But at the same time, it’s unclear how much work the pragmatism critique does for the anti-Sanders cause. It’s true that single-payer health insurance and free public college aren’t likely to become federal law even if Sanders wins the presidency. But by the same token, neither are Clinton’s plans to improve Obamacare, and provide debt-free college and paid family leave.
Clinton’s agenda would become politically viable if Democrats were to somehow reclaim the House and Senate during her time in office–her proposals are designed to reflect party consensus, while Sanders’s platform reflects the consensus of just one of the party’s wings.
But if we’re imagining both of their agendas as opening bids in negotiations with Congress, why fault Sanders for not negotiating with himself? Ask a future Democratic Congress for single payer and a $15 minimum wage and you might get laughed at… but you also might get the public option and a bump to $12. Ask it for the public option and a $12 minimum wage, as Clinton might, and you’ll get a fair hearing from the outset, but you might end up with advancements barely worth fighting for. President Obama, as Sanders is fond of noting, negotiated with himself, and progressives paid an unknowable price as a result.
Center-left liberals will remind us that Obama’s biggest legislative accomplishments were products of hard-nosed dealmaking, rather than mass action. And they’re right. When Clinton makes LBJ-like arguments about the importance of pairing social activism with political leverage, she is telling unlovely truths. But here it’s worth noting that for all the hyperventilating over Sanders’s self-identification as a socialist, he’s been a relatively effective and pragmatic legislator.