On Booing Bernie
…or 5 things I’m trying to understand.
Bernie Sanders supporters booed Bernie Sanders on Monday. They didn’t boo with him; they booed him. Not even the man they revere was shielded from the shower of barely restrained disdain unleashed by never-Hillary progressives. All of a sudden, Bernie was somehow, simultaneously, messiah and apostate – Pilate and the Christ in a single corpus.
But even if they weren’t so publicly trying to find an elusive balancing point between adulation and aggrievement, I’d still be thinking about Bernie’s supporters, this week.
Most of the energy directed at Bernie die-hards has been vitriolic. Even among Democrats appealing for unity, there’s no shortage of glib condescension and name calling, painting Sanders hold-outs as mis-guided, stupid, or divorced from reality. That puts me off. Not only is it hypocritical, it’s unhelpful.
Besides, I’m rather inspired by them. After decades of complaining about political apathy – perhaps especially on the left – Americans are witnessing real passion in the Sandernistas. I’m glad people are so engaged, feeling so strongly about charting the future course of our democracy. That doesn’t mean I agree with them.
I have enough friends in the Bernie-or-bust / never-Hillary camp that my social media feed runs a pretty good stream of anti-Hillary news and memes. And, I have to say I’m grateful to them for asserting their perspective so voluminously -- else I wouldn’t sense as clearly the distress so many folks in progressive circles are feeling.
These are people whose politics lean generally with mine. But the vehemence of their views about the Democratic nominee has put me in touch with something I either don’t understand, or, otherwise, find disheartening.
These are thoughtful people who know they have one of four choices in this Presidential election:
1. Vote for Trump
2. Vote for no-one, and sit out the election.
3. Vote for Hillary.
4. Vote for a third-party candidate.
The Bernie-or-bust folks won’t vote for Trump. No matter how they hate Hillary, they know the Tangerine Turd Trumpet is worse.
Likewise, they’re passionate enough about politics – as conveyed on social media, at rallies and in Philadelphia – that they’re unlikely to stay home on election day. Abstinence is rarely the child of passion.
So, they’re left with two viable options: Vote for Hillary or vote for a third-party candidate. (The alternatives most often mentioned: Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and Libertarian Gary Johnson.)
To the folks who are going to hold their noses and vote for Hillary: I have deep empathy with how torn I imagine you feel. She’s not really the candidate I want, either.
To the folks intending to vote third-party: I’ve been keen to ask you about some things I don’t understand. That’s not veiled condescension. I genuinely don’t understand the thinking behind your choice. And I’d like to.
I’ve been trying to find a rationale that makes it a good idea. I’m struggling.
To vote for a third-party candidate in this election, you have to believe one of two things, either:
A. You believe a third-party candidate can win.
B. You believe that a third-party candidate can't win, but you're going to vote for one anyway.
If you believe a third-party candidate can win, your understanding of how the US electoral system works isn’t based on facts. Indeed, it’s such a mathematical impossibility, that -- without wanting to be at all presumptive -- I don’t think very many people actually believe this.
So, that leaves only one option: Folks are considering voting for a third-party candidate they know can’t win.
Voting for someone who can’t win is a fascinating choice. And, again, I mean that genuinely. It’s been fascinating me since the primary battle was lost and “#feeltheBern” gave way to “#neverhillary” – a moment when the positive animus of engagement transmogrified into a blunt epithet of rejection.
So, trying to understand that choice, I've turned to the phrases I hear most often from Bernie-or-busters.
1. “I don’t want to vote for the lesser of two evils.”
This first reason to vote for someone who can’t win has immediate and strong appeal. It’s a statement of personal principle. And it’s intrinsically optimistic. The clear, though unstated, implication is that there’s a third option that isn’t evil. There’s a third option that’s good, and you’d definitely want to choose that, rather than choose the lesser of two evils.
And, so long as you see a third-party candidate as that non-evil, good option, then this rationale says you should vote for them. This framing sees the candidates as the options.
But we’ve already stipulated that no third-party candidate can win. So, while there are several input options – ie, the candidates – there are only two outcome options:
A. Trump wins.
B. Hillary wins.
So, the idea that there isn’t a third option is true. It’s perhaps regrettably true, but it’s true.
Beyond this logical problem, there are two further reasons I’m not persuaded by this seemingly optimistic appeal. First: It implicitly equates the badness of Trump and Clinton. It does this by labelling them both “evil”, levelling the conceptual playing field. Whatever you think of Hillary, you’d have to be pretty extreme to put her in the same category as Trump.
Second: Choosing the lesser of two evils is often a terrific strategy – one that can create good outcomes. Indulge an analogy. Imagine you hate Brussel sprouts – I mean really detest them and find them inedible. In a situation where you’d otherwise starve, you’re given only two options for nourishment: Brussel sprouts and moose shit. Food you like is not an option. This is a time to eat Brussel sprouts, and live. Choosing the lesser of two evils is the only strategy that makes sense. It’s the same as choosing the better of two outcomes.
If you still bought into the “lesser of two evils” framing, however, you’d actually be voting for the least of three evils.
A. Trump wins outright.
B. Hillary wins outright.
C. Trump wins a three-way split. Trump still wins, but explicitly because progressives split the opposition.
2. “Don’t vote your fears.”
Another optimistic, principled exhortation that resonates deeply with me. Even without Trump, you’d want to vote for your hopes, not for your fears. You could argue this is the perspective that defines us as progressives. We believe in making change to improve the world – to move toward something better. It’s the opposite of pandering to fear. It’s the opposite of “taking our country back”. To where? To when? From whom?
We like to think it’s the right wing that panders to fear. Progressives are about hope. When they go low, we go high. “Don’t vote your fears” challenges us to vote our hopes – even if it means voting for someone who can’t win.
Bernie supporters didn’t hope for Hillary. So, why would they vote for her? Because they’re afraid of a Trump presidency? With that framing, voting for Hillary would be motivated by fear. And that could feel like a betrayal of a deep progressive value: hope.
But I don’t understand how the optimism of the aphorism trumps the tragedy of its implication. Our hopes and fears are inputs; they are stimuli. They shouldn’t be confused with outcomes.
Viewed through the lens of outcomes – especially binary outcomes -- voting your fears is a pretty good strategy. Indulge another analogy. You’re standing on a cliff edge. “Don’t vote your fears” is terrible advice. “Don’t worry about falling; believe you can fly!” No matter the appeal of flight, and no matter the real benefits of self-confidence, choosing life requires a healthy respect for gravity.
So, how do you “vote your hope” when you revile the candidate or the “corrupt Democratic machine”? You vote for ideas. Issues. Platforms. Vote for the things that matter to you. Vote for the outcomes that matter to you. And then – and this is the essence of voting hope – vote for whomever has the best chance of making the greatest number of those things happen.
If my policy wish-list more tightly cleaved to the Greens or to the Libertarians, it would give me pause. But I think I’d still vote for the candidate who has the best chance of making something happen. For me, voting my hope means voting for the best chance of making something good happen.
3. “Vote your conscience. Vote with your heart.”
Having acknowledged the attraction of the first two appeals, I have to say that this is the one I understand the least. Of course, I understand the powerful value of conscience and heart. I wish there were more of both in our practice of government and governing. But I also wish there were a truckload more reasoning and empirical evidence.
“Vote with your heart” implies you should discount what your head is telling you. Isn’t the ideal to vote with both head and heart?
“Vote your conscience,” in the voice of never-Hillary stalwarts, suggests there can be no conscientious vote for Hillary. But if the outcome of the election is mathematically binary – it’s either going to be Hillary or Trump – then how can there be a conscientious vote for anyone other than Hillary? We know the most vulnerable people in our society will suffer under Trump. Would you knowingly choose an outcome that hurts the most vulnerable people in society?
Heart and conscience are profound forces. I hope they steer us to use our incremental power for the benefit of the future of our nation.
4. “Don’t vote for a corrupt system.”
The most well-reasoned argument I’ve read in support of voting for a third-party candidate posed that the best way to make a statement was to cast a protest vote for a third party. Even a tiny up-tick in third-party voters will demonstrate the dissatisfaction in our democracy. Whether you think the parties are ethically bankrupt, or you think the two-party system itself needs to be torn down, it’s appealing to register that grievance in a way that undermines both the major parties and the system, itself.
A protest vote may get your voice heard. But I still don’t understand why you’d use your vote that way. Firstly, it’s already been heard. Both parties have faced insurgencies, this year. The parties are well aware that everyone’s pissed. Secondly – and especially given that the parties already know you’re pissed – you will have used your vote in a way that doesn’t change anything. So, you will have effectively voted for the status quo – the very thing the Bernie revolution railed against.
The extreme version of this one is to vote third-party in the hope that Trump wins. Because that’ll teach the Democrats a lesson – especially the DNC. The premise is that suffering four years under Trump is simply the price to pay for a better system in the long run. I don’t buy that the path to utopia runs through chaos. But even if there were a chance it might, how would this amount to something other than self-centredness? The choice of individual suffering is yours to make, but are you so sure of this path that you would choose to vote for the suffering of others: of low-wage workers, Hispanics, Muslims, LGBTQ folks, …? That seems a very privileged position to take.
5. “She’s a liar. Lock her up.”
Okay. I completely buy that if both candidates are objectively unfit for office, it's tough to do anything but flee.
But what’s the specific claim about her that would make you conclude she's unfit for office? And, then, what’s the evidence that the claim is true?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting there aren’t some really good answers to this question. I just haven’t heard one, yet, that had strong evidentiary support. I'm an empiricist, which makes me expect evidence in all circumstances -- but especially when the claims double as right-wing sound-bites.
But the deeper point, for me, is – I’m being repetitive – about outcomes. There have been liars who’ve been good presidents (John F Kennedy). And terrible presidents who have been pillars of virtue (Jimmy Carter).
The few things I’m sure – from the evidence – Hillary’s lied about, neither disqualify her from office (in my view) nor qualify her for a jail sentence. They just haven't been things that would make me use my vote to keep a progressive agenda out of the White House. I'm open to new evidence.
If you view your vote as a tool, not as endorsement of an individual, how would you deploy that tool in this election? Can you dislike a candidate and still vote for them if they’re most likely to get good shit done? If so, then why not this candidate? And, if not, then it seems more like a personality contest than a process for influencing government.
You can tell I’m writing this more to work through my own shit than to attempt influencing anyone. For one thing, it’s five pages. No-one reads five pages anymore.
For another thing, it’s all deductive. The folks I’m talking about (or, ostensibly, to) are in a place that is more angry than analytical. I brought a logical argument to a funeral.
Passionate Bernie supporters are pissed. I understand wanting to punish someone. …or the whole system. For having screwed your candidate. For having screwed you. For having sullied the one pure thing that’s touched our politics in recent memory.
I understand the anger. What I can’t understand is the impulse to honour the anger with self-destruction. Yes, I know that self-destruction – the ball of righteous fire – is more pure than what feels like assimilation. Assimilation feels like shit.
Belief is pure. Fury is righteous. Anger is energizing.
But anger is only worth a damn if you can make something good come out of it. Otherwise it's just anger.
Don’t do what’s pure. Do what works. Make the world better. Protect it from evil.