On NPR last week, the headline was “Has Bernie Sanders Moved Hillary Clinton to the Left?” The story centered on Sanders’ more radical leftist politics and the many ways in which Clinton’s stated policies have changed to look more like his.
The implication was that Sanders was forcing Clinton to move to the left. But what if it’s also giving her the opportunity to move to the left?
As the frontrunner, and a woman who is being watched carefully for any sign that she is ill-suited for the presidency, Clinton’s best strategy is probably to play it safe. That is, all thing being equal, she should stay well within the contemporary well-worn middle of the Democratic party.
But Sanders is throwing off the “all things being equal” by vociferously and often convincingly arguing that she isn’t left enough. He is, in other words, serving as a “radical flank” of the Democratic party. A radical flank is the segment of a social movement that stakes out the most extreme position.
Famously, the activities and ideology of the radical flank of the Civil Rights Movement (e.g., the Black Panther Party) resulted in increased social and economic support for its more moderate representatives (e.g., the NAACP). One reason is because, through contrast with the radical flank, the demands of Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. started to seem downright moderate.
Something similar could be going on here. Sanders’ more radical rhetoric and policy may be making Clinton’s previously centrist-seeming positions suddenly seem quite conservative. This might, in fact, be pulling her to the left, “moving” her by necessity, but it might also be giving her the opportunity to do so. It’s possibly that she’s a more progressive candidate than her pre-Sanders policy statements reflected, as she was strategically aiming for the middle. But, now that Sanders’ has shifted the goal posts, she is free to take more radical positions without looking like a radical at all.
Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.