The Real Conflict in the Democratic Party

Incrementalism or bust.

Incrementalism or bust.

There is a real conflict occurring right now in the Democratic primary. And it’s not between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. While that narrative may be superficially intriguing, the consequential struggle is over whether it is best to progress society through incrementalism or by dramatic change. This ideological clash in the progressive movement will ultimately be what historians and scholars examine years from now. All the rest is noise.

The incrementalist argument for progress is embodied in the “establishment” candidates of the Democratic Party. Once in the “dramatic change” camp, President Barack Obama has morphed into what Hillary would call “a pragmatic progressive” or a “progressive who likes to get things done.” Matt Carp at Jacobin wrote an unbelievably perceptive piece which noticed that this “model of change…begins not with policy or people but with a politician.” Incrementalist progressivism rallies “around that leader’s personal qualifications, while defending past achievement and stressing the value of party loyalty” — think Clinton’s defense of Obamacare. Carp calls this type of progressivism “fortress liberalism” and laments how this overly defensive strategy has led to “the erosion of labor unions” and “the steady evisceration of the party at the state level.”

Whether you think Obama has adopted “industrious incrementalism” because he’s a corporate sellout or merely constrained by a hostile Congress (these two things are not mutually exclusive), a large portion of progressives would agree that the president has not dramatically changed America.

If you disagree with that conclusion and believe it’s a tough verdict, then you’ll have to take it up with the president himself. In an interview last year with comedian Marc Maron, Obama recognized this reality:

Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements, or try to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south, so that ten years from now, suddenly we’re in a very different place than we were. But at the time, at the moment, people may feel like, we need a 50 degree turn, we don’t need a two degree turn…And you can’t turn 50 degrees.

That’s a 180 degree turn (or should I say 50 degree turn!) from the dramatic change message he laid out in a 2008 speech:

Change will not come if we wait for it or some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.

Obama’s ideological retreat is concisely illustrated through the titles of Jonathan Alter’s two books on his presidency: The Promise (2010) and The Center Holds (2014). It’s not a coincidence that the main philosophical battle of progressivism has so clearly manifested itself in the Democratic primary following Obama’s presidency.

When you apply the “two camp theory” to 2016, it certainly helps explain how a 74-year-old Jewish guy from Vermont gave the most qualified candidate since George Washington a tough primary. Sanders has merely catered to voters who want more immediate and consequential change, by carrying on Obama’s 2008 messaging and fitting it with other bold policies which match 2016 better ($15 minimum wage, free public college, and universal health care). When Democratic politics is understood in this binary way, we are also able to comprehend the surprisingly “yuge” generational divide in this Democratic primary – young people are fierce advocates for exciting political transformations (thus, they like Bernie), while older people tend to be more wedded to gradualism (thus, they like Hillary).*

Many commentators have claimed that Bernie’s appeal is due to Hillary’s character concerns and her ties to Wall Street, but this is shallow analysis. Clearly, these personal storylines do affect some voters, but Clinton’s troubles largely stem from barely running at all in the dramatic change camp. She is running as a technocrat, presenting “herself as a painstaking, detail-oriented manager.” It’s clearly working — after all, she’s almost certainly going to win the Democratic primary. But is it a reusable campaign strategy for future progressive candidates who don’t possess a terrific resume or a tiny field of candidates?

In ensuing election cycles we will see different Democratic politicians running new and fresh campaigns. Predictably, the skin-deep optics will be what drives our punditry (he/she is African American, he/she is LGBTQ, he/she is Hispanic). However the real story, the real substance to focus on will be which progressive tactic the candidates choose. While incrementalism looks to be the winning strategy of 2016, something tells me dramatic change is on its way.


*Although not perfectly analogous, one could make a similar argument for the Republican Party. Establishment/incrementalist candidates like Jeb!, Marco, and Scott Walker were refuted by the big (if not incoherent) change promised by Donald Trump.

Nick Cassella

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