We political geeks have heard all the analogies regarding the 2016 Democratic primaries: Heart versus head, experience versus idealism, pragmatism versus revolution, reality versus dreams. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who remains the Democratic presidential frontrunner despite her recent struggles in the polls, is widely portrayed as an experienced, detail-oriented pragmatism. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the surging challenger whose campaign is often compared as reminiscent of Barack Obama’s 2008 upset victory over Clinton herself, is frequently described as an idealistic dreamer.
As Sanders begins to erase Clinton’s lead in the early primary election states of Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democratic Party establishment and the mainstream media appear to be conspiring against him. Widely circulated are op-eds and exposes praising Clinton’s pragmatism and incrementalism and complaining that idealism and “political revolutions” are doomed to failure. Bernie Sanders is criticized as unrealistic. Only Clinton, the power structure asserts, can get anything done in the Oval Office.
Voters are being told to turn away from the talk of “political revolution” and be realistic. Hillary Clinton’s campaign acknowledges that things are bad, ranging from the tepid economy to sky-high health care costs to student loan debt, but insists that incremental tweaks are all that can, and should, be accomplished. Striving for universal health care and tuition-free public college, Clinton says, would force a fight that is just not worth having.
Many Clinton surrogates and supporters toe this line and have told the public that universal health care is a noble goal…but is just not in the cards.
I wonder how many voters were told this in 1850, when radical progressives were encouraging the widespread adoption of public schools? How many voters protested at the notion that they pay taxes to fund the education of children other than their own? How many policymakers criticized the idea that all children, even the dumb, lazy, and disobedient, be educated? I can hardly fathom how many times voters were told to be realistic and understand that it was far too expensive, and ultimately unfeasible, to educate the masses of children. Most children, after all, came from parents who were poor laborers, and almost all of these children were expected to quickly find work in menial trades.
Today, there is not a mainstream politician in the United States who would argue against free public education for all youth. If challenged on their support for universal public education, any Democrat or Republican would sprint to a microphone and loudly wax eloquent on their devout belief that such tuition-free education was an inherent American right and the cornerstone of our democracy. What would they say if, immediately afterward, you asked how universal health care was different than universal K-12 education?
I wonder how many voters were told to be realistic in 1950, when radical progressives wanted to integrate schools, public venues, and even private businesses? How many voters protested at the realization that they would have to pay more taxes to provide equitable schools and government services to the racial and ethnic minorities who had previously been denied them? How many policymakers criticized the idea that white, black, Hispanic, and Asian citizens be allowed to attend the same schools and utilize the same government venues? Unfortunately, many progressives who advocated for racial equality and civil rights were viewed as unrealistic dreamers who were “radical” and “divisive.”
How many so-called progressives argued for incremental change rather than “radical” legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965?
Only during the early and mid-1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, were “radical” progressive reforms allowed to avoid mass derision. Only when unemployment hit 25% and Americans were literally starving to death did a “political revolution” achieve swift victory. From president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal came numerous progressive reforms that all Democrats and Republicans champion today: Social Security, the federal minimum wage, and the FDIC. The government spent billions of dollars to put Americans back to work, and much of that infrastructure helped foster our post-WWII economic boom and is still utilized today. Only due to unprecedented misery and crisis did we not criticize the dreamers and idealists as unrealistic. Only due to unprecedented misery and crisis did we not argue for incrementalism rather than comprehensive change.
Today, with economic inequality as high as it was just before the Great Depression, do we really need to repeat history to learn the value of comprehensive reform?
Political revolutions brought us universal public school, the New Deal, and the successes of the Civil Rights Movement. Had we “been realistic” and “played it safe” with incremental reform, where would we be today? Would we have universal public school? How long would it have taken to recover from the Great Depression? Would your children still attend segregated schools? Looking back at those crucial eras, what would historians, and the general public, have to say about politicians, like Hillary Clinton, who advocate incrementalism? Would a Clinton-esque moderate be praised…or criticized?
We need a political revolution, and before we experience another Great Depression. We need to show our children and grandchildren that we can learn from history and avoid repeating our mistakes.