The first debate in the Democratic presidential primary contest put the “part” in “participatory democracy.” Not only was the debate wonderfully substantive—particularly in contrast to the juvenile insult-fests known as the Republican debates—but it reminded the American people why we have campaigns in the first place. When it works, democracy not only educates and engages voters, it educates and shapes the candidates, too. And that potential was on full display at the Democratic debate.
For instance, Hillary Clinton is a lifelong economic centrist, who served on the board of Walmart and, as New York’s junior senator, represented Wall Street in more ways than one. She voted for TARP, the taxpayer-funded bailout of big banks, and opposes reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act that once prevented commercial banks from engaging in speculative investment business.
But at the same time, Hillary Clinton has been so pushed and prodded by the populist wing of her party—and in particular by her opponent Bernie Sanders—that she’s trying to strike a more progressive tone. When challenged by debate moderator Anderson Cooper about her economic positions vis-à-vis “too big to fail and too big to jail” big banks, Clinton said, “Well, my plan is more comprehensive. And frankly, it’s tougher.” That drew some laughs from the stage (and from me), but it was a stunning moment: Hillary Clinton posturing that she will be the more aggressive leader when it comes to reining in Wall Street’s abuses.
“I’m with both Senator Sanders and Governor O’Malley in putting a lot of attention onto the banks,” Clinton added. You heard that right, folks. The centrist Senator from Wall Street allied herself with the democratic Socialist from the granola state of Vermont. Whether he wins or loses, Bernie Sanders is having an affect on his fellow Democratic candidates and the shape of Democratic Party discourse for years to come.
It’s also hard not to see the influence of Sanders and the populist wing of the party in Clinton’s decisions to come out against the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Perhaps she was going to all along, who knows—but the dynamics of this election, and Sanders specifically, create a specific wind at Clinton’s back. “I think that there is profound frustration all over this country with establishment politics,” Sanders said in the debate. Yes, and that frustration is changing establishment candidates, including Hillary Clinton, for the better.
At the same time, the Democratic debate revealed how the candidates were shaped by forces beyond each other and the Democratic Party. This was most evident—and encouraging—in the candidates’ answers to the question: “Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?”
In July, Black Lives Matter activists demonstrated at the progressive Netroots Nation gathering at which Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders were both scheduled to speak. They challenged both candidates, giving them an opportunity to show where they stand on issues of racial justice. And both men fumbled badly. O’Malley responded, “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter,” a phrasing that trivializes and undermines the Black Lives Matter movement’s essential point that black lives are not valued enough in politics and society and therefore need to be lifted up.
Sanders got defensive—which, as seen in the debate, is one of his weaknesses. “Black lives, of course, matter. I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and for dignity,” he said at Netroots. “But if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK.” Then, and again when Black Lives Matters activists interrupted Sanders at a rally in Seattle, the senator missed the point.
Meanwhile, many Sanders supporters turned their ire on the Black Lives Matter movement, critiquing activists for protesting a candidate who they perceived as “best” on issues of racial justice. Best compared to what, exactly—an all-white field of Democratic candidates, all of whom can barely reach beyond platitudes when asked what they would do about racial injustice?
Contrast this all with the debate. When asked whether black lives matter or all lives matter, Bernie Sanders very clearly and emphatically said, “Black lives matter.” He continued:
The reason those words matter is the African American community knows that on any given day some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car, and then three days later she’s going to end up dead in jail, or their kids are going to get shot. We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom.
O’Malley answered, “The point that the Black Lives Matter movement is making is a very, very legitimate and serious point, and that is that as a nation we have undervalued the lives of black lives, people of color.”
America, in case you didn’t think protest works, here’s your proof. O’Malley and Sanders’ answers are more thoughtful and respectful than their prior answers by a million miles. They didn’t get there on their own. Black Lives Matter activists pushed them.
Unlike the Republican front-runner Donald Trump—who has repeatedly responded to substantive criticism with childish attacks—the Democratic candidates showed not only why they are best positioned to lead America on substance but also on style, listening to and learning from critiques and evolving as needed. One word for that is leadership. It’s also called democracy.
Sally Kohn is a columnist and CNN political commentator. You can find her online at sallykohn.com.