Few surprises emerged Monday night as candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton took the stage at Hofstra University for their first debate. Trump fumed and rambled; Clinton stuck to the details.
At first glance, the debate showed little evidence of the fiery people’s movements that have captured the nation’s attention in recent years and helped support the progressive candidacy of Bernie Sanders. The candidates did not mention the standoff around the Dakota Access pipeline on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, nor the continuing uprising in Charlotte, North Carolina, following the police-shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott.
Yet, there were signs of influence.
In statement after statement, Clinton showed more than passing awareness of the Movement for Black Lives, current labor movement issues, and, especially, the coalition that took shape behind Sanders.
“It was laughable to hear Trump last night attributing Clinton’s shift [in position] to himself,” said the activist and author Bill Fletcher Jr., referring to Clinton’s decision to oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership. “It was the Sanders campaign, the Movement for Black Lives, the immigrant rights movement, and the environmental movement.”
The effects of popular pressure from progressives were evident from the debate’s first moments.
“We also have to make the economy fairer,” Clinton said, promising to guarantee equal pay for women’s work, reduce college tuition, and raise the minimum wage (although she didn’t say by exactly how much). Later in the debate, she pledged to raise taxes on the rich “because they have made all the gains in the economy.”
Fletcher Jr. says that’s an important shift from how mainstream Democrats have traditionally talked, and that the movement behind Bernie Sanders can take credit. Traditional labor unions in particular cannot take credit, he said, because most of them supported Clinton’s campaign from the get-go without asking for any policy changes in return.
Not everyone agrees that the change in tone is impressive. “I don’t think she deserves a lot of credit for that,” says Jonathan Rosenblum, an organizer who helped to lead the campaign for a $15 minimum wage in the Washington state city of SeaTac—a predecessor to Seattle’s. “The level of inequality in this country has reached such astonishing heights that only the most tone-deaf politician is going to articulate a different position.”
Of course, the politician standing next to her did just that.
Race was another subject where the impact of social movements could be seen in Clinton’s answers. Asked by moderator Lester Holt whether she believed the police were “implicitly biased against Black people,” Clinton responded: “I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police.” She followed that with a promise to fund the retraining of police officers to understand their own racial biases—a solution suggested by experts in this field.
That’s a far cry from the way Clinton was speaking about issues of criminal justice earlier in her career. “We need more police,” she said in 1994. “We need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders.”
Fletcher attributes the change in large part to Black Lives Matter. “The Movement for Black Lives has helped shift the discussion in this country and reintroduced not only the issue of race in general, but anti-Black racism in particular.”
Finally, Clinton reiterated her opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade deal she was actively promoting until at least 2012. “That is the result of a mass movement that’s coming up in the civil rights community, in the environmental community, in the labor community, that candidates realize they have to articulate an ‘antiposition,’” Rosenblum says. “That’s a good thing. But it’s not about what she says so much as it is about what we do.”
Fletcher Jr. agrees. “You don’t go to sleep after these people are elected,” he said. “This is why I’m furious every time someone says, ‘I can’t trust Hillary Clinton.’ You can’t trust any of these people. The issue is whether they stand for the issues we want, and whether we’re going to push them.”