The problem with “bringing the country together”

Last night’s Democratic debate featured a (mostly) friendly and pointed disagreement between Bernie Sanders’s idealism and Hillary Clinton’s pragmatism.

Clinton dropped her odd and deliberately misleading criticisms about the merits of single payer health care in favor of the much fairer contention that achieving such a health care system in the next eight years is utter fantasy. This forced Sanders to concede that, yes, without deep and fundamental changes to the way our country regulates campaign finance and lobbying — big-ticket items in and of themselves — no progressive agenda from any Democratic candidate can be considered realistic. As he said:

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, screenshot via CNN / YouTube

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, screenshot via CNN / YouTube

Do you know why we can’t do what every other country — major country on Earth is doing? It’s because we have a campaign finance system that is corrupt, we have super PACs, we have the pharmaceutical industry pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into campaign contributions and lobbying, and the private insurance companies as well. What this is really about is not the rational way to go forward — it’s Medicare for all — it is whether we have the guts to stand up to the private insurance companies and all of their money, and the pharmaceutical industry. That’s what this debate should be about.

Given six Republican debates that have been completely untethered to reality, this fourth Democratic debate was almost painfully grounded in questions of accounting and political viability — questions that are all moot at the end of the day given the Republicans’ lock on the House of Representatives through at least 2022.

However, in a debate where political reality served as the strictest of political litmus tests, one fantastical concept prevailed: the notion that the next president can and should “bring the country together.”

At some point during the debate, all three candidates said something to this effect. Hillary Clinton provided the most detailed version of that sentiment in answering her first question, which asked what her top three priorities would be if elected:

And third, I would be working, in every way that I knew, to bring our country together. We do have too much division, too much mean-spiritedness. There’s a lot we have to do on immigration reform, on voting rights, on campaign finance reform, but we need to do it together. That’s how we’ll have the kind of country for the 21st century that we know will guarantee our children and grandchildren the kind of future they deserve.

Bringing the country together is generally considered to be a noble goal, but in reality it’s a particularly cute and silly idea — especially on the specific policies that Clinton mentioned in her answer. Congress recently tried to do immigration reform “together,” and Republican voters made it very clear that they wanted no part of their leaders’ newfound (and since rejected) penchant for compromise. With Republicans now in control of Congress, prospects for immigration reform are all but gone. Meaningful changes to our campaign finance system won’t (and really can’t) come without at least a change in the composition of the Supreme Court. Clinton has herself said nice things about a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United. Republicans are sure to oppose such changes tooth and nail because — shocker — Supreme Court appointments and constitutional amendments are high-stakes and expressly political.

Clinton’s nod to compromise on voting rights is particularly odd given that she (or at least her campaign) is well-aware of the fact that it’s an issue on which compromise isn’t even desirable, let alone likely. Lawyers affiliated with her campaign have filed lawsuits in a series of swing states challenging voter ID laws that were clearly passed in order to tilt the electoral scales in favor of Republican candidates. The laws are uncompromising and overtly partisan, as are Clinton’s legal challenges to them. The only difference between the two partisan motives is that one happens to be better for small-d democratic outcomes, and the other happens to be worse.

And that’s fine. If half of the country needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into a better version of America, whether it’s through the courts or the executive branch or the use of legislative majorities when they’re available, then so be it. If we insist on waiting until we’ve convinced Republican politicians that the Koch brothers’ influence on our political process is bad, and that equal ballot access for young and minority voters is good, before acting on campaign finance and voting rights, then we’re going to be waiting around for, well, ever. Our experience with immigration reform should be evidence enough to know that this is the case.

The Republican Party hasn’t bothered to pretend that they can bring the country together by convincing the entire country that their rich, white and male-friendly agenda is Actually Good for everyone. They’ve taken control of the levers of government wherever they’ve been able to do so — gerrymandering legislative districts, bankrolling candidates in judicial elections, changing the rules of democracy itself — in order to implement their agenda over the objections of the people negatively affected by those actions. We can point out that this is mean — They aren’t interested in compromise! — or we can saddle up and win power of our own.

In a geographically and ethnically diverse country with astoundingly high levels of economic inequality, the idea that a president can form a consensus around any of the meaningful and systemic changes our country needs is to reject the very premise of politics. The disparate factions in the United States don’t even agree on what our problems are, let alone how to fix them. Insisting that all of these factions come together to form a consensus — as opposed to enough of them coming together to form a winning coalition — is empty No Labels-ism. It’s as big of a fantasy as single payer health care, which, by the way, only stands a chance of passing if progressives win sufficient political power to enact it on their own. When Bernie Sanders talks about a “political revolution,” that’s what he means.

There is no “we” without a “they.” There are very few political changes in which there are only winners; meaningful change will almost always be vehemently opposed by organized factions who benefit from the status quo. Insisting on complete consensus for such change– as in, requiring everyone who stands to lose to get on board with everyone who stands to gain — is to insist that nothing ever happen.

Bringing the country together is a bad idea. It’s also a fantasy. There are better and more plausible ways of enacting progressive change; let’s talk about them.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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