What the Democrats Didn’t Talk About at Last Night’s Debate

By Aman Banerji |

Roosevelters weighed in on the first Democratic debate on #RooRxn last night. Today, Aman Banerji and Alan Smith of Roosevelt’s National Staff and Alyssa O’Brien of Roosevelt Northeast examine the issues the candidates missed.

The first Democratic debate is in the books, and it was a welcome change of pace for those who, like the members of our nationwide Roosevelt Network, are interested in the policies being put forward by the candidates. Check elsewhere for discussion of who “won” the debate; Roosevelters spent the evening analyzing these policy specifics.

There was an important discussion around policy solutions to inequality, as when Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley chastised Hillary Clinton for her stance on reinstating Glass-Steagall. “Going to Wall Street and saying ‘please stop’ is very naive,” Sanders said, before outlining how he would tackle the effects of financialization on the economy and our democracy.

The candidates also displayed a nuanced understanding of the complexity of climate change, acknowledging the potential effects that catastrophic climate events can and will have on both the economy and, as one Roosevelter noted, foreign policy:

While moderator Anderson Cooper didn’t really pose the question, there was a good discussion about Planned Parenthood and women’s health in general. The caveat, of course, is that the candidates failed to mention the epidemic of campus sexual assault despite the work of student activists across the country.

What else did the Democrats miss?

Democratic Reform

Do we need a new president or a new political process? While the participants in last night’s debate sought to justify their own candidacies, young people found themselves questioning whether the candidates had done enough to reform a broken electoral and political process. It’s no surprise that the generation inheriting our political system is more concerned about the state of our democracy than about the success of our candidates.

Short of Sanders’ assertion of his small donor funding and opposition to Citizens United, along with the standard “partisan gridlock” references, it was rather difficult to identify a real debate that will push toward a fairer and more inclusive democratic system. While the clamor continued for Vice President Joe Biden to take the stage, we would do well to remember the other missing face from last night’s debate: Lawrence Lessig, who takes the issue of electoral and campaign finance reform very seriously. In the casting aside of Lessig, we were reminded once again that political reform remains as much a fringe issue as does Lessig’s candidacy. But without a prolonged conversation and significant movement toward a rewritten political system, it’s hard to imagine how 2016 will reverse falling turnout among young people.

#BlackLivesMatter

Candidates last night demonstrated a familiarity with the issues of #blacklivesmatter, sorely missing from O’Malley and Sanders’ infamous encounters with protesters at Netroots Nation just six months ago. Coupled with the formulation of a racial justice policy platform, it’s certainly fair to celebrate the progress of the BLM movement in forcing candidates to engage with their issues. What’s missing, though, is an injection of intersectionality in the conversation. Shadow banking, prison reform, economic inequality, and other issues have disproportionate effects and bases in communities of color. Real progress will be when candidates find ways to articulate the importance of #blacklivesmatter in the context of these issues rather than continuing to find ways to silo the problem of racial inequality.

Access to Higher Education

While candidates expounded on their respective higher education platforms, they dodged the issue of K–12 education. To provide equal access to higher education, first we must ensure equitable access to preschool, elementary, and high school education. It’s illogical to count our academic chickens before they hatch, and the need for equitable access to all levels of education should have been more thoroughly addressed last night.

Hillary Clinton did touch on the need for access to early childhood education; however, pointing to herself and Bill Clinton as examples of “self-made Americans” undermined her comments on the importance of “a New Deal for people of color.” White Ivy League graduates are not a good, nor representative, sample of people suffering from complacent education systems. This failure to acknowledge ingrained white privilege in the formula for American success preempted a sorely needed conversation about the intersection of inequitable access to education, race, and the implications both have on economic standing. Clearly, our candidates have a formula for college affordability, but they are still missing a key conversation on college access and retention.

Aman Banerji is a Program Manager at the Roosevelt Institute. In his role, Aman leads the Network's Financialization of Higher Education and Re: Public Projects. In addition, he works with a host of Roosevelt policy projects across the nation and seeks to strengthen the Network's policy work by leading the national cohort of Policy Coordinators and Emerging Fellows. His academic and professional experience has largely been focused on structural and institutional inequality. His policy interests include incarceration, civil rights and economic justice in the United States. Prior to joining Roosevelt, he served in advocacy organizations and foundations in both the United States and India, including the Ford Foundation and the Drug Policy Alliance. Aman has a BA with a concentration in Economics and International Development from Sarah Lawrence College in New York.