“Bernie or Bust!” That’s the defiant rallying cry of the Bernie Sanders hardcore, the pledge made by Sanders supporters that intend to vote for him and him alone in the general election – whether his name’s on the ballot or not. It’s not just a disaffected few making a stand either; these ‘Bernie or Busters’ don’t constitute a mere handful of the senator’s many devotees. In November, a reported 33% of Bernie Sanders supporters won’t give Hillary Clinton their vote if she wins the Democratic bid. That's a sizable chunk of Dem voters – over 41% of them so far – saying it’s either Bernie Sanders for President, or nobody at all.
It’s a bold statement, especially as the alternative to the Democratic candidate in the general is now almost certain to be Donald Trump, aka the sexist, immigrant-bashing serial liar and current sixth-greatest threat to the global economy. Predictably, some have been critical of the Bernie or Bust movement. By refusing to stump for HRC on Election Day, they say 33% of Sanders supporters increase the risk of Trump’s America. Just last weekend, Bill Maher admonished those of his fellow Sanders supporters that flat-out won’t ever vote Clinton. As Maher sees it, Bernie or Busters take issue with Clinton’s “insufficient purity” as a candidate. Arguably, there’s a bit more to it than that.
Eight years ago, Barack Obama glided to victory on a progressive platform that promised real change. But after eight years of brutal compromise and frustrating stalemates with the GOP, Gitmo remains open, American troops are still in Afghanistan, the criminals that engineered the financial crisis are at large, and race relations have deteriorated rather than improved. Now Sanders supporters hear Hillary Clinton promising to continue wherever Barack Obama leaves off, and they wonder what the point of four more years of the same would be in an increasingly desperate country and, indeed, world. To the Bernie or Busters, half-measures no longer cut it. It’s why they’re for Sanders in the first place. And if their protest means letting a sub-Mussolini demagogue slip into power, so be it.
You can call adopting such a stance naïve. Ultimately, though, it won’t help to tell the Bernie or Busters that they’re wrong. They want change, not the status quo that the Clinton camp more or less offers. The Bernie Sanders campaign is plainly saying “enough is enough” to the way things are; it’s no good for the Democratic establishment to take a position of presumed superiority and urge Sanders supporters to hand their vote to Hillary Clinton despite their misgivings, when this is exactly the kind of attitude that the Bernie or Busters are rebelling against. After Sanders’ stunning defeat last Tuesday, his voters are now being told they can’t possibly refuse Clinton in a general election. In reality, these supporters have every right to say “Bernie or Bust.”
Firstly, and obviously, they do literally have the right. The right to vote is not also an obligation to vote, despite what some may say. The core principle of democracy is freedom of choice, in who you vote for, and in whether you decide to vote at all. (Just as a side-note, voting numbers have been going down for a long time. It's not like we can exclusively berate Bernie or Busters for refusing to vote Democrat when for years voters have increasingly been too disillusioned to turn out for either side.) With academics contesting that the US is not really a democracy but an oligarchy, it can be difficult for some to even find the point in voting. Unless, of course, an apparent agent of change offers them a good reason to.
Sanders supporters see the 2016 Democratic primary as a battle between a candidate that seeks to change the "rigged system," and a candidate that represents that same old illusion of choice. The Bernie or Busters are simply refusing to vote for the illusion if that's all it is. For months they’ve been witness to a Clinton campaign that influences how the press think and relies on voters being kept in the dark to win. They see the DNC fixing the race in Clinton’s favour, limiting the number of televised debates, removing corporate funding restrictions just as Sanders’ campaign was becoming a threat, and attempting to silence anyone who threatens to break party ranks and actually endorse Sanders. For a lot of Sanders supporters, Hillary Clinton isn’t an option in November because she is the very embodiment of the rigged, establishment politics they wish to see discontinued.
It’s not what Clinton represents, though, but what she’s done that the Bernie or Busters most take issue with. To them, it’s not merely a case of "insufficient purity" with Clinton: there have been shady Clinton Foundation deals, there are Wall Street ties, there’s a history of bad social and economic judgement both domestically and abroad. There has been blatant dishonesty, and a fluid agenda that appears to be constantly changing according to where the political wind is blowing. Some staunch Sanders supporters won’t vote Clinton in November because they don’t trust her to do the right thing at the right time; others meanwhile won’t be voting for her simply because they aren’t even sure which Hillary they’d be voting for.
Of course the politically confused Donald Trump, who could be America’s next president if enough Democratic voters choose to revolt on Election Day, has a history of scandal and flip-flopping that should concern the wider electorate at least as much as Hillary Clinton’s record. And if it’s a case of deciding who would be the most capable leader out of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Donald "Never Tried Politics Before In His Life" Trump, the answer should be obvious. To Bernie or Busters, however, a vote for a candidate just because they top Trump would still be a concession too far.
Currently, the general election is set to come down to a contest between the two least-favorable, least-trusted candidates countrywide. To voters on a national level, and certainly to Bernie or Busters, Clinton vs. Trump is very much a Giant Douche vs Turd Sandwich scenario (thankyou, "South Park"). But both the media commentariat and the Democratic establishment have decided Sanders voters must in November vote the candidate they have come to view as an opponent to their cause – Clinton – in order to keep the other, bigger threat out of the White House. The idea now is not to support the best candidate, then, but to thwart the worst one. It’s cynical, it’s disheartening, it’s the dreaded politics as usual. And after months spent hoping things might finally change under their guy, 33% of Bernie Sanders supporters have, quite simply, had enough of playing the old games.