Split at the Root

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Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are vying for more than the democratic nomination. They represent two irreconcilable paths for the party.


Too much attention is being paid to a Republican Presidential race that has confirmed itself as a farce with its penis jokes, odd yoga analogies, and outspoken demagogue (He Who Must Not Be Named); the media doesn’t even have to sensationalize anymore, and political pundits have been scrambling to theorize and analyze the disintegration of the Grand Old Party, trying to discuss seriously something as unserious as middle-school name calling.

But quietly on the other end of the spectrum, the Democratic Party is facing an identity crisis of its own. There has arisen a presidential field symbolic of a fundamental divide in the Democratic Party. It may be less spectacular, but this Democratic rift is just as serious as the Republican one. And no, this isn’t some sort of millennials-versus-the-world tirade about the rift between the young new Democratic voters, represented by Sanders, and the older ones, represented by Hillary Clinton. I refuse to explain this split in the Democratic Party with another rant about the baby boomers, Snapchat, and the generational gap.

I think it — this grand crack running down the center of the Party, I mean — is represented not by a difference in policy (unlike its Republican counterpart), but by how one goes about changing policy; it’s not a matter of content, but of process.

As far as appearances go, the two presidential candidates, and the type of Democratic Party they represent, are poles apart —one, a perfectly pruned smiling member of the political elite, and the other, a relatively unknown political insider with wild hair and a vigorous air. But when it comes to policy, they both have the same end goals of making society more progressive; Senator Bernie Sanders may be more to the left than Hillary Clinton on many issues (but not all — take women’s rights and gun control, for example), but they both stand firmly to the left of current society. For them, there’s no argument in what direction the country needs to go — both say it’s towards the progressive left — but on how one (a.k.a. the country) switches to that direction: does one meander gradually leftward, or does one take the proverbial “left-turn?”

It is this, meandering to the left versus turning sharply into it, that Hillary Clinton and Senator Sanders disagree upon, and it is this, their disagreement, that symbolizes the rift of the Democratic Party.

What direction will the Democratic Party go? The way of the radicals: that of the “left turn” and sudden political change? Or the way of the progressives: the gradual progress, building new political change upon the old, established, political mechanisms?

It’s a question of political aspirations versus their feasibility. A left turn to liberal utopia would be perfect, but progressives ask if that is even possible. It’s a question of the radical idealism, as represented by Sander, going toe-to-toe with a progressive realism, as represented by Clinton. And if that’s a tired argument, (and it’s starting to be) — it’s also a question of the Democratic Party as a Progressive Establishment that meanders to the left vs. a Populist Collective that wants change, and wants it now.




She’s got an unlimited supply of smart designer pant suits, a blinding smile for just about any situation, and a great poker face. Hillary Clinton is the picture of a politician through and through, but an imperfect one at that.

And central to her political campaign is precisely that — politics. Hillary is running to be a politician, the president. She wants to do her job: put on a suit and sign bills in the Oval Office, perform diplomatic work, and be the head of the executive branch of government, as she would be constitutionally obliged. It’s as simple as that — this is a job that she thinks she is qualified for (and, hell, with eight years as First Lady, eight years as Senator, and four years as Secretary of State, she is), and she is going through a rather long, rather bizarre, and rather public, interview. She thinks she’s ready to take the reins from President Barack Obama, whose flaws and triumphs she’s been studying from her front row seat, just like she studied her husband’s roller coaster presidency 23 years ago.

She’s here to voice her voters. She has her progressive politics — weaned and altered from her idealistic college years, yes, but still as progressive as (or more than) Obama has been these past 8 years — and she has plans for America, accumulated over years in the political scene. This, her resume of sorts, is her claim to the presidency. She’s not here to change hearts, but to change laws.

“I could stand up here and say, ‘Let’s just get everybody together, Let’s get unified. The sky will open. The light will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing. And everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect […] Maybe I’ve just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be. You are not going to wave a magic wand and have the special interests disappear.”

– Hillary Clinton, 2008

Hillary, then, is not running to be God or, in her words, a wizard with a magic wand whom will save the world and change the culture instantaneously. Even after her resounding defeat back in 2008 to another Democratic President-hopeful who was, like Senator Sanders, an idealist with flashy plans for the American people, she has remained the realist who won’t lure voters with exciting and unexecutable plans. When Obama campaigned (to much applause), saying “Yes We Can!” Hillary smiled, and appeared to say “No We Can’t.” That’s not really true, though it really did seem to be so; she wasn’t shutting down all change — she is a progressive Democrat, after all — she was announcing her policy goals which then proclaimed, as they do now, “Yes We Can! But with some things, there are limits.”

Hillary Clinton does not assume being President gives her some sort of absolute power through which her policies, dictated by her voters, can do anything they want to do — that kind of boundless policy power belongs in a dictatorship, not in the political playground of the world’s economic and political superpower. Hillary is careful with her words — she isn’t going to promise a liberal utopia because she knows she can’t deliver one.

It is this truth that she cannot create a progressive utopian society that she’s trying to sell through her campaign — the truth that the President is not the Monarch, that the executive power is checked and balanced by judicial and Republican-controlled legislative power. It’s Politics 101. And when has the truth, especially one like this, ever been sweet?

Some people think political realism — taking into account the real challenges and boundaries that policies will need to overcome to create change — is a less cynical permutation of defeatism, a very very problematic term. Some critics, notably Walker Bragman from Salon, think that Hillary’s brand of realism is a towel thrown in, a resignation, as if politics is a game in which one triumphs or is defeated, instead of a longstanding methodology for establishing order.

“Instead of digging their heels in, and preparing for the tough fights ahead, they now resign themselves to limiting their goals such that expectations and hope match only the incremental progress they perceive as feasible. This is dubbed ‘realism.’”

Bragman’s argument is that realism/“defeatism” doesn’t do enough —– it sees a boundary and, rather than running towards it at full speed, stops and makes concessions; how does one break boundaries if one stops at them?

That would be a good question if the progressive political realist really did stop at a boundary and accept it,  a conservative move. Indeed Hillary Clinton has been accused of being a “neocon,” which may sound like some sort of terrible prison-movie term, but actually means neo-conservative. But does the realist really stop at boundaries and accept the status quo? Don’t they, in Bragman’s own words, just limit their goals to match feasible incremental progress?

And what’s wrong with having a realistic view on what can and cannot be done in a country? I, for the life of me, cannot see the fault in lining goals up with feasible expectations of the future, especially in terms of the politics of the economic hegemony — the country whose socio-politico-economics people the world over depend on.

Hillary’s — any Democrat realist’s — presidential route is one of feasible goals and incremental progress, gradually improving upon current political systems when possible, in an economically, socially, and politically viable manner. By that I mean improving current laws to be more progressive when there is enough money (economic), enough support from the people, Republicans and Democrats alike (social), and enough support from the elected representatives (political).

This meander to the left looks at boundaries and tries to find the best ways to knock them down, rather than running at them futilely, and with brute force. It is a gradual, incremental leftward progression that builds upon progress already made.

Speaking to some Black Lives Matter activists before an event, Hillary Clinton let this, her entire campaign philosophy, slip, in a tiny manifesto of sorts of political realism.

“I don’t believe you change hearts, I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart. You’re not. But at the end of the day, we can do a whole lot to change some hearts, and change some systems, and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them.”

Hillary Clinton will not be the changer of hearts, the messiah of the liberals. What she will be is their president, pushing at boundaries with “feasible goals of incremental progress,” so that, at the end of the day, her laws, the laws she changed and/or made, will have at least changed some systems, and, if we’re lucky, some hearts.




Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, does not own closets full of pressed suits (see the Twitter uproar over his brown/black outfit on the March Democratic Debate). He is the romanticized, curmudgeonly old man, like Carl in Up. He’s the dreamer we’ve all been waiting for, the perfect liberal idealist who speaks the anti-establishment ideas of marginalized, disenfranchised groups that poor, LGBTQ, people of color have voiced forever, except as an entitled white man from within the system. With the added bonus of the cutest gruff-personality and accent.

Listening to Senator Sanders makes me angry, inflamed, and absolutely full of revolutionary fervor. It also makes me feel like a naughty little kid skipping geography class, full of a kind of pleasure in doing something I shouldn’t be doing: “We’re going to make America like Sweden? *Looks furtively behind my shoulder* Are you sure? Okay — I’m down. Political Revolution? Yeah, I’d like some of that...”

Because it doesn’t matter if I don’t know whether or not a Swedish America (Democratic Socialism) is even possible; the idea is just so idealist, so intoxicating, that the thought — so revolutionary, so fuck-the-rules — gets me carried away.

And it’s not just a naughty pleasure in pondering ideas that every political pundit ever has told us are impossible; it’s the power of the populace, this feeling of rising up after hibernating for years, the primal roar of “YES. WE. CAN.” As Salon’s Walker Bragman (who, I have to admit, is my favorite Bernie Sanders supporter) says, “Bernie Sanders as the face of the United States will send shockwaves through the political system that will have a ripple effect on the nation. We the idealists are the beginning of a new era, and we’re here to stay. Nobody is going to tell us what we can and cannot achieve. There is no stopping an idea whose time has come. The revolution is here, and the country will never be the same. That’s the reality.”

Senator Sanders is a “shockwave.” He, as the face of the idealists, has an idea so powerful that absolutely no one can stop him. No one can tell the idealists what can and cannot be done. The idealist idea is unstoppable because there are no boundaries, there are no rules, that stand a chance against it. It’s, well, idealistic.

Bragman’s little spiel is absolutely drunk on the power of Senator Sanders’ political revolution. It’s drunk on an idea so powerful that it can destroy existing, established, political systems. It’s so attractive because this is what we’ve been told not to do; it’s so attractive because it seeks to destroy all the boundaries and to break the rules that keep in place the evils by whom we’ve been oppressed and to whom we’ve become accustomed.

Contrary to Hillary Clinton, Sanders, and idealists in general, ignores the rules, the boundaries at which Hillary and the realists stop and try, gradually, to topple, because he thinks that if he amasses enough support, he can just blow them away all together. The “Changing laws, not hearts” slogan doesn’t apply here; Sanders is absolutely focused on hearts and his mission is to mobilize the masses, and lend a voice to the Silent American Majority. The heart is at the core of his policies, and if he changes them, he can destroy boundaries.

So when I call Senator Sanders idealistic, I do not mean he’s a lone delusional revolutionary who believes that utopia is but a few steps away, reading Che Guevara speeches in an underground bunker and trying to radicalize any simpleton who happens to stumble upon his hideout (No, really. I don’t). I mean he is idealistic in that his campaign has been focused on ideas more than policies. Changing hearts, rather than laws; a revolutionary process rather than a political one.

When asked in earlier debates about the policy changes he would enact in the first 100 days of his Presidency, Sanders said, “What my first days are about is bringing America together, to end the decline of the middle class, to tell the wealthiest people in this country that yes, they are going to start paying their fair share of taxes, and that we are going to have a government that works for all of us, and not just big campaign contributors.”

Did you see that?! That was so smart — it was such a nice, revolutionary answer, and any good liberal would have been chanting “yes. Yes. YES. YES.” along with him. But where are the policy plans? Vaguely-planned trillion-dollar health care bills and calls for doubling the minimum wage (when Congress is not even willing to budge a cent upwards) don’t count. This is rhetoric. These are empty promises. This is a call to unify America against all the evil that plagues it, not a prospective plan of how President Bernie Sanders will work with Congress to rid it of said evil, which was the original question.

This also smells strongly of The New Deal; creating jobs through infrastructure projects? Really? Is a second New Deal really necessary considering America is not in the middle of a 25%-unemployment-type Depression?

Senator Sanders’ bid for the presidency, then, does not rely on changing laws, but on unifying the American people. It is the idealistic campaign that depends on the idea that the liberal people together can do just about anything they put their minds to if they just want it hard enough. This also makes Sanders’ candidacy a unilateral one, an attempt to subvert convention with or without the participation of the many people who will try to stop him. But can Sanders bring together the American people? Can he blow away boundaries to his policies by changing the hearts of all those who oppose it?

Therein lies the difference between Clinton and Sanders: he believes in ideas and bringing the American people together so that there exist no more boundaries, making the conservatives liberals and the racists tolerant. She believes in what is real: that the conservatives will not, by the flick of some presidential magic wand, turn liberal, nor will the racists relinquish their archaic views in one term. To bring back a well-known adage: “Rome was not built in a day.”


Illustration by Senna Oh

Illustration by Senna Oh





Senator Bernie Sanders is perhaps best known for his “political revolution,” a leftist incarnation of heart-changing-idealism and a rejection of the the Clintonian realism, one of incremental progress in which what has already been accomplished and established is improved upon. In fact, as I noted earlier, part of Senator Sanders’ appeal is his rejection of the status quo and the establishment.

In his typically forceful manner, Senator Sanders summed up this anti-establishment position by differentiating himself from President Obama, and also describing the essence of his idealistic political revolution:

“The major political, strategic difference I have with Obama is it’s too late to do anything inside the Beltway. You gotta take your case to the American people, mobilize them, and organize them at the grassroots level in a way that we have never done before”

In this mistrust of the establishment,  those insiders within the Beltway, and his belief in mobilizing the American people to take back a deteriorating country, Senator Sanders is displaying quintessentially populist characteristics. This is populism and this is his political revolution. Sanders’ brand of change, his populism, will come from the outside, the mobilization of the American people, rather than through the insiders and the political elite. After all, the political revolution is a revolution: it cannot be some mundane bill passed in Congress. It is a “left-turn” that does not seek to improve upon existing progressive laws but abandon them for a quicker route leftward, a route that is supported more by the “Silent American Majority” than the establishment and its voters.

This isn’t really Senator Sanders’ fault. The fact that he is an idealist and believer in the “left-turn” method of political change is what leads him to this populism. The “left-turn” advocates quick, revolutionary change, that comes not from the establishment but from the “YES WE CAN” roar of the people, the believers.

Anti-establishment rhetoric goes hand-in-hand with the rejection of gradual, governmental policy change. Populism is, really, a product of idealism. I mean, how ironic is that? A man running to be the executive leader — the head of the establishment — is anti-establishment. He mistrusts the very workings of the institution which he hopes to lead and all of the change he wants to create will come from outside his own potential jurisdiction.

If Sanders’ cohort of the Democratic Party is populist or anti-establishment, where does it fit into an establishment-centered political party? Can this kind of new-age populist party even exist, seeing as political parties are innately supporters of the establishment themselves? The inherent paradox that is a populist sector of the establishment is what makes Sanders’ campaign, and its effects on the Democratic Party, so discordant in itself.Clearly, the Democratic Party that Senator Bernie Sanders is represents, a populist anti-establishment one, is very different from, even antagonistic toward, the traditional establishment of political insiders and elites who all want to believe government must be the architect of political change.

And who could be considered more of a political elite than the former First Lady/Senator/Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself? She is the symbol of the establishment with her myriad Senate and House endorsements, her famous last name, and her connections to the Democratic Party higher-ups. Indeed, she is a party higher-up.

But Hillary stands for establishment politics not just because she is the establishment, but also because of her progressive “leftward meander” politics that depend on the incremental improvement upon existing policy. Her political realism and progressivism on building from bricks already laid. Thus, it is in the nature of a progressive to depend upon the establishment and to bring about change through it, rather than in spite of it.

This, again, amplifies the discord between Hillary’s Democratic Party and Senator Sanders’ Democratic Party. And here we were, thinking that the Republican Party had troubles. The Democratic Party, with its two presidential candidates, is showing the American people its two faces: the hardened one of the pro-establishment progressive-realist and the hopeful one of the anti-establishment, populist-idealist. Split at the root, the voters will have to choose which route they will advocate, which route will characterize their party.


Originally published 05/10/16

Kaylee WarrenComment