The Problem of the Possible

The reason the far right has been able to capture so much of the political apparatus relative to their small numbers is their mastery of two things: grassroots organizing and the importance of ideas.

In 2007, tech savvy Obama campaigners took critical insights gleaned from Howard Dean's insurgent campaign and put them to good use. His successful campaigns erased the grassroots edge of conservatives, at least in presidential election years, and both Clinton and Sanders have adopted these data-centric methods in the current primary contest.

But, in the main, Democrats have shown no similar appetite in taking on conservative ideas. We still live a neoliberal idiom (including its paradoxical heavy state investments in the military and the prison-industrial complex or "carceral" state).

The 2016 race features one Democratic candidate willing to challenge that. Surprisingly, it also has one Democratic candidate who not only avers from doing so, her attacks on her rival serve to further entrench conservative ideas.

When Bernie Sanders calls for an end to mass incarceration, he is articulating an important idea: this country has over-criminalized to its own detriment, and must shift state investments from punishment to support. I am only one of a small army of scholars who would endorse this view -- and I am certainly also among the many who understand that state governments imprison by far the most people, and the president has no power to rewrite individual state criminal codes. Acknowledging this very real fact does nothing to undermine Sanders' call, it adds urgency to it: we will only wrest control of social policy from the carceral state, and invest more in social services, in the context of a general consensus -- that is, a national movement that embraces this idea.

For the Clinton campaign, however, Sanders' call to end mass incarceration is an opportunity to attack his presumed naiveté. In my view, this is an invidious and truly regrettable tack. To denounce progressive ideas as "unfeasible," the Clintons are, wittingly or not, reinforcing the discursive landscape that shapes what is politically possible. This sustains a comparative "idea" advantage for the right and helps to keep in place the very dominance at the other levels of government that Clinton decries as an obstacle to ending mass incarceration in the first place.

I can't decide whether this is more absurd than it is stupid. It's as if John Kerry denounced Howard Dean for renovating antiquated voter-mobilization methods. If proffering the value of government, and shifting its ambit away from enforcement and towards services, is an approach that will ultimately strengthen the Democratic party, then politically expedient attacks upon it should be seen for what they are: self-serving, and coming at the expense of progress.

Hillary Clinton is a sufficiently able student of history to know that when unions led a national movement calling for an 8-hour work day, a minimum wage, or the right to organize, all of these policy goals required state legislatures to act. No progressive ally of the unions mentioned this fact in order to silence these campaigns; if anything, this made organizing more exigent, not less. When Franklin Roosevelt and his advisors took on the complicated task of negotiating a federal-state relationship in unemployment insurance, they never checked their ambitions in decrying the absence of a social security net. They fought harder, made their pleas more impassioned, and articulated their evidence more persuasively. Like these progressives who came before him, Bernie Sanders is not out to just implement a policy, he is out to change a political landscape.

And, unfortunately for incrementalists (like myself), in the face of Republican obstructionism and the prevailing orthodoxy of neoliberalism, changing the political landscape is what is truly necessary. After all -- and I have raised this question before -- if the status quo remains in place, exactly what political skill does Hillary Clinton claim she has to secure policy achievements that Barack Obama, a politician who beat her in a primary race, does not?

Regardless of party identification, any person who makes war on progressive ideas is working to maintain the unwarranted advantage that conservatives have enjoyed in precisely that realm. The political establishment, gatekeepers to the privatization of public assets and programs, may not be ready for full scrutiny of the neoliberalism from which they have profited so much -- but the American people certainly seem to be. If so, then Democrats are missing opportunities to assemble ideas and allies in this conversation, ceding territory they should claim as theirs, and failing to mark off accurately the boundaries of that which is contested.