Critiquing candidates

The 2016 election promises to be, as the kids say, bananas. The huge and terrifying Republican field is filled with an assortment of candidates who each bring their own unique brand of ‘terrible for the country’ to the fray, from Donald Trump’s bombastic hatred of immigrants to Scott Walker’s insistence on running Wisconsin into the ground during his term as governor. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton seemed like a clinch for the nomination until dark horse Bernie Sanders caught up with her — in a moment bizarrely reminiscent of 2008 and Obama — and a candidate who had been written off as a leftist on a lark suddenly started to have serious media weight.

Sanders is an interesting candidate. He’s long been a strong liberal force in Congress, and I’ve admired a lot of his work there, with the filibernie being perhaps the greatest example of the kind of fiery, take no prisoners politics he endorses. Sanders has absolutely zero time for nonsense and he’s a ferocious advocate for his constituency. He very much feels that the people are his constituency, and its been borne out by the way he’s managed his campaign. Instead of using fixers and political operators, he’s relying heavily on grassroots organising, distributed advocacy, and the participation of people from all walks of life. As a result, he’s won a pool of extremely loyal and dedicated followers who feel a personal connection with their candidate.

Sometimes, those followers go over the line, which is something I’m going to get to in a moment.

Of the candidates representing the two major parties, I’m a Sanders supporter. I favour a great deal of his politics, I appreciate his style, and I believe he has the power and determination to push the United States in a good direction. Which is one of the reasons I am an extremely harsh critic of Sanders, because I only critique things I love. I care about Sanders. I want him to win, because he provides this country with a lot of opportunities. I also want him to do the right thing, because I know he’s capable of doing it. I’ve seen amazing things come out of his office and his campaign and I have a high bar. When he does things that are questionable or advances policy that I have a problem with, I’m going to say so.

It’s my right as a member of the electorate to comment on candidates, of course, but more than that, I want to drive my candidates to do better. It’s entirely possible that in a year I’ll be doorknocking for Sanders or participating in get out the vote organizing in swing states, depending on a variety of factors in the election and my own life. That doesn’t mean that I support him no matter what and have chosen Sanders as my hill to die on. He’s both a human and a politician, and that means that he has some significant failings just like everyone else does — as well as what looks like a genuine desire and drive to do better, to respond to criticism, to articulate his positions more effectively and to consider policy changes in response to political advocacy.

Some of his greatest critics are also his supporters, and they’re holding their candidate accountable. That’s responsible politics.

In June, Emily Crockett wrote a strong piece for RH Reality Check about Sanders’ record — or lack thereof — on race and women’s issues. She noted criticism emerging from many progressives concerned with the fact that his focus on class — an issue very important to me — excluded equal attention to subjects like race and gender, and the way these things interact with class in addition to being larger social issues. In her interviews with advocates, she noted that Bernie in some ways represented a very specific kind of liberal ideal, and that he would have to expand his platform and campaign to reach a larger segment of the electorate, something critical for winning the 2016 vote.

She wasn’t wrong, and I was surprised when I linked the piece on Twitter and was roundly attacked for praising it — I can only imagine what Crockett had to endure as the actual writer.

Just weeks later, Sanders blew it at Netroots Nation when activists from Black Lives Matter approached him to challenge him on his racial justice record. His dismissive and defensive response reflected poorly on the campaign, and resulted in lively social media discussions that seemed viciously split between Sanders supporters who wanted to hear no wrong against their candidate and more reasonable people who pointed out that the Black Lives Matter contingent approached a town hall meeting like anyone else to ask a reasonable question. Sanders supporters viciously attacked those talking about Sanders and race, which didn’t endear them or their candidate to people who argued that candidates need to earn votes, rather than winning by dint of being the lesser of two evils.

He was challenged again on the issue a month later at an event in Seattle. And he started, slowly, to respond by working on a racial justice platform and considering the issue. Again, his most ardent supporters attacked those concerned about his record on race, some even accusing commentators of being ‘plants’ put in place to undermine their candidate. Again, criticism of Sanders on the basis of his approach to race and his hyperfocus on economic populism to the exclusion of all other social issues — class is critically important in the United States but it’s not the end of the road — was drowned out by defenses of the candidate that just made him seem more distasteful.

I can’t speak for each individual criticising Sanders, of course. Some undoubtedly do think he’s a bad candidate and want to highlight that for the country. Others, though, are more neutral — either they support him, or they’re open to the idea of him, but they want him to do more. They want him to prove that he’s committed to listening to the electorate and responding to their concerns. They want him to shift his platform in response to feedback, to illustrate that he understands the concerns of the people he’s working with. If he’s not able to do that, he’s going to make a poor president.

Which is why I’m going to keep holding Sanders accountable right through the primaries, and if he wins those, I’ll keep doing it afterwards, too, because if Bernie Sanders is going to become the next President of the United States, I want him to be a president I can be proud of.

Image: Bernie Sanders for President, Phil Roeder, Flickr