After Hillary Clinton delivered her Super Tuesday victory speech, Van Jones said on CNN that his Twitter feed was full of people saying that she had stolen Bernie Sanders’s message. But that was only half-true. While Clinton is incorporating more of Sanders’s progressive populism, her campaign narrative is in the typical tradition of American liberalism.
Taken together, the core stories that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are telling in their campaigns bring together the two main themes in liberal and progressive political dialogue in America. They are telling a story that includes both driving ideas: our fundamental shared interest and our insistence that society should work for the vast majority, not powerful elites. Clinton has been at the forefront of healthcare reform and Sanders supported her efforts. Sanders preaches financial reform and Clinton seems to have taken up his fight. Where the candidates diverge is where they put the emphasis in their narratives.
After Clinton’s first campaign message—that she was a progressive who could get things done—bombed, she finally developed a powerful campaign story. She began her Super Tuesday victory speech saying, “You know all across our country today they, Democrats, voted to break down barriers so we can all rise together.”
But then she quickly pivoted to Sanders’s campaign message: “Because this country belongs to all of us, not just those at the top.”
The rest of Clinton’s speech was outlined around breaking down barriers that prevent people from achieving their own potential and participating in the America promise: “Instead of building walls we’re going to break down barriers and build ladders of opportunity and empowerment so every American can live up to his or her potential, because then and only then can America live up to its full potential too.”
Even when she pivoted back to Sanders’s emphasis of progressive populism, she extended the olive branch of inclusiveness. This section from her speech captures how she combines the two:
We’re all in this together, my friends, and we all have to do our part. But unfortunately, too many of those with the most wealth and the most power in this country today seem to have forgotten that basic truth about America. … Now I’m not interested in condemning whole categories of people or businesses… So let there be no doubt, if you cheat your employees, exploit consumers, pollute our environment or rip off the taxpayers, we’re going to hold you accountable. But, if you do the right thing, if you invest in your workers, and in America’s future then we’ll stand with you.
Sanders, of course, does not euphemize his attacks on corporate greed and its abuse of working people and takeover of our democracy. But the power of his campaign comes not just from anger at the powerful but in the hope for a more inclusive economy and democracy. As he said at the beginning of his victory speech in New Hampshire, “the government of our great country belongs to all of the people and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors, and their Super PACs.” And in concluding that same speech, “Together we are going to create an economy that works for all of us, not just the 1%.”
While the energy of Sanders’s speeches is based in progressive populism, the tone of his two most recognized campaign ads is in the spirit of Clinton’s inclusive vision of the American promise. “America,” Sanders’s instantly iconic ad, includes gauzy images of diverse, working and middle-class Americans to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel’s refrain “They’ve all come to look for America.”
Sanders’s other powerful ad, “Together,” begins sounding like the new Clinton: “Our job is not to divide. Our job is to bring people together.” Its images literally bring diverse faces together. Its narrative rejects division and focuses instead on our common humanity: “When we stand together—white and Black and Hispanic, gay and straight and woman and man.” It then returns to the Sanders version of togetherness, contrasting this with the dominance of the powerful. “When we stand together and demand that this country works for all of us, not just the few, we will transform America.”
The separation in emphasis between Clinton and Sanders is seen in the differences in the constituencies that respond most to each. Sanders’s populism, along with his bold, transformative agenda, are reaching young people, progressive activists, and white working class voters. Clinton’s call for breaking down barriers speaks powerfully to Blacks, Hispanics, and older women. And her moderated populism is more comfortable for Democrats with higher incomes and seniors.
In the best of worlds, the two narratives would come together. Would that we all live in the best of worlds. Sanders would learn from Clinton to talk about breaking down barriers that are much deeper than economic inequality. Clinton would stop apologizing for her populism and start linking the theft of our democracy with the plundering of the U.S. economy.
The only fly in the ointment could very well be the “Bernie or Bust” position some of the most left leaning Sanders supporters, but “Bernie or Bust” is not a position Sanders would want his supporters to take, says liberal radio talk show host and author Bill Press, a longtime ally of Sanders’ who hosted an early strategy meeting for Sanders’ campaign at his home in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Press, has stated emphatically, “I do not belong in that camp. … I don’t think Bernie belongs in that camp. I haven’t talked to him about it, but I’m pretty sure he does not belong in that camp,” Press told Yahoo News. “He told me early on, the first time we talked about the possibility that he might run for president, that … if he’s not the nominee, he would do nothing to hurt the … Democratic nominee’s chances. He would do nothing, in other words, that might help a Republican get the White House.”
“Just to make it clear, I’m for Bernie. If Bernie doesn’t get the nomination, in a New York heartbeat I’m for Hillary, enthusiastically. Enthusiastically!” said Press, repeating himself for emphasis.
Press argued there is “too much at stake” for progressives to war among themselves and potentially aid a Republican candidate. Indeed, “Bernie or Bust” has generated backlash from liberals who believe the phenomenon could benefit the GOP. This criticism has been particularly fierce since Donald Trump is currently leading the Republican pack and many Democrats view him as an especially dangerous candidate.
I think my view, the good news is that Democrats are finally getting close to a shared narrative—a powerful, values-based story about their core beliefs. Underlying both progressive populism and the liberal idea of breaking down barriers is the big-picture progressive message after all, “We all do better when we all do better.” This is both a statement of values and of how society works. It is an understanding that when each of us can care for and support our families, when all of us realize our full potential to participate in society, we build thriving communities and drive the economy forward.
Clinton summarized this at the top of her speech: “America prospers when we all prosper. America is strong when we’re all strong.” And building an economy that works for all of us is a concept that is central to every one of Sanders’s policy proposals.
If we’re lucky, and if both Clinton and Sanders’s messages can come together, maybe it is a story that can reshape what is possible in American politics.