Bernie Sanders and the Establishment

Jeremy Sarka · Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 at 11:10 PM PST

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton arguably did more to distinguish themselves from one another in last Thursday's Democratic primary debate than at any point so far in the campaign. The debate did not reveal any wide gulfs between Sanders and Clinton on policy—because their policies are not really that far apart. Instead, the differences that the debate revealed were ones of attitude: from Wall Street to health care to foreign policy to the criminal justice system, Bernie Sanders is never afraid to challenge the established power structure and its assumptions of the status quo; Hillary Clinton lives within the established power structure and bases all of her decisions on its assumptions.

In the week before the New Hampshire primary, during an interview with MSNBC, Bernie Sanders suggested that large national organizations which had endorsed Hillary Clinton, like Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign, are part of the "establishment". Clinton, and many members of these organizations, immediately took offense at the implication—and yet, the organizations he was referring to are, in fact, well established. Planned Parenthood was founded more than 90 years ago, operates in all 50 states, and serves millions of people every year. The Human Rights Campaign has been around for 36 years and is the largest LGBT advocacy group in America. More importantly, both organizations are highly influential within the Democratic Party.

I was struck by the vehemence with which Hillary Clinton and her supporters responded to the charge that they might be "establishment" figures. In fact, it reminded me of the way some white liberals have reacted to the suggestion that they might be (even inadvertently) racist: they vehemently resent it. The charge of racism cuts into the identity of many white liberals—and it is difficult for them to accept such a challenge. In the same way, being anti-establishment is part of the identity of many progressives—and they can not accept the possibility that it might no longer be true.

The key here is that within the progressive movement there can still be an "establishment," even if it is not part of the political mainstream. Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign are certainly part of the progressive establishment. No one within the progressive movement questions the importance of their issues. No one opposed to gay rights or abortion rights could possibly be considered a serious candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. And, on these issues, there is no substantive policy difference between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. So why did they endorse Hillary rather than Bernie? Quite simply because she represents the progressive establishment.

The progressive establishment are those groups which have already found a place within the Democratic Party status quo. They may still face opposition in the country at large, but their positions within the progressive movement are secure. It is precisely because these organizations hold a position of power within the progressive movement that they can become too risk-averse to question the status quo or call for the kind of radical action that is often needed to create fundamental change.

Like them, Hillary Clinton is fundamentally unwilling to challenge the status quo. She can not imagine that the progressive movement might need to change, that we might want to question why we are still fighting the same battles of the last 50 years. This is supremely illustrated by her defense of Planned Parenthood: "If it were part of the establishment, we wouldn't have to work so hard to protect it." If Planned Parenthood were not part of the establishment, if legal abortion were not the law of the land (and it has been for over 40 years,) we would have nothing to protect. Hillary Clinton, and the organizations that support her, appear to be stuck in the past—unaware that the progressive movement needs to do more than just fighting to protect the gains we made decades ago.

Bernie Sanders' campaign, on the other hand, is all about challenging the status quo. Bernie Sanders is not only calling for radical action (a risk established organizations would rather avoid,) but he is trying to shift the priorities of the progressive movement from a narrow focus on specific injustices towards a broader focus on economic inequality, something that established progressive organizations have been criticized for neglecting.

Recently, the media has focused on the question of whether it is possible to be both a moderate and a progressive. Whether it is or not, I believe it may not possible to be both a pragmatist and a progressive—if by "pragmatic" you mean "never willing to go beyond the realm of the possible." Hillary Clinton has frequently attacked Bernie Sanders' policies for being "impossible," while claiming that her's are better because they could actually be implemented (at least if you accept her campaign's far-fetched claim that she would magically be able to overcome the Republican Party's opposition obstructionism.)

It is that overwhelming focus on pragmatism which makes it impossible for me to consider Hillary Clinton a "progressive." A true progressive must be willing to move beyond the realm of the possible and envision the change that we need in society. Bernie Sanders says we need single-payer health care, and we should fight for it, whether we're going to get it or not. Hillary Clinton says that we aren't going to get single-payer health care, so we shouldn't even be talking about it. Which position seems more progressive to you?

In an article on, Clinton supporter Amanda Marcotte argues that we need a president who can "[execute] the existing law in ways that best get you closer to liberal goals." That's exactly what concerns me about Hillary Clinton: that her constant focus on the possible and "getting things done" will cause her to lose sight of those liberal goals. Being the President is not just about running the federal bureaucracy, it's about being the leader of your party and the leader of the country; it's about having the vision to lead the country into the future—something that great progressive leaders like FDR and JFK understood. Bernie Sanders is laying out a bold vision for moving towards a more progressive America. Hillary Clinton's vision basically amounts to putting one foot in front of another and assuming we'll get somewhere.

I have to stop for a moment, because I can't help but imagine that any Hillary Clinton supporters reading this are rolling their eyes at my naivete right now. I ask you: please show us a little respect. There are many things I disagree with in Amanda Marcotte's article, and most of them fall within the realm of reasonable disagreement that is necessary for a vibrant political debate—but one thing that I can not stand is the scornful and paternalistic attitude she displays towards Sanders and his supporters, particularly when she says that she's worried that we will be disillusioned by the "cold reality that we're not getting single-payer [health care]."

We're not doe-eyed children traipsing after some rumpled messiah. We understand that single-payer health care won't be happening any time soon—but we're sick and tired of a "progressive" establishment that's been telling us our hopes and dreams are unreasonable. It's this attitude that sets so many young voters against Hillary Clinton. We're sick and tired of Democrats who say that the only way to succeed is to set the bar so low you can't possibly fail. We're sick and tired of people telling us that presidential politics isn't the place for bold leadership.

During the coverage of the New Hampshire primary, Rachel Maddow gave possibly the best illustration so far of why this is Bernie Sanders' moment: she talked about how, listening to Pat Buchanan's "culture wars" speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, as a 19-year-old gay person she didn't feel like Bill Clinton had her back. "If you're liberal, you haven't really felt like there's been a place for you in mainstream politics for a long time." I was only 5 years old in 1992—for my entire life the establishment has been saying, essentially, that there is no "Left" in American politics anymore. Liberals like me don't engage with politics because the political establishment has, for years, been trying to pretend that we don't exist. Bernie Sanders is proving that there is an American Left—and that it deserves a voice in American politics just as much as the much-vaunted "Center."

It often feels like most of the recent gains that liberals have made have been in spite of, rather than because of, the "progressive" establishment. Liberals like me are tired of being told that we don't have a place in mainstream politics; that leadership means caution and capitulation; that we can protest and organize, but shouldn't go anywhere near the halls of power.

The Democratic Party leadership has become too cautious and conciliatory for its own good. If we nominate Hillary Clinton, it will mean another eight years of dragging the Democratic leadership, kicking and screaming, into the 21st Century. If we nominate Bernie Sanders it will send a clear message that the Democratic Party is once again the party of the future.

Jeremy Sarka is a writer, artist, programmer, attempted creative professional, and disillusioned Millenial.