candidate to be their party’s presidential nominee in 2016 tasked with finally defeating the Republican logjam in Congress.



1. A critical aspect behind this bottom-up, people-powered movement is that it will be fueled, in part, by the politically creative energies of the emergent left (encompassing groups outlined in Bill Curry’s piece penned in Salon this past May). It is a grassroots left that is an antithesis to the top-down, Beltway-centric organizational left and center-left tethered too strongly, at times, to the prerogatives of the Democratic institutional establishment. As Curry notes the emergent left encompasses the following:

It’s the left of progressive unions trying out new forms of organizing and governance; of mass organizations like and who still cultivate grassroots democracy; of a Working Families Party battling the old Democrat hierarchy from within; of millions of low-wage earners, the underemployed and the self-employed; of pioneers working to strengthen the commons and experimenting with more democratic forms of ownership and production. 

2. For an excellent treatment on the amateur Democratic club movement and its impact both on the California Democratic Party and Golden State politics, in general, during the postwar years see Jonathan Bell, California Crucible: The Forging of Modern American Liberalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Jonathan Bell, “From Popular Front to Liberalism: Redefining the Political in California in the Post-World War II Era,” in Making Sense of American Liberalism, ed. Jonathan Bell and Timothy Stanley (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 38-61.

(Photo: Photographs of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Clinton in New Hampshire, 2007; photo by Marc Nozell on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Sanders in Des Moines, Iowa, 2015; photo by Phil Roeder on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Both photos used in this article cropped by the post’s author.)


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