If I have learned anything from the last 10 months of American politics—and “if” is definitely the operative word—it’s that presidential primary campaigns are best enjoyed from afar.
While the fall’s general election will (and should) be an intoxicating fray that unleashes every last passion in every last voter—with the very meaning of America up for grabs—the intraparty process that precedes it is, in the end, just plain unpleasant and depressing.
To be clear: Here I am obviously not talking about the other party’s pre-convention adventures. For Democrats and other liberals, this year’s GOP contest has unquestionably been the greatest reality show on Earth—a laugh-a-minute roller coaster of lunacy that has called into question the very existence of the bottom of the barrel—and I take it on faith that dyed-in-the-wool conservatives feel similarly about the nonsense occurring on the other side of the aisle.
But let’s not kid ourselves: Within the ranks of the respective parties, the 2016 election to date has been one long, terrible dirge that cannot end soon enough and—because life is nothing if not unfair—will almost surely go on forever.
It may seem like a distant memory now, but there was a time—a solid half-year, in fact—when the Democratic Party contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders (and, for a few minutes, Martin O’Malley) was held up as a model of civility, maturity and class—a high-minded exchange of ideas blissfully bereft of pettiness and ad hominem snipes, thereby serving as a dramatic counterpoint to the hysterical buffoonery breaking out over on the right.
Today—with 38 contests in the books and 19 still to go—the tenor of the Democratic race is looking increasingly and crushingly similar to the sort of infantile gobbledygook that liberals were so sure they could (and, for a time, did) rise above.
At this moment, the clash between Clinton and Sanders—and, perhaps more potently, between their loyal fans—has become exactly what both sides vowed it would not: A volley of character-based taunts and insinuations whereby one’s support for the “wrong” candidate is a direct reflection of one’s integrity and intelligence and not rooted in, say, an honest disagreement over principle or—heaven forbid!—a difference of opinion about the meaning of a set of facts.
Democrats like to think of themselves as the smarter and more grown-up of America’s two political franchises, but that claim has become progressively less credible over the last several weeks. Speaking as a—well, not technically a Democrat, but certainly a Democrat-adjacent—I regret to note this is the first time in memory that I have become disappointed—and in some cases, slightly disgusted—by the behavior of many members of my own ideological club—in particular, fellow admirers of a certain senator from Vermont.
In this, I don’t just mean the Bernie Bros—those piggish frat boys who have been mansplaining their way across the Internet in the vain hope that (female) Clinton supporters will finally see the light and realize that Sanders has been their one true love all along. You know, because what could be more irresistible than being told you’re a credulous dolt by someone sipping from a barrel of Kool-Aid and wearing a tinfoil hat?
No, the bigger problem is the stubborn determination among nearly all members of Team Sanders not to recognize their candidate’s greatest flaws and—upon being informed of them—refusing to engage the notion that their hero might not be as perfect as they think he is.
I’ve written many flattering words about Sanders throughout this long cycle. I should note—if it wasn’t already clear—that my support for him has always been predicated on two essential facts: First, that he has strongly and consistently held a set of political opinions—a vision of how America should be, as it were—that is in near-perfect alignment with my own. And second, that he is an honest, dignified person who was completely sincere in wanting to run an entirely issues-based campaign.
What I did not weigh in my decision-making process, however, were a) the odds of Sanders securing the nomination, b) the feasibility of his actually being elected president, and c) the likely consequences of an eventual Sanders administration.
In other words, my Bernie bias has never been contingent on the notion that he could get Congress to do his bidding, that “breaking up the big banks” would be a manageable task or, indeed, that the arithmetic underpinning his most ambitious policy proposals makes any kind of mathematical sense.
I have doubts about all of those things, and I’m sorry to say that the man himself has not been terribly effective in alleviating these utterly reasonable concerns. By my calculations, the present Congress is in no particular mood to fund—through any means—such radical concepts as free public universities or genuinely universal healthcare. By economists’ calculations, Sanders’ own budget for these initiatives is based on a series of absurdly optimistic assumptions about how the U.S. economy will behave over the next decade or more.
Most damning of all, perhaps, is the following insight offered recently in a blog post by Robin Alperstein:
“Sanders has spent his life taking positions from a deeply ideological point of view, and has done so without having to ever really consider or answer for the consequences of his positions, because he’s so often been in the minority taking a protestor’s position. But a commander-in-chief and a president has to govern in real time and from a place of reality, not ideology, and must balance many competing interests and constituencies—two things Sanders not only has never done, but has demonstrated he has no interest in doing. It is not clear he even knows how.”
While the above is not completely accurate and is tinged with biases of its own—Alperstein opens the piece by saying, “I can barely stand [Sanders’] face”—the charge that Sanders is ultimately ill-suited to the particular demands of this job is a compelling one—or at least serious enough to give any honest person a moment’s pause: Knowing what we know about how our government actually functions—as opposed to how we want it to function—are we sure that, in electing a firebrand like Sanders, we’d really be getting what we think we want? Do we have any empirical evidence to suggest in the affirmative, other than our wildest hopes and dreams?
Maybe Bernie Sanders is exactly what he looks like: An advocate and agitator for left-wing causes that most of the Democratic Party has either abandoned or neutered to within an inch of their lives. Maybe he is actually more useful in a less-powerful position: By not having 300 million masters, he remains free to say exactly what he thinks and stay true to himself and his fellow travelers. Maybe an ideological contortionist like Hillary Clinton, even if not a better person, would nonetheless make a better president.
Or maybe Sanders is the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt and we don’t appreciate how lucky we’d be to have him. It’s an unknowable question—until it becomes knowable, that is—and so we are left to conjecture based on the available information.
Among all of that raw data, the one nugget I can never quite shake is how, when you lay Clinton’s and Sanders’ platforms side by side, you realize that at least 90 percent of their core beliefs are utterly interchangeable. That with the (significant) exception of foreign policy, Hillary and Bernie are in basic agreement on virtually every issue under the sun. They may differ about how (and with how much enthusiasm) to solve certain problems, but they are in perfect harmony about what those problems are.
That’s what is so depressing about the way millions of Democrats are worshiping at the altar of one candidate while burning the other in effigy. It just goes to show how the millennial college campus ethos of getting 100 percent of what you want while banishing even the hint of an unwelcome thought has metastasized into the broader culture. As recently suggested by one Susan Sarandon, certain Democratic voters would willingly surrender to a President Trump or President Cruz rather than sucking it up and voting for someone with whom they agree 90 percent of the time.
Such is the corrosive effect of presidential primary campaigns: They turn ideological friends and allies into mortal enemies and existential threats to the continuing health of the republic.
They’re not. They’re members of your own team and if you want even a fraction of your political desires indulged by our next commander-in-chief, you’re going to need them in your corner (and vice versa) from now until November 8 and beyond.
So knock it off. Quit making the perfect the enemy of the pretty good. Don’t let your ideals blind you to reality and—whatever you do—don’t even think about staying home on Election Day just because your favorite candidate’s name didn’t quite make it onto the final ballot.
Throwing a tantrum when things don’t go your way? That sounds like something Trump would do.