I’m not surprised to find myself waffling. What’s been strange this election season is how many voters on the left seem sure that one Democratic candidate is an obvious choice over the other. While one may well turn out more deserving of your confidence, neither Bernie Sanders nor Hillary Clinton deserves your certainty. Both are flawed candidates whose nomination would carry with it significant risk, and who you vote for depends entirely on which bad thing you are willing to overlook.
Both candidates come with strong recommendations, of course: an equal and opposite source of confusion. Sen. Bernie Sanders is the rare politician who is stubbornly consistent in his core beliefs, and the radical system overhaul he envisions is a world many of us would like to live in. His platform is rooted in making life livable for the majority, in a moment when livability seems to have become a perk for the wealthy. Although his record is not packed with legislative victories, Sanders has a history of working effectively with Republicans and reaching out to conservatives, an enormous advantage for anyone looking to lead a country as polarized as this one. Currently, Sanders polls better than Clinton against both Cruz and Trump. But it remains unclear how, armed with a POTUS’s limited power and faced with an oppositional congress, one person could fundamentally and instantaneously change the system he was elected to run.
Sanders demonstrated recently in an interview with the New York Daily News editorial board that he is better at shouting “break up the banks” than explaining how he might do that. As my former colleague Greg Howard has written, he tends to over-conflate racial inequality with economic inequality, assuming that the latter would fix the former. And while his reasonable declarations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have resonated sharply with many liberal voters, it was made painfully clear in the NY Daily News interview that he hasn’t taken the time to check his facts, which led to a member of the Knesset accusing him of “blood libel”; on issues of foreign policy, he is consistently weak, which, in a warming world ripped up by extremism and disease, should alarm you. Bernie’s platform also includes significant and unprecedented tax increases to fund programs like universal health care and free college tuition, increases that would not spare the middle class. Whether or not the value of these programs would outweigh their cost in taxes, will people vote for someone who they think will cost them money? Seems unlikely.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, would be the first woman president, an enormous and overdue milestone that has unfortunately has done little to stir excitement. She was a powerful woman in politics before America was ready for it, and has been a magnet for misogynist vitriol for nearly three decades; her overly scripted demeanor and “zone of privacy” could be a direct result of, say, being featured on the 1995 cover of Spy magazine with a dick under her skirt. She is undeniably experienced and extremely smart, performs spectacularly well under pressure, and although she doesn’t seem to love the A-word, has championed Planned Parenthood in a scary national moment for abortion rights. She has been raising significant funds for down-ballot candidates, while Sanders only just began doing so following criticism. Her views on many issues are complex and pragmatic, something that often backfires in an election trading in applause lines.
Clinton has also benefited enormously from the system that Sanders would like to dismantle. As a recent New Yorker feature underlined, both Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street are movements that sprouted in opposition to legislation signed during Bill Clinton’s presidency, legislation that Hillary Clinton championed. She, and particularly the Clinton Foundation, appear to care more about acquiring money than where that money is coming from. She is being investigated in three separate inquiries by the federal government. She considers Henry Kissinger a friend. She sat on the Wal-Mart board of directors. She is bafflingly gaffe-prone in a wholly un-charming way, as is her husband, who was recently found explaining black lives to Black Lives Matter activists. She voted for the Iraq war, and has a tendency to conveniently change her mind. Many American voters and members of Congress appear to believe she is the antichrist.
We all have to choose eventually, of course—unless you’re not voting, a dumb choice even if your vote might not matter all that much—and ideally your decision was or will be based on something more than whim, some solid reasoning as to why you think that candidate would be good at winning the general election and running the United States. For some, however, it seems that this decision was made quite early on, and cemented into something like gospel.
“Democrats are now so divided and dug-in that no matter who wins the nomination, it will take a considerable effort to heal and reunite them,” wrote the New York Times editorial board after the Democratic debate in Brooklyn. When my colleague Joanna Rothkopf and I were covering the New Hampshire primary in February, we attended a Democratic dinner-slash-rally in Manchester that had Sanders and Clinton supporters literally facing off on opposite sides of the partially-filled arena. There was an air of seething rivalry similar to what one might find at a sports event, except the boos and cheers were lodged on behalf of two senior citizens running for elected office. A hammered woman a level above us kept leaning over the rail and shrieking “YOU’RE SINGIN’ MY SONG, BERNIE!” during Sanders’ speech, at times visibly throwing him off.
Bernie Sanders supporters in particular (and as comedian Joel Kim Booster has put it, there is a considerable difference between people who voted for Bernie Sanders and Bernie Sanders Supporters) are not known for their embrace of nuance. At this point most people familiar with the Internet have heard of the patronizing “Bernie Bro,” the definition of which has been exhaustively debated since The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer coined the term in October; some men have suggested that the Bernie Bro does not exist at all, but is rather a Clintonian smear tactic.
While the term is certainly unencumbered by precision—having come to broadly symbolize anyone from serious online harassers to, for example, a friend’s boyfriend who gently criticized her support for Clinton by suggesting she “do more research”—what is consistent about the Bernie Bro is his (or her) rigid and unshakable belief in Bernie Sanders’ qualifications. “The degree to which any criticism of this candidate is met with this complete brick wall of rage—it’s like criticizing Jesus,” journalist Jill Filipovic told the Los Angeles Times recently.
Supporters of Clinton can be similarly single-minded. A Jezebel commenter graced an article I wrote with a list of “pros and cons” about the candidate that named Clinton’s only con as “hasn’t fulfilled her potential.” Alexandra Schwartz at the New Yorker wondered whether millennials should “get over” Bernie Sanders, heavily conflating Sanders’ young supporters’ optimism with stupidity. In an election where major conventions of the campaign process itself are being questioned and dismissed on the left and right (as the candidate field demonstrates), and where just about every single thing that matters—from civil rights down to the survival of the planet—is being threatened by two Republicans competing for the title of Grossest Man Alive, certainty becomes appealing. In an age of ideological purity, decisiveness beckons like a mirage.
Aided by the self-righteous mores of the internet, the debate amongst Democrats often turns antagonistic, flattening into something simplistic and unfocused. A recent attempt by a Clinton supporter to start a supportive hashtag—#HillarySoQualified, in reaction to Sanders’ claim that she was not—went awry when an army of Bernie supporters coopted the hashtag, resulting in an endless back-and-forth game of liberal-on-liberal taunts from accounts like @AGirl4Bernie and @SayHillYes. Sen. Claire McCaskill recently let the air out of a meme that read “Hillary uses public transportation to get votes, Bernie uses public transportation for transportation,” tweeting that Bernie was actually pictured on a government tram. Susan Sarandon and Debra Messing (the former supports Bernie, the latter is for Clinton) recently got into a fight on Twitter over Sarandon’s statement, quickly taken back, that she would rather vote for Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton.
But a hashtag is both declarative and empty by nature; there’s no room to air the world’s many competing truths in 140 characters. Especially for those of us working in the media, who are obliged to watch the election unfold one finger-wagging Take and ridiculous pop star feud at a time, the choice feels more enormous and impossible with every cocksure attempt at simplification.
This is not the general election, where Democrats will (hopefully) feel obligated to suck up their qualms and rally loudly behind a candidate because the other one might accidentally nuke China. The only reasonable reaction to this primary race is bewilderment, and right now, critiquing each other for supporting the wrong candidate is probably less useful than critiquing both candidates for providing detractors with so much ammunition.
It’s okay to be unsure, and it’s okay to wonder whether your vote will haunt you five years from now, because any which way, it very well might.
Image via Getty, gif by Bobby Finger.