In common with most of her political brethren across both parties, Hillary Clinton’s speeches are filled with veritable hymns to American exceptionalism. We’re Americans, they say, and therefore deserving of the best. Coincidentally, because we’re Americans we can also do anything we want…we are literally the best at everything. There should be no glass ceiling to our ambitions that we are not able and willing to shatter in our quest for a fairer and more just society and better lives for the people in it.
Clinton is now experiencing the odd sensation of facing a strong candidate who has actually encouraged Americans to dream bigger and ask why their lives aren’t defined by the same measures of equality, access, and stability that people in other parts of the world enjoy.
Her approach has been to ask voters to rein in their ambitions. She is in the position of telling them all of the things they can’t do and can’t have. She is in the position of representing the strand of liberalism which is willing to concede individuals civil rights, but refuses to acknowledge their claims for the economic rights which would protect them from the predatory forms of capitalism that turn the existence of too many of our citizens into decades- or even life-long scrambles for survival. She will fiddle around the edges of our social and economic institutions, but won’t seek to re-make them.
Bernie Sanders, drawing on radical American traditions and tenets of social democracy from Europe and elsewhere, has signaled to the public that it is possible to abandon the timidity or ferocity (depending on your perspective) of traditional liberalism and fashion a society in which more services are public.
That is, according to their wealth, citizens pool their resources and then all derive collective benefits from their investment. These benefits can be direct: a young person, before they begin to pay taxes back into the system, could attend a public university for free; parents can secure leave to look after a young child and then put them in a public system of early childhood education. They can also be indirect: the work that the young person in question might do in some profession will better the lives of some other taxpayer who doesn’t have children attending university, or who did not themselves attend university; all citizens will benefit from a generation of children whose security is enhanced by parents under less economic strain and institutions to provide a nurturing environment.
Robust public services and a strong welfare state might mean more contributions in terms of tax dollars from a broad segment of the population, although certainly the greater share of the burden should fall on the wealthy. But for each of those greater contributions, citizens secure savings on services. Sure, families would pay a few more dollars per year in taxes to fund public higher education. But measure that against saving $60,000 in tuition to send a student to the UC for a Bachelor’s degree.
One benefit of public services in the areas of education, health, welfare provision and the like is that they are more universally accessible than services in the private sector, where the desire for profit and calculations about cost-benefit will create significant or utterly insurmountable obstacles for those who struggle, often the people needing those services most. Secondly, they are run in the public interest, rather than for private gain. This can lead to greater efficiency, and certainly better services. Public services need be no more inefficient than their private counterparts.
Hillary Clinton is taking a stand against this logic.
A national system of healthcare, ensuring universal access, of the kind she touted in the 1990s? Far too ambitious…better the under-regulated, market-version of healthcare that leaves people unprotected and some of them still uninsured.
Free public education, of the kind enjoyed by many of Clinton’s generation who attended public universities, including campuses of the elite UC system? No way! Far better, Clinton has argued, that students should be working to pay part of their own way, albeit with a better-regulated system of loans.
Clinton has suggested that Sanders would need a “magic wand” to accomplish his goals, which also including reinstating Glass-Steagall and developing family leave.
But unlike previous Democrats, Sanders is pledging to transform his supporters into a genuine movement rather than simply an ATM for future campaigns. He is in a position to take advantage of a surge of populism across the political spectrum and to channel elements of it away from the fruitless and bitter hatemongering of the Republican Party towards productive social and economic change.
Clinton will never attempt to reach this audience. She is content with the existing Democratic coalition, and declared herself in one debate proud to have made enemies of the Republicans. She and her husband are creatures of the Democratic Party, with all the strengths, weaknesses, and in this case, blind-spots that go along with it. She has either failed to recognize the breadth and depth of the desire for a re-drawing of economic lines of power in our country, or else recognizes that even her current contortions from a regressive decade and a half put considerable strain on credibility.
Is there a risk that some of Sanders’ promises will go unfulfilled? Yes. Is there a risk that many of his supporters will be disappointed by what he is able to accomplish? Certainly. Would I write blog posts bemoaning his caution or inadequacy? Silly question. Is the same true of Clinton? Of course. Would Sanders mount as firm a defense as Clinton against threats to the Supreme Court and to existing civil and economic rights? Absolutely. And are his ambitions for our citizenry and our society bigger and better than Clinton’s? Without a doubt.