“What our campaign is about, is asking people to think big not small. And when we think big and we talk about education, we’ve got to ask ourselves a simple question – how is it, starting at college that hundreds of thousands of bright young people are today, unable to go to college because they can’t afford it? How is it that maybe your kid – and when I was growing up, we didn’t have any money – were not even dreaming of going to college because they knew it was another world. So starting with the top, now I know some people think it’s a radical idea, I don’t. I believe that every public college and university in this country should be tuition free.”
What Sanders does here is offer a savvy diagnosis of why we are even asking questions about unions protecting “bad teachers,” and encouraging a shift in how we think about “solutions.” Specifically, he is suggesting that concern about whether unions protect “bad teachers” is rooted in a broader, material insecurity: about whether our children are receiving, and able to pursue, the education they deserve – an education that, in turn, will allow them to achieve an equal place at the social and political table. That problem is a big problem that demands, Sanders is arguing, a large scale shift in our political imagination – a shift that allows us to see a good, full education not as the privilege of a few, but as a basic right for everyone in a democratic country.
In this moment and others, Sanders’ campaign acknowledged how bad many people in this country feel – how their lives feel insecure and pointless, and how (in contrast to previous generations) it feels like the future might get worse and not better. Sanders did not treat those feelings (as Trump does) as truths in themselves. Instead, he explained them as the product of concrete human decisions, policies, and laws – decisions, policies, and laws that could be otherwise. In turn, he offered his audience a radical political imaginary – a vision of what government and law could be and do if we just, simply, changed it.
Sanders, of course, is no longer in the picture – and I don’t bring up his campaign simply to wax nostalgic. Rather, I bring it up to suggest that Hillary should take a page from his book: to move away from only trying to unmask Trump’s sentimentalism, and toward also offering an alternative sentimental politics akin to Sanders’. While offering large-scale political dreams is not Hillary’s strong suit – she excels at pragmatic compromise (which is also an important political virtue) – she has shown a remarkable capacity to shift and change during her political career. And if Sanders’ campaign got us to imagine that our politics could be otherwise, could we not imagine that Hillary could be otherwise, too? What if we saw, during the remainder of this campaign, a Hillary who returned to the way she viewed politics when she was at Wellesley College, where she said in her commencement speech that, “for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible”? What if we saw a Hillary who didn’t try to turn us away from the realm of feeling, but diagnosed feeling, and offered a concrete vision of what equality and freedom would look like right now? Such a vision might solicit and create feelings of a different register than the one on which Trump is working: feelings not of alternating fear and greatness, but of possibility, freedom, and solidarity – feelings, in other words, that might embolden political action and participation on behalf of freedom and equality, rather than encourage deference to a huckster.