Self-Identification & Primary Hostilities

In case you haven’t been paying close attention, the Democratic presidential primary has dramatically heated up in recent weeks. Bernie Sanders has closed the gap in polling in Iowa and nationally, while building up a lead in New Hampshire. As polls have tightened, the Clinton campaign, their surrogates and many online supporters have gone into attack mode.

What is disheartening to me is that this could be a primary where big ideas are debated and we have a serious discussion of what direction the Democratic Party wants to take the country in coming decades. To be sure, we are having this debate, however it is being played out in increasingly uncivil tones. I’m no shirking violet and I do not think there’s anything wrong with heated political debate. But it is frustrating to see friends and organizations I respect wade into vicious attacks on each other over the candidates and who people support.

I have a sense as to what is causing the rising acrimony. Policy ideas are, generally, fact oriented things. Many different ideas can be easily arranged on a spectrum, with the political philosophies of left and right representative of different polls, and policy solutions conforming towards different points on the spectrum. Arguably there is no normative value associated with different spots on the spectrum. The concept of single payer healthcare is inarguably to the left of Obamacare, which is inarguably to the left of a system where there is no public subsidy for private health insurance.

Where this becomes fraught in today’s political environment is that people have very different, values laden senses of political identifiers. For people who use them to describe themselves, words like “progressive,” “centrist,” or “conservative” tend to mean “a good person.” Thus someone may proudly claim to be a “bold progressive,” a “staunch conservative,” or a “realistic centrist” as if those adjectives increase the person’s worth. And in the tribal realm of politics, individuals apply their assignation of self-worth not just to how they view themselves, but by supporting candidates like them, who fit these same billings and amplify their own worth.

The problems emerge, as we are seeing in the Democratic primary, when someone views themselves as a “bold progressive” and supports a candidate like Hillary Clinton in a race that also includes Bernie Sanders, an inarguably more left (and thus “progressive” in today’s parlance) politician. To say that Sanders is to Clinton’s left is a statement of fact – it has no moral value, nor does it impart any assessment on the worth of the candidates nor their supporters. It just is.

But for people who explicitly or implicitly take “progressive” to normatively mean “a good person,” then someone being more progressive means that they can lay claim to being “a better person” than our Clinton supporter. No one likes to feel like they are worth less than they see themselves, so they fight back against this idea (even though it is purely implicit and premised on the normative application of “progressive” as a designation of self-worth). They defend themselves from this perceived attack. They look for the tiniest of holes in the ideological spectrum, searching for issues to find spots or moments where their preferred candidate is to the left, and thus the True Progressive. We see this in the primary fight where the Clinton campaign has sought to turn Sanders’ lifetime “D-” NRA rating into a liability based on a handful of bad gun votes. The triumphant Clintonite response to this, “A-ha! Bernie is in the pocket of the NRA! He is no True Progressive!”

This also speaks to why we are seeing a real hatred of Sanders emerge in the Democratic establishment, which is almost exclusively backing Clinton and increasingly public in their disdain for Sanders. Democratic “elites” are flocking to Iowa, driven in part by fear and part out of a hatred of Sanders.

The campaign and its allies had planned all along to escalate their efforts at this point, as the caucuses near. However, Democratic governors, senators and other party leaders said they are increasingly alarmed at the prospect of Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, surfing a wave of populist frustration to the nomination. And they were quick in interviews this week to dispense advice to Clinton.

Within the Democratic elite, where Clinton enjoys near-universal support, the antipathy toward Sanders has grown steadily as he has emerged as a potential Clinton slayer. All week, McCaskill has been loudly predicting an electoral catastrophe if her party nominates Sanders.

As much as there will be a massive rending of garments in Washington if Hillary Clinton fails to win from the position of presumptive nominee, the Clinton supporters are not wearing desperation well. They’re taking it personally and it is showing.

At least, this is what I am seeing. It could explain the anger and hatred at the increasing success of Sanders’ campaign. If everyone feels like he exists as a finger in their eye, a statement that they are not as good people as they thought they were, then anger is an understandable reaction. Whether it is justified is a different question, but at least this could explain it on an individual, emotional level.

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