Tuesday’s Democratic debate featured the most substantive policy discussion to take place during the presidential primaries so far. The five candidates, with the strange, sweaty exception of Jim Webb, discussed national security, education policy, and the legacy of the Great Recession intelligently and articulately. The discussion was dominated by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, each of whom made a strong case for two very different visions of the United States and its struggle with inequality.
Both Clinton and Sanders addressed inequality by name, though Sanders did so much more frequently. He summed up the entire thrust of his debate performance in a post-debate interview with CNN, in which he said that “income and wealth inequality is the biggest economic issue, the biggest moral issue” of our day.
Sanders also proposed policies that would directly reduce inequality, including raising the federal minimum wage to $15 dollars per hour, and raising taxes on the wealthy to provide universal benefits like free public higher education and expanded social security. In response to an attack Clinton recently made on his proposal for universal free college, in which the former secretary of state said she is not “in favor of making college free for Donald Trump's kids,” Sanders pointed out that “Donald Trump and his billionaire friends are going to pay a hell of a lot more in taxes than they do today” under his plan. Sanders also attacked Clinton’s counter-proposal of means-tested college subsidies with work requirements, suggesting the administrative costs of such a plan would be too high and its reach too limited.
Likewise, Sanders suggested that Social Security should be expanded, while Clinton—despite vowing to protect the program—refused to give a precise yes or no answer as to whether she would expand it. “I will focus on helping those people who need it the most, and of course I’m going to defend Social Security,” she said, declining to support expanding the program universally for all recipients, and instead focusing on increasing benefits only for those with the lowest means.
This is one of the main differences between Clinton and Sanders, and a major fault line on the left. While Sanders generally supports robust, universal benefit programs that are politically hearty, Clinton tends to prefer smaller, means-tested programs that unfortunately tend to crumble under political pressure, given their small and relatively helpless user bases.
But what Clinton suggested in place of a more expansive welfare state illuminates another difference between her politics and Sanders’. Where Sanders tended to focus on inequality and inequality-reducing policies, Clinton focused heavily on increasing opportunity, repeatedly expressing a desire that all Americans be able to realize their “God-given talents,” as she and her husband have. “I have spent a very long time—my entire adult life—looking for ways to even the odds to help people have a chance to get ahead, and, in particular, to find the ways for each child to live up to his or her God-given potential,” Clinton said in her opening remarks, revisiting the idea throughout the debate.
The difference between the two approaches has expansive implications for the American left. A pro-equality platform aims to universalize benefits, so that all people really do have the option to enjoy the same social goods, including education, gainful employment, and family life. An opportunity-focused approach neither intends to reduce inequality per se nor has a clear political apparatus with which to do so. Instead, opportunity-increasing politics aim to increase social mobility without necessarily altering how many people will end up on the top and bottom respectively. The individuals might change, in other words, but the absolute number of destitute versus fabulously wealthy can remain virtually the same.
Whether the American left tends toward favoring an egalitarian politics that emphasizes policy solutions to income inequality or an opportunity-focused politics that emphasizes even chances to get ahead will depend on whether voters prefer Sanders’ platform to Clinton’s. Since getting ahead on one’s own grit is such a key part of the American narrative, it’s easy to see how voters might be attracted to Clinton’s opportunity-based answer to our social and economic woes, though it leaves the problem of inequality vastly under-addressed.
Indeed, a kind of American exceptionalism does seem to underpin much opportunity-focused political rhetoric. “I love Denmark,” Clinton said early in the debate, responding to Sanders’ interest in social democratic nations abroad, “but we are not Denmark. We are the United States of America.” Clinton concluded that democratic socialism is not an option for America because “we would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history of the world”—that is, capitalism, the system that has provided “the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to [start small businesses] and to make a good living for themselves and their families.”
Sanders, meanwhile, repeatedly invoked America’s failure to live up to the standards set by other developed nations as an international embarrassment. “We should not be the country that has the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country and more wealth and income inequality than any other country,” Sanders said. “We should not be the only major country on Earth that does not guarantee health care to all of our people as a right of citizenship, and we should not be the only major country that does not provide medical and parental leave—family and parental leave to all of our families.”
For Sanders, American inequality and its attendant lack of universal benefits is a disgrace on the international stage. For Clinton, America is essentially a well-outfitted country that has slumped on its principles when it comes to equality of opportunity and the extension of provisional benefits to the extremely destitute. The two different visions of America suggest two very different approaches to inequality, one aggressive and inspired by international successes, the other subtle and based in a long-running narrative about American grit. Whichever narrative emerges as dominant as the primary wears on will help determine the direction of the American left, for better or worse.