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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  • dcinsider

    That too.

  • sglover

    I give Obama three months before he gets his first $100,000+ “speaking fee” from Goldman Sachs or Citibank or one of that ilk.

  • Silver_Witch

    Clinton is a 60’s Republican by any standard, so I am not sure they are her enemies – I think will battle though – because Republicans don’t hate her anymore than they really want to end abortions…they use both for raising money and stirring the shit.

  • Texon

    Well let’s give corporate media some credit here, after all they rarely report anything positive about our president.

  • ohmary

    OH I vote and my daughter votes and rants and raves as I do. My son says he voted by accepting a job in Sweden. Unfortunately there seems to not be many non crazy people where I live. And tonight Palin endorsed Trump. I see a Trump/Palin ticket in the Republican future. Damn I do not want to have to hear her voice again. It is getting easier and easier to get rid of Time Warner and not watch any news at all.

  • dcinsider

    The other problem is the Democrats brand. The Republican brand is rich. Many poor people vote Republican because it identifies them with rich people. Likewise, to vote Democrat assures you that your friends will think your poor. People do amazingly stupid things to try to be perceived as wealthier than they are. Just look at brand names and the desire of poor people to own them. It is instilled in our DNA as consumers. (By the way, the middle class suffers the same fate).

    I don’t see how the Democrats can change that brand now.

    So they need a new brand. And it can’t be “we are really nice.”

  • dcinsider

    I give Obama six months from the presidency before he gets pulled over for driving while black.

  • dcinsider

    That’s been 30 years in the making Mary. The GOP has been cultivating that crowd for a long time, but before now it has played to their advantage. They get their votes, but then govern to benefit their corporate overlords, and ignore the lower middle class GOP “value voters” who vote against their own personal interests because stupid.

    Now, the morons, gun-nuts, religious whackos and assorted other losers have crawled out from under their rocks and like the undead have overtaken the corporate wing of the GOP. They have glommed onto to Trump and Cruz, and the corporatists are panicking because they fear they will lose control of their party.

    This would all be a ball to watch for the rest of us, the internal implosion of the Republican Party, if it was assured that neither of these crackpots ever got into the White House.

    Of course, while the GOP implodes, the Democrats are trying their hardest to cancel any advantage by trying to nominate an elderly Jewish socialist from Vermont who would be lucky to carry Massachusetts, even if faced off with one of the two aforementioned losers. While Hillary may only be one step removed from the GOP corporatists mentioned previously, she can at least win 270 electoral votes.

    All I can say Mary is to vote, and make sure the more reasonable of your friends in Ohio do the same. You are a swing state still, notwithstanding your crazy neighbors, so every vote counts.

  • FLL

    Which would make her remark during one of the debates even more hilarious—the remark about one of her “enemies” being the Republicans.

  • Silver_Witch

    She will!

  • ohmary

    I live in a rural area of Ohio. In the last 25 years I have seen most of my neighbors change from reasonable conservatives to unyielding obnoxious Republicans. I know part of it is the general trend we have seen over the last 25 years but in my area and I suspect in many parts of America I blame much of it on one mega church that was founded about 20 years ago. My neighbor’s all attend it. They all constantly recite bible verses to support their Republican talking points and quote Franklin Graham who evidently constantly beats the drum of a government based on biblical values. Six women in particular feed on each other by posting upwards of 12 ( yes I counted them) religious and political messages a day on Facebook. Yes on average 72 a day. I un-friended them all and put an end to that. My point is that the evangelical churches seem to be a large part of the organizing effort. They are subtle so not to attract attention but the churches are leading the effort none the less. They think they have god on their side. Nothing will convince they to reconsider. How do you fight the god coalition?

  • FLL

    …and Obama wasted a lot of years trying fruitlessly to accommodate his sworn enemies.

    Here’s hoping the next Democratic president doesn’t make the same mistake. My guess is that he or she won’t.

  • There is only one thing Obama could have done to satisfy Republican demands: Resign and take Joe Biden with him, so that in 2010 the GOPers could appoint their own Speaker to the Presidency.

    There is nothing else he could have done, and Obama wasted a lot of years trying fruitlessly to accommodate his sworn enemies.

  • FLL

    Your analysis is convincing, Jon, and it’s pretty much in line with the dynamics of American history. There was never any consensus on slavery or its abolition, nor was there ever any consensus on civil rights for racial minorities, interracial marriage, reproductive rights or LGBT rights. The winning side in all of these advances simply dragged the losing side along kicking and screaming.

    I think of this as a war of attrition. As noisy as the forces of reaction are, they have become gradually weaker over the course of American history. In the 19th century the American South could have survived on its own economically because the production of cotton fueled much of the industry in England, Western Europe and the northeastern United States. Today every Southern state but Texas gets more federal dollars than it contributes; the South is no longer in any position to stand on its own economically, and Southerners know it. And then there are the sheer demographic changes that have occurred over the last fifty years: older Republican voters die off and are replaced by both young voters and immigrants. There is no need to accomplish the impossible task of convincing every last holdout that progress in immigration, healthcare and civil rights is in the country’s best interest. Why should a majority of Americans pretend that we have to be held hostage by the lowest common denominator?

  • emjayay

    Well, as we all know Obama has been the most divisive, particularly racially divisive, president ever. Exactly how is completely unknown to me anyway. Apparently by being President While Black, but they can’t say that. It’s another dog whistle claim.

  • timncguy

    The goal of “unifying” the country is a sore point with me. The republicants constantly blame Obama for failing to bring the country together as he promised when it was the republicants who met on inauguration night in DC and plotted their one and only agenda of making sure Obama didn’t get anything done. NO ONE can unify the country when one side is expending all of their energy to make sure it doesn’t happen.

  • One only has to look at states like Kansas and Michigan to see what Republicans are offering. The people who would most be hurt by what Republican candidates are proposing are the people who would never vote for a Democrat. And that is the Democrats’ biggest problem. They sat back and let the far right like about them for 35 years and there’s little effort to undo the damage.

    Until Democrats can take back Congress no Democratic President is going to be able to do anything they are talking about in the campaign. The idea that any Democrat can work with Republicans to get anything is absurd. We can’t even do anything about the backlog for getting veterans signed up for benefits in spite of years of news reports about that. That should be a no-brainer bipartisan quick fix but no. That’s how broken the system is. Democrats need to learn to campaign and play hardball. Hillary Clinton is more of what’s wrong with how Democrats run for office. When are they going to learn?

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