Please, Bernie Believers: Lighten Up!
I made a meme! (The original word was "God.")
I've been seeing versions of this for years. Sometimes it's worded as a prayer: "Dear Lord/Jesus, please protect me from your followers." At other times, it's along the lines of Bill Maher's frequent observation that he's actually pretty fond of Jesus, he just wishes his followers would read his book (i.e. the Bible). It's a meme I tend to shake my head at: half a century of Methodism introduced me to thousands of sincere, generous, tolerant, sometimes progressive and even radical Christians. Unfortunately, there are prominent religious bigots out there giving the faith I was born into a bad name, and far too many of them are fully on board with a president who fits the Biblical description of the antiChrist better than any political figure in modern times (and yes, that's including Hitler).
As you can see from the picture at the top of the page, I took the meme and made an adjustment. The reason is simple: yesterday I posted something about Bernie Sanders and was immediately trolled. This morning I saw a comment from a Facebook friend who's divided her life between being a performer and a journalist about how she, too, has been hit hard with venomous comments by Sanders supporters. Elizabeth Warren, now that she has suspended her presidential campaign, has been commenting on the phenomenon, too.
My problem with the original God/Jesus meme is that it lumps all Christians into the toxic believer camp. Yes, I know, it's not in the nature of memes to be subtle or attentive to detail, which is one reason I just don't care for them. I want to be extremely careful, then, in being clear that the people I'm talking about here are a few Sanders supporters I have been tracking on Facebook (including one I unfriended, but who continues to comment on my blog whenever I write about the Democratic primary).
These people are fervent, devout believers in the Sanders campaign. They are convinced that the revolution he advocates will be successful in cleansing Washington of corruption and implementing the most wide-ranging reform in social welfare programs since Johnson's Great Society. When they're in a good mood, they simply ignore or dismiss any opinions or evidence to the contrary. Any polling that supports their belief that Sanders can defeat Trump is trumpeted as proof--even if that means ignoring data in the same polls that show another candidate (say, Joe Biden) scoring even higher in a head-to-head with Trump.
None of that is unprecedented. Spin is essential to politics: take a problematic news item and either explain it away or find a way to reinterpret it to the advantage of your favorite candidate. The irony that the politician being spun is one who proudly proclaims himself spin-free is lost on the spinners, but that's another small point.
The next level down from the spin is the castigation of all opposing candidates, even those who share much of Sanders' agenda. The aspersions cast take the form of associations with corporate interests, Wall Street, or political positions taken in an earlier era. It's one of the risks of being an experienced politician, especially with a career as a legislator, and running for a national office. Anyone who's been a Senator or Congressperson has a record of votes, and it's far too easy to pull out a few of them and turn them into an indictment. Thus (and this was part of the trolling on my blog post yesterday), the fact that Elizabeth Warren was once a Republican is an unforgivable demerit. There's no questioning Bernie Sanders' consistency as an advocate for civil rights and labor issues; his progressive bona fides date back to the beginning of his career in public life in the 1960s. Please, before your fingers fly to the flaming comment I know is in your mind, dear Bernie believer, read what I'm about to say and rethink that venom: Bernie Sanders has an admirable track record going back to his youth. That makes him a great American.
But please read this too: Elizabeth Warren has been a tireless advocate for consumers for a quarter of a century. She has stood up to the credit and banking industries as no other public figure has, and she's done it with intelligence and precision. If I were prone to conspiracy theories, I'd think that maybe these moneyed interests had been working behind the scenes to insure that Bernie Sanders, rather than Elizabeth Warren, continued to be the standard-bearer for the progressive wing of the Democratic party, because they've got a lot more to fear from her precision than from the bludgeon he brings to the fight. Warren has successfully turned her advocacy into policy, creating an agency tasked explicitly with defending all Americans from the soulless profiteering that created the financial crisis of 2008. For her efforts she was rewarded with Congressional rejection of her appointment to head that agency, because the financial puppeteers controlling far too many legislators knew how effective she'd be at it.
And yes, she was once a Republican. So was I.
Juvenile political affiliation is shaped by nurture. We grow up immersed in our parents' political opinions. We hear what they say at the dinner table, in the car, in reaction to news stories on the TV and in the paper. Once we're old enough to have opinions of our own, we make them in reaction to, or affirmation of, those of our parents. My perception of my parents was that they were liberal Republicans, and I embraced that affiliation. In high school civics class, I began to encounter more complex takes on issues, and in college, these were expanded by my participation in Model United Nations. One day in my sophomore year, my best friend, a political science major (and conservative), read me a passage from one of his textbooks. I can't remember exactly what it said, though I'm sure it had something to do with the role of government in social welfare. He asked me what I thought of it, and I said, "I completely agree." His response: "Congratulations, you're a socialist." I remember thinking, "If that's what the word really means, then yes, I am!" It took my a decade to change my affiliation to Democrat--I spent many years as a disenfranchised independent (Oregonians must claim a party affiliation to vote in a primary)--but eventually that became my enthusiastic home. As it did, I was to learn a few years later, for my parents, too.
I've also seen some Sanders supporter memes about Bernie being on the right side on sexual minority issues long before Warren and Biden were; and again, that's true of me. I came around in the late 1980s, and am still learning, growing into greater acceptance and support for persons who are different from me in their sexual preferences.
That's what growing up is all about. And for those of you who think you're done growing up when you hit your 20s, here's a little something I learned from a course I took in grad school 36 years ago: we never stop developing. We keep on growing, learning, changing right up to the day we die--and, in many faith traditions, that process continues into the afterlife.
The best stories are about people changing their minds. The politicians I find most attractive, inspirational, and (to me, anyway) electable are the ones who aren't afraid to admit mistakes, who can talk about how they evolved, how they were once on the wrong side of history but then, thanks to a teachable moment, made a breakthrough. Hillary Clinton was not good at this. I remember a Fresh Air interview she did during which Terry Gross tried to pin her down on how her position on marriage equality had evolved; she insisted there had been no change, that she'd always been in favor of it, no matter what the historical record stated. That was a problem for her, a brittleness that might well have kept just enough people from the polls to deny her the presidency.
Of course, there's no one in public life as prickly and sensitive to criticism as the monster we got instead; but if the posts and memes I see about Sanders are any indication, he may well be in the ball park. And if he's not, his followers definitely are. The more their guy's ascendancy to the nomination is threatened by how people are actually voting, the more they turn on his opponents, applying purity tests to their entire political histories. Here's a meme I've seen going around:
The biggest problem with this is that it was Joe Biden's 2012 declaration on Meet the Press that he was "absolutely" comfortable with same-sex marriage that may well have initiated its ultimate legalization. It's hard to call either of them "anti-lgbt," too, when there has always been a spectrum of positions--but there I go again, asking why a meme doesn't allow for the existence of shades of gray. (Answer: because that's not how memes work. Rejoinder: THEN STOP MAKING MEMES!!!!)
That brings me to my biggest bone of contention with the Sanders camp, the one he has done the last to counter: that there's a conspiracy to deny him the nomination. When the Iowa caucuses didn't deliver him an outright win, Facebook lit up with theories that somehow Pete Buttigieg had manipulated the results. In fact, there were some blunders on the part of the Iowa Democratic party, and it took far longer than it should have to get a clear picture of who had actually won the caucus. When Joe Biden's victory in South Carolina was followed by a brief uptick in the corona-virus collapsing stock market (apparently Wall Street would prefer the stability of a Biden presidency to the chaos of Trump's regime), the Bernie Bros immediately connected it to Biden somehow being in the pocket of health insurers.
Sanders's frequent harangues against the Democratic "establishment" have contributed to this conspiracy vibe. And there's no question the leaders of the party would rather see a Biden nomination. But I don't think it's because they're afraid of the Sanders agenda. It's because they're clear-thinking political strategists, they've crunched the numbers, and they know what will happen if finger-jabbing shouty Bernie faces off with charismatic (to his own followers, anyway) Donald: the word "socialist" will cling to Sanders like a dog turd to a shoe with an aggressive outsole. As you type up a screed in reaction to this paragraph, remember: I AM A SOCIALIST!!!! Sadly, the American people, as a group, are just not ready to embrace the word, even though it aptly describes their favorite government programs.
The Democratic establishment also knows that Sanders is Trump's opponent of choice. They know he's been advocating his followers who live in open primary states to crossover vote for Sanders. They know, as all of us should by now, that Trump went to enormous impeachable lengths to discredit Biden, and that Republicans in Congress continue to promote investigations into discredited accusations against his son Hunter. They know that the Russian efforts to manipulate this year's campaign have also favored Sanders as a better chaos candidate than Biden. And they know that Democratic core voters, whose turnout at the ballot is essential to defeating Trump, prefer Biden by large margins to Sanders.
Be that all as it may, the Democratic primary process is as far removed from a conspiracy to keep Sanders down as it could possibly be. Voter turnout manipulation has become a prime strategy of the Republican party. Democrats, on the other hand, are so set on giving every Democratic voter a say that they bungled the Iowa caucuses in their drive to make it more, not less, democratic. Democratic primaries are far more proportional than the Republican winner-take-all system that gave Trump his nomination. And they've disarmed the "superdelegates" who were so controversial in 2016, giving them an advisory role that keeps them off the first convention ballot. Democrats are terrified of a repeat of the 1968 Chicago convention that resulted in the Nixon presidency, and will do everything they can to make sure the nomination goes to the candidate who simply receives the most votes--even if that candidate is Bernie Sanders.
Meanwhile, the venom coming off Bernie Bros and Bots has really been turning me off to him. Which, finally, gets me back to the meme I made for the top of this page: there's a lot to like about Bernie Sanders. If he's the nominee, I'll vote for him in November. I may even vote for him in May, when Oregon has its primary, now that Warren is out. But seriously, guys, if you really want him to win this race democratically--which is to say, by getting the most votes--then take a chill pill. I know you don't speak for him, but at some point, it's going to be impossible to separate your vitriol from the man himself.
That matters both for him winning the nomination and, more importantly, the election. Given a choice between two candidates who've associated themselves with hateful people, I'm guessing there are enough voters who'll just say "to hell with them both" and stay home to, once again, hand it to Trump. And that's a result none of us wants.