We have been hearing a lot this election about theories of change, and which candidate would best be able to deliver on their campaign promises. The Clinton camp has argued that they share many of the same goals as Bernie Sanders (sans those really crazy socialist notions they are worried don’t poll too well), but they have a more battle-tested, pragmatic blueprint for turning progressive ideals into a reality.
And a whole host of left and center-left folks have made the case that the Sanders theory of change can be simplistic, myopic or flat out incorrect. I’ve seen this argued most persuasively by Jamelle Bouie, and most condescendingly by Jon Chait (although I think his piece is still worth reading).
But as David Dayen points out in an excellent article for Salon, this election is more than an argument about tactics. It’s a fight over what the goals and vision of the Democratic party should be. Progressives have been itching to have this fight for years, and it’s happening because Sanders (lumbering down a trail blazed by Elizabeth Warren and others) is the first progressive with a large enough following to demand that it take place.
Sanders and Clinton fundamentally disagree on the government’s role in the economy, what types of new programs are needed and how they should be funded, and to what degree the super-rich have taken over the political system. These are serious differences, and you don’t have to buy straw man arguments that Clinton is a Wall Street shill or Sanders is a naive idealist to understand that their administrations would pursue different priorities.
So for the Sanders coalition, the point of this primary battle is to decide where we are going, before hashing out how we get there. Many center-left pundits believe that continued Republican obstructionism in Congress will make any big goals unachievable (and thus not worth focusing on), and legislatively that is probably true. But I think that argument discounts the value of an entire party advocating for big policies as both a short-term negotiating tactic, and a long term push for change. And it overestimates our understanding of what works and what doesn’t. This isn’t an exact science.
For instance, in 2008 Obama’s theory of change was that his skills as a communicator combined with the soundness and popularity of his proposals would bring Republicans to the table for meaningful compromise. That went nowhere real quick. Does that mean his presidency was a disaster? Not at all, but it didn’t play out the way he thought it would. And was anyone’s long term plan for marriage equality “prominent Democrats are going to dodge and squirm when this issue is brought up for years, and then at just the right moment Joe Biden will spout off and help set in motion a chain of events that lead to a Supreme Court ruling?”
It seems that given what little we know about how events will unfold in the future, preemptively deciding the outcome we truly want is unattainable is more defeatist than pragmatic. As Dayen says, “the best theory of change, the one that’s most tangible to people, is to express your beliefs and preferences consistently until you find enough allies to make it happen. It may never happen – politics is a tough business – but there aren’t many alternatives.”