Belief, Hatred, and the Democratic Primary.
Almost a year ago I was talking with a former student of mine and I was starting to talk about the most recent book I had read, a biography-cum-historiography of Ulysses S Grant, written by my old advisor at UCLA. But I had scarcely gotten a sentence out when another friend in the room blurted out:
“He was a drunk.”
It’s ironic that they said that. One of the major points of this thoroughly researched book is that tales of Grant’s alcoholism were wildly exaggerated. Indeed, we can trace this myth back to an 1862 article in an Ohio paper written by a man who was horrified by Civil War casualties, and who had never been within a dozen miles of Grant. Indeed, upon reading this article and hearing the rumors which spawned in his wake, Lincoln sent a “messenger” to spy on Grant, who concluded that the General had remained entirely sober during the Tennessee Campaign.
There’s a lot more we can unpack about Grant, but let’s focus on my friend’s reaction. Why did they feel that any mention of the General and President absolutely had to be met with accusations of alcoholism? The man had weaknesses, but he also had a vast array of accomplishments. Why does not just this, but every conversation among laymen about him seem to dredge up this piece of character assassination which almost no scholar of the 19th century takes seriously?
In large part, we tend to absorb and accept large cultural narratives through osmosis. Most people who will use “drunk” as one of their first words to describe Grant have never read a biography about him, and I’d wager haven’t read a book about the 19th Century since college. Yet this myth, which really gained traction in the early 20th Century to mollify Lost Cause Southerners and bring them into national unity for the First World War still persist. It’s a myth that is one of the few things people have heard about Grant. It doesn’t sound too far-fetched, so people accept it.
The second part of this process is that we have certain values we tend to attach to certain figures in our History. Historical figures become cultural signifiers of human attributes. Sometimes this occurs even in contravention of actual reality. Mother Theresa is seen as a charitable and virtuous person, even though she had some profoundly twisted views on how the physical agony given by poverty was good for the soul. Julius Caesar is frequently paired with Tyrant, even though he had an unbreakable pattern of granting unconditional clemency to his captured foes. So ultimately, these cultural narratives tend to pull a lot of weight and heavily shape how people see the world, even if they have a limited basis in reality, or are even outright false.
This isn’t a think piece about how wonderful Hillary Clinton is. This is about how she came to be one of those cultural symbols, and about how otherwise rational people will burn whatever history books they need to, slit the throat of civility, disregard all political opponents, and jettison critical thought to preserve their cultural narrative of what Hillary Clinton represents.
Remember Scream? Probably the greatest slasher movies of the 90s? It has a great quote:
“Well, I mean, you can only hear that Richard Gere gerbil story so many times before you have to start believing it.”
Or to put it in the manner of a more respectable axiom, “A repeated slander makes others believe.” And this is actually borne out by psychological findings. If the media is saturated with news of a criminal trial, it won’t matter if the accused was innocent; they will still be seen as untrustworthy.
So in what manner did Hillary Clinton enter the national consciousness? In a widely publicized interview on Nightline, she said, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession.” This instantly made her a figure of controversy. It wasn’t just enough to have been working while her husband was Governor; she had to defiantly defend her own choice. This easily made her the most controversial and polarizing First Lady in American History.
Of course, this didn’t end. Her next and greatest sin was to begin to campaign for a massive overhaul in America’s health care system. This was a campaign that ultimately failed, but several things are worth noting: she passionately fought for it. And it continued the Conservative narrative of an uppity woman intruding in a man’s sphere. The vitriol became so intense in the immediate aftermath that her tenure as First Lady marked a dark and rarely regarded milestone in Presidential history: she was the first to have to wear a bulletproof vest at public appearances.
In a recent post, Michael Arnovitz continues the story:
In January of 1996, while Whitewater investigations were underway but unfinished, conservative writer William Safire wrote a scathing and now-famous essay about Hillary Clinton entitled, “Blizzard of Lies”. In the piece he called her a “congenital liar”, and accused her of forcing her friends and subordinates into a “web of deceit”. He insisted (without any apparent evidence) that she took bribes, evaded taxes, forced her own attorneys to perjure themselves, “bamboozled” bank regulators, and was actively involved in criminal enterprises that defrauded the government of millions of dollars. He ended the piece by stating that, “She had good reasons to lie; she is in the longtime habit of lying; and she has never been called to account for lying herself or in suborning lying in her aides and friends.”
I am no political historian, but as far as I can tell this short essay was the birth of the “Hillary is a Liar” meme. Now to be clear, most conservatives already strongly disliked her. They had been upset with her for some time because she had refused to play the traditional First Lady role. And they were horrified by her attempt to champion Universal Health coverage. But if you look for the actual reasons people didn’t like her back at that time, you won’t see ongoing accusations of her being “crooked” or a “liar”. Instead, the most common opinion seemed to be that she was a self-righteous leftist who considered anyone with other views to be morally inferior. In short, the prevailing anti-Hillary accusation was not that she was unrelentingly dishonest, but that she was just intolerably smug.
After the Safire piece however, this all changed. Republicans, who learned from Nixon never to let a good propaganda opportunity pass if they could help it, repeated the accusations of mendacity non-stop to anyone who would broadcast or print them. And if you doubt the staying power of Safire’s piece, type the phrase “congenital liar” into a Google search along with “Hillary Clinton” and see what happens. To this day, that exact phrase is still proudly used by many on the right. This, even though Safire was eventually proven wrong about everything he had written. And despite the fact that he stated himself that he would have to “eat crow” if she were ever cleared, Safire never apologized or even acknowledged his many errors once that happened. Because as we all know, swift-boating means never having to say you’re sorry.
Oh, and in the middle of this whole process started the rumor that she had orchestrated the murder of one of her old friends. His suicide note partially read, “The WSJ editors lie without consequence… Here ruining people is considered sport.” Yet conspiracy theories still persist that the Clintons murdered their friend.
But wait! Some of my dear readers are surely saying, what about Whitewater?
The office of the Special Prosecutor conducted a 6 year, $80 million dollar investigation into the Clintons in the 90s. The Office of the Special Prosecutor under Ken Starr examined every personal and financial deal the Clintons were ever involved in, and even went so far as to examine the friends’ and family members’ medical records to look for anything scandalous. Their medical records.
Starr was literally answerable to no one and all but publicly stated he wanted to nail the Clintons on anything he possibly could. After 6 years and $80 million? All he found was that Bill got a blowjob.
So let’s think about what effect this has on the media. On our perceptions of them.
Do you know how George W. Bush beat John McCain in South Carolina in the 2000 Primary? Karl Rove masterminded the strategy. They had staffers pretending to be pollsters, asking, “How would you feel if you found out that John McCain had a Black child?” The reality was that McCain and his family had adopted a girl from Bangladesh, but that was all that was needed to give traction to the rumors. People started talking about how John McCain had maybe had an affair.
So in the 90s, the same process was taking place, on a larger timeline. And most people of around my generation grew up hearing those headlines. “Clintons deny…” “Hillary defends…” That creates an indelible and subconscious association. It didn’t matter that the accusations weren’t true.
From a great article from Media Matters:
The snide, name-calling mindset of the overboard coverage fit perfectly with a two-decade press pattern where the Clintons are relentlessly convicted in the media, often thanks to misleading GOP allegations and leaks. But then the so-called criminal scandals turn out to be Republican and Fox News creations, apologies are rarely offered up, and there’s virtually no self-reflection while the press just moves on to the next trumped-up drama.
So coming out of the 90s was this narrative that the Clintons were all liars. Which leads into this swirling vortex of authenticity.
The media loves it. “What candidate would you most like to have a beer with?” And it’s shocking that people actually tend to vote that way. Not what candidate is the most qualified, or has the best policy proposals. But who their gut tells them is the best.
George W. Bush passed the beer test by flying colors. He was folksy and seemed relatable to most people. He was open with his struggles with alcohol so his would have to be non-alcoholic, but man if he couldn’t talk your ear off about baseball! Oh, and he and his administration were singularly responsible for the Iraq war and ran up giant deficits to fund tax cuts for the wealthy.
FDR was the closest to aristocracy that America can produce, complete with monocle and cigarette holder. Even when his impeccably manicured public image cracked, he was revealed to be what in 1932 would be called an invalid, who would up until that point be considered entirely unfit for public life. Oh, and he was still the most progressive and competent President in the history of the United States.
So I’m just going to say it right here: it’s almost certain that whatever your “gut instinct” tells you about a particular candidate is a more accurate reflection of what you’ve gleaned from the media than it is their actual competence.
How has this played out in the Democratic Primary?
Sanders goes to everywhere in his rumpled, ill-fitting suit, with his hair flying in all directions. He’s angry, and he yells a lot. He doesn’t act like most of the politicians we’re used to.
Now imagine a female politician with ill-fitting clothes, wild hair, and a tendency to yell herself hoarse all the time. Can you imagine the reaction? She would become an object of scorn and ridicule. There is no way a woman could behave like Sanders and become a heroine for it. Even the most fiery women in politics, such as Sarah Palin and Governor Susana Martinez, make a point to dress carefully and look as pretty as possible in public.
So Clinton has to dress very carefully, have every hair in place, and never raise her voice. This undoubtedly makes her look very scripted. But can you imagine the conniptions that the media, let alone the Internet would have if her voice so much as broke?
So here we have a candidate who has to struggle against decades old slanders about the core of her honesty. Manufactured scandals that have been refuted over and over and over again. And then propagators of those deceits latch onto the double standard that she is held to, and bray about how her very scripted appearance just makes you feel like she’s being dishonest.
That’s a perfect case study in systemic sexism.
And this is one of the biggest things that has bothered me about this election—that in so many ways, people will slander Hillary Clinton as someone who is actively trying to deceive and harm her fellow Americans. I don’t dispute that some of the policies she’s supported or votes that she’s cast are misguided. What I despise, however, is the dehumanizing and vitriolic assertions that she is incapable of making any decision that is somehow not dictated by malice.
Okay, please start by watching this video:
All done? Great. Now watch it again.
Finished? Excellent. Watch it a third time. I insist.
One of the facets of our political system that drives me absolutely mad is the utter failure of most people, of any ideological stripe, of any level of educational attainment, to fundamentally understand how laws are made in America.
To quote one of my earlier posts:
With his ascendence to the position of House Speaker in 1995, Newt Gingrich brought a style of political brinksmanship combined with ideological fervor to American politics that had not been seen for generations. This led to President Bill Clinton, hewing to political pragmatism, passing essentially Republican Policies, such as the deregulation of the Banking sector, in order to forestall future government shutdowns and simply keep basic legislation through Congress.
While President George W. Bush campaigned under the slogan “Compassionate Conservatism,” the September 11 terror attacks gave him the kind of political clout needed to pass every piece of legislation he could think of. Indeed, no President had passed so comprehensive a slate of legislation since Ronald Reagan. Once again, the Democrats in Congress opted to take a Moderate, pragmatic approach to American politics, remaining essentially silent until the debacles of Bush’s governance made themselves shrilly evident in his second term.
Like Bush before him, President Barack Obama was very critical of the legacy of his predecessor, but adopted conciliatory rhetoric towards the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. Watch any Obama stump speech from 2008: the Change he talks about goes hand in hand with “an unprecedented era of bipartisanship.”
This was borne out at the beginning of his first term. In a concession to fiscal conservatives, investigations into insider trading and fraudulent credit default swaps were quickly quashed. In the interests of political expediency, the human rights abuses of the CIA were not investigated. But most prominently, the most significant piece of legislation passed under Obama was the Affordable Care Act. This plan for health care reform had been conceived of by a Conservative think tank and implemented by a Republican government. So what was the Republican response? To call Obama a Socialist. In spite of the controversy over the rhetoric of his former pastor, to call him a Muslim. And in the words of Senator Mitch McConnell, the President of the Senate, “Our top priority is to make Barack Obama a one-term President.”
After that, disaster struck. The Republican Party, as an institution, hit upon a very specific electoral strategy in 2010. They targeted local elections, pouring money into races for State Senate. They were targeting the offices that would be in charge of redistricting.
As a result, the redrawn electoral map for this decade has been Gerrymandered to starkly favor Republicans. In most states, the GOP has drawn for itself impossibly safe electoral districts. This has been the most singularly profound abuse of this system in living memory, and certainly the most widespread abuse of it in American History.
This is what has been reinforcing current political intransigence on the right. The Republican Party can get away with doing nothing but attempting to shut down the government or hold endless Benghazi hearings. It’s because they find themselves in an extremely secure electoral position. So even though the current President mostly put forward Conservative policies in his first term, he is castigated for being a Socialist.
Now the Presidency does have power. The power to veto. And while they don’t actually introduce legislation, they can strongly advocate for it. Unfortunately this seems unlikely in the era of Ryan and McConnell. Presidents can set priorities for the Federal Bureaucracy, including that of law enforcement. These would be important steps.
But if Obama got such obstructionism for putting forward Centrist policies, what does Sanders think his avowedly Socialist policies would do? The Republicans seem to thrive much more on symbols than actual governance. Do they hate Hillary or Socialism more? And, more to the point, how exactly is Hillary Clinton responsible for the Conservative electoral dominance of the last 36 years?
To extensively quote a friend of mine:
For a few decades there has been a very pronounced rightward shift in the political ‘center.’ There has been a leftist resurgence, but it’s far from the center and still fairly fragile and full of ideas without broad enough support to survive long enough to stick. Therefore, I believe, you need to make sure to have a bulwark of the center left protecting this leftist resurgence. It’s especially useful to have someone in that position, who, if the center holds, can push the center towards the left. I honestly believe that given her history, her personality, her rhetoric during this and the last campaign, Hillary can do that.
Sanders winning would have meant that this leftist resurgence would have won. While this sounds amazing at first, I think it would have been dangerous for the future of the left in America. The difficulty of passing his policies, coupled with the fervor of the promises he made and the messianism attributed to him, presented a real danger of having a whole movement collapsing from disappointment and possibly forever giving up on the viability of leftist policies. Many Liberals were just as besotted with Obama in 2008 only to turn on him in disappointment. And Obama made less grandiose policy promises and actually accomplished some of them. People just uncritically accept that he was a failure, even though he wasn’t, and have gone looking for a different approach. Some of them found Sanders. What’s to say that if Sanders fails to win the election, or wins and fails to make good on his promises, people won’t find a new path that goes against leftism in the name of some other ephemeral ideal. Is it hard to believe that people would turn on a leftist political revolution once it became clear that Sanders couldn’t make single payer health care happen? When free college got defeated by a Congress that ran against raising taxes to pay for giveaways to spoiled kids?
Hillary Clinton has shown to be a fairly effective politician who can work with allies and enemies alike to pass policies that do some good and hold that center.’In her interviews and speeches, she’s shown that as a policymaker, she is genuinely interested in the ‘how.’ Sanders talked about a lot of ideals, a lot of goals, a lot of things that I would love to see come to pass. But when pressed to provide the steps his potential administration would take to get there, there was consistently a lot missing.
Whether she is pandering or not, she has addressed and presented seemingly doable policy prescriptions for a lot of issues I care about. That’s what I want in a politician, someone who understands what the people voting for her want and to make it so they get what they want. Perhaps she is calculating, perhaps she’s a political monster. But with one of the most Progressive voting records in her time in the Senate, a record to the Left of Obama and 93% in line with Sanders, she’s our political monster. I want her to use all her powers to fight for what I believe in. And I believe she has proven herself smart enough to understand what voters, especially her base, wants and fight for those goals.”
Now are there policy problems with Hillary Clinton that I, as a leftist find troubling? Absolutely.
I’m inclined to agree with the vast majority of Sanders camp criticism that Hillary Clinton is too comfortable with Wall Street and big business. But I have bad news for you! Not an insignificant number of Americans believe that what’s good for Wall Street is good for America.
The way I see it, there are three possibilities with the motives of Hillary Clinton in supporting big business:
1) she really believes that big business has the best interests of America in mind
2) she has the best interests of the American worker in mind, and seeks to mollify business interests in order to gain political capital to leverage change
3) she is only in it for the money and is out to maliciously suck the last remaining prosperity from the middle class
Now there are a large number of articles about the many friends and acquaintances of Hillary Clinton, with even some assessments from Senate Republicans.
You should read them. Not one of them can attribute malicious intent to her policy decisions. Oh, you can find plenty on Reddit posts or obscure blogs. But none from actual journalistic sources, both foreign and domestic.
Arguing the effects of Clinton’s stated or supported policies is a perfectly relevant discussion to have. Arguing if Clinton is either a canny Progressive trying to change from within, or a Capitalist who thinks that taking the shackles off of business would be best is a discussion worth having.
Arguing that Hillary Clinton is actively trying to do damage cannot be quantified. It has no basis in fact. It is a conspiracy theory.
And that’s what’s been troubling me about the rhetoric and the standards of evidence that has swirled around this campaign. Those that have argued for that third option simply present their rage and demand that everyone recognize it as empirical truth. Well, people can choose between candidates, choose between policies, and choose between grand strategies without believing that those who hold the opposing viewpoints are evil.
So why vote for Clinton?
First, within the context of the American political system, she has been one of the most liberal members of the Senate.
Bank regulation is only one facet of the policies America needs to have enacted to prevent the poor and the middle classes from continuing their precipitous slide downwards. The aforementioned attacks on New Deal policies have taken their toll. Still, assuming that Democrats can break the Republican lock on Congress, we can say several things with relative certainty:
All evidence suggests that Hillary Clinton would strengthen New Deal antipoverty legislation.
All evidence suggests that Hillary Clinton would work to dramatically expand such protections.
All evidence suggests that Hillary Clinton would fund these expansions primarily by taxing the top 1% of income earners.
That’s plenty to get excited about.
I have no strong desire to commit the kind of character assassination that has been conducted in this campaign. I still hold a great deal of respect for Sanders as a person. Yet his supporters have thrown up almost as much messianic zeal for him as they have vindictive sniping on his opponent. He is seen as a man who can do no wrong, with supporters even talking about weeping as he has taken the stage at his rallies.
While I went as far as to donate $25 to his campaign in December 2015, I changed my vote not just for strategic, short term reasons, but because I became disenchanted with the man himself.
People praise Bernie Sanders for his decades long, unchanging principles. But let’s face facts here, he was in no way a figure of significant national prominence before his candidacy. He was of marginal effectiveness as a legislator. Now, this in itself isn’t terrible. After all, as a member of no major political party, his efficacy was always bound to be limited.
Nevertheless, people chide Clinton for her shifting stances and praise Bernie for his consistency. Well, it’s easy to be the “principled” candidate when you’re running for election in one of the most demographically homogenous and liberal states in the country, running for safe seats year after year. It’s great that he’s been as forward thinking as he is, but ultimately he had the privilege to be able to afford to.
The first I remember hearing about Bernie Sanders was in 2014, and I tend to follow politics fairly closely. I have to ask, where was his revolution before then?
I changed my vote for a reason. I see a man of deep principles, but nevertheless a fallible man who ran a flawed campaign.
It’s clear to any observer that Sanders started off the race as a protest candidate. Take a look at the photos of early rallies and the masking tape that’s literally holding everything together is clearly visible. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, and even in this phase of the campaign I had taken notice of him and decided to vote for him.
There are two factors which caused him to take off: first, a popular and bipartisan discontent with the status quo in Washington. Second, an incredibly canny social media strategy. On this second point, I eagerly anticipate the forthcoming book from some of his campaign staff, because man, do they ever have a future.
The first debate was really the apogee of Sanders’ performance. It wasn’t just how on point he was on the issues, but it was just how collegiate the whole thing was. Sure there were the also-rans sucking up air time, but between Sanders and Clinton, the tone between them was everything I was looking for in politics.
So what happened? If everything continued the way it was in January, I might have merrily cast my protest vote for Sanders. What took that glitter away from me?
Sanders ran into the bedrock of Clinton support in the South. Ironically, these were states that had gone for Obama in 2008. Here Sanders did something that I think was entirely disingenuous: he characterized the Democratic voters in those states as being more Conservative. That is a profound misreading of the situation, and I hope it wasn’t malicious. Those states were more Black. The Democrats there tend to be as Liberal as they are elsewhere in the country. They were more representative what the whole Democratic Party looks like.
As I’ve stated earlier, the most severe problem the American political system has faced in the last 6 years is that the Republican controlled Congress has been entirely unwilling to negotiate with President Obama. This has been hugely motivated by race, and then exacerbated by the profound gerrymandering that occurred after the 2010 election. Sanders presented plans that would hopefully minimize Wall Street’s hold on our politics; but in so doing he unintentionally strayed from directly addressing the racial animus that was gripping the country. I think that’s the reason that his message failed to resonate with the many black voters in the South. It wasn’t that they were Conservative; it was that black voters felt his assessment of some of the worst problems gripping the country were perplexingly off point.
Sanders was facing a largely systemic problem: the media. I think that one of the major reasons that his candidacy ultimately failed was that in the early stages, he was ignored to death. Now while his supporters will throw around grand conspiracy theories, I think that it can really be distilled to one thing: laziness and greed. The press didn’t want to spend the time discussing a candidate’s largely technocratic proposals when the three ring circus of the Republican Primary was going on right across the aisle. Now don’t get me wrong, I think that moving forward, media outlets should not count Superdelegates in the total delegate count, nor should they divulge results of polling 48 hours before an election. But again, these problems weren’t the result of a greasy money filled envelope under the table. Covering Trump and his manufactured outrage was easy and attracted eyeballs. Actually discussing economics in a civil fashion makes the average American change the channel.
So as March lapsed into April and Sanders continued to trail in delegates, Sanders gave an interview with the New York Daily News. Now let’s be absolutely clear. This is a paper that is virulently anti-Clinton. Yet when interviewed, Sanders was entirely unable to explain his plan to break up the big banks, was unaware of several laws pertinent to his policy positions, and he fumbled on several foreign policy questions. For example, when asked for details on his controversial declaration that Israel needs to pull back from the West Bank positions it currently holds, he said, “Well, again, you’re asking me a very fair question, and if I had some paper in front of me, I would give you a better answer.” It was exactly the kind of interview that sank Ben Carson.
Even if he had started out as a protest candidate with no real eye on winning, things had clearly changed by this point. So perhaps he should have had his advisors come up with a more concrete plan, instead of relying on the simple “Wall Street bad” talking points of his oft repeated stump speech? It really shook my confidence in him.
It was also this point that his campaign itself began to become much more acrimonious, and continued to collide with the Democratic Party ever more intensely. There were a number of different incidents, and they divided the Sanders campaign as much as they divided the Party at large. As Politico recounts:
“I don’t know who advised him that this was the right route to take, but we are now actively destroying what Bernie worked so hard to build over the last year just to pick up two fucking delegates in a state he lost,” rapid response director Mike Casca complained to Weaver in an internal campaign email obtained by POLITICO.
“Thank you for your views. I’ll relay them to the senator, as he is driving this train,” Weaver wrote back.
Even in the Arizona Primary such histrionics reigned. To recap, the recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Conservative Justices of the Supreme Court was widely predicted to cause chaos in states where the Republican Party have been working fervently to shut down polling places, mostly in urban and Liberal areas. So when five hour long lines actually happened as anyone paying attention would have anticipated, what did the Sanders campaign do? Did they shine a light on the massive attempt to disenfranchise voters? No. They propagated a conspiracy theory that it was all Hillary Clinton’s fault.
People like to compare Sanders to Donald Trump, and to a certain extent that’s conceivable; both are new to their respective parties, and both have captured the discontented white male demographic from their respective ends of the political spectrum. Yet I think the more accurate comparison to make is Ted Cruz.
Cruz, Sanders, and Trump are all political outsiders in their respective party. Yet Trump has had no historic ideological alignment with the Republicans. Cruz and Sanders are both extremists within their own Party. Yet unlike Sanders, Cruz spent a lot of time building an infrastructure within that Party. He was able to get devoted operatives within many of the local committees months before any votes were cast or delegates allocated. Yet Sanders didn’t start to lay this groundwork until partially through the process.
The ideals of his Political Revolution have merit. But he did the whole thing backwards. So why are his supporters getting so upset?
The Revolution, the Devil, and the Messiah
One of the most insightful books I’ve ever read was The True Believer, written by Eric Hoffer in 1951. In it, Hoffer traces the trajectories and common factors in mass movements, from the early Christian Church, to Fascism in the 1930s. “Hoffer argued that fanatical and extremist cultural movements, whether religious or political, arose under predictable circumstances: when large numbers of people come to believe that their individual lives are worthless and ruined, that the modern world is irreparably corrupt, and that hope lies only in joining a larger group that demands radical changes.”
A key insight from Hoffer: “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.”
I can’t claim to have been keeping close enough track of the Sanders campaign to know where his own pronouncements stop and the momentum of his supporters begins. Particularly in the early phases of his campaign, Sanders did a remarkable job of staying on message. But the sole event that has driven me to actual frustrated anger is how the fundamental inequities of the very system we live in has been transferred by his supporters to the singular person of Hillary Clinton.
Now this isn’t some plaintive cry of, “it’s unfair, think of the poor politician running for President!” The problems that the world faces are very real.
To take one example of how our country’s intersection of politics and economics hurts people, take a look at how hard Puerto Rico has been getting fucked. They are actually shutting down hospitals so they can afford to pay their creditors. Now take a look at your feed and how many people have been talking about it. There’s a target for your rage. There’s really no shortage of advocacy and activism that a person can take right now in this moment to try and alleviate this.
And really, the list goes on. Yet these kinds of stories tend not to get much traction on social media without some kind of sinister figure hovering over the whole thing. The most fundamental problem with Liberals is their propensity to perform all kinds of mental gymnastics to avoid pinning the blame on our economic system as a whole. It’s Goldman Sachs, Matt Taibbi might decry. It’s Neoliberalism, Robert Reich bemoans. Sure, those institutions and trends are worst offenders. But it’s our system of capitalism as a whole that is harmful. Changing just one politician is just one small step on a very long road to mitigate that.
Our electoral system is corrupt? You’re absolutely right. If you want to change the political process, then you need to specifically advocate for change from your representatives. Call your congressman and tell them you want to change the “first past the post” system into ranked voting. Go to a local Democratic meeting and advocate for the abolition of superdelegates. Support local politicians. A grassroots movement can’t just be from the top down.
But saying “my candidate, who was critical of the process, yet running for election within that process, and only talked of reforming it some months in, lost,” is something that smacks of naïveté.
So why do Sanders supporters give far more bandwidth to Hillary Hate than productive solutions?
There’s another series on social psychology that’s hugely helpful here. While he was discussing GamerGate, I’ve observed much of the same phenomenon in the more vitriolic Sanders supporters. In his commentary on Internet hate movements and the thinking that enables them, Ian Dansken put forward the following:
Real world problems are complex, individual actions are weak, and small failings compound when lots of people fail in the same way. Truly changing the system might take impressive amounts of work. And, yeah, that gives me this gross, sick, powerless, sinking feeling in my stomach too. But that’s adulthood.
The lure of messianic zeal, let alone blind hatred, is that life is simple and there’s one true answer. It’s very easy for disaffected young people, who are promised a privileged place in the world but upon adulthood delivered into a world full of inequity and hardship to take the easy solution.
To further paraphrase, clicking the Share or Upvote button on an image macro is very easy. It’s an easy and short term step that makes us feel better about ourselves. Telling ourselves that voting for this one candidate in this one election will bring about monumental changes brings us hope. And in so doing, we may feel absolved from having to make critical choices about how our styles of living may harm others.
When was the last time you looked at your own clothing labels? When was the last time you thought about the implications of buying that Kraft product? When was the last time you researched candidates for your local election?
In focusing all ire on Hillary Clinton, many of her critics willfully ignore systemic problems. The way that capitalism intersects with our Democracy isn’t pretty. The quick gratification that someone gets from calling a politician a sociopath fundamentally makes no challenge of them. They feel they don’t need to put any more thought into it, because it’s all been reduced to a handful of evil people, instead of the ways our system is flawed.
It’s not naive to support Bernie Sanders. But I think that many people need to recognize that running for election is inherently an attempt to change a political system from within. That requires compromise, and entails learning from setbacks and defeats. And if you think that Hillary Clinton is a ruthless and intractable political foe, man have I got news for you about Paul Ryan.
Bridges and Tunnels
Before I close and look to the future, here’s a (hopefully humorous) analogy for what this whole Primary process has seemed like to me:
Let’s say that there’s a river, and a crossing needs to be built.
Plan A is to build a bridge, and it has the majority support of the city council. But, some detractors say, the Plan A bridge is crooked. It might create traffic jams at rush hour. And it seems like it’s poised to benefit the stores that it will run by.
The Plan B advocates want to build a tunnel. That might be harder and more costly, but it won’t be crooked. It will ultimately help the most people at rush hour.
And here’s the point where the Plan A advocates come back and say that their bridge is what the community can realistically afford. That the plans to build it are necessary because of the shape of the riverbed. And that the tunnel will bore through near uncrackable bedrock.
Now all of this is well within the parameters of healthy political discourse. It is entirely within the realm of possibility to have a good amount of variance in proposed policies.
But the Plan B advocates have a smaller faction within them. These citizens say that the bridge is evil. That there is nothing right with it at all. That the architect has talked to the owners of the stores before, so they can’t possibly have any other motive than to be in allegiance with those stores.
Eventually this narrative spins so wildly that any discussion of public infrastructure becomes a diatribe about how tunnels are the only solution to our transit woes, and the only people who could possibly support a bridge must either be taking money from store owners, or are just ignorant dupes.
So you say you want a Revolution?
Even if you have taken everything I’ve said about Hillary Clinton and decided that you want to trust Breitbart over the New York Times, I still really want you to heed what I’m about to write.
The unfortunate truth about our Democracy is that we have become increasingly polarized. The Republican Party has been especially successful at branding itself as the feel-good Americana Party. A large portion of their electorate don’t vote for them because they have the most canny foreign policy or broadly beneficial financial plan; instead, the Republicans owe their success at the ballot box to being associated with abstract things like “family values” or “strength.” It is also worth noting that this Party overwhelmingly favors the white, the male, the heterosexual, the rural, the elderly, and the wealthy. The number of people who intersect a majority of these categories is rapidly dwindling.
So we’re left with the Democratic Party. It’s a big tent party. I’ve known a lot of people who are small business owners and socially conservative who would otherwise be voting Republican, but who don’t do so because of their anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. And conversely there’s people like me, who considers himself far to the left of even Bernie Sanders.
Now generally, there are two big principles that people who identify as Democrats can agree upon: first, that our society ought to be based on equality, and protect those who are marginalized; second, that the powers of government ought to be used to protect Americans and mitigate the worst effects of poverty. There’s a lot of variance here, and a lot of ways that these principles could be implemented. But I dare say that someone who advocates for restraint in implementing a minimum wage, for example, can still believe quite strongly in using the powers of government to help people.
So here I sit on the farthest left of the spectrum of the Democratic Party, and the candidate I support is the closest there’s come to my worldview in my lifetime. At the same time, there’s a candidate who is closer to the political center. And there are whisperings that this candidate is corrupt. So, how do I go about swaying a large mass of voters to my side?
Let’s put it another way. You’re sitting in a room with your friends. Half of the room wants to watch Star Wars, but your half of the room wants to watch Star Trek. How do you convince them to change sides?
Do you talk about how George Lucas is a money-grubbing billionaire without an ounce of artistic integrity? Do you talk about his probable racism in his depiction of the Nemoidians, and the old minstrel stereotypes that swirl around Jar-Jar Binks? Or do you opt to strongly advocate for your own series? “Oh you love this Star Wars?” you ask. “Well here’s this part of Star Trek that does it really well too.”
That’s how you build consensus. You start with common ground and work from there. Be mindful that sometimes communicating your emotional reality may actively impede your ability to persuade people who might not be inclined to agree with you. The more fire you send at someone, the deeper they will retreat into their foxhole. If your first step on your road to Revolution is to change the Democratic Party, spitting on their standard bearer is only going to lose you support.
There is nothing that has frustrated me more as a Progressive, made me want to tear my fucking hair out and give up on the world, than the capacity of otherwise like-minded people to eat each other over small variances in policy than direct their energy at the people who are actual enemies of equality.
There is a stereotype about young, idealistic liberal voters: that stereotype is that they can be incredibly excited and interested, but as soon as it’s clear that they aren’t getting exactly what they want, they take their ball and go home.
Have you noticed how disproportionate the representation of evangelical Americans is in our government? It’s not because they always get their way. It’s because even when they don’t get their way, they keep voting anyway, for the candidate who best represents their interest, even if that candidate is a significant compromise on what they really want. Year in and year out, they vote and vote, and the end result is robust representation that exceeds their actual share of the citizenry.
That is how you win. If young, liberal progressives just give up as soon as they don’t get their ideal candidate, those Evangelical Christians are going to keep voting our interests in to the ground.
I like what Sanders has done in focusing attention on specific candidates in specific races. I like that he’s directing attention to specific issues. I hope he continues to do so.
But still, his supporters…
If you think that this is how you build a coalition to change America, or if you think these things are at all a reasonable thing to say about people, let alone in political discourse, I need to seriously implore you to stop. You are profoundly damaging the very causes and candidates you feel passionate about.
It wasn’t Bernie Sanders supporters that made me change my vote. But man, they really helped me to feel good about it.
I think we’re very far from the greatest generation of American politics. There’s a significant paucity of quality leadership. I would have favored Elizabeth Warren very strongly in this election, but she didn’t run. I don’t like the implications of dynastic politics represented by Clinton, and I think that Sanders has proven to be significantly less capable than originally advertised.
I’ve been dismayed and exhausted by the last several months of Progressive infighting. I tried very hard not to take a strong public stance, mostly because I was anxious that my refusal to board the Hate Train would get me buried in vitriol. But even when I started to voice opinions after the election, I still encountered the same unremitting anger.
So I’d ask that many Sanders supporters or the #BernieorBust crowd or what have you please change your name to something actually more descriptive. Go ahead and keep believing what you want to believe about this one particular woman is a sociopath and the Daily Mail is totally a credible news source for telling you so.
You keep believing that. And I’ll drop my charade of pretending that your hatred is worthy of my respect.
Edit 7/31: I wrote a follow up, on the DNC emails.