US Presidential Race: The Democrats

One of the nice things about writing about US politics is that you know it affects everyone. You may have heard recently that Bernie Sanders is running for President. This thrills most of the left, many of whom wanted somebody other than Hillary Clinton, who lost the 2008 primary to Obama and is generally thought of as being significantly more right-wing than most would prefer.


Under better circumstances, I’d write an article talking about everything that differs between the two. But, as things stand, neither is likely to face a cooperative congress even if they win. The current situation in American politics is that many Republican representatives believe that they have greater electoral chances of success if they refuse to cooperate with Democrats. This is happening because the Republican base has an extremely negative opinion of the Democratic party, and recently increased willingness to defy party leadership.

bernie s

Unlike in many countries, American voters can reject their party’s preferred candidate for nomination and have their own candidate be nominated for election by the party. This means that politicians have to worry more about their voters and less about party officials. This can sound like a good thing, until you remember that party officials are generally relatively well-educated sensible people who have studied politics, and voters aren’t. Mostly, the result is increased extremism.


Domestically, a president is fairly limited when congress stands in firm opposition. The president can issue executive orders to federal agencies, and urge people to do things, but in the domestic sphere the president is restricted and weakened.


In the international sphere, a president is far stronger. The president visiting a part of America is a moderately common event: news, perhaps, but not shocking. The president visiting another country is always a media circus. The impact of the so called bully pulpit, the ability of the American President to simply command media attention by existing, is larger abroad. Additionally, the president can make executive agreements, promises between particular leaders to do something. These don’t require congressional approval and can still be quite influential.


Furthermore, the President is solely responsible for choosing ambassadors, giving them even more influence over US Foreign Policy. It’s also easy to forget, amidst the drone strikes and the rising NSA, that the CIA is America’s Central Intelligence Agency, responsible for keeping the President well-informed. They report to congress with somewhat less alacrity. This increased information gives the President even more authority to determine American foreign policy.


As a consequence, I’m not going to discuss every way in which the two differ. I’ll focus on the two big foreign policy ones: climate change and war. On both, Clinton is to the right of Sanders, but it’s worth teasing out what that means.


Hillary Clinton supports fracking, a process of extracting oil from tar sands that causes contamination in local water supplies. It’s an important enough position that several donors have expressed a desire to donate to someone else unless or until she changes her mind. Sanders is, predictably enough, against it. Which fracking itself isn’t all that relevant to foreign policy, it does suggest that as president Hillary would worry less about the environment. She also presided over a disastrous climate change conference in Copenhagen, but the extent to which that is her fault is debateable. She at times positions herself as being pro-environment, and she will certainly be more concerned about climate change than the Republican candidate, but she won’t be as forceful about it as Sanders is widely expected to be. Sanders has committed to working with other countries to “forcefully” address environmental challenges. Whether this is good or bad, I leave up to you: my goal here is simply to explain the differences.


The other main foreign policy issue is the middle east. Hillary’s a hawk: she voted for the Iraq War (which many Democrats hillarystill haven’t forgiven her for). According to her autobiography, in the early days of the rebellion in Syria, before it was even a full scale civil war, she advocated giving more support to US-favored rebels, and now argues that her position has been vindicated and Obama should have done more to stop the jihadists who formed ISIS from filling the power vacuum. She discusses Islamic extremists in cold war terms, and believes that similar deterrence and containment measures are needed, though she condemns some of the excesses of the US in Southeast Asia and Latin America. Things “we are not particularly proud of” included overthrowing democratic governments because they were left-wing. This muscular foreign policy meshes well with her thoughts on Israel.


She supports, not only Israeli actions in Palestine, but also Netanyahu. Israel “did what it had to” in responding to attacks (In the latest conflict in 2014, five Israeli civilians were killed and between 600 and 1,600 Palestinian civilians were killed depending on which estimates you believe. The 2008-2009 “Gaza War” had a roughly 1:100 ratio of Israeli civilian deaths to Palestinian civilian deaths) “Ultimately the responsibility rests with Hamas.” She blames criticism of Israel on anti-semitism, a common charge levelled by supporters. Of course, this will be a harder one to make against Bernie Sanders.


Sanders is Jewish, and spent some time on a kibbutz in his youth. Attempting to accuse him of anti-semitism for his moderated criticism of some Israeli actions is a charge that is unlikely to stick. He’s also been relatively critical of Israeli actions in Palestine, though still supporting Israel in the 2014 war (casualty statistics above). He was, however, willing to say that Israel was “heavy-handed”, which is significantly more criticism than most American politicians are willing to voice. He was one of a minority of members of Congress to sit out an unauthorized speech by Benjamin Netanyahu to Congress. He has stated that a war with Iran is something to be avoided if at  all possible. This is not to say that Sanders generally supports an isolationist policy: he recently published an article in the Guardian supporting Syriza, the far-left Greek party, and attacking the unwillingness of other European governments to work with the new Greek government.


Next time, I’ll discuss some of the differences between Republican primary candidates. Please leave your thoughts in the comments.



About Keller Scholl

Keller is an intellectual wanderer currently studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University. He likes thinking about the nature of minds, threats to the survival of humanity, models of political processes, and how people’s uses of models affect politics. In his spare time he programs, sails, reads science fiction, and dances Lindy Hop.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.