Why Do Progressives Cling to Hillary?
As the primaries move into their final act, Sanders supporters confront a perplexing question: How could so many progressives vote for Hillary over Bernie?
After all, you would think that progressives would race toward the first self-declared socialist in American history who actually has a chance at becoming the nominee of a major political party, and even of winning the Presidency. What does Hillary offer to progressives that Bernie can’t provide in abundance?
1. Hillary’s a proven winner?
This argument has two parts. First, Hillary progressives point out that she’s beating Sanders in primary after primary, especially in diverse states. Therefore, she clearly is the stronger candidate both now and in the fall. The second part is that Hillary progressives (especially older voters) believe that she would be a much stronger candidate against the Republican attack machine in the fall. She’s already been through those wars and knows how to fight back.
The only problem with this argument is that the first part does not lead to the second part. There are multiple reasons for why Hillary is winning the primaries, ranging from the order of the contests, the initial strength of the Clinton machine, Hillary’s strong base among African-American voters, as well as the tacit support of President Obama.
None of this is proof that Hillary would be the stronger candidate in the fall, especially since she is far weaker than Bernie among independents. For example, the Michigan exit polls show that Bernie beat Hillary among independents 71% to 28%.
Hillary progressives cling to this winner meme even though poll after poll shows that Sanders is running better against all the Republican candidates. In the most recent poll from GWU/Battleground, Hillary is up only three points over Trump while Bernie leads him by 10%.
So how does this translate into more electability? It doesn’t. It’s as if Hillary progressives just can’t believe that Americans are ready for a straight-talking social democrat who is willing to directly tackle runaway inequality and Wall Street.
2. Hillary knows how to get things done?
You would think Hillary progressives would be concerned about many of her past accomplishments. If Hillary wants to take credit for the Clinton presidency when it comes to job creation, she must also shoulder the responsibility for dismantling “welfare as we know it,” the crime bill which helped make the U.S. the world leader in prisoners, and NAFTA which helped to gut good-paying industrial jobs.
Going forward, her proposals are smack in the middle of the neo-liberal paradigm. She wants to use corporate tax incentives and “public-private partnerships” to urge businesses to invest in the U.S. and to rebuild depressed areas. If she gets these things done it’s because the biggest beneficiaries will be those corporations and local developers.
This corresponds precisely with the 2014 landmark study done by Professors Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern). They reviewed 1,779 congressional bills and found that the average citizen had “near zero” influence over policy. The only bills that passed where those that coincided with the wishes of the wealthy and corporate interests.
Because she has internalized these constraints, Hillary will not advocate for proposals that would redistribute wealth and power from Wall Street to Main Street. She opposes a financial speculation tax. She opposes breaking up the big banks. And she opposes free higher education (and instead she wants some kind of cap on student loans that would hardly dent the trillion dollar student loan industry.)
Under a Hillary administration, it is likely that more women and people of color will find their way into elite positions within the current political and economic hierarchy. However, her idea of “breaking all barriers” does not include breaking the biggest barrier of them all — runaway inequality.
3. Hillary is realistic, Bernie is not?
Hillary Clinton supposedly sees the world the way it is, rather than the way Bernie wishes it were. As a result Hillary progressives believe that she has a much better command of the policy details and, therefore, how to move a progressive agenda. Meanwhile, Bernie, allegedly, is guaranteed to disappoint. Like Obama, he promises hope and change, but will be unable to deliver it.
This surprising Hillary-progressive critique misses the fundamental difference between the Clinton and Sanders political approaches. Bernie wants to mobilize the country into a “political revolution” for fundamental change. Hillary has no interest in such a movement. She sees herself as the change-maker-in-chief. It’s all about her ability to produce pragmatic changes, not about our ability to force such changes into existence.
Sanders knows that an election of one person to high office is just the beginning. Unlike Obama he would not demobilize his backers after the election. Rather he would ask us to become extremely active — from mass marches on the capital to engagement in state and local campaigns. As he points out repeatedly, real change only comes from below — from a dedicated mass movement that is willing to take to the streets.
It’s hard to figure out how progressives could miss this difference, or so readily dismiss it.
4. Hillary is more experienced in foreign affairs?
She certainly is, and virtually none of it is progressive. It is hard to distinguish her record from the neoconservatives. She supported the Iraq War (and please no excuses about how she was misled.) She called for more troops to surge in Afghanistan than even the leading generals wanted. She engaged in nation-building in Libya and tacit regime change in Honduras. Plus she wants a no fly zone in Syria that most generals say would require tens of thousands of support troops.
Going forward, there is every reason to believe that there will be little daylight between her Middle-East policies and those of the Netanyahu administration. She still thinks that Libya can turn out to be a success story and that military surges could be highly effective. In short, Hillary Clinton is a hawk — more hawkish than Obama, more hawkish than her husband, and far more interventionist than Sanders. (See “How Hillary Became a Hawk” NY Times Magazine 4/21/16)
The primaries provide a classic “hawk vs dove” choice, and Hillary progressives are going with the birds of prey.
5. Hillary breaks the glass ceiling?
No question about it, Hillary would make history by becoming the first female president, while Bernie would be the first with a Bar Mitzvah. A Hillary administration should be able to make progress on equal pay for equal work and on women’s health issues, including the right to choose.
It’s interesting that having the first female President seems to be extremely important to older women, but much less so to younger ones. Perhaps a generation of struggle by the previous generation has paved the way for younger women to worry less about sexism. Or perhaps younger women have not as yet have had to juggle work and family, and discriminatory pay scales.
Whatever the reasons, young women are supporting Sanders by a remarkable 61% to 30%. They are saying that it would be good to have a progressive (man or women) to run the country. Hillary is not that progressive.
6. Hillary will do more for people of color?
Hillary certainly has achieved commanding victories among people of color. This is proof positive for some progressives that Hillary will do more to fight racial injustice and therefore should have our support.
But like so many pro-Hillary arguments, this one is also based on a faulty twist of logic. Getting most of the black and brown vote is no guarantee that her administration would do more for people of color than a Sanders administration.
The vote gathering among people of color has a great deal to do with the political apparatus that the Clintons have established over the past three decades. They have provided support to a great many black and brown political leaders. They have appointed them to office, campaigned for them and involved them in their own campaigns and charities. They have worked very hard for these votes, and Hillary is reaping the rewards. That can’t be denied.
But what has been Hillary’s impact on those who suffer the most from poverty and discrimination? That record is far murkier. Welfare reform causes real pain to low income people, especially people of color. Getting tough on crime has been an unmitigated disaster for black and brown young men. Studies of the Clinton’s public-private enterprise zone investments in inner cities show few gains from these efforts.
Going forward Hillary rejects free higher education, a Sanders program that would disproportionately benefit young people of color and their families. It took Bernie to push her during the NY debate to embrace (sort of) a $15 an hour federal minimum wage.
It’s just damn hard to find a Hillary program that will rearrange the economy so that those at the bottom gain significantly more resources. She has no war on poverty, no public sector jobs program for inner city youth, no expansion of public education, and no crusade to integrate schools or housing.
The Clinton idea that “the era of big government is over” is a disaster for working people, especially women of color, who struggled their way into the middle class through public employment.
Young people of color are far less convinced by the Clinton machine. Internal Sanders campaign polls show that among young black primary voters Sanders is winning 51% to 43%, and among young Latino voters, he is winning 65% to 30%.
Facts don’t matter?
Hillary progressives seem immune to most of these facts and figures. Regardless of what the polls say, they are sure that Hillary is the stronger candidate and that she can best trump Trump. They also seem certain that Bernie is too socialistic for this capitalist country, and therefore he would get slaughtered, just like George McGovern, the anti-Vietnam liberal in 1972.
But what if these polls do matter? What if Hillary really is the weaker candidate? What if Trump is able to successfully label her as the candidate of Wall Street?
We already hear the rumblings from the Hillary camp. They will blame Bernie and his idealistic supporters for weakening her in the primaries. They will claim that he provided Trump with all the ammunition needed. And, they will blame young Bernie people for not voting in large enough numbers for Hillary.
But should this nightmare afflict us, Hillary progressives will have great difficulty explaining to others, and to themselves, why they did not back the most progressive and most electable candidate.