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Navigating Between Clinton and Sanders


2016 is getting ugly.

Before I dig directly into the topic, I want to do a bit of stage-setting. I wrote about some issues with Bernie Sanders’ supporters before. I don’t believe I have written at much length about Hillary Clinton, in large part because I have been reluctant to do so. But, after some recent events, I’ve decided it’s time to organize my thoughts and talk about the issue that looks to define the animosity between their respective camps of supporters.

I’m talking about sexism.

It’s not a secret that some of Sanders’ supporters have engaged in sexist attacks of Clinton supporters who criticize Sanders. It’s been speculated (but hardly proven) that the “Berniebro” epithet was invented and disseminated by Clinton operatives. On the Clinton side, there has been some tendency to reduce criticism of Clinton herself with charges of sexism.

Put in perspective, this back-and-forth isn’t as vitriolic as the 2008 primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, though it may yet become as acrimonious. I certainly wouldn’t want to see it become that way. I have been trying to think through why I feel the way I do about each candidate. To be sure, I am not entirely thrilled with either of them. I think they both deserve the benefit of a career rundown.

I will just say it: Hillary Clinton has an impressive resume, and perhaps one of the most impressive to ever shoot for the Presidency. She was a thoughtful lawyer, was extremely active in policy initiatives throughout her husband’s tenure as both Governor of Arkansas and President, had involvement in the business world by belonging to multiple corporate boards, distinguished herself as a US Senator, and ran the State Department during a highly volatile period. I purposely left her politics out of this description–I am speaking only to experience, here.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, has had a much more modest career. He had no real career to speak of until he was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont at age 40. A popular mayor, he went on to represent Vermont in the US House of Representatives, where he stayed for 16 years before moving up to the Senate in 2006, where he’s been ever since. Though he’s always had more in common with Democrats than Republicans, his actual positions haven’t always fit either party. He is, of course, a self-described socialist, although from what I can tell, he does not favor social ownership of capital (which would actually be socialism), and instead prefers social democratic models as practiced in Western Europe.

Clinton has shied away from being characterized as part of the “establishment,” and Sanders himself explicitly denies any such label, though both having been deeply involved in public affairs and public office for decades makes such an insistence look rather silly. One could fairly argue that Clinton used her positions to gain wealth and influence while Sanders, up until this primary season, attained little of either. This is not to be critical of either Clinton or Sanders–they had different priorities and trajectories, and I don’t begrudge someone for becoming wealthy (or not, as the case may be).

Politically, Hillary Clinton has always been complicated. Some of her positions have been clearly progressive, such as her vociferous support for healthcare reform, stretching back to the 1980s. She has had a particular focus on helping women and children–the former with access to medical care and better jobs, and the latter with (again) proper healthcare as well as solid education. Her politics have, at turns, been anti-union and staunchly feminist. She has enjoyed broad support from black voters while promoting a collection of policies that aid some black people while harming others. She has succeeded as a woman in spaces heavily dominated by men–law, corporate boardrooms, government office–yet despite her humanitarian concern for vulnerable Americans, she has long supported aggressive foreign policy that results in dead women and children abroad. Like I said: complicated.

And if we’re being fair, on the balance her policy positions aren’t noticeably worse than Obama’s. She is orders of magnitude better than literally anyone the Republicans could offer. What she is not is unabashedly progressive, to the degree that young leftists associate with the term. Given her long political career and the relentless attacks against her, she has developed a cautious tenacity–a legendary preference for triangulation, for which she is often maligned. It occurs to me that a man who engaged in such methods might be characterized as politically prudent, shrewd, or wise. Clinton is commonly described as “dishonest,” or “power-hungry” (as if the men who seek the highest office in the land aren’t).

I can also understand Sanders’ appeal. In a time when everything is cynically prepackaged, fed to the people in perfect doses, polished until nothing seems real anymore, there is a certain kitsch, a strange appeal found in a disheveled idealist from a state that’s almost completely white and that Americans tend to forget exists. To borrow a joke from the Germans, I don’t believe Vermont exists–I don’t know anyone who’s ever been there. Kidding aside, my point is that Clinton’s experiences have given her a much more diverse frame of reference than have Sanders’. That’s not a dealbreaker either way, but I do believe it matters.

As someone who leans much more toward the idealistic side of things, however, Sanders looks like the natural choice to support. Socialist? Sign me up! Free college, free healthcare, say what? Well, I don’t see the problem! He has been lambasted for being thin on details, as if it’s a new thing to either present incomplete plans or criticize them reflexively. But his idealism and his history of alienating Congressional colleagues do not serve him well, either. Firebrands make poor Presidents–the power of the bully pulpit is more myth than reality. Much of what Clinton promises, on the other hand, resembles careful stewardship of Obama’s legacy: necessary, but hardly exciting or invigorating.

No one can say for sure how much either of them would get done as President. I am confident Clinton would accomplish as much as possible, though no doubt be limited by the obstructionist whims of a Republican Congress. There’s also the possibility that Sanders would effectively build bridges, too, given that he has recently shown some capacity for pragmatism. Does being a socialist cancel out being a woman, or vice versa? A rhetorical question since I honestly don’t know.

My point in all this is that I don’t believe either Democratic candidate would serve the country poorly, in terms of what is currently politically possible. I wish there was more room for genuinely leftist candidates–I wish someone like Jill Stein (or, you know, Jill Stein herself) was a real contender, but that’s not possible as long as our political system favors two parties, one of which is full of mendacious windbags, the other dominated by feckless cravens. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which is which, though I don’t believe such terms describe Clinton or Sanders.

More than that, I am disheartened to see yet another Democratic primary turn to vicious mudslinging. I’ve seen it suggested that Sanders himself is a rampant sexist, which is no less absurd than the idea that Clinton has no progressive bona fides at all. After thinking it through, I am willing to cut Clinton more slack for having gotten things done in extremely hostile environments, while Sanders has had the benefit of making grand gestures and futile votes in service of his ideals. I can respect both individuals for what they’ve done and what they stand for, but I can’t say I would happily endorse either.

Before I conclude, there is one critique I believe needs to be called out specifically: the idea that it’s somehow wrong to vote for Hillary Clinton “just” because she’s a woman. There is nothing wrong with this whatsoever. People make their electoral choices based on far more specious criteria, and it’s denigrating to both Clinton and her supporters to suggest that being a woman does not uniquely inform her in ways that no male President has been, and that that perspective is, for some reason, not worth voting for. No one could call this a “diversity” or “affirmative action” hire–this is a woman who has lived and breathed DC politics for decades, and has repeatedly survived a Republican meat grinder that will stop at nothing to discredit and destroy her. Conversely, then, I also wish that her campaign would not so quickly activate panic mode the second a scruffy Senator from Vermont gets a bump in the polls or ekes out a tie in Iowa. She is smarter and better than that, and she been (and will be) through worse.

Odds are that I will vote for Jill Stein if, like usual, New Jersey is a lock for the Democrats. If it’s the least bit ambiguous (and that’s not likely), I’ll throw in with the Democrats, no matter who the candidate is. This country can’t afford a Republican President of any stripe, at least not with the party as it exists today. Maybe give it a generation to rehabilitate–perhaps they’ll switch sides again! (Don’t count on it.)

So, if I could ask anything at all here: whether you support Clinton or Sanders, if you’re trying to discuss your choice with someone who supports the other candidate, try not to descend into accusation and attack. If someone says something sexist, of course, call it out! But all criticism of Hillary Clinton isn’t sexist. And while it’s not remotely the same thing, dismissing Sanders’ candidacy as “unrealistic” is nevertheless an incendiary claim, as well. I don’t believe that supporters of either candidate generally have malicious reasons for doing so, though they may be misguided on certain issues. I do believe that, depending on who you are and what you prioritize, either can be a rational, informed choice.

Photo by US Embassy New Zealand