What the Clinton and Sanders 'progressive' debate really shows

As the Democratic front-runners' battle over the word 'progressive,' is the traditionally pragmatic party becoming more ideological?

Adrees Latif/Reuters
Supporters of Bernie Sanders shout slogans as they rally at the University of New Hampshire, the site for the Democratic US presidential candidates debate between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Sanders in Durham, New Hampshire. February 4, 2016.

Why are Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders arguing so heatedly about who’s a progressive, and who isn’t?

The Democratic duo spent an inordinate amount of time on the “p” word during Thursday night’s debate, after all. Mrs. Clinton mentioned it some 15 times in defending her right to the label.

The former secretary of State said that she and Senator Sanders share progressive goals, such as universal health care. She believes in affordable college and raising the minimum wage. And she has realistic plans for achieving these goals, she said.

“A progressive is someone who makes progress. That’s what I intend to do,” Clinton said.

Sanders replied that Clinton has described herself as a moderate in the past, and you can’t be both a moderate and a progressive. His vision of the label seemed more ideological, as he pivoted to talk about the “reality of American economic life today,” dominated by wealthy interests.

“What we have got to do is wage a political revolution,” Sanders said, as he does often.

To reiterate, what are Clinton and Sanders talking about when they talk about “progressive?”

In a narrow sense, they’re struggling for ownership of a politically useful designation. As we wrote yesterday, the Democratic Party has lurched somewhat to the left in recent years, as self-identified “liberals” increase, especially in regards to social policy.

At the same time, non-Democrats have a more positive view of the word “progressive” than they do of the word “liberal.” That’s why left-leaning activists have adopted the “p” label in recent years; in its modern usage, it’s a synonym for “liberal” that’s much more broadly acceptable to voters.

In that context, Clinton can’t afford to let Sanders become the arbiter of who qualifies as a member of the Progressive Club.

But in a larger sense, this dispute is also about the nature of what it means to be a member of the Democratic Party.

It’s instructive that Clinton used concrete policies and proposed actions to try and burnish her progressive credentials. That was probably instinctive, but it reflects the fact that generally speaking, the Democratic Party is a broad coalition of social groups that pursues particular interests. It may be motivated much more by policy goals than ideology.

In contrast the Republican Party has long been dominated by ideologues that hew to small-government and low-tax principles. That’s the way many political scientists see it, in any case.

“Left-leaning constituencies primarily seek concrete government action from their allies in office, while right-of-center activists instead prize doctrinal purity,” wrote political scientists Matt Grossmann of Michigan State University and David Hopkins of Boston College in a 2014 academic paper.

Sanders is different. He is an ideologically motivated politician who declined to label himself a Democrat in the past, in part because he did not want to associate with the more moderate party factions represented by President Bill Clinton.

“The entire thrust of his attack on Clinton – and, by extension, much of the Democratic Party apparatus itself – is based on an ideological critique,” writes David Hopkins of Boston University on his Honest Graft blog.

This is an unusual dispute for a party that does not argue about ideology per se in public very much. Clinton can’t move too far toward Sanders’s definition of “progressive” without endangering her support from the more traditional transactional parts of the party. Sanders can’t deviate much from his ideological past without endangering his unique personal appeal.

The Democratic National Committee just added more debates, didn’t it? There are at least three more scheduled through May. That all but guarantees we’ll be hearing a lot more about “progressive” in the weeks to come.

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