Progress Isn’t Settling: Trump’s Rise Threatens to Make Moderate the New Progressive

“I like Sanders’ ideas better, but I voted for Hillary. It’s just the more pragmatic decision. The idea of a Sanders presidency is unrealistic,” a friend remarked to me, a few short hours before Clinton’s now-infamous Nancy Reagan comments. Their reasoning frustrated me, even though it’s a refrain I’ve heard a lot this election season. Usually it comes from progressives who like Bernie’s platform, but are casting a vote for the perceived sensible option in Hillary Clinton.

But as we move further along in this seemingly unending primary season, each candidate misstep becomes increasingly costly. Social media lit up Friday afternoon, after Clinton praised former first lady Nancy Reagan’s “low-key” activism during the 1980s AIDS crisis:

“It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan, in particular, Mrs. Reagan, we started national conversation when before no one would talk about it, no one wanted to do anything about it, and that too is something that really appreciated, with her very effective, low-key advocacy, but it penetrated the public conscience and people began to say ‘Hey, we have to do something about this too.’”

With all due respect to the former Secretary of State, this statement is not only antithetical to historical reality, but also disrespectful to the experiences of LGBT people who lived (and died) in the 1980s. Rebecca Watson has a video detailing how truly wrong Clinton is on this front, saying in part:

Far be it from me to speak on behalf of the tens of thousands of people who lost their lives to AIDS while the Reagan administration laughed — literally laughed about it — for five years, but allow me to just say: fuuuuuuuuuck you.

Nancy Reagan helped start a national conversation about AIDS in the same way that Switzerland helped start a conversation about the Nazis: by ignoring it and hoping it would just go away.

Ingrid Nelson (second from left) and fellow protestors lobby at the Sacramento capitol for AIDS reform. Ronald & Nancy Reagan were at the capitol building that day, and protestors shouted, "MURDERER!" at the pair as they walked the balcony. (Photo Source Unknown)
Ingrid Nelson (second from left) and fellow ACT UP protestors lobby at the Sacramento capitol for AIDS reform. Ronald & Nancy Reagan were at the capitol building that day, and protestors shouted, “MURDERER!” at the pair as they walked the balcony (photo source unknown).

Clinton has since apologized for misspeaking and issued a categorically strong retraction. But the mistake still brought to light a serious quandary for some progressives. Many feel torn between a looming Trump or Cruz nomination, and not wanting to settle for a candidate who too often seems at odds with progressive values. I spoke with Ingrid Nelson, an activist who worked with ACT UP (one of the groups Clinton referenced in her retraction), during the AIDS crisis, and whose work continues today. In fact, when I reached out to her, she was busy at one of two HIV clinics where she works as a nurse practitioner.

Like many progressive voters, Nelson was disgusted by Clinton’s comments, but said it would still be tough not to vote for Clinton if she is the Democratic nominee:

I do think Clinton takes progressives for granted, though I don’t think she is any worse on that count than any other Democrat. Democrats play to the absolute blandest, most middle of the road, vaguely liberal-of-center types. I think that’s why I find them so un-inspiring. And I deeply resent it, because they do count on us to show up and vote anyway. Because we’re scared of the alternative. With good reason! I mean, the lesser of two evils is… less evil. I feel more unsafe with a Republican in the White House.

I certainly know people who are not going to vote for Clinton no matter what — mostly people who live in “safe states” though. I respect their position, but it’s hard for me. I’ve been assuming I would vote for the Democratic candidate this time around, no matter what. Because Trump and Cruz scare the crap out of me, and because the next Supreme Court seat is so crucial. But I was in actual pain all day Friday about the AIDS comments, wondering if I could even vote for her after that. I am so angry at all the comments I saw from her supporters, that we should shut up because if we criticize her in any way, it helps Trump win. That is on her, not on us. And I will never not speak up about AIDS. I couldn’t shut up if I tried.

[The retraction that Clinton later issued] is why speaking out matters. This is proof that activism works. If we had all kept our mouths shut like good little queers, do you think we would now have the Democratic front runner issuing a major statement that includes HIV criminalization, PrEP, transgender people, and all these other points?

It isn’t just LGBT and AIDS activists like Nelson who have been hurt by Clinton’s past & present missteps. Black activists have taken Clinton to task numerous times for her role in passing 1994’s Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act. Many individuals, including writer Michelle Alexander, credit the bill for bringing the school-to-prison pipeline into the mainstream. Clinton supporters sometimes seek to disavow her role in this bill, reminding us that, “Hillary isn’t responsible for her husband’s policies.” And they’re right! We should never hold women responsible for the sins of their husbands. Except ten minutes later, those same supporters are talking about how Secretary Clinton revolutionized the role of first lady, by taking an active role in policy-making while her husband was in office.

And Hillary Clinton did do just that, to her credit. She was the first (and as of writing, only) first lady to have an office in the West Wing next to the President’s closest advisors. White House Budget Director for Bill Clinton, Alice Rivlin, credits Hillary with guiding Bill’s decision-making, saying “I think for a good part of his career, he was probably rescued by Hillary—by her being a more decisive, more disciplined kind of person who kept things moving.”

But perhaps Hillary’s most well-known role is the one she took when pushing for harsher crime legislation, a role that earned her the financial support of corporate prisons – something she only recently denounced. While campaigning for that infamous 1994 crime bill, she notoriously called it “smart and tough:”

Source: Buzzfeed

It’s hard to talk about Secretary Clinton’s role in that crime bill without bringing up her “super predator” comments. Those now-infamous statements were recently brought back into the mainstream conscience after Black Lives Matter activist Ashley Williams confronted her at a private fundraiser. Shortly after Williams’ encounter, Clinton addressed the inflammatory comments:

“Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.”

Without the direct action and confrontation of activists, our already glacially paced progress as a nation would move even more slowly. It was public outcry that prompted Clinton to walk back her AIDS comments. It was protestors and activists who forced Hillary to give up funding from for-profit prisons. And it was protestors like Ashley Williams who forced Clinton to address her “super predator” words head-on.

But this isn’t just a Hillary Clinton problem. Clinton’s opposition, Bernie Sanders, also voted for the 1994 Crime Bill. But unlike Clinton, Sanders hasn’t felt the need to atone for his role in the bill’s passage. Instead he tells voters that he reluctantly supported it due to VAWA provisions that provided $1.6 billion in funding for preventative and investigative measures relating to violence against women.

Also unlike Clinton, Sanders’ support among black voters is flagging – although numbers in Michigan indicate that could be changing. Throughout his campaign, Sanders has faced criticism that he responded dismissively to Black Lives Matter activists who staged protests at his rallies. He also responded to the inimitable Ta-Nehisi Coates’ demands to address reparations, by simply labelling reparations “divisive.” Coates’ response was perfect: “There are few political labels more divisive in the minds of Americans than socialist.” Concerns that Sanders is dismissive to issues outside economic justice also echoes criticism from black leaders who have worked with Sanders in Vermont:

He just always kept coming back to income inequality as a response, as if talking about income inequality would somehow make issues of racism go away.

We must not simply accept a candidate’s errors as business as usual, but instead must push them to do better. But if even our progressive candidates (as Sanders & Clinton both claim to be) are sometimes dismissive of protest and direct action, how do we hold candidates accountable? Do we simply accept that we must vote for the least-terrible of two options?  What recourse, if any, do we possess to hold candidates accountable? Writer Ijeoma Oluo says:

We elect our officials because we have a representative democracy. Then we demand they represent us. If we don’t hold them accountable for every decision they make we are not keeping up our part of the deal. We don’t make the compromises, they do. Politicians will always take the path of least resistance, and we should not grease the wheels for them. Every choice that can harm the lives of people should be a hard choice. Every choice that results in harm to people should be a choice you are held accountable for.

That’s their job. It sucks, and I wouldn’t want it – but I’m not running.

All that we have is our vote and our voice. That is all. Two simple weapons. Don’t take one away from others because it makes things harder for your favorite candidate. It is supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to be hard every damn day.

Pragmatically, if our choice is Clinton or Trump, it’s understandable that voters feel the need to hold their nose and opt for the candidate who doesn’t openly advocate for banning Muslims, building a wall between the US and Mexico, and beating up protestors. But if we must continuously settle for less progressive candidates, progress will remain elusive. Is this a flaw inherent in our system? I spoke with feminist & LGBT activist Tony Lakey, who told me:

I think the two party system severely impairs our ability to have worthy candidates. If we can be bullied into voting for Democrats based on the threat of a Republican candidate, it provides no incentive for Democratic candidates to actually represent our interests.

Practical voters will respond that no two (or even three) candidates, will be able to address all issues perfectly. This is true, as no candidate can possibly please every constituent. Perhaps everyone’s threshold for pragmatism is different. For AIDS activists like Ingrid Nelson, that threshold is tested when Hillary Clinton perpetuates the revisionist history of those responsible for the deaths of thousands of AIDS victims. For black activists, that threshold is tested when Bernie Sanders discounts the fact racial injustice routinely occurs outside of economic injustice, and must be addressed on its own.  For others, that threshold is somewhere else, waiting to be pushed to its limit by the next candidate’s mistake.

In the meantime, stop demanding that other progressives align with your pragmatism threshold. Stop ignoring and downplaying other people’s pain while arguing for your preferred candidate (I’m looking at you, fellow Bernie supporters). Instead, practice empathy throughout this trying election season, and direct your ire where it belongs: at the candidates who have made mistakes and alienated the marginalized. After all, that’s the only way they’ll change.

Featured Image by DonkeyHotey.

Courtney Caldwell

Courtney Caldwell is an intersectional feminist. Her talents include sweary rants, and clogging your social media with pictures of her dogs (and occasionally her begrudging cat). She's also a political nerd, whose far-left tendencies are a little out of place in the deep red Texas.

Related Articles


  1. Clinton was trying to say something nice about a really vile person. Get over it.

    HRC didn’t have much to do with Washington until Bill became President. She was the wife of a governor and was probably at receptions etc. with the first lady present but it is unlikely they exchanged more than a few words until after HRC became first lady.

    Given what a nasty person Nancy Reagan was and given that attitudes to AIDS had chanced substantially by then, I would not be at all surprised if Nancy Reagan was all over the AIDS issue when HRC met her as first lady. Just like all those people who were ‘really active’ early in the civil rights movement and the Vietnam anti-war movement that nobody remembers ever seeing.

    1. She could’ve gone with something safe like “just say no”. I mean, yeah, the war on drugs (and its inherent racism) is one of her weak spots, but still…

  2. “Threatens to”? This has been the DLC’s racket since before there was a DLC, back in the days of Democrats for Nixon. Of course, “moderate” is simply the median/mean/mode (and assumes they’ll be the same), so if I meet them halfway, but they don’t compromise anything, and then meet them halfway again, and again, Zeno’s Paradox ensues.

    Clinton’s opinions on AIDS, and other things her social media manager and her surrogates (such as Messrs. Lewis and Clyburn and Ms. Huerta) have said recently…When the Clintonistas called Sanders a Trotskyist, I assumed they were simply antisemitic, and I’m sorry for that. They were really Stalinists.

    The Clinton supporters are also already writing her Dolchstoßlegende. (It’s funny to see them saying we have no idea of party unity after PUMA in 2008, but whatever.) They have even less confidence in their candidate than I do.

  3. BTW, this election is all about the trickle down theory.

    If you realize that it never did trickle down you are for Trump.

    If you realize that it never did trickle down and it never will you are for Sanders.

    If you realize that it never did trickle down, it never will and you want practical proposals for changing the situation then you are for Clinton.

    If you haven’t yet realized that it will never trickle down then you are either a fool or you work for Fox News.

    1. Practical? How does, “The same crap we have been doing, which I might me lying about intended to do, because I admit I only pander to some progressive ideas.”, represent “practical”?

      Oh, and.. this is without, once again, playing the usual, “No one else on the planet, especially anyone in Europe, has any idea, just the US, so what ever stupid, failing, defective, lets just keep trying the same bad ideas over and over again, US idea are the only ideas.” You’re one of the “socialism is scary” people right? You do realize that half the stupid shit the GOP has been trying to do, including promoting the idea that science needs to “Make the US look good, so lets stop doing any science that can’t be praised.”, is “pure” soviet union, right? Same with the police state BS, the marriage of government to “orthodox religion” (Stalin did that one, since he found he couldn’t create a socialist state without the church involved). And, Hillary… as has been pointed out, is just more of the, “Well, lets not go that far, but.. we do have to work with the crazies, so lets do something half stupid instead!”

      So, lets rephrase that, “If you realize it never trickled down, but you think actually trying to change anything, instead of letting the country slowly bleed to death, is a bad idea, you are for Clinton.”

    2. I realize I’m way late to the comments, but I had to do a double-take at your comment here: “If you realize that it never did trickle down, it never will and you want practical proposals for changing the situation then you are for Clinton.”

      Practical proposals for changing something that will never happen? How does that make any logical sense? I’m more on board with kagehi’s rephrasing, but I would offer another rephrasing, inspired by your logical error: “If you realize that it never did trickle down, it never will, but you want to pretend it will, then you are for Clinton.” (Though, it seems this may align with the Trump position. Or you might say it aligns with the Sanders position? This is the problem with contradictions.)

  4. “no two (or even three) candidates, will be able to address all issues perfectly.”
    Ahem. Diversity? If you increase the diversity of your political class to at least roughly demographic levels you highly increase the chance that issues be addressed at least adequately. It’s been tried elsewhere and it works (despite politics and politicians being imperfect everywhere).

    1. Not necessarily. Most Indians absolutely loathe Ben Nighthorse Campbell for a reason. Though he did get a cute reference on Venture Bros yesterday.

  5. I think the two party system severely impairs our ability to have worthy candidates. If we can be bullied into voting for Democrats based on the threat of a Republican candidate, it provides no incentive for Democratic candidates to actually represent our interests.

    It’s not the two-party system; it’s the first-past-the-post voting system that’s the problem. Look at countries like Canada or the UK (picking out the two non-US countries I’ve lived in). They each both have a moderately liberal party (the Liberals and Labour, respectively) and a more-liberal party (the NDP and Liberal Democrats*, respectively).

    This may sound like it’s better, but it results in the problem of vote splitting, both in local elections and in Parliament. For instance, if the votes go 30% NDP, 30% Liberal, 40% Conservative, the Conservative candidate gets the seat despite getting a minority of the vote. And it’s possible that if the NDP and Liberals were just one party, they would get more than 50% of the vote. The same thing can happen in Parliament, where a party can get control without getting a majority.

    More parties doesn’t solve the problem. It can even make it worse. It’s the voting system which needs to be changed. For instance, a single transferrable vote system would allow people to rank the candidates: “Vote for NDP as my first choice, Liberal as my second,” getting around the vote splitting issue. (This doesn’t help for Parliament/Congress control, though, but it would work for the Presidency.)

    *Though the Lib Dems really dropped the ball in their recent coalition government with the Conservatives. Some would argue the Scottish National Party is now the closest thing the UK has to a progressive party.

    1. Canadian political parties

      It would be interesting to see our parties have to compete. (Notice only five parties actually sit in the House of Commons, and only two in the Senate.)

      Wow, Natural Law Party used to be registered? I remember one time seeing a Natural Law candidate just spout platitudes about love. Kinda reminded me of Aum Shinrikyo. Seriously.

  6. Sorry, but the headline feels either overly optimistic, either outright delusional.

    Neocon is the new progressive.

    Unless “bombing the shit out of the world” is “moderate”.
    Unless “having bloodthirsty dictators and war criminals as beloved friends” is “moderate”.
    There is a world outside the US, ya know… Brown lives matter too.

    Regarding the rest of the article, you have read the 2014 Princeton study about US (and all modern “democracies”, I presume) being in fact oligarchies, I can’t believe there’s still people getting surprised that our elected representatives don’t actually represent us and talking about it like’s something new.

    1. Well, neocons were Trotskyists, once you throw out all the communism.

      For my part, I’m registering more Democrats to eventually make the centrists feel uncomfortable. When they Lieberman themselves into irrelevance, I’ll wave.

    2. Oh, and I’ve been told by very passionate white college students that talking about Indians being victims of police brutality, invited by BLM activists, detracts from BLM. So I don’t know where you’ll get with them.

      Also, the Clinton campaign’s treatment of Shaun King is all you need to know about their opinion of BLM.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button