When your ardent supporters sink actual discussion

A revelation that will come as a surprise to absolutely no one: I do not support Hillary Clinton for president. Another: I agree with many of the points made by the Sanders campaign, though I have grave reservations about its hyperfocus on economic policy. And another: I want to be able to have interesting conversations about politics, policy, and the candidates with people who are as passionate about politics as I am, which means that I really do not want to deal with people who think that hurling abuse at other people is a super effective way of conducting these kinds of conversations.

Bernie Sanders has what can only be termed a Bernie Sanders problem. He roared into the Democratic field practically out of nowhere because he managed to muster immense grassroots support. The vast majority of his campaign donations are small individual donations. His supporters across the country organise events, house meetings, and rallies for him. They educate voters and conduct outreach and boost their candidate wherever they can with a kind of fever and passion that’s quite remarkable. The campaign is also highly decentralised: Sanders doesn’t rely heavily on fixers and political operators like Clinton does.

Unfortunately, that very decentralisation poses a problem. It’s immensely democratic and allows people to contribute however they want, but it also means that people can contribute however they want, and many of them do not have helpful contributions. His campaign initially didn’t acknowledge many social issues beyond class, and when pressed on the issue, campaigners became extremely aggressive. This became nationally painfully apparent when the campaign snubbed Black Lives Matter supporters and sent reps out at rallies to train crowds to shout down dissenters who weren’t being heard in other venues. It’s also manifested particularly brutally on Twitter, where Sanders supporters are quick to jump on anyone who critiques him, especially if that person is a woman, particularly if she supports Ms. Clinton or seems to be suggesting that she might.

Here’s the thing: Sanders and I agree on a lot of things, and I really admire him. He’s taken a fairly leftist stance for US politics and he’s been unafraid in his campaigning for better conditions for the working class, and for a return to a world in which people in this country make fair wages and enjoy more social equality. I do, however, think that he’s not acknowledging the intersectionality of class as much as he should be — as for example the fact that disability and class interplay a great deal, and any initiative to combat class problems needs to address the disability community. I also think he doesn’t have a lot of foreign policy experience, and he needs to demonstrate that he can take that issue on and choose sound advisors with policy and stances that I also support. It takes a village to make an administration and I don’t expect any candidate to be perfect on everything, but I do expect them to show me how they will address potential weaknesses.

I’m fully confident that a Sanders White House would really fight for the public, and that it would endeavor to not take shit from obstructionist Republicans, though it might at times find this a real challenge. Given the state of US politics, I suspect that given my options, a Sanders White House would be the most preferable, and in many ways, it would be one I’d actively enjoy. I still want to talk about Sanders, explore his problems, and discuss how he compares to other candidates — like, say, a woman with substantial foreign policy experience, albeit extremely hawkish experience that doesn’t mesh with my own values. Ms. Clinton has been outspoken about some of her foreign policy and national security concerns, such as climate change, and how she plans to address them. I like that. I want to talk about that, even though I have no intention of voting for her.

Yet, try to have these conversations in a public venue, to introduce any kind of nuance to public discourse. In my experience, I’ve found Clinton supporters open to discussion, though sometimes prickly. Sanders supporters, on the other hand, seem to skew into two camps. One ardently believes their candidate can do no wrong and thinks that shouting you down, using slurs, and being abusive will convince you of this. The other supports their candidate and wants to talk with you about him, but ends up spending most of its time trying to mitigate the damage done by his fanatical supporters. Which is truly a shame, because there’s some good stuff to talk about here, especially because my politics are likely very closely aligned with his fanatical supporters, but I find them a real turnoff, and they taint the campaign by extension.

This is not Bernie’s fault. The decentralised nature of his campaign means that he can’t get supporters in check, and it also means that were he to try and take up the reins now, he would encounter stiff opposition. Furious at being brought to heel, his supporters would become sulky, and he’d lose the momentum he’s building. He would, in a word, feel the Bern. But it is a tragedy for his campaign, and it’s what might sink it, because I am not the only one being made uncomfortable by them. These supporters make me not want to vote for their candidate, and while I might not necessarily campaign against him on the grounds of their behaviour, I don’t speak for everyone who’s feeling alienated and angry by them.

I’d like to vote for Sanders in the primary, and in the general. I really would. But his supporters need to be more accountable, and they need to get their house in order.

Image: Bernie Sanders with supporters, Gage Skidmore, Flickr