Hilary Versus Bernie – It’s Supposed To Be Hard

DEM 2016 Debate

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, left, and Hillary Rodham Clinton talk before the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

Entertainment value aside, there is not a lot to say in favour of the way the US runs its elections. However, it seems to me that a lot of people are intent on throwing away one of its few good points – that every four years it pretty much forces people to think.

In most countries, in you’re not one of the few signed up to a political party, you really don’t need to do too much hard thinking about politics at all. Choose the party that appeals to you most, and every few years walk into the polling booth and tick the box next to the appropriate candidate. If you live somewhere with preferential voting you might need to think about who gets your subsequent preferences. That aside, the only hard choices may be if the party you vote for alienates you so much you go looking for someone else, or if a new party appears that catches your eye.

Americans can do the same thing come November, should they choose, but millions will also make a choice before then from within their parties. For this, they can’t just rely on past decisions, they have to make the choice all over again, and hopefully that will lead to some serious thinking about what each candidate represents and their respective merits.

People considering voting for Trump or Cruz probably aren’t doing a lot of hard thinking, but things should be different on the Democrat side. Which is why I am disappointed at how many people seem to have just made a choice between Bernie and Hilary and decided that this is where there thinking can stop. They don’t need to acknowledge that there are a lot of different criteria to choose between the candidates, and it is entirely possible that each of them scores better on some. No, no, let’s just pretend that whoever we have picked is better on everything.

It’s all a bit this, really.

How You See Your Candidate.... - Imgur

Except that both candidates are far more intelligent, and three dimensional, than Jar Jar Binks.

I realize that for many Americans who are actively campaigning for one candidate or the other, they may not want to admit that they do see some points where the opposing side would be better. That’s fair enough – it’s not the job of an advocate to make part of the other side’s case.

But I’m a bit disappointed in a lot of my Australian friends on this. True, I’m mostly just going on your Facebook and Twitter posts, maybe there is a lot more subtle thinking offline, and this certainly doesn’t apply to everyone, but I see a lot of people who enthusiastically posting links that all point to the same conclusion, without a lot of commentary suggesting any nuance. I’m also directing this at people I greatly respect, who will no doubt never read it, who present themselves as commentators rather than campaigners, yet are still spending most of their time on one side.

To be clear here, I’m not doing the classic “I’m so impartial” thinkpiece. I’m hoping Sanders will win, although I don’t think it is likely he will (writing this while Nevada is still voting). But in doing so, I am deeply aware of a lot of reasons to prefer Hilary. You might not agree with me on all of these, but fellow Sanders supporters, do you really agree on none?

The closest I see from most people feeling the Bern to an acknowledgment of complexity is that “they’d like to vote for a woman”. Personally I think that is pretty important. The global signficance of a woman as the most powerful person on Earth would be pretty huge. To pick just one example, would parents in places where female infanticide or sex-selective abortions are popular be quite so keen to be rid of daughters if there was a woman in the Oval office?

But it is far from the only reason. It’s true that current polling shows Sanders doing better against each Republican candidate than Clinton, but if you think that is the last word on electability you haven’t paid much attention to American history. Given how truly awful the Republican field is, I can’t see how anyone who cares about progressive politics could not be a bit worried that choosing Sanders could hand the White House to Trump, Cruz or Rubio. In particular, I’m not impressed with the blithe suggestions that higher turnout will fix any loss of centrist voters. Plenty of people have said that before, they’ve seldom been right. Moreover, while Sanders’ capacity to mobilize youth has been amazing, with Democrat attendance in Iowa and New Hampshire well down on 2008, I’m far from convinced that this vast disenfranchised mass will turn up.

Personally, I am also worried about a lot of the handwaving in Sanders promises. Certainly a campaign that was almost certainly not expecting to be anywhere near as strong as it has turned out to be can be forgiven for not thinking it needed all that much detail, but when you’re making promises this big, it would be good not to rely on magic asterisks to show they can be done. Are there no other Sanders supporters who feel the same?

Turning to the other side, I’m frankly amazed my the number of people saying, “Hilary believes in the same things Bernie does, she’s just more pragmatic.” Really? Because we’ve got quite a long record to indicate what Clinton believes, and that’s not how I see it. It’s not just that she boasts of her friendship with Kissinger and supported the illegal Iraq invasion, even after a lot of Republicans had realised it was a disaster. Someone who would vote against a ban on cluster bombs, a weapon used almost exclusively for killing civilians isn’t taking a pragmatic path to peace, they just don’t value human life very high. Nor was this a case of Sanders versus the Democratic establishment – two thirds of Democrat Senators were for the ban (Sanders was still in the House btw), but not Clinton (or Biden for that matter).

Clinton is running away quite hard from some of her record in other areas as well, such as her previous support for the mass incarceration of, well pretty much anyone the police don’t like, but do you really prefer that to someone who has opposed punitive law enforcement his whole life?

Just as I am disappointed that those posting for Sanders can’t acknowledge his weaknesses, I really wish that some of the people fiercely defending Clinton would admit that the vast amounts of money she is receiving from businesses with appalling human rights records are almost certainly going to influence her decision-making. Is it not at least a little bit inspiring the extent to which Sanders has built his campaign on small donations that couldn’t influence him if they tried?

There may be legitimate questions about the economic competence of Sanders advisers (although Robert Reich’s support should count for something), but at least they’re trying to build a better world. Doesn’t Clinton’s history of surrounding herself with people who spend the rest of their lives sabotaging every struggle for human rights and environmental justice they can bother you at all?

I know this whole post sounds whiny, judgmental and holier than thou. But I’m saying this because I I’m referring to some really smart people, much smarter than me in many cases. Which means I think it’s possible to do better. Support your candidate sure, and if you’re out on the campaign trail bury your doubts. But if you’re far enough away that your posts won’t be changing votes, or you’ve admitted that’s not your job, then take the opportunity this provides, to look at the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate and think about what an ideal progressive movement, built out of the best of each, would look like.


About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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