Fantasy and Realism in the Democratic Debate

Before I begin picking this thing apart, I need to emphasize that last night’s debate was generally refreshing. It was rigorous and intense. It made each candidate uneasy at times and this led to several important points of clarification. This exchange should have proven refreshing to anyone who leans not-clown-car-fascist.

What stands out to me in the exchanges that take place regarding the candidacies of Sanders and Clinton is this false paradigm of “realist who knows how to get things done” and “fantasy-land grandpa who can’t carry through with his promises.” Taking this view overlooks the fact that the debates themselves are an incredibly important part of the electoral process. They are not elements separate from the election; they are fundamental pieces of it. This is where ideas for the future of the country are sorted out. This is where candidates have to answer to their pasts and their visions for where we should be going. These are foundational building blocks for the narrative on which the future is constructed. As such, the exchange is not exclusively about leadership credentials and when it is treated as such, opportunities to discuss how to get to a more ideal future (progress) are lost.

When done in earnest, argument, engagement and debate about past decisions and future vision are equal parts rooted in reality and founded in fantasy. Part of having someone clarify where they stand, why they stand in that place, or to pressure movement on an existing position requires challenging them, and often from a place that is not rooted entirely in realism. This is not to say that Sanders’ arguments against Clinton are fantastic, but if the starting point for conversation is, “We understand Sec. Clinton has had to compromise sometimes and that leads to some undesirable decisions,” then the ideological conversation begins and ends with acknowledgement of the boundaries of logistics. The audience is left with standard quo decision making processes. Further, by doing so you don’t get people in future leadership positions to be on the record about what their actual aspirations are. Logistics are important, of course, as is their navigation, but this should not be the beginning and end of a robust exchange.

Clinton is the beneficiary of tested experience, no doubt. This was especially and painfully clear whenever Sanders was faced with questions about foreign policy. The logistical realities of leadership can put one in proximity of decisions, positions and actions that are difficult to clearly and concisely explain. But this does not take asking questions about proximity to money corporate money in particular off the table. The “artful smear” line was great, but it doesn’t take this conversation off the table. It does not erase the fact that contributions may not necessarily dictate how a politician acts, but they definitely raise legitimate doubts.

And with regard to to how problematic it is to accept “realism” exclusively at face value, I’m on the Howard Zinn train (it is ironic considering how much debate took place about which candidate was more “progressive” that this quote comes from “Progressive” Magazine):

When a social movement adopts the compromises of legislators, it has forgotten its role, which is to push and challenge the politicians, not to fall in meekly behind them.

We have no office to hold on to, only our consciences, which insist on telling the truth.

That, history suggests, is the most realistic thing a citizen can do.



Howard Zinn


So I don’t disagree that there aren’t a lot of problems with how some Sanders supporters position their rhetoric, but there is equally a good deal wrong with how Clinton supporters try to end most discussions with tedious examinations of “how things really are.” It’s a fair point to make, but it’s not the entire point. If we start from a myopic definition of realism, and not from a point of how things would like to be, it becomes difficult to impossible to move toward progress.

A total side note: I tend to be critical of Clinton, but I thought she started strong last night. She lost steam for a bit but then came back in the foreign policy discussion. She lost me, though, at support for the death penalty and boasting praise from Kissinger. I don’t disagree that Clinton has been a supporter of many progressive causes, but support of state sanctioned murder and touting adoration by the actual devil puts her at odds with herself being a progressive.

IMAGE CREDIT: Penguin Books

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.