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Democratic Myths: Challenging Mainstream Misconceptions Before the Iowa Caucus

Sanders is an experienced progressive lawmaker who has won campaigns on the state and Federal level, while Clinton is a public figure who has had considerably less legislative or electoral success

Hillary Clinton looks on as Bernie Sanders speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate on Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (Photo: John Locher, AP)

After months of campaigning and speculation, the 2016 Presidential election is finally about to begin. The Iowa caucus is the first stop in what is shaping up to be a landmark election. While Republican deal with the rise of Trump, the Democrats are locked in a battle between the establishment front-runner Hillary Clinton and the populist upstart Bernie Sanders.

If you only listened to the mainstream media, it would be easy to assume that this is a campaign between experience and inexperience, electability and unelectability, reform and revolution. To quote a recent commentator, Clinton unlike Sanders “is all about the art of the possible, not the prospect of revolution.”

"At the heart of [current] misconceptions beats a more dangerous Democratic myth – that revolution cannot be pragmatic and that Centrist compromise is the only path to real progress."

Yet digging only a little deeper, this dominant narrative quickly unravels. Sanders is an experienced progressive lawmaker who has won campaigns on the state and Federal level. Clinton is a public figure who has had considerably less legislative or elected success. At the heart of these misconceptions beats a more dangerous Democratic myth – that revolution cannot be pragmatic and that Centrist compromise is the only path to real progress.

Clinton the Electable Pragmatic Progressive?

Since announcing her nomination Hillary Clinton last year has been almost universally praised for her electability, experience and record of pragmatic progressive change. In their endorsement of Clinton, the New York Times proclaimed “Voters have the chance to choose one of the most broadly and deeply qualified presidential candidates in modern history”

However, one by one these largely accepted truths are shown to be more assumption than fact. In terms of electability, it is worth nothing that Hillary Clinton has only won one election in her entire political career. Her victory to become a New York senator was, moreover, a relatively easy campaign against an uncharismatic Republic with significantly less name recognition and resources.

By contrast, she lost the 2008 Democratic nomination race despite being the “inevitable front-runner” and not just due to the historic candidacy of Barack Obama. Her campaign was riddled with infighting, lack of message, overspending, and mismanagement. Given a second chance at being the inevitable nominee in 2016, she is now being challenged by Bernie Sanders – a socialist Senator who until recently barely anyone outside of Vermont or Washington DC had ever heard of.  

A key reason for this lack of electability is that voters simply do not trust her and have a highly unfavorable view of her. Much of this dislike can be attributed to decades of Republican attacks. However, arguably much more is based on her record where personal ambition outweighs political principle. From welfare reform to gay marriage to Wall Street regulations there does not seem to be a position that she has not “evolved” on based on what was currently popular.

As to her experience, Bernie Sanders is right when he says it is undercut by what seems to be a consistent pattern of misjudgment. In addition to her vote for the Iraq War, her policies as Secretary of State were at least partly responsible for destabilizing Libya by advocating military regime change without a coherent plan for rebuilding the country afterwards and a tendency to back dictators over democracies for the sake of preserving US hegemony and corporate interests (see especially Honduras and Egypt).

Far from being an electable pragmatic progressive, Hillary Clinton when placed under the microscope appears to be an ineffective campaigner who suffers from massive unpopularity and is more a political opportunist then committed progressive. Nevertheless, she remains the “inevitable” and “safe” nominee for President.


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Bernie the Unelectable Inexperienced Idealist?

In contrast to Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders has been assailed for his clear lack of electability and naïve idealism. Despite his experience as mayor, congressman and Senator he is dominantly portrayed as someone whose calls for a political revolution are at best hopelessly romantic and at worst dangerously unworkable.

"The nation can no longer afford too keep believing in the myth that establishment politicians can deliver genuine progress."

Yet again though these charges do not hold up to scrutiny when confronted with actual evidence. Over the last four decades Bernie Sanders has won numerous local and federal elections. As an avowed democratic socialist he has faced uphill battles and been victorious. Moreover, once he wins he seems to become more popular with his voters – many of whom were not originally attracted to his “extreme” ideological positions.

As a public servant and lawmaker he has been both far reaching in his impact and pragmatic in his approach. As mayor of Burlington he “revitalized the economy and solidified support for progressive municipal policies”. As a member of the house of representatives he was nicknamed “the amendment king” for his dogged determination to introduce additions to laws that would help everyday Americans. As Senator he forged bipartisan agreements to enact legislation “that has protected our troops, restricted the bail-out to protect U.S. workers, greened our government, exposed corruption in the military-industrial complex, helped to treat autism in military health care, and taken care of veterans’ kids”.

Bernie Sanders has spent the majority of his adult life fighting for progressive causes – from being a civil rights organizer in the 1960s to being a strong, sometimes lone voice, for change as an elected official starting in the 1980s. And yet he is the “idealistic” radical who lacks “pragmatism” and could never accomplish anything if elected.

Dangerous Democratic Myths

These misconceptions regarding Clinton and Sanders, respectively, reflect deeper and more dangerous Democratic myths. Notably, that change is only possible from the top down and inside out. That the establishment can be trusted to reform itself. That our democracy is not fundamentally broken just needing some repairs.

The truth is that real legislative change comes not from compromise but a mix of clear principle, popular support and the willingness to work with opponents when common ground presents itself. Using the late Ted Kennedy as an example, E.J. Dionne highlighted this needed mix of vision and realism, declaring “You cannot know the difference between a minor concession and a major betrayal of principle unless you know what your principles are.”

The next president is going to have to confront a nation beset by growing economic inequality, racial injustice, corporate power, the threat of climate change, international underdevelopment, global violence and a world that seems to be becoming more capitalist, politically authoritarian and unstable by the day. The nation can no longer afford too keep believing in the myth that establishment politicians can deliver genuine progress. Defeating Hillary Clinton and nominating Bernie Sanders is an important step in collectively opening our eyes to the truth and move forward toward real change. 

Peter Bloom

Peter Bloom

Dr. Peter Bloom is a lecturer in the Department of People and Organizations 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 "Beyond Power and Resistance: Politics at the Radical Limits" (2016).

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