Last night’s Democratic debate at Brooklyn Navy Yard has put the contest between Sanders and Clinton into pretty stark relief. Setting aside all the fretful hand-wringing about the “tone” of the campaign, what we are seeing are two distinct visions for politics. To borrow a Weberian distinction brought to my attention by Michael Weinman over at Public Seminar, the difference between Clinton and Sanders is a difference between practical competence and moral competence.
It seems to me that the difference between Sanders and Clinton is that Clinton views politics as a series of successful compromises, while Sanders views politics as progress towards a broader vision or a bigger goal. For Clinton, the compromise is the goal, what you strive for. Practical competence. For Sanders, compromise seems to be something you get to once you’ve pushed your opponent as far as you can. And, then you gather forces and push again when you have the opportunity. That’s moral competence.
This was really clear in the discussion over climate change. In that phase of the debate, Clinton listed off a long series of compromises that she was a part of – regardless of whether those compromises were sufficient to address climate change at all. For her, evidence of success was that she got China and Russia to the negotiating table. For Sanders, evidence of success was mustering the national will to actually address the ecological toll the past century and a half has taken on the planet – a Manhattan Project for addressing climate change. The point was to reverse – or at least mitigate – the effects of climate change and keep the planet livable. It’s not to secure a series of ineffective compromises and call that success.
There’s definitely room for compromise in politics and it’s really important for any sort of progress. But, if compromise is your goal – and not ultimate victory, however you define it – the terms of the debate will always be set by your opponents whoever they are. The stakes are simply too high to limit our politics solely to what is practically achievable. We must strive to attain what instead for what is morally imperative.
Are we fighting to compromise? Or are we fighting to win?
There’s a reason why a less jaded younger generation finds Sanders so appealing. They haven’t yet lost the will to dream and the hope to transform the world that was beaten out of an older generation by the decades of Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Gingrich.
Let’s not squash that. Let’s vote our hopes and not our fears.