Off With Their Heads! Why Change Demands Progressive Hearts, Not Centrist Brains

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Off With Their Heads! Why Change Demands Progressive Hearts, Not Centrist Brains

The idea that electability and good policy lies in the center ground lacks both intellectual substance and historical grounding.

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders (L), Hillary Clinton (C) and Martin O'Malley are introduced at the 2015 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, October 24, 2015. (Photo: Scott Morgan/Reuters)

The Iowa caucus is only a week away and the Democratic race for the presidency has seemingly been turned upside down. The once inevitable nominee Hillary Clinton is experiencing déjà vu from 2008 as her poll numbers continue to slide. Yet this year her upstart challenger is not the hopeful Barack Obama but the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders.

After months of relatively ignoring him, the mainstream media is finally catching up to Sander’s progressive momentum. However, his success has also brought with it a considerable amount of backlash from the Liberal elite. While feeling the Bern may be inspiring, they proclaimed, Hillary Clinton represents the intelligent vote.

"The reaction to Sanders popularity reveals just how desperately the Democratic Party needs to rethink what it considers 'smart politics.'"

Yet this now common sense view is more establishment fantasy than reality. Not only does it completely ignore how accomplished Bernie Sanders is as a lawmaker, it also misses how utterly out of touch and misguided Hillary’s brand of Liberal centrism is in the modern world. The reaction to Sanders popularity reveals just how desperately the Democratic Party needs to rethink what it considers “smart politics”.

A Wrongheaded Centrism

Since he announced his candidacy Bernie Sanders has been labeled as the romantic idealist to the rational pragmatism of Hillary Clinton. This narrative continued in the wake of recent poll numbers showing Sanders gaining ground on and even pulling ahead of Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Suddenly, it seemed the media exploded with a spate of articles reminding voters that while Sanders may appeal to their “heart”, Clinton should speak to the reason in their “head”. As one commentator declared:

The argument for Clinton is that she's the Democrat most likely to make progress on progressive priorities because she's the Democrat who best understands both the issues and how unbelievably difficult it actually is to get anything done in a divided political system.

The underlying assumption is that Sander’s surging popularity is fueled primarily by emotion, lacking the “hardheaded” perspective to achieve genuine change. According to no less than Paul Krugman:

Sorry, but there’s nothing noble about seeing your values defeated because you preferred happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends. Don’t let idealism veer into destructive self-indulgence.

By contrast, it is argued that what Hillary Clinton lacks in flash she makes up for in substance.

Indeed this assumption seems so rational to be almost unquestionable. Bernie Sanders is drawing raucous crowds across the country with his message of “political revolution”. By contrast, Hillary Clinton is touting her long experience and the possibilities for incremental reform.

Digging a little deeper reveals the fiction of this increasingly accepted view. It is Bernie Sanders, not Hillary Clinton, who has been able to transform his high minded progressive ideals into a real legislative achievements. And it is Hillary Clinton who has had to explain a legislative record littered with “mistakes” and once strongly held positions she has now evolved on.

"It is Bernie Sanders, not Hillary Clinton, who has been able to transform his high minded progressive ideals into a real legislative achievements. And it is Hillary Clinton who has had to explain a legislative record littered with “mistakes” and once strongly held positions she has now evolved on." However, there is a broader lesson to be learned here. It is that Clinton’s misjudgments and lack of consistent principles are the rule not the exception for Democrats. They represent a politics that confuses progress with electoral victory and corporate friendly reforms with progressive change. Reflected is the wrongheadedness of Liberal centrism.

The Need for New Thinking

This discourse is not only wrongheaded but dangerous. It threatens to lead Democrats and all those on the Left into repeating past mistakes. Where electability and good policy is assumed to lie in the center ground. Such ideas lack both intellectual substance and historical grounding.

The Affordable Care Act has improved the health care for millions. But it is also a massive give away to the private insurance and pharmaceutical industries who continue to profit from it at the expense of instituting a more just and universal system. The Dodd-Frank regulations have done little to stop the growing power of Wall Street – and Hillary’s plan would do little to change that. The election of a Liberal president has not closed Guantanamo and seen the proliferation of Drone warfare.

It could be argued at this point that despite these challenges they reflect just how much of an uphill climb achieving serious reform is in the current American political environment. This centrist mantra may sound good yet it bear little relation to what actually has worked in the past. Real change - such as the New Deal – came not from pragmatism but a potent mixture of popular power and visionary ideas.

"To meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century requires a popular movement committed to ideals of equality, democracy and justice."

The mindset of the Democratic Party and much of the Liberal intelligentsia must be radically updated. It is more opportunistic than substantive and perhaps even worse largely ineffective. A potential Sanders' victory represents a chance to infuse the Party with some desperately needed new thinking.

Cutting off the Democrat’s Head

The media is absolutely correct that Hillary Clinton is the “head” of the Democratic Party. They are defined by her ideas of supporting whatever is currently popular and trading genuine transformation for a corporate sponsored vision of compromised reforms.

We cannot afford to continue to embrace this failed mentality. To meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century requires a popular movement committed to ideals of equality, democracy and justice. And it demands strong leadership willing to fight for these values.

The fate of our progress is at a crossroads. If progressives want to survive and prosper it is becoming increasingly clear that they must cut off the Democrats’ head to save their hearts.

Peter Bloom

Peter Bloom is a lecturer in the Department of People and Organisations at the Open University. He has published widely on issues of 21st century democracy, politics and economics in both scholarly journals and in publications including the Washington Post, The New Statesman, Roar, Open Democracy, The Conversation and Common Dreams. His books include Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Globalizationand Beyond Power and Resistance: Politics at the Radical Limits which will be released in November, 2016.

 

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