Five Democrats will take the stage in Las Vegas on Tuesday for the party's first presidential primary debate of the season, but really it's a showdown between the only two candidates who are polling in the double digits (or even above 1 percent, for that matter): Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Because they agree on all of the social matters that primarily demarcate Democrats from Republicans—a potpourri of issues including abortion, LGBT rights, and contraception—the competition largely comes down to their positions on inequality and state benefits. That's why this debate stands to predict not just the Democratic Party’s immediate future, but the future—if there is one—of the American left.
Sanders repeatedly describes himself as a democratic socialist, but that hasn't stopped his critics from claiming that his economic policies are less progressive than Clinton’s. In an article last month, The Washington Post’s editorial board lamented that the Vermont senator would “shower largess on young and old, poor and well-to-do.” When Clinton swiped at Sanders’s college affordability plan in a town hall event last Monday, saying she is “a little different from those who say free college for everybody,” because she is “not in favor of making college free for Donald Trump's kids,” the Post’s board proclaimed Clinton’s quip as the final proof that she is “more progressive than Bernie Sanders.”
In no universe is opposition to universally available higher education the “more progressive” stance. Moreover, Clinton supported her husband’s passage of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, also known as “welfare reform,” which radically restricted cash assistance for the poorest families. The economic boom of the late '90s masked the disaster welfare reform would eventually reveal itself to be for a time, and perhaps this is why Bill Clinton enjoys a reputation as a fantastic president with an almost lovable scoundrel side. But since the collapse of the dot-com bubble, his reckless gutting of welfare has plunged millions of families into deep poverty.
The point of welfare reform was, in Hillary’s words, to “transition from dependency to dignity”—that is, to transition desperately poor families from welfare to work within a definite period of time. Although Clinton has refused to comment on whether or not she still considers welfare reform a success, she has since stuck to the theme of keeping benefits means-tested, with the goal of limiting benefits to the most destitute. Thus her interest, one presumes, in preventing Donald Trump’s kids from attending college without paying tuition, as Norway’s Princess Märtha Louise didn’t when she attended one of Norway’s many state colleges. Quelle horreur.
Clinton’s approach is one way to think about benefits: as tightly limited programs of last resort for people in extreme circumstances. This is mostly the way we talk about benefits now, in the parlance of a “safety net” for the precariously balanced and fallen. In this vein of thought, it makes sense to limit benefits to the extremely needy and to impose terms even upon those benefits, so as to prevent dependency—since the point is, after all, eventually ending one’s use of benefits.
Then there is the other way of looking at benefits: the social-democratic way. In his 1990 book Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen described firstly the “‘liberal’ welfare state, in which means-tested assistance, modest universal transfers, or modest social-insurance plans predominate,” and “benefits cater mainly to a clientele of low-income, usually working-class, state dependents.” Then there is the social-democratic world, which consists of “a welfare state that would promote an equality of the highest standards, not an equality of minimal needs,” thus promising “that equality be furnished by guaranteeing workers full participation in the quality of rights enjoyed by the better-off.”
In other words, the former approach to benefits seeks to temporarily meet a few minimal needs as they arise; the latter takes aim at inequality by funding state-run programs that apply universally to all of a country’s citizens. In social-democratic countries like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, universal benefits include higher education, single-payer healthcare, and generous childcare benefits, all programs Sanders would seek to similarly universalize. In November of 2014, Sweden’s prime minister Stefan Löfven explained the logic of universal benefits in a conversation at NYU Law School, saying the main focus of such programs is to build “a welfare system for everybody, for all, rich and poor—because universal solutions have lower transaction costs, and it also [has] the advantage that you mobilize everybody to support the institutions that brings this welfare system.” In other words, universal benefits reduce inequality and program administrative costs, and since they reach everyone in society, they protect themselves against easy destruction by the politically powerful.
The distinction to be drawn between Clinton and Sanders and the present American left and its future exists along these lines. Will our state benefits be big and strong, or small and weak?
Welfare reform is a fine test case. The Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program was vulnerable because it was a small program used exclusively by the poorest families; its weakness saw it transformed, by the onslaught of 1996 welfare reform, into Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which fell prey to the kind of destruction Löfven had in mind in his 2014 speech: A Georgia social worker told Slate’s Neil deMause in 2012 that “we don't talk about TANF anymore...we don't even send anybody in to apply, because there's just no point."
Could the same happen to the few universal benefits we have left as Americans, even those most of us support? Easily. Jeb Bush has entertained the idea that Social Security be means-tested, and has suggested that Medicare be “phased out.” Clinton would certainly enact neither policy, but with Democrats in Congress being mostly centrists and Republicans largely far-right, it’s hard to imagine just how long we will be able to protect our few and precious universal programs (much less expand them) unless a left emerges willing to defend universal benefits in bold and principled terms. Whoever stakes a claim to those terms Tuesday night holds the future of the American left, whether they’re elected or not.