With the Wisconsin Democratic Primary expected to be hotly contested today, much has been made of the competing approaches to progress emanating from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders. In the simplest terms, the debate centers on “idealism” or “incrementalism” as a pathway towards social change.
In a strong piece by Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, we get an insight into what I often think drives support for Clinton:
“You get a sense of ‘authenticity’ when you hear Sanders talking truth to power, but there is another kind of authenticity, which may not feel as good but is vitally important, when Clinton speaks honestly about what change really requires, about incremental progress, about building on what Obama has achieved in the arenas of health care, clean energy, the economy, the expansion of civil rights. There is an inauthenticity in appeals to anger rather than to reason, for simplified solutions rather than ones that stand a chance of working. This is true about Donald Trump, and lamentably also true about Sanders.”
I would say based largely on the number of Sanders supporters I know, that the typical Sanders supporter is mild-tempered and not driven by anger (can we please note how problematic it is to infer something about the state of someone’s mind in regards to being reasonable…), but by a frustration with contemporary politics, and more so, a frustration with contemporary policy making. For whatever privilege Sanders supporters may have – and, yes, some do – their political focus is not what is best for their own benefit or security, but the benefit of those lacking the privilege to truly advance a political program of significant meaningful change.
If you are a black man in Chicago, an Arab woman in New York, or an undocumented person in Phoenix, “incremental change” is insufficient to actually protect you against the creeping fascism of Trumpdom, or the consistent suffering brought by current socioeconomic inequality that continues to get worse and worse. I can’t say for a fact that many people who are in the direct action-oriented anti-Trump movement are Sanders supporters, but I can say those who can’t be patient in these fights likely share a similar philosophy with the Sanders ethos, that mere survival is no longer adequate as a type of social progress.
This is probably the most significant distinction between many Sanders “idealists” and many Clinton “incrementalists.” The incrementalist often is so far removed from the day-to-day issues that they purport to care about and/or so sheltered from the real life effects of an “incrementalist” approach, that they don’t realize they aren’t advancing policy that will actually help people in the here and now. It isn’t lost on me that folks who are more tied to the establishment elements of Democratic politics, and therefore politics as commonly practiced, find themselves in the Clinton camp, while those in the grassroots consider themselves Sandersistas.
For example, to afford a market rate 1-bedroom apartment in Madison requires an average hourly wage of $14.73, a two-bedroom $18; the Sanders campaign (as well as many in organized labor) supports at a minimum $15 dollars as a minimum wage, while the Clinton campaign supports a mere $12 (writer’s note; oh, look at that: now that California and New York have $15 an hour, it is attainable according to the Clinton camp. Funny how that works!). Yes, $12 is better than what we have now, but it merely makes survival a bit less precarious. It, however, doesn’t fundamentally transform the conditions many people find themselves in. This, I feel is the central pillar of so many contemporary movements for justice – Black Lives Matter, 350.org, Fight for 15, Occupy Wall Street – that bit-by-bit improvements are no longer enough to propel society forward. Furthermore, we expose the privilege hidden beneath these demands for satisfaction with marginal reforms by folks whose lived experiences are far from these harrowing conditions.
Which brings me to something that Paul Fanlund recently wrote in a column titled “Count me out of the Bernie ‘revolution’” for The Capital Times.
Now, I could talk about how the purported voice for increased racial justice in Madison was unable to endorse either of the people of color running for Dane County Board last week, but instead we should focus on the short selling that has become all too typical among some progressives. Fanlund wrote:
“Sanders promises the moon, as in this flyer mailed recently to my home: ‘He’ll break up the big banks, close the tax loopholes, and make them pay their fair share so that we can provide health care for all and make public college and universities tuition-free for any qualified student who wants to attend.’ One wonders what percentage of even Democratic-leaning voters supports the massive tax increases required for this free-tuition vision.”
Let’s be clear about something; there are currently college students in Madison who must decide between paying tuition and having shelter. These are not abstractions or imagined machinations, these are real-life situations people experience regularly that a candidate is actively seeking to change with a (significant) policy proposal. How this is lost on the editor at ‘Your Progressive Voice’ is frustrating, but unsurprising, as too many folks, especially here in Madison, see social progress as a form of charity instead of as a form of justice.
Beyond the never ending “know your role and shut your mouth” tone, the fact is, if you aren’t worried about access to health care or paying for higher education, it is easy to be dismissive of these as policy goals, which explains why Sanders has been consistently strong with people under 45, of all races and genders, because they are not living vicariously through inequality and injustice but living it in real time. To some, it is like social justice safari, where you come and go as you please in issues of inequity. To these folks it can be difficult to comprehend how incrementalism has become unacceptable to those seeking out a New Deal or Great Society for a new generation. Sanders supporters expect more of their country, and in the calculation between Sanders and Clinton, it appears they are enthusiastic about not staying the course, but pursuing a radical departure from politics as we know it.