Don't Believe the Stupid Argument: The "Bernie or Bust" Movement is Not Based on Privilege

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Don't Believe the Stupid Argument: The "Bernie or Bust" Movement is Not Based on Privilege

Today, I’d like to address the idea that Bernie Sanders supporters who refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election are over-privileged assholes.

Recent online chatter would have you believe that the “Bernie or Bust” movement is populated by those who don’t care about the consequences that might befall poor people, women, and minorities in the event of a massive progressive desertion that hands the presidency to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. If you’ve been following the Democratic primary race online, you’ve probably heard the argument already in articles like these. If you haven’t, here’s the basic outline:

1. There are large numbers of progressive Bernie Sanders supporters who claim that they won’t vote for Hillary Clinton in a general election, provided she wins the nomination.

2. In the event of a close race in November, those missing votes could turn the outcome.

3. A Republican presidency would be bad for the country, and only someone with a blinding sort of privilege would even consider that option, because they won’t have to suffer the consequences of the policies wrought by these men and their party.

Unlike some of the other tactics employed by Hillary’s Internet brigade—the “Sanders supporters are sexist” attacks come to mind—this particular claim does not come across as immediately ridiculous. Logically speaking, one conclusion seems to follow from the next, and it makes a strong emotional appeal. (Seriously, who wants to be on the side of the country club set, glaring with suspicion at the unwashed hordes beyond the gates?) If you buy into the framework of the argument, the only way you could stand by your position of abstaining in the general election is to say, “actually, you’re right, I don’t give a shit about women, the poor, or minorities.”

Of course, like the rest of the fallacious arguments we’ve seen, this one is built on a foundation of utter bullshit, and is designed to avoid a discussion of the issues at all costs. It’s nothing more than rhetorical sleight-of-hand, and the idea is to bully you into toeing the centrist, corporate line that has helped decimate the American middle class. Nevertheless, it’s convincing—in the long list of political distractions, this might be the most potent item yet.

But there’s a very deep irony in the fact that the supporters of the status quo candidate, Hillary Clinton, have the audacity to accuse progressives of ignoring the under-privileged. The reason we support Bernie Sanders is because we care about those people, and we are those people—otherwise, we’d be neoliberal Democrats or Republicans. Clinton’s white, middle-to-upper-middle class foot soldiers have, by the very nature of their support, essentially written off the bottom half of American society. They’ve outed themselves as members of a privileged class who cherish conservative economic policy for the way it protects and bolsters their kind, but who happen to endorse liberal social views—most likely because they were born in a blue part of the country. Denying that privilege, and weaponizing it against Sanders supporters who actually give a shit about the sprawling, growing underclass of America, is a dirty trick that would make Karl Rove proud.

But like any other lie, it won’t held up to scrutiny. Let’s address and debunk the privilege argument, Q&A style.

Q: First off, why wouldn’t you support the Democratic candidate in the general election?

A: Normally, I’d hesitate to start here, but the fact is that Bernie Sanders progressives have a pretty simple platform that can be expressed quickly. It goes like this: We believe that America’s corporate agenda has made life very difficult for average Americans, particularly the working class and the poor. Through free trade agreements that killed manufacturing, to welfare reform that demonized (and, let’s be honest, criminalized) the poor, to the brutal class warfare of trickle-down economics, to the corruption of the political process with corporate money that was codified by Citizens United, we’ve badly lost our way. It’s killing our economy, our environment, and leading us on a path to destruction. We need radical reforms, or we’re totally, historically boned.

Bernie Sanders? He fights hard for those radical reforms. Hillary Clinton? She opposes them, either directly or via the insidious back channel of corporate influence. I don’t trust someone who “opposes” Citizens United, but has a super-PAC. I don’t trust someone that says she’ll lead the fight against climate change, but takes big money from fossil fuel companies. I don’t trust someone who says she’ll go to war with the big banks, but can’t even release the transcripts from her speeches to Goldman Sachs, for which she made hundreds of thousands of dollars. I don’t trust someone who says she opposes the TPP, but supported it wholeheartedly before the campaign, and was a huge advocate for NAFTA during her husband’s administration. And on top of all that, I don’t believe that an avowed war hawk who voted for the war in Iraq and who basically started the whole Libya disaster will keep us out of foreign conflicts that cost us dearly in money and lives.

Why don’t I believe any of this? Because I’m not a fucking idiot. Hillary Clinton doesn’t come close to representing progressive values, and I won’t vote for her.

But that’s not why we’re here…

Q: The problem is, if enough people are like you, the Republican nominee could win the general election. Do you want Donald Trump or Ted Cruz as president? Wouldn’t that be worse?

No, I don’t think so, and here’s why. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have abysmally low national favorability ratings. In recent polls, Clinton’s hover around -20, while Trump’s have exceeded -30. On a broad level, people don’t like or trust either one of them, but our two-party system is set up in such a way that to win their respective nominations, all they need is a majority of the party base. And, at least so far, they’re getting it.

Hold that thought for a second, and consider the way American politics have transformed in the past two decades. We’ve seen a tremendous polarization of the voting public, and this year, the establishment of both parties has taken a huge hit. On the Democratic side, the success of a candidate like Bernie Sanders—a Democratic socialist, for God’s sake—would not have been possible even four years ago. He may come up short, but he’s turned Clinton’s coronation into a dogfight, and suddenly the progressive left—dormant for so, so long—is the strongest it’s been since the FDR years. On the Republican side, the establishment has been blown to pieces. Trump has galvanized poor white voters who have finally understood that the GOP is the party of rich people, and that they’ve been used. Throw in some racist rhetoric, and they’ve flocked to Trump in droves.

I bring this up because I think that when you consider the reactionary nature of our modern politics, combined with the significant disdain held for both Clinton and Trump on a national level and the crises that are facing this country, there is a very, very good chance that either of their presidencies will fail badly.

Q: But wait, isn’t it hard to unseat an incumbent?

A: That’s only true if your view of American elections comes with a strong recency bias. Here’s a trivia question for you: When was the last time that the same party had back-to-back presidents win two terms? The answer is James Madison and James Monroe, both “Democratic-Republicans,” in the early 1800s.

Does that change your view on the likelihood of Clinton winning two terms?

Q: Fine, but if either Clinton or Trump are going to fall flat on their faces, wouldn’t you rather live with the failure of a Democrat rather than a Republican?

A: Oh hell no. Remember how the electorate has become incredibly reactionary? Who do you think would benefit from four years of a failed Clinton presidency? The answer is the right wing, and the candidate they cook up for 2020, on the heels of her failure, could make Donald Trump look like Walter Mondale.

But it’s not just about the president, is it? With an unpopular figure in the oval office in 2016, you can bet that the 2018 midterm elections are going to go the other way, and by 2020 there’s a solid chance that the opposition party will hold both houses of Congress. Maybe more importantly, state elections, from governors to the legislature, will swing to the far side in the 2020 presidential election, and that’s a census year, which means that whoever holds power will get to draw congressional maps and define the political direction of our country for the next decade. Losing power in 2020 will be a complete and utter disaster for either party.

But, just as Clinton could spark a conservative backlash, Trump, I believe, would give America’s growing left enough energy to elect actual progressives across the board. Some argue that the left would actually have to move even more toward the center to regain lost influence, but I reject this argument wholeheartedly—we are in an era of flux, and we’re not far from a progressive wave crashing over this country. As I stated above, my belief is that this type of radical transformation is the only thing that can save us.

Voting for Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, will have the dual effect of inviting these consequences, and communicating to the Democratic party establishment that they can ignore progressives, because we’ll support the status quo when they really need us. Why should we make any decision that would simultaneously undercut our growing power and subject us to total Republican domination in four years’ time?

Q: Fine, but what happens to everyone who suffers for the next four years under a Republican president? You might be fine, because you’re not struggling like so many poor people and minorities, but don’t you care what happens to them in the short term? What about all the women who will suffer if abortion is banned, and who may even die from back-alley abortions gone wrong?

A: Now we’re getting to the crux of my argument, so I want to state it as clearly as possible:

I believe that the consequences of a failed Clinton presidency, which entails total Republican control, will be far, far worse for everyone—but especially the poor—than four years of Trump or Cruz right now.

Let me repeat that, with emphasis:

I believe that the consequences of a failed Clinton presidency, which entails total Republican control, will be far, far worse for everyone—but especially the poor—than four years of Trump or Cruz right now.

I care deeply about the plight of this country, or, as I said before, I’d either be apathetic or Republican. And my political instincts tell me that our collective suffering is going to be far worse if Hillary Clinton wins the nomination this year.

Now, I fully admit that this is a theory. I hope it’s informed, but I know it’s uncertain. Donald Trump could abolish elections and burn the country to the ground, or Ted Cruz could install cameras in every home and turn American into a nightmarish version of 1984. I’m not asking you to believe in my theory. If you believe that it’s idiotic or naive—as many will—then go ahead and obliterate me. What I am asking you to believe is that I believe it. That’s a critical distinction here, because while I can accept counter-arguments, I won’t accept the disingenuous notion that my opposition to Hillary Clinton is based on willful privilege, and a blithe indifference toward the suffering of other Americans.

Bernie Sanders supporters are passionate. We sometimes embarrass ourselves with our passion, or turn people off, which is the price of giving a shit. Say what you will about us, but if you call us apathetic or aloof, you have missed the point entirely.

Q: Hey, but what about the Supreme Cou—

A: GODDAMIT, THERE WILL ALWAYS BE SUPREME COURT SEATS UP FOR GRABS. IF WE LET THAT DEFINE HOW WE VOTE, WE WOULD NEVER, EVER MAKE ANY PROGRESS IN THIS COUNTRY. THEY’RE ALL OLD! ALL OF THEM! THEY HAVE ALWAYS BEEN OLD, AND THEY WILL ALWAYS BE OLD! YOU KNOW THIS MERRICK GARLAND DUDE THAT OBAMA NOMINATED? HE’S 63. THAT’S A “NEW” SUPREME COURT JUSTICE. THAT DUDE COULD DIE. AND SURE, WE COULD ALL DIE, AT ANY MOMENT, BUT HE’S LEGITIMATELY OLD ENOUGH TO DIE IN THE NEXT FOUR YEARS, JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER SUPREME COURT JUSTICE.

STOP TRYING TO STRONG-ARM SANDERS SUPPORTERS INTO VOTING BECAUSE SOME SUPREME COURT SEATS MAY BE UP FOR GRABS. JUST STOP. THEY ARE ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS UP FOR GRABS. YES, SOME OF THE JUSTICES MIGHT DIE. YOU KNOW WHAT ELSE MIGHT HAPPEN? NONE OF THEM MAY DIE. WE HAVE NO IDEA, SO WHY SHOULD THAT DICTATE OUR VOTE?

(ten minutes of heavy breathing)

WHYYY?!

Q: Okay, calm down. Let me ask you this—as a young-ish white American without immediate financial anxieties, are you really denying your privilege?

Nope. I recognize my privilege. What I’m denying is that this privilege precludes me from taking a broad view of the problems in our country, or understanding and caring about the suffering of others.

If you tell me that privilege equals a kind of cosmic good luck, a roll of the dice that brought me onto this planet with built-in economic and structural advantages, then I’m with you 100 percent. If you tell me that privilege automatically makes me an ignorant greedy pig who is constitutionally incapable of empathy, then I’m with you zero percent.

But you realize I’m going to dismiss your entire argument with something like, “oh look, another white male tells us he’s not privileged!”, right?

Yes, I realize that. After all, this is the Internet. But if anybody is still reading, and still listening, I would ask you to watch this interview with Bernie Sanders conducted by Cenk Uygur yesterday. It’s easy to be blasé about politics, or to resort to ad hominem attacks, or to view things cynically. It’s harder to spend a lifetime actually fighting for an inclusive vision of America, and beating your head against a wall of entrenched interests and the profit-as-policy ideology. That’s what Sanders has done, and that’s why he’s an aspirational figure for his supporters. Disagree with the mentality if you want, but don’t paint us with the brush of privilege—it’s dishonest, it’s condescending, and it’s wrong. And you’re using it to avoid looking your own candidate in the eye.