Near as I can tell, the best litmus test (perhaps outside of the South) for whether a potential Democratic voter is likely to support Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders is income. If you’ve got money, or think you will soon, you like Hillary. If you don’t have money, or see economic trouble on the horizon, you like Bernie. This isn’t strictly true, of course, since there are folks who hold onto their ideals of economic equality even after making capitalism work for them and amassing wealth and there are those who don’t have a realistic shot at wealth who still believe the wealthy should rule the world. But fundamentally, people tend to vote their perceived self-interest and you’re more likely to endorse capitalism full-throatedly if it’s working for you. And Bernie vs. Hillary is probably a referendum on capitalism as much as anything else. As much as Hillary is trying to get in on some of that socialism in the primary, we all are pretty aware that Bernie likes taxes and hates corporations way more than his opponent.
This post is about what I think the second-biggest distinction is, and one that I think a lot of folks are talking around but no one is actually directly addressing. And that’s the role one perceives politics to have in this country, and really what the purpose of representative democracy is. This is often phrased quite differently in condescending Hillary propaganda in the media that says things like “Hillary gets things done.” That’s a leading indicator of this type of perceived difference, but it doesn’t really address the core of it in a fair way. And acknowledging my bias as a Bernie supporter, I will try to put this both as clearly and as fairly as possible.
There are two theories of representative democracy and what it’s all about. Okay, there are lots of such theories, but there are two that are relevant to the campaign:
1. You cannot be there to vote on everything yourself, to make every decision, and to advocate for every position. We cannot all be President, nor can everything come down to 300-million-person referendum. As a result, one should choose leaders who most clearly demonstrate clear and consistent judgment. This means both that their decisions will be maximally predictable and that they are most likely to, in the midst of crisis down in the bunker, make the best decision. I’m calling this theory Consistent Judgment.
2. You cannot be there to vote on everything yourself, to make every decision, and to advocate for every position. We cannot all be President, nor can everything come down to 300-million-person referendum. As a result, there are two parties who represent the two possible reasonable and widely held slates of positions on issues to decide these things for the people. One should choose the leader who will best navigate systems of government to maximize the advantage for the party one favors, to beat the other party as clearly and significantly as possible. Even if that person has to change their positions radically, as long as they have the strategic advantage over the other group, them winning for their team is the highest priority. I’m calling this theory BattleBots.
I think the divergence between these two theories is large and explains the level of incredulity Democrats have looking across the divide at the other deeply entrenched camp. For Consistent Judgment advocates, it’s bizarre that consistency doesn’t matter and that positions can change radically as long as the team is winning, since this often mean altering positions or making compromises that look a lot like conceding to the other team. For BattleBots advocates, it’s bizarre that one could advocate someone whose loyalty to the team is nascent and questionable, someone who is less interested in playing the game, since the whole point of politics is to play and win the game.
This is why Bernie is doing so well with independents, both those who choose to vote in Democratic primaries and those who are surveyed nationally in hypothetical general election polls. Independents are free-thinkers who have alternative slates to the two parties and lament the BattleBot culture in Washington. They love Bernie’s judgment and trust his ability to contravene the grain of two-party politics. It’s also why Hillary is doing so well with conservative Democrats, because they feel a strong loyalty to their team that may transcend even the actual platform of their party. They love Hillary’s strong, attacking style that will go after the enemy wherever they may roam.
For those to whom politics is an all-out battle, a game of chess with a winner and loser, Bernie is totally confounding. He’s not rabidly attacking the other side, he’s not even totally committed to this team, and he’s not fully steeped and invested in the team’s infrastructure and bottom line. His voice will criticize members of the team if they contradict his political views and he blames the team for many of the ills he’s fighting against. What a terrible BattleBot!
For those to whom politics is about displaying consistency of judgment, Hillary is totally confounding. She changes her positions yearly, monthly, weekly, even hourly if she’s just been at an event that caters to a particular constituency. She will run in the direction of any candidate she’s against, then run the other direction if her opponent changes. She will use any tactic at her command, even if she criticized that tactic last year. What terrible use of Consistent Judgment!
This is how Hillary supporters can actually see her shifting positions as a strength: they believe it shows the strategic calculation necessary to make the proper adjustment for the moment. Chess games are not about adherence to the preservation of rooks or the ideal of the bishop. They are about winning, whatever shifts and alterations and sacrifices need to be made. Even if the queen was the most important piece on the board last turn, if there’s a strategic advantage in trading her off, then down she goes in the next turn. Hillary supporters see it as clear that she’s a great chess player and they want to win the game.
And this is how Bernie supporters see his commitment to ideals even when potentially impractical or hard to implement as a strength: they believe it shows the good judgment to advocate what’s right, even in the face of total opposition or infeasibility. Politics are not just the domain of the hard-nosed practical compromise, but also about the ability to inspire and lead, to set a precedent at the top that convinces people to change their hearts and minds. Bernie supporters see it as clear that he’s an inspiring change agent and they want that kind of rhetoric and judgment at the top.
For someone who values Consistent Judgment, it’s terrifying to imagine what kind of expedient political decisions Hillary might make in the White House: starting wars, compromising deeply on legislation, changing her mind to advance the interests of her team. Nothing is hard and fast, so anything could go if she finds it valuable at the time, and she’ll recant and apologize later after the sober reflection of what actually resulted. When past examples include DOMA and the Iraq War, it’s really hard for Consistent Judgment advocates to get excited about this.
And for someone who values BattleBots, it’s terrifying to imagine how little Bernie might do for the Democratic Party as a whole in the White House. This is the source of the new criticism that he’s not raising money for down-ticket Dems, as well as the old one that he’s not even really a Democrat. How can you trust someone to be the best BattleBot for your team if he’s only loosely affiliated with your team? If he’s willing to criticize Obama’s policies and Democratic lawmakers, how can he help convince the country that they must support Democrats at all cost? No wonder BattleBots advocates have such a hard time with Bernie.
It’s no secret (except briefly to a couple people on Facebook on April 1st) that I’m in the Consistent Judgment camp. But I also strongly dislike the two-party system and one of my highest priorities as a voter is to oppose it on face. In my mind, BattleBots thinking is exactly why we have gridlock in Washington, a lack of creative solutions, and people consistently flipping positions just to say that they’re getting things done or blocking the other team. Obamacare is a great example of this: the model for the ACA was invented by the Heritage Foundation as a conservative response to advocacy for something closer to single-payer. The individual mandate was a Republican creation first implemented by Mitt Romney to ensure that the market still dominated healthcare. With no cost controls, the ACA has manifest as a pro-corporate development in almost all ways (with slight exceptions being the expansion of Medicare and the removal of pre-existing conditions as a reason to deny coverage). But since Obama was responsible for and associated with the ACA, Republicans suddenly opposed it with every fiber of their being, even though they spent years advocating for its underlying principles. Meanwhile, former single-payer advocates like Howard Dean and even, yes, Hillary Clinton, now disavow single-payer as unthinkable because the Democrats have tied their flag to the mast of the ACA.
Bernie Sanders would never abandon single-payer just because the Democrats had decided to advocate something else. Even if that meant throwing “his party” under the bus. For me, that makes him a hero. For a long-time Democratic Party strategist, that makes him unreliable at best and destructive at worst.
My hope in writing this is not even necessarily that the acrimony between Bernie and Hillary supporters reduces, since I still am a staunch advocate of Bernie. But I think we can gain some understanding of each other by examining not just how our personal policy views might be different, but also how our methodological differences inform our view of political actors. It really impacts every aspect of the campaign. It’s why Hillary supporters are outraged Bernie hasn’t left the race since his chances of winning the nomination are somewhat slim: if there’s even a chance that he hurts Hillary and Hillary is the more likely nominee, then he’s undermining the Code of the BattleBots by hurting the eventual BattleBot Supreme. What if he shaves off a key part of her armor before she has to do battle in the big arena?! And it’s why Bernie supporters are outraged by this call from Hillary supporters – he’s being true to his ideals and consistency, regardless of the situation. He’s representing his views as ardently and consistently as he would in the White House and that’s a critical voice to hear for as long as possible. What if voters become further disillusioned by the idea that politicians only ever say things because they are strategically expedient?!