How a British philosopher explained Clinton vs. Sanders in 1953

Forget the polls and pundits for awhile.

If you’re following the Democratic nomination, you’re better off getting insight from a 20th-century British philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, who wrote that you can classify thinkers into two groups. One knows lots of little things and another knows one big thing.

Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’ voting records are not dissimilar, but Sanders presents an overarching theory focused on economic inequality and power. As NPR noted a month ago, Sanders’ message has been the same for 40 years, and his stump speech includes the same words he’s used for decades.

Randall Hill | Reuters

Randall Hill | Reuters

In contrast, although she’s grounded in valuing equity and opportunity, Clinton knows lots about many policy areas. Her depth and breadth of knowledge are impressive but she doesn’t tie the varied strands together.

As President Obama put it, Clinton’s “strengths can be her weaknesses. Her strengths, which are the fact that she’s extraordinarily experienced — and, you know, wicked smart and knows every policy inside and out — sometimes could make her more cautious and her campaign more prose than poetry, but those are also her strengths. It means that she can govern and she can start here, [on] day one, more experienced than any non-vice president has ever been who aspires to this office.”

Clinton’s focus on particulars helps her address new issues and dig into the details. Sanders’ big picture encourages him to talk about his main concern while other matters are defined in terms of his bigger theory.

Take drug addiction. Like in Maine, this problem is surging in New Hampshire. In November 2015, Manchester, a city of 110,000, had two overdose calls a day to rescue services.

When Clinton started doing town halls in New Hampshire, she got a lot of questions about heroin and other dangerous drugs. She then held two town halls on substance abuse and, she said, she “had some of the most emotional discussions with family members, with recovering addicts.”  

In Derry, a 12-year-old told Clinton about her mother who had overdosed and asked how other families could be helped. According to a reporter, “Clinton paused and the room fell silent. Tell me more, if you can, about your situation, Clinton gently asked the girl, who told her she had a supportive foster mother.”

Clinton put out a comprehensive plan after consulting with “treatment and recovery service providers, law enforcement, people in recovery, health care policy experts and people whose lives have been touched by overdoses in some way.” Besides emphasizing treatment and prevention, with enforcement, Clinton wants states to propose their own roadmaps and would provide federal money to help. Sanders has a briefer, less detailed proposal on drug offenders with no discussion about what states would do.

Although Sanders addresses specific problems, he has one focus — economic inequality and campaign finance reform — and presents politics as a struggle between the people and “millionaires and billionaires.” These issues give Sanders’ campaign coherence, although it can also support a “with us or against us” tone, like when he called groups and papers that didn’t endorse him part of the “establishment.”

Moreover, emphasizing one theme has its limits. Class and campaign donations only go so far in understanding our problems and political system.

Sanders has done worse than Clinton with racial minorities and women, who tend to be lower-income and often focus on kitchen table issues, practical concerns.

Emphasizing a big picture can lead Sanders to scrimp on policy analysis. Although he’s proposed a single-payer health system many times, Sanders didn’t explain why it’s better than the other ways countries achieve universal coverage when he put out a proposal that was so thin that writer Ezra Klein called it “a gesture toward a future plan.”

These ways of operating affect policymaking approaches. Sanders, who introduced the fewest bipartisan bills of all senators in 2015, says his campaign will rouse new voters and give him legislators to pass his agenda. Clinton stresses she will pursue coalition partners to negotiate details of domestic policies aimed at raising wages and enhancing opportunity.

In truth, both candidates combine both qualities, but each has a tendency to focus on one big thing or many particulars.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.