A lot of people I love and respect are utterly disgusted at the behavior of some Sanders supporters at this week’s Democratic National Convention. They boo a lot. Their booing ensures Trump’s election and shows that they hate women.
No, I don’t agree with the Sanders dead-enders. That’s largely because we live in a two-party system and Donald Trump is the other nominee. But I’m seeing an awful lot of anger and condescension directed at behavior that is an utterly routine and banal part of presidential primaries.
One reason it bugs me is that I’m seeing anti-Sanders tropes that I think were always partly bullshit, only now they’re coming from his old supporters too. That many of Sanders’s supporters are white and middle-class has been used against him from the beginning, especially by other white and middle-class people, who evidently believe that their choices are magically unconstrained by privilege. (By the way, here is noted white man DeRay McKesson predicting protests at the DNC should Clinton fail to endorse, among other things, a $15 minimum wage. It’s like he’s trying to pressure her into a position or something! Damn these brocialists!) The argument that Sanders faced a name-recognition problem rather than an actual-disagreement problem among black voters; the argument that his problem was mainly with older black voters, which merely reflected his broader tendency to do well among young people; the argument that primary voters in any community represent such a small and self-selecting group that claims to an identity-wide mandate are strange at best; the fact that by this logic, it was every self-respecting white progressive’s duty to support Hillary Clinton early in the ’08 primary, when Obama faced opposition from the black political establishment and the weary, justified skepticism of the black electorate that his candidacy could ever catch on; the argument that the BernieBro trope utterly erased millions of Sanders supporters: none of this got seriously discussed much outside of hard-left spaces. But we were treated to days and days’ worth of discussion about how sexist it was for Bernie to, like, run for President at all. (Was Clinton anti-black when she ran in 2008?)
Sanders supporters were also accused of being uniquely addicted to personal harassment of their opponents, and the intransigence of some dead-enders is seen as part of this unusual personal meanness. I’m skeptical of this narrative simply because I have never seen a systematic attempt at comparison. What I’ve seen, mainly, are anecdotes, many of which don’t pan out on further investigation: the ugly Facebook comment that was not sexist and was written by a woman (“lying shitbag” isn’t a nice thing to say about someone, but it is the experience of anyone who uses the internet); the widely-cited “BernieBro” attack on TV critic Emily Nussbaum that turned out to be from a right-wing Trump supporter; etc. I’ve also seen shifting, and what I thought were opportunistic, definitions of harassment and doxing. (Pointing out that a prominent online Bernie Sanders critic is a foreclosure lawyer is not the same thing as posting someone’s personal address along with a death threat. It’s not even in the same moral zip code.) Meanwhile, someone created a meme designed to get Sanders supporters killed, and there have been multiple coordinated attempts to get prominent Sanders supporters fired.* Against everything I’ve just said, I have to acknowledge that the death threats against Roberta Lange (the chair of Nevada’s Democratic Party), by Bernie supporters, were real and frightening. I don’t know of a comparable incident that I can put down to the Clinton camp.
But I’m mostly irritated because I don’t think decorum is more important than policy. If Bernie Sanders can survive being interrupted by Black Lives Matter, then some of Hillary Clinton’s surrogates can survive a few boos. Sanders, like any strong left-wing candidate, depended very strongly on attracting voters who have given up on, or were close to giving up on, electoral politics. We always talk about such a level of cynicism as if it were a terrible personal flaw, but I think it’s entirely reasonable. Counterproductive, but reasonable. We are governed to a large degree by people who are five to ten years in either direction from making their real fortunes as corporate lobbyists. This is so well-known that even pointing it out gets you called naive. You don’t need to be a policy wonk to be aware of it. For a few moments, Bernie Sanders made a lot of people think that it was possible to be President without that. I don’t begrudge those who are moved by the fact that we’re about to get a woman President, please God. In fact, I share the feeling. But those other people, who are focused on the possibility of a President who isn’t notoriously part of that influence-peddling culture: they get to grieve, too. People are allowed to care about this stuff. And if you let them do so, you’ll have a much easier time, two months from now, talking them into casting the vote that all opponents of open racism and fascism need to cast.
*And, like light falling into a black hole, this conversation becomes about Bruenighazi, and thus also Jacobinghazi. Much depends on what behavior you consider beyond the pale, what you label harassment and consider actionable. Neera Tanden rolls her eyes at the plight of the Palestinians; she wanted to invade Libya and make them pay for it; etc. Matt Bruenig called her a scumbag. Which is worse? Which is crueler? Much also depends on how you assign responsibility on Twitter, a medium designed to create exactly the sorts of pile-ons for which responsibility is unusually hard to assess. Matt Bruenig criticizes prominent women writers when he disagrees with their arguments. Freelance sexists and racists, who may or may not have any sympathy whatsoever with Bruenig or his politics, decide to ride along, as they do practically anytime a woman is mentioned by a person with a high enough follower count. (Recall the way that much of the racist, sexist, murderous abuse directed at Suey Park, after she called for the cancellation of “The Colbert Report,” was driven by conservatives who hate Colbert.) The internet is full of people who seem to sit around waiting for a pretext to abuse women. Is the behavior of such people Bruenig’s personal fault, to the degree where he should lose his side gig at a think tank, and maybe also his day job as a lawyer? If we assume so, aren’t we basically saying that no woman writer, or writer of color, should ever be engaged with? Finally, the thing becomes so personal as to resist analysis. Many critics of Bruenig pointed to his frequent public criticisms of the writer Sarah Jeong. Sarah Jeong publicly sided with another writer who had lied about several prominent women left-wing writers, including Bruenig’s wife. She was by no means the worst actor in this controversy, but are we really surprised he has his knives out for her? I still haven’t forgiven the guy who looked at my wife weird in 2009. That’s just loyalty 101.
I have been surprised this year at my own sympathy for the Jacobin crew. I hate rudeness. I hate eliminationist rhetoric. I’m not really at home on the hard left. Fundamentally, I think of war as the triumph of everything I hate—murder, rape, theft, torture, violence, groupthink, censorship, propaganda—and I think revolution, if we’re using the word in its classic hard-left sense and not the special American sense of “reform you’re really excited about,” is a subset of war. But I’m fundamentally pretty sympathetic to Matt Bruenig. Partly that’s because he has written a ton of good stuff. Mostly it’s because we seem to share an inconvenient personality trait: we both missed out on the middle-class conditioning that teaches you to pretend things, including politics, aren’t personal, when they are.