“It’s alright, you want to fight, you’ve got a hunger. I was just like you when I was younger. Head full of fantasies of dying like a martyr? Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.”
So says George Washington to a feisty Alexander Hamilton early into Hamilton. Oddly enough, after a week of figuring out what to make of the “Bernie or Bust” crowd hanging around the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, I think I’m gonna go with that.
To explain: The “Bernie or Bust” contingent is a group of left-wing voters who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries with such fervor—and opposed Hillary Clinton with such white-hot disdain—that they refuse to vote for Clinton in the November election against Donald Trump, either by voting for a third party candidate like Jill Stein or Gary Johnson, or simply by not voting at all.
While it’s futile to make sweeping characterizations about this or any gaggle of unhappy Americans, the Bernie Bros do have one big thing in common: They’re all acting like children.
Now, I don’t mean that in an entirely negative way. After all, when children aren’t throwing tantrums, hurling food across the kitchen and generally making a mess of everything, they can be quite charming.
Indeed, the most singular and endearing component of childhood is innocence. To be a kid in America is to bask in that one, glorious moment of bliss before reality sets in—before all the disappointments and compromises of daily life materialize for the first time, slowly but steadily crushing your spirit and forcing you to confront the fact that nothing is ever quite as wonderful as you imagine it to be.
The complexities of life will always induce grownups to secretly crave the simplicity of childhood. It’s just that some people take that temptation a little too literally and never quite grow up at all.
Enter Bernie Sanders and his “political revolution,” which promised to temper America’s class divisions and force the crooks on Wall Street to play by the same rules as everyone else.
Morally, it was a presidential platform that was darn near impossible to resist—not least among liberals, who tend to value social justice and economic equality above all other considerations.
I certainly fell for it, and I’m glad I did. In Sanders, I found a man whose vision for a more perfect America aligned almost perfectly with my own and whose character and integrity ranked him just a shade below Atticus Finch.
So I voted for him in the Massachusetts primary on March 1 and hoped that his trajectory as a candidate would mirror that of Barack Obama in 2008.
But then something funny happened: It didn’t. From one end of the primary calendar to the other, Sanders accumulated an impressive number of delegates, but Clinton accumulated even more. In the end, Clinton’s lead proved commanding and ultimately insurmountable, leading reasonable people like me to accept the verdict of the electorate and move on with our lives.
However, this feeling was not mutual among all Sanders enthusiasts, as a small—but extremely loud—faction announced that their support for the Vermont senator was non-transferable in the fall campaign.
Their argument, in short, is that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are equally repulsive candidates—or nearly so—and that a vote for either would be a betrayal of everything that Sanders represents. Specifically, they claim that Clinton is a corrupt establishment stooge who stole the nomination through an inherently unfair Democratic Party system, thereby removing any legitimacy to her claim as the Democratic nominee for president.
As anyone with two eyes and a brain can see, this interpretation of the Democratic primary process is not entirely without merit. As the recently-leaked e-mails from the Democratic National Committee demonstrate, the party establishment really, really didn’t want Sanders to prevail and did everything it could to ensure that he didn’t. Anyone who thinks Clinton and Sanders were competing on a level playing field is living in a fantasy world.
However, all fantasy worlds are not created equal, and Bernie loyalists—caught up in their furious indignation toward the DNC—are now living in one of their own: A world of nihilism, wish-thinking, self-righteousness and pointless wrath. Not content with the reality in which they actually live, they have opted to invent a new reality out of whole cloth.
In this alternate universe, there is no such thing as defeat. If your candidate doesn’t lose fair and square, then the results are null and void and all subsequent events have no true significance. Rather than acknowledging that one battle has ended and another, quite different battle has begun, you—like certain Japanese soldiers in 1945—continue to fight the first battle long after the enemy—and, indeed, your own goddamned candidate—has packed up and gone home. Most crucially: Because you didn’t get what you wanted in the end, you make it your mission to ensure that no one else gets what they want, either. You’d rather the whole world burn than admit that life isn’t always fair.
It’s an attitude that is positively Trumpian in its disregard for nuance, its contempt for established rules and procedures, its abdication of all personal responsibility and—again—its utter childishness in the face of unattractive choices.
The essence of “Bernie or Bust” is that if America cannot have a saint like Bernie, it might as well have a lunatic like Trump. Those who genuinely believe such a thing reveal themselves to know absolutely nothing about either candidate—and even less about Hillary Clinton—while those who don’t believe it—i.e. people who want Trump to win just so they can say “I told you so”—possess a level of narcissism and selfishness that would be embarrassing to anyone with even a modicum of self-awareness.
And yet, I cannot completely disown this unruly rabble of Sanders holdouts, since—like Washington in his first encounter with Hamilton—I know exactly how they feel and have felt that way myself in the past.
Following the kerfuffle in Florida in 2000, for instance, I basically shared the view of half of America that George W. Bush did not win that election fair and square and that the system was rigged against Al Gore. In 2008, when Hillary Clinton claimed delegates from Florida and Michigan even after the results of those primaries had been invalidated, I similarly felt that an electoral injustice had occurred—one that, under slightly different circumstances, could easily have tipped the entire nomination in her favor.
And by the way, I can’t say I was wrong in thinking those things at the time, since the preponderance of the evidence suggested they were—and still are—objectively true.
However, amidst all my griping about how the system is corrupt, broken, sinister and frustrating, I eventually—and reluctantly—learned a critical lesson: There is more to life than just being right.
Returning again to the Hamilton quote: At this moment, you Bernie Bros could choose to martyr yourselves at the altar of democratic socialism, refusing to compromise a centimeter of its (and Sanders’s) ideals, dismissing anyone who falls short of those ideals as a sellout or a crook, and patting yourselves on the back for your moral superiority and ideological purity.
Or, conversely, you could recognize—as socialists generally do—that we live in a society in which all members must make a good faith effort to participate and contribute, lest we cede the entire enterprise to the worst elements of our culture. We are all familiar with the axiom about what happens when good men do nothing (look it up, if you must); it’s as true now as it was then.
Here’s the deal: Barring that much-longed-for meteor strike, either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is going to be president on January 20. This is true whether we want it to be true or not. Accordingly, each of us has exactly two choices: Either we can acknowledge the twin realities that are staring us directly in the face and pick the least-imperfect option—as responsible American citizens have done every four years since 1789—or we can retreat into our magical fantasy world where difficult choices aren’t necessary because we’ve already figured everything out and nobody disagrees with any of it.
Look, I’m sorry if this is the first time that America has broken your heart, but you’d better prepare yourself, because it just might happen again.
Dreaming is easy, young man. Waking up is harder.