A nontrivial portion of online comments are going to be unconstructive and/or offensive. Especially when a columnist writes something provocative, a lot of people are going to be unhappy about it, and many of them, bolstered by the relative anonymity and psychological distance the Internet affords, will respond with vitriol. That said, there are actually a lot of thoughtful readers out there, and even angry responses can sometimes contain good points. Authors who take the time to consider the feedback they receive – to parse the constructive commentary from the trash – can improve their arguments and demonstrate that they’ve really thought through the fairness and implications of what they’ve written.
Unfortunately, many authors don’t do that. And during this election cycle, this failure in self-reflection has been particularly prevalent among prominent Hillary Clinton supporters.
To illustrate what I mean, I’m going to focus on two columnists, Paul Krugman and Michael Tomasky, who share a few characteristics:
- They’ve got wide readership. Krugman is much more well-known and writes for the New York Times, but Tomasky has a decent following in his own right; he’s a columnist for the Daily Beast and also edits Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.
- They routinely (and fairly) excoriate Republicans for advocating for illiberal ideas and/or distorting the truth.
- They’ve written multiple pieces in support of Clinton that express illiberal ideas and/or distort the truth – that is, they’ve done exactly the type of thing they frequently ding Republicans for doing.
- Instead of addressing any of numerous valid criticisms of their pro-Clinton articles, they’ve cast all of their critics as “Bernie Bros” who can’t possibly have anything legitimate to say. In “An Ode to My Berniebro Trolls,” Tomasky asserts that there is “nothing” even potentially objectionable about his previous piece, “Time for Bernie Sanders to Get in Line,” except that perhaps the title was an oversell of his main point: Sanders is “going to lose” and should therefore “lay off the attacks on Hillary Clinton, the Goldman Sachs speeches and all the rest.” Krugman, for his part, has long complained of being subjected to the “Bernie Bro treatment,” which seems to mean that he’s been called “a corrupt tool of the oligarchy.” He has recently claimed that the Sanders campaign itself is “getting pretty ugly in a way the Clinton [campaign] hasn’t.”
If Krugman really believes that “[g]ood ideas don’t have to be sold with fairy dust” and that “getting real is or ought to be a core progressive value,” he isn’t currently putting his money where his mouth is. And Tomasky’s insistence that he’s “open to hearing a smart argument against [his] position” would be a lot more believable if he hadn’t thus far ignored those that have been offered. If Krugman and Tomasky are serious about “getting real,” they will begin to acknowledge and address the following points:
The “Bernie Bro” narrative is “a Cheap Campaign Tactic Masquerading as Journalism.”
Everyone who has made this point recognizes that some Bernie Sanders supporters make sexist, racist, and/or otherwise offensive comments. We condemn those comments. We also request that Clinton supporters stop using a sexist label themselves, one that, when it isn’t being applied to women or people who don’t even support Bernie Sanders, is marginalizing the millions of women (and people of color; the “Bernie Bro” is often cast as an angry White guy) who are staunch proponents of the Sanders campaign (Sanders is actually way more popular than Clinton among young women and, increasingly, among younger Black and Latino voters). As a recent study confirmed about sexism, Internet harassment is a major issue but is mostly not from “the left in general or Sanders supporters in particular.”
There are numerous examples of Hillary Clinton supporters who make sexist, racist, and homophobic comments as well. Whether you’re subject to such comments is both a function of which candidate you support and how much privilege you have (women and people of color who support any candidate are much more likely to be harassed than White men like Krugman and Tomasky or half-Indian men who are perceived to be White like me, for instance). So let’s not go around calling people “Hillary Elites” or “Hillary Straights” or “Bernie Bros.” Instead, let’s condemn harassment without opportunistically twisting the truth about it and focus our energy on substantive debates about issues.
The Sanders campaign’s critiques of Clinton’s record and platform have been significantly fairer than the Clinton campaign’s misleading and/or untrue attacks on Sanders.
The only specific “attack” on Clinton that Tomasky actually attributes to Sanders is his call for Clinton to release the transcripts of three speeches Goldman Sachs paid her $225,000 (each) to make during the past few years. But Sanders’ critique here is completely fair (as is what Tomasky calls Sanders’ “anti-Rahm Emanuel tincture”). Clinton has repeatedly claimed that the money she receives from Wall Street doesn’t influence her; the American people have a right to know how her remarks to bankers comport with her professed commitment to regulate them (though how her comments could possibly look as bad as her continued refusal to share them is anyone’s guess).
To be fair, the precise definition of “attack” is open for debate, but despite Krugman’s assertions to the contrary, the fact that Clinton’s campaign has been much more insidious isn’t. Throughout the primary, the Clinton campaign has repeatedly distorted the truth. Clinton has disingenuously accused Sanders of sexism and racism, made false statements about his health care plan and history of health care advocacy, and misled the public about his record on the auto industry, immigration, Wall Street, and a variety of other issues. Her team has also engaged in red-baiting, trashed taxes Democrats are supposed to support, and co-opted the language of intersectionality to inaccurately paint Sanders – a rare politician who recognizes the connections between social and economic issues and is advancing a comprehensive social justice agenda – as a single-issue candidate. Clinton’s campaign might not embody “the most negative campaign of any Democratic presidential candidate…in a presidential primary season” label that her staffers have tried to apply to the Sanders campaign, but the Clinton team’s tactics have been – by far – the most negative in this year’s race.
Sanders has a very strong track record as a legislator and executive.
Tomasky incorrectly argues that Sanders is an ineffective legislator, citing a lack of cosponsors on his bills as evidence that he doesn’t work well with Congress. Tomasky omits, however, that Sanders recently negotiated a bipartisan bill “to expand veterans’ access to health care” with John McCain, a bill which is widely viewed as a huge success. Sanders’ Republican colleagues, despite their disagreements with him, liked working with Sanders and praised him for his integrity and work ethic, while Democratic Senators said that, without Sanders, they “don’t think [they] would have gotten [the bill] done.”
Tomasky also fails to mention that Sanders has mastered the art of adding power-balancing amendments to larger bills; his accomplishments include (but are not limited to) securing funding for community health centers in the Affordable Care Act, blocking imports made with child labor, and increasing transparency about one-time government officials’ subsequent employment opportunities.
Sanders’ record as mayor of Burlington also shows that he’s an excellent executive. He has a history of setting big goals, fighting for them, and eventually working out the best deal he believes he can. The citizens of Vermont love Sanders for a reason – they know his record a lot better than Krugman and Tomasky do, and it’s a damn good one.
If anything, I’d prefer Sanders were much less into what Krugman calls “hardheaded realism” than he actually is. That’s because Krugman is wrong about how to make change; we are served best not by “accepting half loaves as being better than none,” but by reframing issues and forcing policymakers’ hands. As climate expert Bill McKibben explains, major accomplishments like gay marriage and civil rights legislation weren’t driven by leaders all too willing to compromise; they were driven by “big, impassioned movement[s] that cleverly changed the zeitgeist.” Sanders gets this dynamic more than any major presidential candidate in recent memory, and that’s why his “political revolution” carries so much potential to change this country’s politics.
All the evidence suggests Sanders is a more “electable” general election candidate than Clinton.
Both Krugman and Tomasky write off the head-to-head polling that has consistently shown Sanders to outperform Clinton in hypothetical general election matchups with Republicans. Tomasky argues that “a billion-dollar onslaught” from the GOP, targeted at the “tax increases he’s proposing,” would tank Sanders. Yet as I’ve explained before, the GOP would also mercilessly attack Clinton, and the idea that those attacks would work better against Sanders is entirely inconsistent with other polling trends. As shown below, Clinton’s favorability ratings have been steadily declining, while Sanders’ have continued to rise as voters have become more familiar with him.
As I’ve also explained before and the graphs below show, Sanders does significantly better than Clinton among two demographic groups key to winning a general election: young people and Independents.
Voters in these groups – unlike voters in Clinton’s key constituencies – may very well abandon the Democrats if Clinton is the party’s nominee. I wouldn’t personally recommend basing your vote on perceived electability, but if that’s what you’re planning to do, the evidence indicates that you should vote for Sanders.
There are substantial, important differences between Sanders and Clinton. These differences are in some respects much larger than the differences between Clinton and various Republicans.
Krugman argues that the differences between Sanders and Clinton “are trivial compared with the yawning gulf with Republicans.” Ironically, the context for those comments – an article about financial policy and donations – provides a compelling counterexample: Wall Street does not like Sanders, but the industry seems to like Clinton more than many of the Republican candidates, as the graph below shows. And though many of them likely agree with Krugman that the differences between Clinton and the Republicans are larger than those between Sanders and Clinton, numerous smart people and policy experts whose existence Krugman ignores believe both that Sanders’ Wall Street plans are much better than Clinton’s and that Sanders is far more likely than Clinton to surround himself with a staff that will execute a power-balancing policy vision.
For an even better example, consider foreign policy. Clinton has embraced an incredibly hawkish position on Israel, used the same foreign policy consulting firm as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz (among other politicians), and supported a coup in Honduras in 2009; in fact, she has earned the support of many neoconservatives for her long history of supporting civil liberties violations and aggressive interventions that have resulted in the mistreatment and/or deaths of millions of innocent people. Tomasky is right to point out that Sanders’ doesn’t get particularly high marks on foreign policy from “actual leftists,” but there’s a reason Congresswoman and Iraq War veteran Tulsi Gabbard resigned from the Democratic National Committee to endorse Sanders at the end of February (see video below): he’s much less imperialistic than the typical major party candidate.
Then there’s the death penalty: Sanders opposes it, but Clinton, like the Republicans, is okay with it. There’s also the subject of immigrants’ rights: Clinton’s professed outrage over Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border is hard to reconcile with her repeated support for a border barrier in the past, support she touted as recently as November 2015. Her newfound commitment not to deport children fleeing violence is also hard to believe given her defense of such deportations a mere seven months ago. In contrast, Sanders has consistently opposed both a border fence and deportations.
From Clinton’s support for the escalation of the War on Drugs and move to more draconian welfare policy to her longtime opposition to gay marriage to her promotion of “free trade” deals that have prioritized the interests of multinational corporations over those of the bulk of the world’s citizens, Clinton’s history is closer to many Republicans’ than to Sanders’, who has a very good (albeit imperfect) record on racial justice issues, anti-poverty work, LGBT issues, and opposing bad trade deals. To be sure, there are some causes on which Sanders has found Republican allies, but those causes have generally been ones – like opposition to corporate welfare – that Tomasky’s “actual leftists” support.
In light of all these facts, Tomasky’s argument that Democrats should refrain from criticizing Hillary Clinton (who he thinks will be the Democratic nominee), like a similar argument from Markos Moulitsas at Daily Kos, is a hell of a lot scarier to people like me than a Donald Trump presidency. This undemocratic idea elevates party tribalism over good policymaking and “winning” over holding politicians accountable. It presents a major obstacle to the change the world’s most disadvantaged populations desperately need, change which perpetual endorsements of lesser-of-two-evilsism will never deliver. Such a misguided notion of “political pragmatism undermines progressive goals,” as I’ve argued before.
Sanders still has a legitimate shot to win the Democratic primary.
Half the country still hasn’t cast their ballots and Bernie Sanders isn’t all that far away from the pledged delegate targets he’d need to win the nomination; Tomasky is wrong to assert that “Sanders can’t win the delegate race now.” Yes, winning will be difficult, but there’s still a clear path for him to do so, and as Sanders’ historic upset win in Michigan shows, an election isn’t over until the voters actually cast their ballots. Krugman thinks an extended primary isn’t “good for the Democratic party;” I, on the other hand, think the Clinton coronation he and the Democratic party Establishment have been pushing is a whole lot worse, as it flies in the face of a lot of what the party is supposed to stand for.
All of that said, Krugman and Tomasky are right about one thing: Sanders supporters should avoid the reflexive attribution “of foul and malevolent motives” to Clinton supporters.
I know a lot of awesome Clinton supporters who do great work. People support presidential candidates for a variety of reasons, and instead of jumping to conclusions about the character of those who disagree with us, we should listen to those reasons and evaluate them on their merits. In fact, I’d urge everyone to extend the same courtesy to Bernie Sanders supporters, to Jill Stein supporters, to those who refuse to vote, and yes, even to people who plan to vote for one of the Republican candidates. We should consider the possibility that others have thought through their electoral choices and have entirely legitimate reasons for making them.
At the same time, ethics and evidence matter, and it’s perfectly fine – in fact, it’s essential – to hold voters accountable for attending to them. If you say your top priority is raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, for example, you can’t possibly defend a vote for a Republican this year. You also can’t really explain a vote for Clinton, which is why Sanders supporters were justifiably furious when the Service Employees International Union endorsed Clinton in November.
I suspect that Krugman and Tomasky don’t share all of my values and priorities. We agree on a lot – I enjoy their writing outside of election season and appreciate much of what they advocate for – but they seem much more comfortable with the policy status quo than I am. I reject the idea that public policy must inevitably leave millions of people behind; they very well may not. In Tomasky’s words: “Fine. I can appreciate that.” If more voters share Krugman and Tomasky’s values than share mine, so be it.
The problem, however, is that Krugman and Tomasky haven’t been writing about value disagreements. Instead, rather than acknowledging and responding to the evidence and logical arguments that contradict their claims, they’ve continued to pen inaccurate and/or highly misleading articles for popular media outlets. Is it any wonder that, in response to such widely read misinformation, they’ve received angry responses from Sanders supporters?
My best guess is that Krugman and Tomasky are suffering from a severe case of confirmation bias: they’re convinced that Clinton is the best option and have developed tunnel vision to avoid the cognitive dissonance that actually considering feedback might bring about. But that doesn’t make what they’re doing okay. And given how often they assign “foul and malevolent motives” to Republicans who write fallacious things, they’d do well to reflect on why it is that their readers have recently been doing the same thing to them.