AUTHOR'S NOTE: I have made it very clear in the past year that I was a Sanders supporter and this reflects that. If that makes you angry or exasperated I please ask that you do yourself a favor and skip this piece – it is not intended to change anyone's mind about how to vote in the general election. The following constitutes neither an endorsement nor a condemnation of Hillary Clinton. I firmly believe that Americans, particularly Americans in safe states, should vote in whatever way their consciences dictate.
As Bernie Sanders’s official endorsement of Hillary Clinton ends what has been the most difficult and bruising Democratic primary of my lifetime (or at least nearly ends – there are still delegates to be counted and a convention to be held), I am left with some impressions that were formed some months ago and have been largely confirmed in my own mind, based on the reactions (or in some cases, lack of reactions) of my friends who support either of the two candidates.
Full disclosure: Let me say up front that what I’m reporting is strictly anecdotal and comes with whatever biases that implies. My opinions are my own.
Throughout this primary season I have gotten into lengthy discussions and debates during which I asked the deceptively simple question: “What are the reasons you’re voting for your candidate?” Putting aside the answers I received regarding Donald Trump, which are not worth printing or dignifying, I was struck by the difference in priority that I often perceived between Clinton and Sanders voters. By and large, the Sanders voters had answers such as (and I’m paraphrasing) “Because I think Wall Street is out of control,” “Because I believe in single-payer healthcare,” “Because I think education should be free.” In other words, voters responded to Sanders because of specific issues (or, if you want to be less kind about it, because of the "free" things they wanted).
When Clinton voters answered the same question, there were a few who proceeded along the same lines, citing specific policies she supported or that they believed she supported. But just as often, if not more often, the answers were along the lines of, “Because of her leadership ability,” “Because she'll get s--t done,” “Because she’s the most experienced candidate in history,” “Because it’s time for a woman to lead.”
The truth is, I can’t recall a single instance of a Sanders supporter talking about him as a person or speaking of qualities they liked in him. Quite the opposite, in fact. The shouting, finger pointing and sometimes tone deaf statements about race and gender that often came from him did not create warm feelings in anyone but the most ardent or malignant Sanders supporter, even though others referred to Sanders as a cult of personality. On the other hand, there was an overwhelming feeling I got from the Clinton supporters I personally spoke with that it was her innate talent and intelligence that they were supporting, regardless of whatever her personal record or statements might lead one to believe about her goals.
There is no arguing that Clinton is a historic and perhaps even iconic figure, and would have been even if she weren’t going to the be the first female president of the United States. There will be no argument from me, either, that she is exceptionally intelligent and will prove to be, at the very least, competent in whatever role she assumes. And it is interesting that many pundits (largely on the Right) have commented that Clinton has relatability issues and trustworthiness issues, because, from where I sit, I see a massive contingent of people who have no trouble relating to her or trusting her, who are willing to follow her because they perceive an ineffable quality that we can call “leadership.” Those people won for Clinton her party’s nomination, and will certainly send her to the White House.
I have come to believe, however, that there is a real difference in how voters choose their candidates regardless of political affiliation or ideology, and I think it affects the process both positively and negatively. To put a positive spin on it, supporting a candidate because of who she or he is demonstrates trust and can lead to a certain degree of flexibility, pragmatism and compromise in a voter. On the other hand, it can lead to inconsistency of belief, blindness to flaws and a certain hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance when it comes to how one treats people who are aligned with political factions other than his or her own.
This feeling has been largely confirmed for me in the days after Clinton became the presumptive nominee, and in particular as Sanders stayed in the race to (in many ways successfully) influence both the party platform and Clinton’s policy goals. As Sanders has gingerly tiptoed toward endorsing Clinton, many of her supporters have been absolutely exasperated and confused by the fact that some of his own are insisting that they will not be swayed to vote for her.
“What is wrong with you? Your own hero has said he’d vote for her and you’re so butt-hurt you’ll give the presidency to Trump!” (The previous was not a paraphrase, by the way, but an actual quote from one message board discussion. I’ve read many, many others similar in tone and meaning.) It’s as if they can’t comprehend that Sanders voters did not consider him a “hero,” or a “God,” or even much of a “leader” – they simply agreed with his platform and it doesn’t really matter whom he endorses if that person is not also going to work to deliver those results.
Meanwhile, those self-same supporters, who routinely mocked many of Sanders’ stated policy goals as being naïve, unworkable, or unreasonable, are notably keeping mum as Clinton has adopted them. When Clinton was steadfastly against free college tuition or a $15 minimum wage, for example, her followers were with her all the way, and could recite all the reasons why Sanders supporters were not “grownup” enough to acknowledge her pragmatism and correctness. Now that she has adopted those issues as a concession to his voters, I’ve yet to see a mass exodus from her or hear anyone say that he or she has lost respect for her for adopting “stupid” ideas. On the contrary, she’s now the person who can get them done – or, more cynically, she’s the person who’s lying to convince all those dumb progressives to follow her even though she knows it will never happen.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. For quite some time I have been one of the voices on the Left who has wondered why certain of Hillary Clinton’s actions and characteristics have been routinely justified as “just the way things are done in politics” or “right wing nonsense” when the same people ignoring them would throw a fit if, say, George W. Bush or Dick Cheney had acted similarly. While I agree with the fact that Clinton has faced an unprecedented amount of mudslinging (that, let me be clear, has not stuck) and that Republicans have indulged in witch-hunting and routinely made mountains out of molehills when it comes to her behavior, I am still baffled by the unwillingness of her supporters to even admit to the molehills.
The e-mail “scandal” was not really a scandal. But it should matter to Democrats, who in the past have claimed to be against secrecy and for openness in government, just as much as it did when it was the GOP sending correspondence down the memory hole. Maybe the money Clinton has received from Wall Street or the speeches to financial institutions won’t actually affect her governance. But it is odd to hear the idea that money is a corrupting influence on politicians being flat-out denied by people who in the past eight years loudly bemoaned that influence. The allegations that Clinton assisted her husband in covering up sexual harassment and assault could very well be part of an ongoing whisper campaign. But it is strange to hear that from people who otherwise believe that women, by and large, do not falsely accuse men of assault.
I have always been honest that much of what Bernie Sanders claimed he would fight for in office would be impossible for him to achieve. And it is fair to say that much of his appeal lay in a certain political idealism (or naïvety) that results when a candidate does not have years of baggage to sort through, unlike someone who has been in the trenches for years such as Hillary Clinton. The same can be said for a Jill Stein or an Elizabeth Warren, who are currently being celebrated by some Sanders supporters in the way Bernie was.
This is a problem for Sanders voters.
We have to allow for a certain amount of flawed behavior in our candidates lest we become uncompromising purists and, ultimately, irrelevant. We have to understand that political leadership requires coalition building, horse-trading, gift-giving (and -receiving), and mind-changing.
But Hillary Clinton’s supporters would be best served if they, too learned a lesson. No one “owes” you a vote, or his or her allegiance, no matter who else is on your “side” or not, and no matter who might be a worse option. In 2016, a lot of people learned that party loyalty is not what it once was, and if you take it for granted that issues voters will fall in line without truly believing a candidate intends to fight for those issues, you do so at your own peril. It was never about one man.
To paraphrase an earlier campaign: It’s the policy, stupid.