Together, the Clinton and Sanders Narratives Tell the Story of Progressivism

By Richard Kirsch |

After Hillary Clinton delivered her Super Tuesday victory speech, Van Jones said on CNN that his Twitter feed was full of people saying that she had stolen Bernie Sanders’s message. But that was only half-true. While Clinton is incorporating more of Sanders’s progressive populism, her campaign narrative is in the best tradition of American liberalism.

Taken together, the core stories that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are telling in their campaigns bring together the two main themes in liberal and progressive political discourse in America. They are telling a story that includes both driving ideas: our fundamental shared interest and our insistence that society should work for the vast majority, not powerful elites. Where the candidates diverge is where they put the emphasis in their narratives.

After Clinton’s first campaign message—that she was a progressive who could get things done—bombed, she finally developed a powerful campaign story. She began her Super Tuesday victory speech saying, “You know all across our country today they, Democrats, voted to break down barriers so we can all rise together.”

But then she quickly pivoted to Sanders’s campaign message: “Because this country belongs to all of us, not just those at the top.”

The rest of Clinton’s speech was framed around breaking down barriers that block people from fulfilling their own potential and participating in the America promise: “Instead of building walls we’re going to break down barriers and build ladders of opportunity and empowerment so every American can live up to his or her potential, because then and only then can America live up to its full potential too.”

Even when she returned to Sanders’s ground of progressive populism, she extended the olive branch of togetherness. This section from her speech captures how she combines the two:

[W]e’re all in this together, my friends, and we all have to do our part. But unfortunately, too many of those with the most wealth and the most power in this country today seem to have forgotten that basic truth about America. … Now I’m not interested in condemning whole categories of people or businesses… So let there be no doubt, if you cheat your employees, exploit consumers, pollute our environment or rip off the taxpayers, we’re going to hold you accountable. But, if you do the right thing, if you invest in your workers, and in America’s future then we’ll stand with you.

Sanders, of course, does not soft peddle his attacks on corporate greed and its exploitation of working people and hijacking of our democracy. But the power of his campaign comes not just from anger at the powerful but in the hope for a more inclusive economy and democracy. As he said at the beginning of his victory speech in New Hampshire, “the government of our great country belongs to all of the people and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors, and their Super PACs.” And in concluding that same speech, “Together we are going to create an economy that works for all of us, not just the 1%.”

While the energy of Sanders’s speeches is based in progressive populism, the tone of his two most recognized campaign ads is in the spirit of Clinton’s inclusive vision of the American promise. “America,” Sanders’s instantly iconic ad, includes gauzy images of diverse, working and middle-class Americans to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel’s refrain “They’ve all come to look for America.”

Sanders’s other powerful ad, “Together,” begins sounding like the new Clinton: “Our job is not to divide. Our job is to bring people together.” Its images literally bring diverse faces together. Its narrative rejects division and focuses instead on our common humanity: “When we stand together—white and Black and Hispanic, gay and straight and woman and man.” It then returns to the Sanders version of togetherness, contrasting this with the dominance of the powerful. “When we stand together and demand that this country works for all of us, not just the few, we will transform America.”

The divergence in emphasis between Clinton and Sanders is seen in the differences in the constituencies that respond most to each. Sanders’s populism, along with his bold, transformative agenda, are reaching young people, progressive activists, and white working class voters. Clinton’s call for breaking down barriers speaks powerfully to Blacks, Hispanics, and older women. And her moderated populism is more comfortable for Democrats with higher incomes and seniors.

In the best of worlds, the two narratives would come together. Sanders would learn from Clinton to talk about breaking down barriers that are much deeper than economic inequality. Clinton would stop apologizing for her populism and start linking the theft of our democracy with the ransacking of our economy.

Having said that, the good news is that Democrats are finally getting close to a shared narrative—a powerful, values-based story about their core beliefs. Underlying both progressive populism and the liberal idea of breaking down barriers is the progressive meta-narrative, “We all do better when we all do better.” This is both a statement of values and of how society works. It is an understanding that when each of us can care for and support our families, when all of us realize our full potential to participate in society, we build thriving communities and drive the economy forward.

Clinton summarized this at the top of her speech: “America prospers when we all prosper. America is strong when we’re all strong.” Building an economy that works for all of us is a concept that is central to every one of Sanders’s policy proposals. It is a story that can reshape what is possible in American politics.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the author of Fighting for Our Health: The Epic Battle to Make Health Care a Right in the United States, published in February 2012 by the Rockefeller Institute Press.