For most of the year, the Democratic presidential primary has been defined by two lanes, represented by the two candidates who entered the race with the largest built-in bases of support: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. One lane consists of candidates who argue they are best able to make solid, if incremental progress—and that such incremental gains are the only gains possible, or at least the only gains that don’t carry the unbearable risk of catastrophic defeat in 2020. In the other lane, candidates argue that incremental change isn’t enough; that fundamental structural reform of our democracy and our economy is necessary for both substantive and political reasons.
With Biden and Sanders such entrenched and seemingly pure exemplars of the pragmatic and revolutionary wings of the party, the natural temptation for other candidates is to try to create a new lane between the two in order to break through: Bolder than Biden, more pragmatic than Sanders.
But there is another, better way.
What Democrats really need—what America really needs—is in some sense the opposite: a candidate more pragmatic than Biden and more revolutionary than Sanders. This may seem inherently contradictory, but only because of the fairly superficial way labels like “pragmatic” and “revolutionary” tend to get thrown around in our political discourse.
To understand how a candidate could carve out this new pragmatic-yet-revolutionary path, we need only look at an odd area of agreement between Biden and Sanders that illustrates the gap between their images and their actual approach to politics: Both oppose the kinds of structural reforms that will be necessary to accomplish the changes they seek, large or small.
First, the filibuster. Mitch McConnell and his Republican colleagues have made painfully clear that they will oppose the next Democratic president’s agenda under pretty much every imaginable circumstance. We know this. It’s how Republicans behave when there is a Democratic president: They all opposed Bill Clinton’s first economic package; they all opposed Barack Obama’s health care plan even though he tried to appeal to Republicans by modeling it on the health law Mitt Romney enacted as governor of Massachusetts; and they opposed a stimulus package even with the economy on life support and the stimulus tilted towards tax cuts in an effort to appeal to Republicans. Senate Republicans will oppose the next Democratic president and use every procedural tool available to them in the process. It’s what they do. Therefore, the next time there is a Democratic president and Democratic Congress, Senate Democrats should eliminate the filibuster so they are able to govern rather than empowering an extremist minority.
And yet Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have both said they would leave the filibuster in place. Biden explains he’ll get his agenda through the Senate via Republican epiphanies; Sanders, who said earlier this year he is “not crazy about getting rid of the filibuster,” has instead said he’d pursue a complicated gambit of passing his agenda via reconciliation votes not subject to the filibuster.
Next, Supreme Court reform. The current activist conservative Supreme Court is poised to strike down any meaningful new progressive legislation, in addition to continuing to dismantle the progress we’ve made in the past. It was stolen by the Republican party for precisely this purpose, most egregiously when the GOP manipulated the size of the court by capping it at no more than eight members as long as a Democrat was president, then quickly confirming a ninth when Donald Trump took office. We’ve already seen activists conservatives on the court eviscerate the Voting Rights Act, strike a crushing blow to organized labor, and open the floodgates for corporate money in our elections. And all that was before Bret Kavanaugh, an overt and vengeful partisan, took a seat on the court. From climate change to guns to health care, the Supreme Court is poised to block any progressive legislation that makes it through Mitch McConnell’s Senate.
Like McConnell, the Court’s conservative majority owes its power to the most un-democratic features of our political system—Republicans have nominated 15 of the last 19 justices despite losing the popular vote in six of the last seven elections; four of the five conservatives currently on the Court were nominated by Republicans who became president after losing the popular vote. It’s no surprise, then, that the Court’s conservatives share the GOP’s preference for minority rule. An illegitimate, stolen Supreme Court is in urgent need of structural reform, before it renders any progressive change dead on arrival and fair democratic elections an impossibility.
And yet Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have both said they oppose efforts to expand the size of the Supreme Court, the only realistic way to undo McConnell’s rigging.
All of this provides an opening for other candidates to position themselves as both more pragmatic than Biden and more revolutionary than Sanders.
Contrary to the popular political usage, “pragmatic” doesn’t mean “incrementalist” or “willing to compromise.” It means concerned primarily with getting things done. Giving Mitch McConnell veto power over your agenda isn’t pragmatism, it’s surrender. And there’s nothing pragmatic about refusing to pursue structural reform of a stolen, un-democratic Supreme Court that will likely strike down your agenda and further entrench minority rule at a moment when the nation faces a range of policy emergencies like climate catastrophe.
Nor can one claim to be a revolutionary while proposing to leave in place the very un-democratic structures and systems that make political revolution necessary. Winning and turning out new voters is a worthy effort, even a necessary one, but if it isn’t accompanied by democratic reforms, it’s no revolution—it’s just an effort to play more successfully by unfair rules.
The gaps between Biden’s portrayal of himself as pragmatic and the deeply unpragmatic nature of his approach to politics, and between Sanders’ revolutionary rhetoric and his refusal to embrace necessary structural reforms, provide an opening to the other Democrats running for president. Instead of positioning themselves between Biden and Sanders—and thus as watered-down versions of each—they might be better off forging a new path, one that is more pragmatic than Biden and more revolutionary than Sanders. After all, there’s ample evidence that both pragmatism and bold change appeal to Democratic primary voters.
It’s worth noting that the two candidates who have had the most success breaking through this year, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren, are also the two who have most successfully broken free of the false choice between bold change and pragmatism, though neither has explicitly made the pitch that they are better than both Biden and Sanders at their own games—and neither has fully embraced a reform agenda that would make such a pitch possible.
In July, Buttigieg had one of the best moments of the presidential debates when he responded to a question about Democrats are drifting too far left by saying Republicans will call Democrats crazy socialists no matter what, so “Let’s stand up for the right policy, go up there and defend it.” Then in the October debate, he repeatedly argued that unlike his rivals, he’s able to “actually deliver a solution.” Buttigieg supports elimination of the filibuster, and has spoken more than the other candidates about the need for Supreme Court reform, though his preferred solution would likely require a highly impractical constitutional amendment. Buttigieg’s plan also envisions handing the balance of power in the Supreme Court to Justices like Anthony Kennedy, who cast the deciding votes in Citizens United and Shelby County v. Holder, so it would likely do little to reverse the un-democratic tide of Supreme Court jurisprudence.
Warren’s “dream big, fight hard” and “I have a plan for that” mantras recognize the need for a bold vision and a practical approach to accomplish that vision, and she has enjoyed a remarkable surge in support since being prematurely written off in the early months of the campaign. Yet she still faces some skepticism from self-styled pragmatists and revolutionaries alike—skepticism that could perhaps be blunted by explicitly taking on Biden and Sanders at their points of strength. Though she supports elimination of the filibuster, Warren has been non-committal about court reform, and ducked a question about expanding the Supreme Court during the October debate by saying she’d deal with the threat the Court poses to reproductive rights “through democracy, because we can”—the rare Warren answer that misses the point: Having the support of a majority of the public, or even of Congress, doesn’t mean much when an activist conservative court is actively undermining democracy.
From the electoral college to the United States Senate to decades of voter suppression and a campaign finance system that gives the wealthy and large corporations disproportionate influence over our elections to a Republican Party that has proven it will do anything to seize and wield power to an economy rigged in favor of millionaires and billionaires, the deck is stacked against the majority of Americans, and against Democrats who seek to represent them. If Democrats get an opportunity to govern, they must move swiftly to bring balance and fairness to our political and economic rules and institutions. They must be truly pragmatic and revolutionary.
And they might find, as often is the case, that good policy is good politics.
Jamison Foser is a consultant and writer. He served as senior adviser at NextGen America for the 2016 and 2018 cycles and was previously executive vice president of Media Matters for America and research director at the DCCC. His current clients include Take Back The Court, which supports Supreme Court reform. Follow him on Twitter @JamisonFoser.