The inevitable has finally happened: Bernie Sanders supporters are beginning to openly proclaim that, if Hillary Clinton defeats their champion in the upcoming Democratic presidential primaries, they will not support her in the subsequent election.
I refer to this trend as “inevitable” because, as a Sanders supporter myself, I’ve heard this sentiment privately uttered in numerous conversations with (otherwise sympathetic) minds. More recently, it was articulated by H. A. Goodman in an editorial for Salon arguing that “I want an honest progressive, not a Republican, which is why I will not support Trump or Clinton. Bernie Sanders will win the presidency in 2016 because there are millions of people like me, and I’ll no longer be intimidated by the phrase, ‘You can’t let a Republican win!’”
There are three problems with this reasoning – one factual, one strategic, and one ethical. Let’s address them in order.
1. Hillary Clinton may not be as liberal as Bernie Sanders, either in her background or current policy positions, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t liberal.
There are plenty of valid liberal concerns about Clinton, from her decision as Senator to support the Iraq War to her unsettling coziness with Wall Street. While this certainly places her to the right of Sanders, that does not mean that she isn’t a liberal herself. During her husband’s presidency, Clinton took the lead in pushing for a progressive health care reform plan that was thwarted by many of the same special interest and ideological groups that later coalesced against the Affordable Care Act. Throughout the ‘00s, Clinton developed a reputation as a staunch legislative progressive, accumulating a record that placed her to the left of 85 percent of her fellow senators. There are even issues like gun control in which Clinton’s stance makes Sanders seem conservative by comparison. As Harry Enten recently explained at FiveThirtyEight.com, “Clinton rates as a ‘hard core liberal’ per the OnTheIssues.org scale. She is as liberal as Elizabeth Warren and barely more moderate than Bernie Sanders. And while Obama is also a “hard core liberal,” Clinton again was rated as more liberal than Obama.”
Of course, none of this would mean very much if Clinton wasn’t also campaigning on progressive policy stances. This brings us to our next point.
2. If Sanders supporters want his candidacy to have a lasting historical impact in the event that he doesn’t win the nomination, their best chance rests in supporting Clinton’s candidacy.
Pundits have already noted that Clinton’s rhetoric and policy stances have moved to the left as a result of Sanders’ campaign. Her current platform advocates raising the minimum wage to $15-an-hour in high cost cities and states, raising capital gains taxes on high-earners, and protecting employees’ right to form labor unions… all positions that, to be sure, are either shared by Sanders or still fall slightly to the right of him, but none of which could be fairly described as anything other than progressive. Like Sanders, she has made income inequality a front-and-center issue in her campaign message, denouncing the American business culture that devalues employees’ contributions and declaring that we should “reward businesses who invest in long-term value rather than the quick buck—because that leads to higher growth for the economy, higher wages for workers, and yes, bigger profits, everybody will have a better time.”
Unlike Sanders, Clinton has also taken a leading role in confronting sexism and gender inequality in this country. In addition to stances like denouncing the gender pay gap and supporting a “high quality” child care tax credit, Clinton has refused to remain silent in the face of the vicious misogyny that she has already started to face in this campaign, in contrast to her downplaying of the comparable sexism she encountered during the 2008 presidential election. If there is one issue in which she has been a true trailblazer, it is this one, and to minimize her significance as a key figure in the story of American feminism is in its own right illiberal.
3. Even if you feel like you’re being forced to choose the lesser evil, that doesn’t mean there aren’t moral consequences for making the wrong choice (such as by not voting or casting a quixotic third-party ballot).
It is telling that Goodman, like so many of the Sanders supporters I personally know, feels “intimidated” by the argument that they can’t allow a Republican to win the White House next year. Although it is problematic that our two-party system severely restricts candidate choices in our political system, the underlying emotion here seems to be one of pride as well as principle. The idea is that, if you vote for the lesser evil rather than the greater good, you are succumbing to social expectations and sacrificing your own ideals in the process.
The flaw with this thinking is, quite simply, that presidential elections have serious consequences. A Republican victory would not simply mean that our side “lost” and the other side “won.” It would have a profound impact on the lives of millions if not billions of people: For the countless working class individuals and families who need presidential policies that will stimulate job growth and improve our collective standard of living, such as they received under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and would be much less likely to experience under a Republican administration; for the children who need our country’s leadership to recognize and seriously confront man-made climate change before our planet is rendered uninhabitable; for the Americans who have benefited from President Obama’s health care reform plan since it was implemented and could lose their insurance or worse; for the generation of senior citizens who have paid into Social Security throughout their lives and would have that safety net delayed or ripped away completely; and for historically marginalized groups, from Mexican immigrants and women to members of the LGBT community, who deserve to be led by a party that doesn’t actively reward presidential candidates for spewing hatred against them.
If this election was an abstract thought experiment or parlor game, the ideological intransigence preached by many Sanders supporters right now could be justified. Because the stakes are so high, however, it borders on unconscionable.
None of this means that you think Sanders is somehow an inferior candidate to Clinton. I actually disagree with that assumption and share the consensus view among Sanders’ supporters that the opposite may actually be true. Recent polls show Sanders defeating Trump and Bush by landslide margins, even as Clinton’s poll numbers remain problematic -- indeed, arguably more problematic than Sanders’.
In short, there are practical as well as ideological reasons why I think Sanders is a better candidate than Clinton (albeit not necessarily the best Democratic candidate in the race). That said, I also recognize that Clinton has impressive credentials for the job of the presidency, from her pioneering years as First Lady to her careers as Senator from New York and a consistently popular Secretary of State. During that time she has accumulated reasonably left-leaning record – one can fairly hesitate to call it solidly liberal – and is running for president this year on a range of ideas that we can get behind, often because they first came from our side.
When the dust has settled, we need to remember that, in an election as important as this one, all Democrats are ultimately on the same side – from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to the millions of moderate, staunch, and/or radical liberals who support them. If we want to prevent the rise of a devastatingly extreme right-wing government, as well as have a foothold to push for a more liberal agenda with the future Democratic president, then we should do the smart and right thing by supporting Clinton in the event of her nomination. The stakes are too high – and the opportunity is too great – for us to stay home.