After Sanders failed to win California or significantly shrink the delegate gap with Hillary Clinton, many of the latter’s supporters were unequivocal: “Your side lost. Join us so we can defeat Donald Trump.” Indeed, those identifying themselves as “Bernie or Bust” have been derided as childish by those now turning out for Clinton. However, I think such claims are not merely premature but politically naïve. If Sanders supporters are to be at all effective as political actors they will not simply resign themselves to voting for Clinton but force her to earn their votes.
That many progressives are so adamant that the left should simply unite behind Hillary Clinton is in some ways understandable. Even though, if they get their way, Americans are once again stuck choosing the lesser of two evils – between an economically conservative, hawkish democratic candidate and an ostensible megalomaniac – many of these progressives find the idea of a Donald Trump presidency to be truly frightening. Unless there is a change in the balance of power in Congress, Americans would be looking at a number of extremely conservative nominations to the Supreme Court – to take one example. At the same time, it is important to remember that a president’s power is always circumscribed. Just look at Barack Obama’s eight years of paltry progress. Similarly, although often retold as if it were the dark ages, the younger George Bush’s years in office could only swing the country so far to the right. Even when he did enact non-progressive measures, such as going to war with Iraq, he relied on the consent of ostensibly liberal democrats.
In any case, my real quarrel with the demand that Bernie supporters immediately give up and throw their weight behind the Clinton campaign is that it fundamentally misunderstands politics. It is built upon a grade school level of comprehension of civics: It confuses politics with voting. Those demanding that Sanders supporters switch their allegiance seem to be implying that Bernites' opportunity to be political was over the day after the final primary election and that their next chance to enact their political values is on November 2nd. In actuality, voting is one of the most insignificant forms of political action one can perform when compared to more influential activities such as lobbying, grassroots social movements, and directly contacting political officials.
This misunderstanding of politics is especially visible in the condescending claim that “being an adult” means compromising one’s values by immediately promising to vote for Clinton four months from now. While the argument might seem reasonable, it is misleading and perhaps dishonest. Of course politics – like adulthood – entails compromises, but Hillary supporters making this argument have either failed to understand that now is the best time for Bernites to seek out compromises or are disingenuously trying to prevent them realizing that they still have some political capital left. Although she has the lead in the delegate count, Hillary Clinton has failed to achieve a resounding defeat of Sanders. Rather than “compromise” their political values and simply accept the Clinton platform – something that would represent a huge shift to the right for most Bernites – Sanders supporters have recognized that they are in a good position to force Clinton to compromise: “Move to the left or forget about getting our votes.” Given what the Sanders campaign has managed to accomplish, it would be irrationally defeatist to simply fade into the background. Sanders supporters can make their impact be felt long after the primary is over. Shrill, patronizing calls for Sanders supporters to “be adults” and fall in line behind Clinton aim to dupe Bernites into failing to take advantage of what political capital they still have.
Furthermore, the argument mobilized by Clinton supporters throughout the primary – that citizens must inevitably concede their strong political interests in choosing someone who represents them – incorrectly locates where compromise actually occurs in the political process. The United States is a pluralist democracy. Compromise and concession happens not in the process of citizens choosing those who represent and advocate for their interests but in the dealings between those representatives and advocates. Environmentalists do not send their money to special interest groups whose mission statements say, “Changes to environmental policy are hard. Therefore, we advocate that industrialists keep polluting away while we research small changes that they will also approve of.” No, they send their money to organizations like Greenpeace. A wishy-washy environmentalist group would only be able to elicit the most meager of concessions from their political opponents. In the current political system, the only way that any political demographic – whether the LGBT community, gun-rights advocates, or progressives – get at least some of what they want is by choosing representatives and advocates who will fight viciously for them. Despite all the ire directed at Tea Party conservatives, they clearly understand this facet of politics far better than most: Their impact on policy has been significant. In any case, the "compromise" argument for Hillary Clinton has always been rooted in a dubious grasp of politics.
Nevertheless, do not Sanders supporters risk causing a lot of harm in fighting hard to get their way? Of course they do, but they are no different from anyone else in that regard. So is politics. Even Clinton supporters are little different. Throwing one’s energy behind mostly maintaining the highly unequal and socially unjust status quo in order to be absolutely sure it does not get too much worse will probably mean another four to eight years without a saner and more humane way of funding the American health care system, four to eight years without improved checks against the misdeeds of Wall Street and large corporations, and four to eight years with a reasonable risk of once again going to war. It is not at all clear how the harms risked by more adamantly trying to imprint one’s political values onto the world are automatically any worse than the sins of omission caused by a political strategy of extreme risk aversion.
Regardless, we are still months away from the general election. Given that Trump, in the eyes of some, makes Barry Goldwater look like a paragon of level-headed thinking and has only the tepid support of the GOP rank and file, this may not end up being a close election. There is a good chance that moderate republicans will even vote for Clinton. If this comes to pass, the most stubborn Bernites will be able to not vote for Clinton with a clear conscience, maybe helping someone like Jill Stein of the green party hit the 5% mark needed for federal support in the next election cycle. In any case, there is still a lot of politicking that can be done before November. Sanders supporters would be unwise to forgo the opportunity.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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