It’s election season in the United States, and as always, I am getting sucked in to what has become the best reality television show out there (can you believe the latest plot twist?). Things have gotten especially heated in the last couple of weeks as primary elections have started happening and we are starting to see votes to go along with all the polling and debates. Given everything that is going on, I thought it would be worthwhile to write down some of my thoughts in an effort to clarify them for myself.
We are told every election cycle that “this election may be the most important one of our time” but this year that really is the case for one reason: the Supreme Court. Even assuming that congress continues to be worthless at getting anything done, yesterday’s death of Justice Scalia has reminded everyone of how significant the next president is going to be in terms of nominating Justices. It’s looking quite likely that, come hell or high water, Republicans in Congress will fall on their swords rather than allow Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia to be confirmed before the election. Already they are making statements about how the voters should have a say in who will replace Scalia (apparently forgetting that Supreme Court justices are not supposed to be elected officials, and that their nomination already reflects the will of the people because the people chose the president who is making the nomination). And it’s not just Scalia who may need to be replaced. Anthony Kennedy is almost 80, the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg is 82, and Stephen Breyer is 77. What I’m saying is that, even if you stop reading right here, you should at least be clear that the next president is likely to have an influence on the Supreme Court that will be felt in the Court’s decisions for decades. For that reason alone, this election is a Big Deal and you should vote and encourage everyone you know to do the same.
That said, let’s talk about the primaries. You will not be surprised to learn that, as someone whose politics were shaped during the Iraq War, the beginning of the recession, and the Republican party’s headlong lurch away from reality (which has a “well-known liberal bias“), and who has spent nearly half my life in college towns surrounded by highly educated, mostly liberal people, my views are quite liberal as well. So I will primarily be talking about the Democratic primaries in what follows.
I think everyone can agree that the Republican candidates are a mess, so I’m not going to say much about them. Along with much of the rest of the country I find it morbidly fascinating that Trump is the frontrunner candidate, with Cruz not far behind, and the “establishment” candidates are in the back of the pack, sniping at each other instead of taking on the frontrunner(s). Here’s what I will say about the fight for the Republican nominee: I am torn between hoping that Trump wins because he is so clearly an awful choice for President that the Democrats would basically be guaranteed a win in November, and being terrified that Trump will win the nomination and then, when the Party closes ranks behind him, he will actually have a shot.
In any case, what has really been on my mind especially since the primaries started is the choice between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nominee. As I said, my peers tend to be young, highly educated, upper-middle class, and predominantly white. Which is to say that my facebook feed is basically a non-stop Bernie Sanders love fest (often verging into blatant propaganda). And I have to say I sympathize. I agree with a lot of what Bernie stands for and he is my clear favorite at the gut, emotional level. I don’t really like the idea of a President Clinton #2 for the simple reason that the idea of political dynasties doesn’t feel right to me. I really like that most of Sanders’ funding comes from small donors rather than wealthy people. I have been known on more than one occasion to speak wistfully about how I wish my country would adopt some of the demonstrably effective policies of certain “socialist” countries, where, yes taxes are quite high but there is universal health care, reasonable paid leave, minimal gun violence, minimal police violence, etc. I think Sanders’ message that income inequality is the biggest issue facing the country is basically correct, and I respect that he has been so consistent over his long career in fighting against it. Sanders also comes across as a genuinely good and honest person, something rare in politics.
But here’s the thing: while the types of changes that Sanders is fighting for would be wonderful and I think they would have significant benefits in the long run, I am (a) not convinced that he could win the general election, and (b) am not convinced that those changes would happen if he were elected. On the electability front, right now Sanders is enjoying a surge of interest after doing well in the first two primaries. If that momentum continues, and his viscerally appealing progressive message continues to connect with voters and drive them to the polls, then yes he might have a chance. But I think it is important to remember that so far he has only been facing other Democrats and despite his long career he is not well known by many voters. His prospects look rosy right now because he did better than expected in Iowa and won a blowout victory in the very friendly territory of New Hampshire, so he’s getting a lot of good press. And Republicans are happy to let him keep doing what he’s doing: they have their own issues to deal with right now, and the turmoil and divisiveness he is causing within the Democratic party suits them just fine. But if we end up with Sanders as the Democratic nominee, you can expect some brutal and highly effective attacks from the right. The guy is a self-described socialist who wants to raise taxes and thinks Obamacare doesn’t go nearly far enough. A Sanders nomination would do for Republican voter turnout in the general election what a Trump nomination would do for Democratic voter turnout.
Let me say that again because I don’t think a lot of liberals appreciate this. You know how you feel about Trump? How you hate everything he stands for? How you almost hope he is the nominee because he would be so easy for your party to run against? That’s how Republicans feel about Bernie. If he becomes the nominee, things are not going to be pretty. Now, I’m not saying Clinton would have a cake-walk in this regard. She has been hated by Republicans forever and will also likely inspire many of them to turn out and cast their “Not Clinton” vote. But I think the difference here is that Republican hatred for Hillary is a known quantity. They’ve already basically thrown everything they can at her. I highly doubt there is anything new that will come out if she becomes the nominee. Sanders on the other hand, is fresh meat.
The downside for Hillary’s electability is that she lacks the emotional appeal. I don’t think she will inspire Democrats to come out to vote in droves the way Obama did and the way Bernie might if he can ride the enthusiasm that has been building. She lacks the simple emotional narrative that Bernie has because she’s the pragmatic choice, and if you’re not going to blow up the status quo, then you have to work with it and it’s messy. Hillary is the choice for incremental progress, for working within the current system. Put another way, Bernie is the Hail Mary, Clinton is the slow, painful ground game. Bernie is the heroic cavalry charge with gleaming sabers, Clinton is trench warfare.
But that gets me to the second point: Suppose Sanders not only wins the nomination, but is elected president on his wave of populist support. How exactly will all the changes he is proposing make it through Congress? His response to this so far has basically been to say that we need a political revolution. People who don’t normally vote need to get swept up in this revolution and drive Republicans out of office across the land such that Democrats can pass the legislation that they really want. I don’t know how else to put this: that’s not going to happen. Yeah, maybe a wave of Sanders support would increase turnout enough to flip a few seats. It might even win back the Senate. But the odds of gaining enough ground to be filibuster proof? Or of taking over the House as well? I’m not holding my breath, and I find it hard to vote for a guy whose plan for getting things done is to count on a political revolution. Not that such a disruption of a broken system wouldn’t be thrilling. I’m just saying I don’t think we can count on it happening. When the other side is dug in for trench warfare, your cavalry charge is not likely to go well.
So okay, what’s a voter to do if they find themselves in the same boat as me, where they like Sanders’ policies but are skeptical of his chances of success? Well, I found it interesting that, when I took the very detailed I Side With quiz (If you take it, be sure to check each question for additional, more nuanced options), my results indicate that I agree with Bernie Sanders on 95% of issues, and that I agree with Hillary Clinton on 93% of issues. 2% is not a meaningful difference in this context. And apparently Clinton and Sanders voted the same 93% of the time in the Senate. That’s not to say that within the 7% of votes where they disagreed there aren’t some meaningful issues. There are. But it does indicate that in terms of policy, they have more in common than it might seem during a contentious primary where they are trying their hardest to seem different. Their bigger differences are more in terms of philosophy and how they plan to accomplish their goals, than in the goals themselves.
All that said, who am I going to vote for? For the primary, I think it will depend on how things look when it’s Arizona’s turn to vote. If the race is close or if Bernie is winning, I will vote for Clinton because I mostly agree with her on policy and I think she’s the most qualified and electable candidate out there for the office of President. If Clinton is already winning, I will vote for Bernie because I think the Democratic party needs to learn from his candidacy that what he stands for resonates with a large number of voters. (If nothing else, I hope his candidacy paves the way for a presidential run by Elizabeth Warren in 4 or 8 years.)
For the general election, I will vote for whoever is the Democratic nominee. John Scalzi summed up my feelings eloquently a few weeks ago with this statement:
But at the end of the day, what matters is that each of them, any of them, is so drastically preferable to any member of the howling sampler box of Dunning-Kruger that is the current GOP field that, to me, and for the purposes of my presidential vote in November, the policy and personality differences between Clinton and Sanders and O’Malley are immaterial. Whoever the Democratic candidate is, they will get my vote.
To all of my friends out there who are on the Bernie train: I get it. I even mostly agree with you! But remember that as contentious as the primary gets, we’re all on the same side in the long run. You need to vote in the general election no matter who the Democratic nominee is.
(Obligatory disclaimer: What I post here on my website represents my own personal views and not those of my employer or anyone else.)