So much has been made about the latest kerfuffle regarding Sen. Bernie Sanders’ criticism against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week that questioned her progressive bona fides. And much of the framing of it—by those in the media and inside Team Clinton’s camp—accuse Sen. Sanders of engaging in progressive purism as a supposedly self-appointed gatekeeper of what constitutes progressivism.
However, when one listens to Sanders’ criticisms toward Clinton as well as gauge the pulse of the driving zeitgeist in the Democratic Party this year, one of the most glaring dynamics pulsating throughout the primary fight is the grassroots frustration toward candidates who veer left, yet govern right on issues (a microcosm of what’s partially fueling the grassroots backlash against the party establishment). One of the key, unstated issues of importance on the radar among liberal Democratic voters (now a significant segment of the party) is not so much who’s the most progressive (though that is important), but rather who has the stellar commitment to progressivism that rejects the impoverished, uninspired politics of centrist third way triangulation. (Which explains, in part, why significant numbers of liberals and those on the left have gravitated toward Sanders’ candidacy who they view as being the progressive champion who says what he means and means what he says.)
The context for the Democratic progressive backlash against centrist “U-turn” politics predates the liberal frustrations with then-President Bill Clinton’s triangulations of the 1990s. Beginning in 1976 when the centrist presidential candidacy of Jimmy Carter embraced on the election stump one of the most liberal party platforms ever passed (major parts, of which, he later reneged on once in office that fueled Ted Kennedy’s 1980 liberal insurgent run against him), grassroots Democrats have witnessed a succession of Democratic presidential candidates campaign on the left on bread-and-butter issues, yet veer to the economic center and center-right once elected. One of the most glaring examples of this is when then-Senator Barack Obama famously promised, during the 2007-2008 Democratic presidential primary cycle, that he would renegotiate NAFTA in front of cheering labor and liberal audiences, but then later announced several months after entering the Oval Office that he wouldn’t do such a thing. After four decades of witnessing Democratic aspirants to the White House break progressive promises and pledges made on the campaign trail, grassroots liberal and progressive labor Democrats have had just enough. In essence, there is a large segment of the Democratic grassroots base who are the political Howard Beales of this year: They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore!
This explains, in part, why Sanders has galvanized large segments of the Democratic coalition, in particular liberals, youth, and working class voters. (It’s no accident that Sanders performs exceptionally strong among the youth and working class as they, more than anyone else, have not experienced the so-called “recovery” that has mainly benefitted Wall Street more than Main Street in which they’re facing challenging economic prospects, especially among recent college graduates saddled with obscene levels of student debt.)
For these voters—liberals, working class, the youth—they’ve gravitated toward Sanders because not only does his muscular, lunch pail liberal/social-democratic economic message resonate with them, they’ve turn to him, rather than to Clinton, as they view him as being the credible progressive change agent who’ll actually try to push the national policy parameters to the left such that inequality and America’s rigged political/economic system will be fixed. Why is all of this important? Because for these voters, like many of their fellow Americans on Main Street, who face huge and dire economic challenges in their lives, “No We Can’t Politics” just doesn’t cut it anymore. And why should it? They’re looking for bold solutions to fix big problems.
Of course, they understand that it will be a tremendous heavy lift for many of Sanders’ proposals (as well as Clinton’s) to pass through Congress dominated by an anti-government neo-Reaganite majority. Nonetheless, they believe that he, not Clinton, will be more committed to boldly pushing the policy envelope toward the liberal spectrum by laying progressive markers in the legislative landscape that can dictate the terms of debate for future policy fights that will move the Overton Window along left-wing lines to bring about much-needed fairness and broad-based prosperity such that economic gains actually benefit the vast many rather than just the elite few.
In light of all this, this is why Sanders’ critique is salient. When he points out that Clinton is progressive “some days” (in particular, highlighting her comments in Ohio in 2015 where she emphatically stated, “I plead guilty,” to being a centrist), what the Vermont senator is highlighting is something that many progressives, in and outside of the Democratic Party, have long harbored: A deep, fundamental suspicion toward Clinton’s questionable commitment to progressive policies. Sanders’ critique merely emphasizes something that many progressive have long felt toward her.
This sense of progressive skepticism toward Clinton is based not merely on a litany of her past non-liberal positions that she has taken (many of which Team Sanders recently highlighted on Twitter), but also stems from her consistent tendency to hedge or make qualifications on matters when she does embrace a progressive position. Case in point: Her posture toward the disastrous neoliberal trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) (know as #SHAFTA among progressive and labor activists), in which CNN’s Dan Merica tweeted the following: “Clinton asked if she is going to lobby against the TPP. ‘No. I am going to state my position’ but not lobby against it, she says.” That in a nutshell, more than anything else, is what drives many progressives (especially among young liberals) to frustration—and into the welcoming arms of Sanders’ bold and unapologetic progressive candidacy.
It’s her tendency of embracing an “oppose/support with an asterisk” politics—where there’s a huge “but” always lurking behind any position she opposes or embraces—that turns off progressive voters. So, going back to the TPP, yes she opposes the neoliberal trade deal. However, there’s a hedge or qualifier behind her opposition in that, again, she will not engage in lobbying against the TPP. (In sharp contrast, Sanders vows to kill the trade deal.) Her less-than-robust (and unconvincing) opposition to the TPP is what drives many progressives to view her as nothing more that a “liberal without liberal commitments.”
Now, in the main, progressives understand that sometimes liberal Democratic politicians embrace non-progressive positions (like then-Senator Paul Wellstone’s disappointing embrace of DOMA in the 1990s or Sanders’ uneven support for gun safety legislation). And, for the most part, many progressives don’t begrudge liberal Democrats for making such detours from the long road of progressive politics so long as in the overall, broad scope of their careers such politicians have displayed a strong, committed conviction toward being tireless liberal advocates despite some lapses.
When it comes to Clinton, her problem among progressives isn’t her lack of liberal purity but rather her lack of conviction in moments where she does support progressive policies. Her habit of constantly hedging when she embraces progressive issues is the problem; it is not her failure to meet a “progressive purity” metric (whatever that is). Clinton’s tendency to hedge opens her up to the justifiable charge made by many progressives that she’s just an uninspired, rudderless continuation of the poll-driven (and politically exhausted) third way politics of unprincipled triangulation that has been the focal point of liberal dissatisfaction with the Democratic establishment for over two decades since the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), under the lead of Al From and then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, committed a “bloodless coup” of the party in the early 1990s. (In 1989, scholars associated with the misnamed Progressive Policy Institute—the neoliberal policy arm of the DLC—went so far as to describe liberals, with dripping disdain, as “liberal fundamentalists.”)
In light of all this, Sanders’ critique last week is merely echoing what many progressive activists in and outside of the Democratic Party have felt (and continually feel) toward Hillary Clinton: Their uneasiness toward the former secretary of state stems from her incapacity to be a progressive “conviction/signpost politician” who says what she means and means what she says.
In a political climate, within the Democratic primaries, marked by a strong sense of dissatisfaction toward the party establishment (that’s fueling the hunger for bold, liberal change), any lingering doubts that question a candidate’s commitment to be a progressive change agent this year serve only to undermine the ability of any candidate to authentically claim that he or she is the transformative force in this political season. Liberals and the progressive left suffer no such doubts toward Bernie Sanders. With Hillary Clinton, not so much. And that explains, in large part, why Sanders, not Clinton, is having so far the clear momentum in the Democratic race to be the party’s presidential standard-bearer in 2016.