One path, the one Hillary Clinton has followed, says you should work inside the existing system, and to the extent you can, make it work for people and ultimately improve it. Make it less corrupt, more open, more sensitive to the needs of the many instead of the few. And as you work within that system, you rise up through its institutions until one day you will have real power. At that point, you will be have real influence and can accomplish real reform. German student radical Rudi Dutschke called this the "long march through the institutions of power." This is essentially the argument that Hillary Clinton makes about herself and about President Obama. People like Clinton and Obama ultimately don't believe that rapid, major, social and political change is possible in the near term, so they try to do the best they can within the limits imposed on political choices by "reality," by which they mean the existing distribution of power. They get credentials from the best universities, enter the professions, take jobs that pay well, become wealthy and powerful, and eventually get to know the economic and political elites who run this country. Now Hillary Clinton stands at the doorstep of the US Presidency, and she promises to do everything that is possible if she gets that job.
And of course that is exactly what Barack Obama promised when he was running: hope and change. He talked like somebody who meant to make fundamental changes. But in truth he has always been somebody who works within the system. That's what he was here in Illinois as a state Senator, that's what he was as a US Senator, and that's what he was as President. When he became President at a time of economic crisis, when he had the best opportunity since FDR to get the public behind him and make major changes, he didn't do it. Instead, he settled for trying to deal with the crisis in the context of existing institutions. He continued Bush's wars and even escalated the war in Afghanistan; instead of nationalizing or breaking up the big banks that crashed the world economy, he continued the bank bailouts and did virtually nothing for home owners; in a futile effort to compromise with Republicans who hated him, he signed legislation that he promised he would never sign to continue Bush's tax cuts on the rich; he signed a health care reform bill without doing anything to fight for the public option that supposedly distinguished him from Hillary Clinton; he has done nothing but talk about the gun psychosis that is sweeping the nation; and on and on. But (his defenders would say) look at what he accomplished--significant re-regulation of Wall Street; reducing US casualties in overseas wars and trying to make other nations defend themselves; the stock market soared, federal deficits and the unemployment rate have been going down steadily, millions of people now have health insurance, we are no longer a global pariah that invades countries based on lies.
So goes the defense of the "work within the system" approach.
But Bernie Sanders represents the other alternative: being an uncompromising radical who never abandons the quest for major social and political change. Bernie Sanders won't even call himself a Democrat and instead identifies himself as a democratic socialist. He wants to change the system in fundamental ways and will never be satisfied with working at the margins. People like Bernie view people like Hillary as sellouts who looked after themselves instead of joining the collective effort to change the entire system. It would take a massive collective effort, but if enough people joined, anything could be accomplished. That's what Bernie means when he calls for a "political revolution." He's talking about a mass movement that mobilizes up to 99% of the society against the plutocrats who really hold virtually all the real power.
If you look through the history of the US and around the world, you will see that such mass movements are few and far between. You will also find that they often end up taking strange courses that can be quite ugly. The standard conservative argument against radical change through mass movements is Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he shows how the leaders of the revolution turned the people against the church, the monarchy, and all other institutions that they had ever respected. The result was a parade of human misery and eventual restoration of the monarchy.
Keep in mind that Clinton and Sanders are baby boomers, and so am I. We remember the way this eternal conflict--incremental reform versus radical change--divided our generation. People called each other sellouts, greedheads, hopeless utopian posers, and so on. This played itself out in the 1980s, when the neoliberals and the Democratic Leadership Council succeeded in steering the Democratic Party away from social democratic goals and toward southern white guys, big corporations, and interventionist foreign policy. Bill Clinton, Bruce Babbitt, Chuck Robb, Al From--they set up the playbook for winning elections with this so-called "centrist" approach. And Obama is very much a neoliberal, but one who uses progressive rhetoric.
And now here we are, at another moment in American history where tens of millions of people are just flat ticked off, and the eternal choice presents itself: incremental reform, or radical change?
If Bernie Sanders wins the presidency, Obama will be the last neoliberal Democratic president and we enter a new era of politics. But if he loses the nomination to Clinton, it will be business as usual for the Democrats. If Bernie wins the nomination and gets obliterated in the general election, the left will not recover in our lifetime. And that, of course, is Clinton's argument: I represent the limits of what is possible in this country, at this time. Vote for me or the Republicans take over every branch of the national government, and everything will be much, much worse.
And now in 2016, Democrats are asked to choose once again between these two approaches. Given the political and economic circumstances in this country right now, the stakes are high.