Consider progressivism of democratic candidates
Perhaps the most illuminating moment of Thursday’s Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders was an argument — semantic, but significant — over the nature of progressivism itself. Sanders claims he is the only true progressive in the race. He backs up this claim by reminding voters that Bill Clinton’s administration — the successes of which Hillary has taken credit for on the campaign trail — took in lots of money from Wall Street and subsequently deregulated Wall Street, leading to the recent recession; that as a United States Senator, Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq War; that as Secretary of State, Clinton’s support for intervention in Libya demonstrates that she hasn’t learned from her mistake in 2002; and that most recently, now out of office for the first time in a quarter of a century, Clinton’s decision to accept massive speaking fees from Goldman Sachs and the like demonstrates that she hasn’t learned from her husband’s embrace of Wall Street. What Sanders and his supporters are saying boils down to this: Hillary Clinton, as a member of the Democratic Party’s inner circle — nebulously called “the establishment” — cannot possibly represent “progressive values” because too much of what needs to be done runs contrary to what the “establishment” has represented for the past quarter-century.
Responding to this narrative on Thursday, Clinton offered her own version of what it means to be a progressive — and what it means for this election: first, that many politicians beloved by liberals would not fit Sanders’ definition of a progressive; second, that Sanders’ own version of progressivism conveniently leaves out his record on gun violence prevention and immigration reform; and finally, in her own words, that “a progressive is someone who makes progress.”
But no matter which mantle of progressivism Democratic primary voters ultimately champion, they ought keep in mind that even in a presidential election year, fighting for progressive values is about far more than just the presidency itself. Even as Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both present themselves to voters as the true heir of President Obama’s legacy, neither seems particularly keen on embracing one of President Obama’s largest political failures: over the past eight years, Republicans have won more control over statehouses than they have had since the American Civil War, according to a Nov. 6, 2014 Vox article. President Obama is the leader of the Democratic Party, and this happened on his watch.
How Clinton is running her campaign seems to acknowledge this to at least some degree. In addition to raising money for her own campaign, in the last quarter of 2015, she also raised $18 million for other Democrats running for office as part of a joint fundraising agreement with the Democratic National Committee, signed last August, according to an Aug. 27, 2015 Washington Post article. Sanders, although running as a Democrat, did not raise a single dime last quarter for other Democrats running for office. Sanders, who identifies as a “political outsider,” has no reason to waste time raising money for other Democrats when half of them have probably endorsed his opponent already. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is investing in an entire infrastructure of political loyalty. This actually is part of Sanders’ attraction, but it is a double-edged sword.
In each’s own way, neither candidate is doing much to relay to progressives how crucial it is that they care about down-ballot races. Most of what Clinton says — at rallies, on the debate stage and in interviews — deals with how she specifically would make a good president, by virtue of her experience as well as her temperament. Sometimes she campaigns for other Democrats running for office — if they’ve endorsed her of course — but still, she does not make down-ballot races a campaign issue itself.
Sanders, on the other hand, nebulously speaks of a “political revolution,” wherein the United States can transform its politics and policies into a Swedish-style social democracy. Sanders correctly points out that countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark and others manage to balance their budgets while still making college far more affordable and acting as if high quality healthcare is a right rather than a privilege. But this political philosophy deals with politics on a federal level and largely ignores how the federalist structure of the United States makes it far more difficult to socialize healthcare and education in a cost-efficient, economically beneficial way. When Sanders speaks of “political revolution,” and how the public needs to be massively more involved in political decision-making, he discusses the bully pulpit of the president, the ability to call one’s member of Congress — so on and so forth.
According to a Nov. 6, 2014 Vox article, Republican gains in state legislatures over the past eight years have resulted in 205 unique new abortion restrictions, new forms of voter identification laws in twenty-two states, seventy unique laws loosening gun control, resistance to same-sex marriage, right-to-work legislation and resistance to EPA measures aimed at mitigating the harms of climate change. The list goes on and on and on.
In Kansas, for example, massive tax cuts in 2012 resulted in a $700 million budget shortfall, according to a July 8, 2014 Vox article. In order to compensate for this, Kansas’s Republican governor Sam Brownback proposed cutting $45 million from public education.
Further, according to a July 5, 2015 Washington Post article, the Texas State Board of Education is proposing that slavery be taught as a “side issue” to the American Civil War. These same new textbooks will also “not mention the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow laws.”
Last year in Georgia, state senators issued a resolution condemning AP U.S. History; the resolution said that the “APUSH framework reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation's history while omitting or minimizing 11 positive aspects.” Even worse, in Oklahoma, state lawmakers attempted to ban AP U.S. History, according to a Feb. 18, 2015 New Yorker article. Yes, ban it.
It’s true; many of these states are deeply Republican, and short of a miracle, Democrats probably will not be able to win majorities or governorships there for a very long time. But on the whole, President Obama has simply failed to make state and local elections a priority in the past eight years, and this is what’s happened in many of those states. Democrats ought to talk about it at the very least, or even better, vote for not only the candidate who will be the “most progressive president,” but also the one who best articulates a plan to enact progressive policy on all levels.