The increasingly contentious primary battle between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton is about much more than a Twitter fight or different theories of change. The deepening divide between the two candidates -- even more acrimonious among their respective supporters -- reflects a major rift within the Democratic Party over gender, corporate power and the very idea of what a just society looks like.
Elizabeth Warren first opened this rift when she built herself into the second-most popular figure in the Democratic Party by railing against Democratic support for Wall Street. With a man now carrying Warren's anti-corporate message in the presidential primary, the implications of her ideology are roiling the party even further. The primary struggle between Clinton and Sanders is now a referendum on the model of progress it has pursued since the late 1970s.
At Pajiba, Courtney Enlow makes the case for Clinton and her vision of progress. A lot of the power of Enlow's piece is in its presentation. But she essentially argues that:
1) Sanders supporters don't realize that much of what they perceive to be Clinton's flaws are actually just their own gendered understanding of power bouncing around in their subconscious.
2) Electing the first woman president is a really big deal that will change the perception of women. It will also make Problem No. 1 less of an issue going forward.
3) Clinton used to support some bad policies, but now she supports good policies, and that's OK.
4) "YOU DON'T LIKE THAT SHE PLAYS THE GAME? THAT SHE HAS TIES TO THE ESTABLISHMENT? FOR ONE THING, THAT'S HOW SHIT FUCKING GETS DONE."
Her first two points are obviously true. The others are more interesting.
Clinton clearly has more liberal positions on marriage equality and queer justice today than she did in the 1990s, and a more progressive stance on immigration than she did in 2008.
But other policies have been consistent. She remains a foreign policy hawk. She has always been a strong defender of abortion rights and has consistently supported equal pay and workplace fairness for women at home and abroad.
On economic justice, her record doesn't conform to a straight line of progress or decay. She did good things for childhood poverty when she worked for the Children's Defense Fund. Then she was an aggressive supporter of welfare reform, which infuriated CDF founder Marian Wright Edelman -- whose husband Peter Edelman, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, resigned in protest. This isn't a "times have changed" thing. Like her peers in the childhood poverty advocacy community, Clinton had the experience to know that welfare reform would drive a lot of kids into poverty. She supported it anyway.
Warren has taken Clinton to task for opposing a toxic bankruptcy bill when she was first lady, only to vote for it as a senator in 2001 and then skip another vote on it in 2005, when it was actually enacted. Clinton has said she wishes she could take back the 2001 vote, but defended her action by saying she had conditioned her support on a change to the bill.
The bankruptcy bill basically made it harder for people in financial distress to discharge credit card debt. Clinton didn't tinker with that, but she roped off child support so that credit card companies couldn't seize those funds when seeking payment. This makes Clinton more progressive than Joe Biden on the issue, since Biden was the man pushing the entire package on behalf of credit card companies.
But even with Clinton's changes, the bill was still a financial blow to poor and middle-class people, particularly single mothers and children. The bill just wasn't as bad as it had been before. Clinton was not forced to cut the best deal she could on a bill that would inevitably pass -- because it didn't actually pass in 2001.
This theme running throughout her economic policy record suggests that her tenure on on the board of directors at Walmart and her six-figure speeches at Goldman Sachs aren't just anomalies, and Enlow doesn't pretend that they are. Clinton has always been close to big money, and it's reflected in her record. It's part of how "shit fucking gets done."
Enlow's view of "the establishment" here obviously isn't a dumb swipe at the Human Rights Campaign or Planned Parenthood. It's a reference to corporate power. "How shit fucking gets done" thus restricts the realm of "shit" to things that corporate power is willing to go along with under the right circumstances. Enlow is essentially making a statement about priorities. Gender equality and gay rights are more important issues for her -- at least at the moment -- than limiting corporate influence in American politics or rethinking the nation's constant state of war.
This isn't an argument about electability. A major theme of Enlow's piece is the idea that it's a lot harder for a woman to win an election than for a man to do so. It's worth rolling the dice on Clinton now, because the prospects for gender progress are so much better than they will be at any foreseeable time. A woman could actually become president, and -- sorry, Carly Fiorina -- a woman with a strong and improving record on gender equality.
This reasoning reflects a different vision of progress than what many Sanders supporters believe in. Some Sanders supporters are straightforward economic determinists who think fixing corporate power will solve gender and race problems. Sanders himself has said he thinks the slow pace of progress on racial justice has been "to a large degree" driven by the influence of big political donors. A more nuanced view would be that there is no true gender or racial justice without economic justice. Class doesn't determine gender or race politics, but each concept relies on the other for part of its meaning. Clinton's bankruptcy bill vote, for instance, wasn't just a class issue. It was also a gender equality issue and a childhood development issue.
Slicing off class or race or gender and attempting to cope with them as wholly isolated problems not only blocks progress on the others, it also limits what you can do on the issue you choose. Under this view, shrugging off corporate power as an inalterable fact of life -- something you just have to learn to get along with so you can fix other problems -- is a fundamental barrier to progress.
Seriously taking on corporate power will be pretty difficult with a Republican Congress. The same is true for implementing equal pay laws. But just as Enlow sees a Clinton election as a rare opportunity, Sanders supporters see the election of a self-proclaimed democratic socialist as a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
Of course, most political support is the result of a series of unthinking hunches and feelings, and in this case, a lot of what's going on is straight sexism and red-scare paranoia. But it's a mistake to see the split within the essay-writing class as nothing more than the narcissism of small differences among people who basically agree. There are genuinely different perspectives at work about the future of the Democratic Party.
Zach Carter is a co-host of the HuffPost Politics podcast "So, That Happened." Subscribe here or listen to the latest episode below: