The Clinton pragmatism frame is a strangely naïve and fatalistic misjudging of political culture and dynamics. During most of his eight years in office, President Obama has tacked to the center in hopes of bipartisan compromise on everything from gun control to the budget, only to be met by relentless Republican obstruction, even labeled a “socialist dictator.” Republicans did much the same during Bill Clinton’s first term—pushing him more deeply into the political center, where, with plenty of support from Hillary, President Clinton and the Gingrich Congress gutted welfare, enacted a deeply compromised crime bill, and reversed bank regulations (something Hillary is OK with even after the financial crisis).
No matter where a Democratic president is on the spectrum, Republicans block and push rightward. In her campaign, as in the past, Hillary Clinton has compromised her agenda before the political battle even begins.
Based on her record and political positions, it is not credible for Democrats to hope that a Clinton presidency can deliver progressive change. It is not pragmatic to hope that Clinton, by dint of her centrist leanings, can work with Congress on anything other than a centrist agenda—at best. To the extent that she gets things done with a Republican legislature, based on an electoral mandate of centrism, there is zero prospect of progressive reform on Wall Street, corporate accountability, wealth inequality, or campaign finance. In politics, if you demand a mile, you get a foot; demand a moderate inch, and at best, you get a centimeter.
On the other side of the ledger, history shows that political and social change emanate from persistent pressure—organizing and arguing for a more just world, not settling for what is deemed “realistic” before getting to the negotiating table. Remember when gay rights and gay marriage were “unrealistic”? Remember when voting rights, desegregation, and other basic justice were far from “pragmatic”? They became real through years of dedicated, principled, idealism—by insisting the unrealistic become real.
If liberals and progressives support a $15 per-hour minimum wage, universally accessible health care, fair taxes on corporations and wealth, and meaningful reforms of Wall Street and campaign finance, they should elect a president who actually fights for these things. Sanders has spent his whole political life in pursuit of these ideals, and his campaign has moved these conversations to the fore; Clinton’s record on the other hand shows a consistent pattern of following, not leading on these issues. Clinton’s brand of pragmatism surrenders progressive change to centrism even before negotiations begin.
Change is not, as Clinton has claimed, a matter of “magical” thinking or waving a “wand”—it is about pushing ideas, building movements, and challenging the status quo. Even before the general election, Clinton is campaigning on a deflating and defeatist politics of half-a-loaf “pragmatism,” aiming lower on minimum wage, opposing free college, opposing single-payer health care. With Sanders, there is no question he will push for meaningful progressive change. No candidate can guarantee passage of their platform—but at least Sanders makes change possible.