Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Why I Wasn't a Bernie Sanders Supporter

I’m a bit late saying this now that Hillary Clinton is the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee, but I think it’s important that I acknowledge publicly why I wasn’t a Bernie Sanders supporter. This has confused many of my friends and colleagues, especially given my political leanings—after all, according to the website Political Compass, I’m much more aligned politically with Sanders than Clinton. So why didn’t I support Sanders as a general election candidate? There are several reasons, but in this post I want to focus mostly on two: electability and attitude.

On the first point, to be blunt, I just never thought Sanders could win a general election. Perhaps the largest barrier for Sanders was his self-identification as a socialist, given that a large majority of Americans strongly disapprove (or at least think they disapprove) of socialism. You might say that Sanders’s version of socialism is different, and I agree, but there’s no indication that a majority of Americans would have made that distinction. Sanders’s support for higher taxes on the middle class was also problematic (even though it might make good policy sense) as that is also incredibly unpopular. Finally, Sanders’s difficulty discussing issues outside his economic populism wheelhouse made him vulnerable on virtually every issue besides income inequality. With Donald Trump on the other side of the ticket, Sanders probably would have had a better chance of winning than had Republicans nominated someone less crazy, but with so much on the line in this election, I just didn’t believe Sanders was a risk worth taking.

Many Sanders supporters balked at this argument, claiming that Sanders was in fact electable. Everyone is, of course, entitled to an opinion. But where it seemed to get a bit nutty was on Reddit forums and other social media outlets where questioning Sanders's electability was treated as a fallacious reason not to support him. The notion that Sanders couldn’t win, the argument went, was only true if people believed it—that is, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy propped up by the media that was only true if people believed it was true. But this line of reasoning relied on the assumption that Sanders’s political platform was already, or would be, aligned with a majority of Americans (or even a majority on the Left), and if only those Americans would shed their suspicions about his electability, a Sanders nomination would prevail. As I explained at the outset, this was pure fantasy.

The truth is that incorporating some element of electability into your voting decision is precisely the rational thing to do. If you consider yourself a liberal but aren’t accounting for the possibility of a Trump presidency, then you’re not treating the presidential election as an uncertain event, so likely aren’t optimizing the satisfaction you get from the electoral outcome. Taking it one step further, the symbolic victory of refusing to vote for Clinton in the presidential election—now that it’s clear who the choices are—because she is one of the “Establishment” candidates will feel good initially, but voting behavior has real-world consequences. Just ask all the liberals who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. This time around it will be much worse.

While Sanders’ electability was concerning enough for me to support Clinton, I also felt isolated by the overall attitude of the Sanders movement: don’t support Sanders, even though you’re liberal? You’re obviously just an Establishment Democrat in the bag for Clinton or simply don’t understand what Sanders is all about. Dare to say that Sanders’s health care plan doesn’t add up? You’re a corporate whore just pining for a job with the Clinton Administration.

The trouble was that Sanders’ positions on big ticket issues like financial reform and health care were in fact problematic: the former, because breaking up the big banks and bringing back Glass-Steagall does little to solve the shadow banking problem, the latter, because simultaneously promising an expansion of Medicare and huge cost savings suffers from a math problem. Those who know me know that I’ve spent a lot of time over the years going after the GOP for this sort of thing (e.g., treating tax cuts as universal policy elixirs, claiming that legislation will “balance the budget” without specifying how, insisting that Obamacare has been a failure despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary). In short, I have little patience for those who peddle ideology over technocracy. Shouldn’t I subject Sanders to those same standards?

If I’m being honest, I very badly wanted to feel the Bern; many others in my circle did. Sanders is energetic, widely liked, and has probably pushed the Democratic Party in a direction I favor. I just never really got over the feeling that Sanders was selling an illusion. Sanders had my heart, but Clinton had my head. Ultimately my head prevailed.

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