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Who Is the Real Progressive: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders?


At the risk of being disagreeable, let me start by disagreeing with the premise of this forum: Trying to figure out where Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton fit into the history of “progressivism” only muddles the key differences between them. It can hardly be otherwise, since the term has had such a promiscuous life in American politics. A century ago, racist Southern Democrats and the founders of the NAACP both embraced it. A few decades later, so did the Communist Party. Sometime in the 1990s, it became a fallback identifier for pretty much anyone The Nation and its journalistic kin smiled upon.

Fortunately, excellent substitutes are available.

Hillary Clinton is best described as a liberal. Like liberals from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, Clinton wants to use the federal government to improve the lives of the majority of Americans. Like nearly every Democratic presidential candidate since the 1970s, she makes special pitches to women, non-whites of both genders, and the LGBT community. But she largely views social movements as creatures to be wooed and managed. What she really cares about is shrewd, effective governance. Like every liberal president (and most failed Democratic nominees) since Wilson, she wants the United States to be the dominant power in the world, so she doesn’t question the massive sums spent on the military and on the other branches of the national-security state.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is a leftist. Although he has been winning elections since 1981, Sanders resembles his hero, Eugene V. Debs—the Socialist who ran five quixotic races for president, the last time, in 1920, from a prison cell—far more than he does a standard-issue career politician. Other pols identify with “revolution” and claim their campaign is a “movement.” But Bernie really means it. He is perpetually on the attack against undue power and misused privilege, armed with an unvarnished class-conscious message that, until the emergence of Occupy Wall Street, had long been absent from the public square. He advocates policies he knows even a Congress controlled by Democrats would be quite unlikely to implement: breaking up the biggest banks, making public colleges and universities free to all, outlawing private donations to campaigns, and more. Except for increasing aid to veterans, he seems cold toward every part of the military establishment. His true foreign policy is, in effect, a domestic policy that would turn the United States into another Norway.