Incremental reform or revolution: Where Sanders and Clinton really disagree

It was like that all night. Sanders called for replacing capitalism with democratic socialism. Clinton called for “rein[ing] in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok.” Sanders boasted that he had opposed a bank bailout even after America’s top economic officials warned that not passing one might bring “a complete meltdown.” Hillary essentially embraced the label of “insider,” declaring that she knows “what it takes to get things done.”

Hayes’ distinction isn’t only a useful guide to what the candidates said in the debate. It’s a useful guide to their competing strengths and weaknesses. Sanders’s insurrectionism is crucial to his political appeal. Progressives don’t just love him because his policy proposals are more left wing than Hillary’s. They love the fact that he calls America’s political and economic system corrupt, and that he refuses to play by that corrupt system’s rules: for instance, by raising money via a Super Pac. That’s why being a “socialist” doesn’t hurt Sanders among many liberals. For many, “socialism” is just another way of saying you want to tear down the existing order and build something better in its place.

But if Sanders’s insurrectionism is key to his success, it may also put a ceiling on it. As angry as many liberals are about economic inequality, the Democratic Party is today in a far less insurrectionist mood than the GOP. Republican presidential candidates routinely bash John Boehner, to wild applause. If a Democratic candidate attacked Nancy Pelosi, liberals would think he or she were nuts. And Democrats still really like Barack Obama.