Heading into California primary today, Donald Trump is catching up to Hillary Clinton in the general election polls. According to political analysis from statisticians like Nate Silver, the reluctance of some Bernie Sanders supporters to back an alternate Democratic candidate is part of the reason for Trump’s boost. Sanders’ backers tend to identify as progressive, according to Silver, but not necessarily as Democrats. “If Clinton wins over those voters, she’ll gain a few percentage points on Trump in national and swing state polls,” Silver explains. “If not, the general election could come down to the wire.”
If Democrats are going to sway disaffected Sanders fans, they will need to remind voters that the Democratic Party is not the enemy, even if it is “the establishment.” Clinton is very much a traditional Democratic presidential candidate. As a result, she is institutionally beholden to a set of policies that, while perhaps falling short of the democratic socialist ideal, still achieve much of what Sanders aspires to do.
A short history lesson is in order here. Although the Democratic Party has been around since 1828 (making in the oldest continuously active democratic political party in the world), it didn’t become a definitively left-wing organization until Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency in the 1930s. During his 12-year-long administration, Roosevelt’s New Deal provided economic relief to millions of poor Americans struggling during the Great Depression, as well as took measures to prevent any future crashes.
The New Deal programs laid the foundation for the constructive programs pursued by other progressive Democrats, particularly Lyndon Johnson, whose Great Society included the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, the creation of Medicaid and Medicare, and the War on Poverty; and Barack Obama, who provided widespread relief after the economic crash of 2008 and passed comprehensive health care reform. Even less accomplished Democratic presidents managed to prevent major rollbacks on social welfare policy by compromising with their Republican adversaries, particularly Harry Truman (who worked with the infamous “Do Nothing” Congress) and Bill Clinton (who saved Medicare from a Republican-controlled Congress even after they forced a government shutdown.)
As the presumptive Democratic nominee, Clinton will be bound by historical precedent and party leadership to continue in this tradition if elected to the presidency. Certainly there is little question that she would have to spend much of her administration thwarting a Republican-held Congress. Beyond that, Sanders supporters need to ask themselves what policies are most important to them, and to what extent these policies overlap with Clinton’s stated goals.
In general, Clinton’s economic policies are watered-down versions of what Sanders is proposing. To reduce unemployment and income inequality, Clinton proposes spending $275 billion on job-creating infrastructure and raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour. Similarly, to make education more affordable, Clinton has prioritized making community college free and public four-year colleges debt free, as well as providing universal preschool to all four-year-olds. While once an avid proponent of free trade and deregulation, Clinton is now committed to opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership and increasing regulations on Wall Street.
The difference between the two candidates is perhaps best captured by their respective stances on health care reform. Sanders wants a socialized single-payer system, while Clinton supports tweaking and modifying the existing reforms passed by Obama under the Affordable Care Act. It’s reasonable for Sanders supporters to argue that their candidate’s proposals are better. It is patently unreasonable, however, to ignore the large overlap between the Sanders and Clinton agendas.
As others have already argued, Sanders supporters are actually in a position of power here. If Clinton wins a tight election without the support of Bernie fans, she may not feel particularly sympathetic or beholden to their concerns. If she wins as a direct result of their backing, however, it will certainly push her to focus on the economic policies the Sanders campaign has focused on for the past 12 months.
And of course, if Clinton actually loses in part because Sanders supporters stayed home, the next president will be Trump, whose economic plan is designed to benefit the rich through strategic tax reductions. There will not be a $15 minimum wage under a president Trump.
Some independent-leaning progressives may not like the influence wielded by the Democratic establishment. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t back the party’s candidate—with conditions.
If Clinton reneges on her progressive economic proposals, Sanders supporters should absolutely hold her accountable in 2020. Unless and until that happens, however, it’s important to remember that she represents a political party that has a long history of fighting for liberal causes—and just as importantly, against conservative ones. For better or worse, being a good progressive this year requires being a good Democrat, at least at the ballot box.