April 11, 2016

Bernie Bros, Hillary Hawks, and Tribalism on the Left

Bernie Sanders by Gage SkidmoreWe have grown used to seeing irrationality and infighting within groups where members share many of the same goals. Small differences are amplified until tribes form, litmus tests are established, and fractures inevitably result. What once might have appeared to be a reasonably unified movement breaks into clear factions opposed to one another. At that point, animosity is aimed not at one's traditional opponents who really are pursuing an agenda at odds with one's own but at one's allies, allies who are now perceived as members of the other tribe.

Long-time readers could be forgiven for thinking that the paragraph above might refer to "the Great Rift" that divided and continues to divide some atheists. I suppose it could; however, as the title of the post indicates, I have something else in mind. I am referring to the phenomenon taking place on the Democratic left in the U.S. presidential contest. Supporters of Bernie Sanders make up one tribe ("Bernie Bros," or "Bernie Bots" if you prefer something a bit less sexist); supporters of Hillary Clinton make up the other ("Hillary Hawks" or "Hillary Bots").

After spending even a few minutes a day on Facebook and Twitter, I am convinced that far too many members of both tribes have abandoned reason. I find this relevant not merely because it has to do with reason (or the lack thereof) or because I find much of what I've seen to be annoying; I find it relevant because this behavior runs counter to the causes about which so many claim to care so deeply.

There is nothing wrong with selecting a candidate to support and then attempting to persuade others why they should support the same candidate. This is how politics works. Supporters of either candidate should be as enthusiastic, passionate, and committed as they can be in order to sell the rest of us on their candidate. Candidates benefit from having enthusiastic supporters, and the whole system works better when voters are informed, energized, and willing to participate in the process.

There is also nothing wrong with directing criticism at the candidate or candidates opposing the one we have selected. Part of enthusiastically supporting one's own candidate entails communicating why he or she is better than the other options. And one of the most common ways to do this is by criticizing the opponent or opponents. We want others to know why our candidate is better and why their candidate is worse.

Unfortunately, we have a tendency to personally identify with our chosen candidate, and this opens the door to irrationality. When we favor a candidate and invest in him or her, we begin to personally identify with our candidate. He or she becomes our candidate. As this happens, too many of us set aside our skepticism and our willingness to critically evaluate our candidate. We focus on information that is supportive our our candidate and tune out or dismiss information that does not. We begin to view our candidate in unrealistically positive ways. He or she can do no wrong, and even obvious shortcomings seem to fade away. The narrative takes priority over the facts. Not only is this irrational, but it likely makes us less effective supporters of our candidate.

Personally identifying with our candidate is not only about elevating him or her to an undeserved status; it also means that we become less willing to consider criticism of our candidate from others. Criticism of our candidate from others now stings a bit, almost as if it is criticism of us. We do not like to be reminded that our candidate might be flawed. After all, what would it say about us if we supported a flawed candidate? It suggests that our decision might have been faulty and our commitment might have been wasted. That is intolerable. Any information critical of our candidate must be propaganda from the other side. We become defensive, and we counter-attack.

As if all of this was not bad enough, the real problem occurs when members of either tribe begin to demonize members of the opposing tribe. It is one thing to criticize an opposing candidate; it is something quite different to attack that candidate's supporters for the "offense" of supporting another candidate. These attacks almost always involve questioning the intelligence and/or moral integrity of those who support other candidates In essence, they are dumb and/or bad people because they support a candidate other than the one we support. Now we have "Hillary Hawks" and "Bernie Bros."

As common as this sort of thing is, I suppose the good news is that each of us can make a personal decision not to give in to it. I support Bernie Sanders for president, but I am not going to lie about his record, his chances of winning the Democratic nomination, or his many flaws. I would much rather see him in the White House than Hillary Clinton; however, I am not going to lie about Clinton's record, suggest that she is unqualified to serve as president, or ignore her many assets. I am not going to limit myself to only those sources of information that confirm my support for Sanders or my distaste for Clinton. But most of all, I am not going to demonize those who support Clinton over Sanders. In my experience, the average Clinton supporter is every bit as intelligent and morally virtuous as the average Sanders supporter. The fact that we disagree about which candidate to support does not change that.

I'd like to conclude with a quote from Manny Schewitz (Modern Liberals) that sums this up fairly well:
I have a number of friends who I deeply respect who are Hillary Clinton supporters, and while I don’t agree with their choice, it hasn’t damaged our relationship because we’re grown adults who recognize that either candidate is still far better than anything the GOP has to offer.
From what I have been observing lately on social media, recognizing that we are adults and trying to do a better job of acting like it would indeed be a step in the right direction.
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