Sanders skeptics aren't stupid: It's time to stop saying they're ignorant and need education to bring them in line

A decade of progressives assuming their opponents are ignorant has led to an onslaught of Bernie-splaining

Published February 11, 2016 6:54PM (EST)

Bernie Sanders   (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)
Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

Charles Blow, one of the best reasons to keep reading The New York Times opinion pages,  used his Wednesday column to issue a plea to Bernie Sanders supporters: Please stop talking to black Clinton supporters like they are stupid. He said it more nicely than that, of course, but no less forcefully. After describing an onslaught of comments from Sanders supporters that amount to arguing that if "only black people knew more, understood better," they would "they would make a better choice, the right choice," he attributed the behavior to a "not-so-innocuous savior syndrome and paternalistic patronage."

Blow goes on to explain the history behind white liberals explaining in condescending terms why they know better than black voters what is good for them. (He doesn't go into this, but it's a rhetorical strategy of the right, as well, but claims that black voters are being hoodwinked by the Democrats are usually made on the right for the benefit of white audiences, not as an actual attempt to persuade black voters.) It's an important history and well worth reading and considering.

While signing off on everything Blow says, I'll add that this tendency of progressives, especially those who are coming from positions of racial or gender or economic privilege, to issue condescending lectures about how disagreement with them comes from ignorance, has really taken even firmer hold in the past decade. It's really popular on the left to believe that the voters make the "wrong" choices because they're being deceived by politicians and that, if they simply understood their own self-interest better, they would change their behavior. Its current popularity started not as a way to explain away voting patterns for black or female Democrats, but actually as a theory to explain why most white people vote Republican.

In 2004, Thomas Frank published a book called "What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America." The book — which argued that "social issues" like abortion were merely a distraction being used to siphon off voters to Republicans who would be economic progressives if they weren't so distracted — took off like a rocket in progressive circles. (I confess that even I fell for it, for a time.) Liberals really enjoyed being told that people vote for conservative politicians not because they want to, but because they simply haven't been properly educated about what their economic self-interests are. All these conservative Republicans needed to start voting Democratic again was to be reminded of what those economic self-interests are!

It was a tempting theory, both because it flattered the liberal reader by telling them they were smarter than conservative voters and because it suggested a solution to the Democratic electoral woes: Just make a pitch of economic populism, remind the voters that economics are the only truly important issue and not that gender/sexuality/race jibber-jabber, and watch all those Bush voters come running back to the Democratic Party.

The intervening years have created a mountain of evidence to suggest that perhaps it's not so simple. Barack Obama, after all, the most important piece of progressive legislation since the '60s, the Affordable Care Act, and the result was not a wide awakening across the land by people realizing that if they just set aside their cultural differences, we could all have affordable health care. On the contrary, conservative voters doubled down, voting in a wave of Republicans that were to the right of the already alarming right-wing crop in place, all in order to repeal Obamacare.

Turns out conservative voters are not idiots who are easily distracted by shiny toys from their own economic self-interest. The truth was that conservative voters know exactly what their priorities are. They don't want universal health care if it means they have to share it with people of color and "sluts," the preferred word for women benefitting from the ACA's contraception coverage requirements, and especially not if it means having to accept a black Democratic president. They aren't stupid. They just would prefer to vote their resentments towards others than to vote their economic self-interest. And no amount of lecturing them on what their priorities should be will change that.

Seven years of "birther" theories and Tea Party shenanigans have somewhat quieted this idea that people vote differently than how white male progressives feel they should not because they want to but because they're too stupid to know better. But with the emergence of the Sanders campaign means Frank's ideas are back in full force. The campaign, after all, riffs on Frank's theory that people will straighten up and vote for progressives, or in this case, socialists, if they just knew better what it meant. Except this time this idea isn't being applied to Republican voters, but to fellow Democrats.

Which would be harmless, if the efforts were just about getting the message out, in which case, "educating" people doesn't look very different from traditional campaign outreach. But unfortunately, the Franksian view of politics has this side dose of believing that if someone disagrees with you, the only reason is that they just don't know any better. And so clearly what they need is more education. And if they disagree, they just need another round of being told about Wall Street's evils and the glories of democratic socialism.

Much of what Blow describes, I think, stems from this problem. No doubt paternalistic attitudes about race play a factor, of course. But the condescending lectures are being applied across race lines and gender lines. Clinton supporter Kate Harding describes her experiences:

If you believe she’s a slick narcissist/sociopath who cares about nothing but gaining power for its own sake, of course you’re not going to vote for her. If you believe her real interests lie only with the 1%, or that she’s by nature a warmonger, of course you should oppose her. I don’t believe those things. And you’d think that would be too obvious to mention, but a lot of folks seem to think I just don’t know much about her, or haven’t given the “evidence” for their animosity toward her enough thought.

(Obligatory #NotAllSandersSupporters caveat: The condescending lectures do seem to be coming from a minority of Sanders supporters, and most Sanders supporters, like most Clinton supporters, understand there are good arguments for both sides.)

But there are a lot of reasons to support Clinton beyond, "I haven't seen enough memes pointing out she's taken money from Wall Street lobbyists." You might actually buy her argument that she's a strong liberal whose approach to getting things done, while less glamorous than Sanders's, is more effective. Your priority list might be more in line with hers than with Sanders's, which is what some Congressional Black Caucus members have been indicating in anticipation of the CBC's Clinton endorsement. There are a lot of reasons that are grounded in evidence and thoughtfulness. Certainly, there's been people in both camps who attribute their opposing side's views to ignorance rather than accepting different people have different priorities. But, as Blow lays out, the powder keg of racial and gender issues, all which have a long history behind them, is a very good reason to resist the urge and respect that just because you don't agree with another person's views doesn't mean they haven't thought them out as thoroughly as you do yours.

Wall Street Journal Attacks Bernie Sanders

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Aol_on Bernie Sanders Charles Blow Democratic Socialism Hillary Clinton Progressivism Thomas Frank