Hillary Clinton has won the Democratic nomination for president, while Bernie Sanders has won the party’s battle of ideas. That may be cold comfort to the Sanders faithful, but it shouldn’t be: He clearly has transformed both the Democrats and the substance of American liberalism.
The challenge now facing the party, at its forthcoming convention and beyond, is how to build on both victories.
There are two metrics by which we can measure Sanders’s ideological and programmatic success. The first is to measure the number of issues on which Clinton changed her positions to embrace his—and the number of issues on which Sanders changed his positions to embrace hers. By my tally, the presumptive nominee reversed her stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership to one of opposition; reversed her stance on slowing the rise of Social Security benefits to increasing those benefits; opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline, which as secretary of state she’d said she was inclined to support; moved to embrace a $15 minimum wage in some cases; and backed off her earlier enthusiasm for charter schools.
Sanders’s challenge was far from the only reason she switched her positions, of course: The unions and environmental organizations that backed her also pressured her to shift her stances; Senator Elizabeth Warren also mounted a powerful challenge to many of Clinton’s initial positions; and the party as a whole was clearly moving left: The percentage of Democrats who call themselves liberal has doubled since the 1970s. But if Sanders hadn’t mobilized millions to his cause, it’s hard to imagine Clinton repudiating so many previous positions in favor of more progressive ones.
As to the number of issues on which Sanders changed his positions to embrace Clinton’s: I can’t think of any. To be sure, as the campaign developed, he became more comfortable discussing issues of social, and not just economic, inequality, but he began that transition when first challenged by Black Lives Matter protestors, well before the Clinton campaign was paying any attention to him.
So by this admittedly crude scorecard methodology, it’s clear that Sanders played a major role in moving Clinton left, while he himself never moved to the center.
The second, and more fundamental, measure of Sanders’s ideological victory was his success at placing the issue of economic inequality, and a range of remedies to combat it, at the center of Democratic discourse. In the mid-1960s, at the height of the broad prosperity of the postwar period, the Democrats, under Lyndon Johnson’s leadership, rightly redefined their mission as one of extending the rights and economic security that white working- and middle-class men had won under the New Deal Order, to those left out of the deal: At first, African Americans, then women, immigrants, other racial minorities, gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals. During those decades, however, the vibrant and relatively equitable economy that existed at the time of Johnson’s pivot slowly crumbled, as unions were decimated, manufacturing offshored, jobs subcontracted, and income shifted from labor to capital. The diminution of the middle class was an issue to which the Democrats came late, and it’s taken Sanders’s candidacy to re-position that issue at the center of the party’s concerns.
Well, near the center.
What the Democrats’ upcoming convention needs to do is highlight not merely Clinton’s many bona fides as a champion of a more just and inclusive nation (not to mention a sane alternative to Donald Trump), but reinforce her commitment to the de-plutocratization project that Sanders has compelled the party to adopt. Absurd though it may sound, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from late May showed that by a margin of 21 percentage points, Americans viewed Donald Trump as better in “dealing with Wall Street” than Clinton. Her ties to Wall Street are Clinton’s Achilles’s heel with many Sanders, and other, voters. That’s a weakness that the party can begin to diminish in its platform.
The convention could begin by including a commitment to a financial transaction tax—and if Clinton staffers are nervous that this position could be attacked as a tax increase on the middle class, it could be structured so that the sum of the taxes incurred by stock transactions could be subtracted from the income taxes of people with incomes under $250,000. The platform could also recommend the enactment of a 21st-century version of the Glass Steagall Act, along with the significant financial sector reforms that Clinton herself has espoused. For both substantive and political reasons, Clinton’s approach to Wall Street—regulation by a thousand cuts—is an insufficient response to the power the financial sector wields over both the economy and the government.
In the coming weeks, the Clinton and Sanders forces may well try to hammer out some common positions, and President Obama and other leading Democrats, such as Warren, are likely to try to help that process along. But that shouldn’t exhaust the list of those working to craft a powerful progressive message for Clinton and her party. The major unions that have supported Clinton—in particular, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA), and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)—will have many hundreds of delegates at the upcoming Democratic convention. Some of them, despite their unions’ support for Clinton, will be Sanders delegates, and the leaders of all these unions must know that the vast majority of the young organizers and researchers they’ll be hiring over the next half-decade will have backed Sanders in this year’s contest. Nothing would behoove these unions more than to help the Clinton campaign embrace the more progressive economic positions that would help the nominee cement the support of Sanders’s and other voters.
Indeed, there’s a happy precedent for unions pushing a center-left presidential nominee to embrace a more progressive, and popular, platform. In 1948—the last time the Democrats held their convention in Philadelphia—President Harry Truman, the party’s nominee for re-election, favored a bare-bones, insubstantial civil rights plank. The CIO unions, particularly Walter Reuther’s United Auto Workers, had joined with other progressive organizations to back a full-throated civil rights plank, though the White House did not encourage their efforts. Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey had said he’d give the speech putting the plank before the convention, but fearing White House disapproval, he decided the night before not to speak. UAW attorney Joe Rauh argued with Humphrey all night, until, at 5 a.m., Humphrey agreed to give the speech. When he did, the following day, it was a stemwinder, sweeping the delegates off their feet. At the prompting of their union-member fellow delegates, they voted for the plank; four Southern state delegations walked out and formed the short-lived Dixiecrat Party, which ran South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for president. But the plank, which Truman then embraced and ran on, won him much liberal support and enabled him to reduce support for the third-party candidacy of former-FDR-Vice-President Henry Wallace to just 2 percent in the November election.
Will the unions do for Clinton what they once did for Truman? Will they play the role they’re well positioned to play, helping shape a progressive program that will appeal both to Clinton and Sanders supporters and the electorate at large? They’ve worked hard to win the votes they’ll wield at the convention. They should put them to good use.