Fear is a great motivator: How to reconcile voting for Clinton while still supporting progressive candidates

We are intelligent enough to embrace the cognitive dissonance: We can vote for Clinton without liking her at all

By Sophia A. McClennen
September 30, 2016 3:59PM (UTC)
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Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson/AP/Steve Helber/Photo montage by Salon)

About halfway through the debate Monday night my 11-year-old son turned to look at me. With a serious and sad look he said, “Mom, there is no way we can let Trump win this election.” It was a real moment of clarity where we saw the potential for Trump to win and knew what had to be done to stop him.

That was a big deal for our house since we had been “yuge” Bernie Sanders supporters ever since he announced his campaign. My son had stood right by the stage when I had the privilege of introducing Sanders when he visited Penn State, and he wore his “feel the Bern” shirt when we went to vote in the primary. When Bernie lost the primary, my son wrote him a letter telling him that he was his “hero.”


Even as we watched Bernie concede and then campaign for Clinton, we weren’t on board. We turned to Jill Stein and began supporting her campaign. We watched with anger and frustration as the DNC leak confirmed our sense that Sanders had been screwed.  We were amazed that the various accounts of election fraud were not taken seriously.

But that never stopped us from being all-out amazed and worried at the rise of Donald Trump. I kept hoping that somehow Trump’s campaign would tank the way it should have. As many have recounted, his campaign simply defies logic. But there remained that hope that the U.S. public would wake up and realize he was simply unelectable. Now, with the first debate behind us and the polls showing a tight race, it is time to realize that moment isn’t happening.

I know that Clinton has a strong base of support and that many voters are truly inspired by her. That’s great for them. This piece, though, is aimed at those of us who are not inspired by her. It is aimed at those of us who thought that when she chose Tim Kaine as a running mate over a more progressive candidate she sent a message that her platform was moving more to the center and away from the progressive policies Sanders offered.


It is aimed at those of us who were shocked she would campaign for Debbie Wasserman Schulz after the email leaks. It is aimed at those of us who have good reason not to trust her, but who also are able to process that there is a tremendous distinction between what we don’t like about Clinton and what we should fear in Trump.

If there has been one lesson during this election that we have to take seriously, it is that this nation has lost its ability to practice critical thinking. Our access not just to facts, but also to reason and rationality, has been sorely diminished. My proposal then is invested in the idea that this election calls for a creative response to a crisis. It calls on us to practice our most advanced cognitive abilities.

Complex problems require complex solutions. This election, perhaps more than any other I’ve been faced with in my lifetime, now calls for a third way to approach Election Day. So I’m advocating for a plan that stops Trump, while also supporting the energy of Bernie’s revolution.


I have not been nor am I now a Hillary Clinton supporter. I’m not a misogynist either. I simply don’t like her policies. There is no doubt that Stein comes a lot closer to my political positions than Clinton. But after Monday night, I realized I can’t vote for Stein. But I also realized that doesn’t mean I can’t support her and it doesn’t mean that I can’t continue to support the candidates Sanders has identified as part of “our revolution.”

What I am proposing is that those who think like me consider embracing the cognitive dissonance that this election requires. Cognitive dissonance is physically unpleasant. It produces mental stress because it forces the person feeling it to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time. But cognitive dissonance is also a sign of intellectual sophistication.  It is a state of mind that rejects binary logic, political polarization and confirmation bias. It requires us to respond to a bad set of options with nuanced solutions.


I’m basing my plan on the idea that any rational voter is not voting for Trump. I’m also basing my proposal on the very valid reasons a substantial part of the population does not like Clinton at all. But most important I’m basing my plan on the fact that there is a measurable difference between a Trump presidency and a Clinton one.

Many folks like me have been bashed by Clinton supporters, suggesting that she is a great candidate and we are just too pissy to see her awesomeness. We have been told we are sore losers for holding on to the political inspiration offered by Sanders. Clinton supporters have vote shamed us and attempted to bully us into Clinton support.

The thing is, that much of that tactic has backfired. Millennials and progressives are still largely unlikely to vote Clinton. It is part of why her numbers are so tight. The Clinton vote shaming has backfired because it has succumbed to the binary logic that we are either for or against Clinton, which translates into for or against Trump — and often into for or against women. We have been given two choices: Like Clinton or be responsible for a Trump presidency.


So I’m suggesting a different mode. I’m offering a third option: a complex plan of cognitive dissonance where we do two contradictory things at the same time. I’m not suggesting that folks who support a progressive platform embrace Clinton. I’m simply suggesting that if we don’t vote for her, our shot at any sort of progress in this nation is over.

Chris Hedges recently interviewed Lee Camp who suggested that it would be a disaster for Clinton to win. His view is that if Clinton wins and is able to continue her hawkish, neoliberal platform, our nation will face an even worse version of Trump next time. I like Hedges and I see his point, but I can’t agree.

Four years of Trump will be long enough to destroy our universities, diversity, climate, press, economy and planet. I may not like the direction things will go under Clinton but she has a point when she asks us to imagine Trump holding the nuclear codes.


We have another option. We can go ahead and do the painful thing of voting for Clinton, while also supporting the Green Party and the progressive platform.  There is no reason to not keep contributing to Stein, not to keep sharing her message. Even more important, we can follow Bernie’s advice and focus on down-ticket races. We can contribute to candidates who will support a progressive platform while also working to keep Trump out of the White House.

Put simply, we can vote for Clinton without liking her at all. We can vote for her because we are able to process the extreme differences between what she will do in the White House versus the apocalypse that is on offer from Trump.

Clinton will be bad, in my view. But Trump will be catastrophic. From climate change to education, from foreign policy to gun control, virtually on every single policy issue, there is a measurable difference.  It’s the difference between a neoliberal platform and full-out fascism.

So, unlike Sanders who endorsed Clinton, that’s not what I’m suggesting. A third solution is not asking us to support her. But it is asking us to be clear that we absolutely have to place defeating Trump at the top of the list.  My proposal speaks directly to those of us who think that Sanders can’t possibly mean what he says when he campaigns for her.  It is aimed at those of us who still scratch our heads at Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s backing of her.  I’m not asking us to be “fake” in our support. I’m asking us to openly and honestly do what has to be done, even if we don’t like it.


From there we have lots of choices. First of all, there is no reason to not keep fighting to get more progressives into office — locally, at the state level and in Congress. The down-ticket races should be a big focus for us. Then, if, for instance, you live in a state like Georgia where Trump leads Clinton by about 4 points, by all means cast your vote for a third party. This is a strategy that is all about affecting the outcome, not tallying votes overall.

So the focus has to be specifically on the Electoral College and mainly on swing states. That means that if you are from Massachusetts where Clinton has basically locked in the electoral votes by a margin of about 20 points, then a vote for Stein, if you are so inclined, makes perfect sense, too.

I’m advocating for us to abandon the either/or logic that forces us to choose between helping advance a hawkish, pro-Wall Street neoliberal or living in Trump-land. Many of us can, in fact, vote for Stein, if we are in states where there is no toss-up. But you can’t chance a vote for Stein, if you are in a swing state where the race is close. And that’s why someone like me, who lives in Pennsylvania, has to start getting ready to vote Clinton.

If you have the luxury of living in a locked-in state, where a third-party vote can be cast without consequence, give those of us in swing states a break. Don't attack us for being traitors because we are acting responsibly. Don't let the fact that we have decided to vote against Trump mean that we are somehow less committed to the cause. And don't assume we like the pinch we have been put in.


Here's the thing: This plan is likely to cause a lot of misunderstandings in a political world that can't process complexity of any kind. So at a basic level, this isn't just a fight to stop Trump. It's a fight to rescue our ability to be the rational critical thinkers our democracy depends on.

Folks will need to process the cognitive dissonance caused by calling on us to vote Clinton while not liking her, but we will also need to process the uncomfortable reality that we need to talk to others who share our beliefs. We don’t need to “campaign” for Clinton, but we do need to start getting those of us still on the fence to see that it is rapidly becoming a wall. And there’s nothing big and beautiful about it at all.

I'm not endorsing Clinton, but I am voting for her. If you can critically process what that means, then I'm asking you to join me.

There is one final complexity to this plan. We need to continue to be productively critical of Clinton, to call her out for her flawed policy and push for accountability and transparency. We need to continue to fight for the progressive platform that we believe in. We need to fight to protect a space of dissent and critique. We need to push back on those Clinton supporters who bully us and call us woman haters when we criticize her.


But we also need to avoid the trap of falling into false equivalencies that somehow compare Trump’s defects with Clinton’s and that sometimes place us in the same critical space as Trump supporters. Then if we are lucky, we can experience greater cognitive dissonance as we critique a president we actually voted for.

Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.

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2016 Donald Trump 2016 Elections 2016 Bernie Sanders 2016 Jill Stein Hillary Clinton 2016