Progressivism vs. Cynicism in the Age of Bernie Sanders
Facing the insurmountably high probability that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee, I have begun wondering what will become of the social movement Bernie Sanders has inspired once he drops out of the race. What will Bernie’s unprecedented campaign engender in his followers come this November and beyond? The optimist in me hopes his campaign will spark a renewed progressive movement that will continue to push Hillary to the left, while also rallying around progressive causes at the state and local level. However, I worry that a pernicious cynicism is suffocating these passions and the more I interact with Bernie supporters the more I see cynicism, not progressivism, dominating their worldview.
When the primary began I found myself supporting Hillary over Bernie. For me, Bernie was a better alignment with my politics, but I placed equal value on Hillary’s leadership experience. I fell on the pragmatist side of the “idealist vs. pragmatist” debate that characterized the cordial exchanges within my circle of friends early in the primary. As the primaries continued, however, some Bernie supporters began focusing less on the progressive idealism of their candidate and more on a burgeoning persecution complex.
The “idealists vs. pragmatist” debate has been replaced with “the savior vs. the conniving corporate witch.” Little discussion remains regarding how to further the progressive agenda. Rather, I have borne witness to a litany of conspiracy theories regarding rigged elections, corporate puppet masters, and media bias. The conspiracy mongering first manifested itself as vague illusions to the “system being rigged” and complaints about super-delegates “stealing” the election. But it wasn’t until the Arizona primary that a Tea Party level of conspiratorial paranoia emerged among portions of the Bernie-sphere.
The Arizona primary was undoubtedly marred by voter suppression efforts, but those efforts originated from the State’s Republican government and were designed to disenfranchise Democratic voters in the general election. Yet once it became clear that Bernie lost Arizona by 15 percentage points, a new conspiracy theory emerged: these voter suppression efforts were perpetrated by Hillary and the DNC! Within a day or two it had gained traction in the online Bernie echo chamber and my friends began demanding from me an explanation for such a travesty.
The utter absurdity of this conspiracy is self-evident to anyone who thinks it through. It requires 1) believing that Hillary is colluding with Republican officials in Arizona to implement policies that could cost her the state in the general election; 2) ignoring the fact that voter suppression efforts hurt minorities voters the most, the very people who have been consistent Hillary supporters throughout the primaries; and 3) believing that dozens of media outlets, who are so sensationalist they’re being blamed for “creating Trump,“ are somehow all walking in unanimous lockstep to suppress this information.
But alas, as with all conspiracies, its believers are impervious to reason. I often hear “Arizona” used rhetorically in conversation as an unambiguous battle cry, as if it were the Alamo. Arizona seems to have crystalized the paranoid and cynical mindset that now characterizes some Bernie supporters. To these individuals, Bernie’s nomination is no longer about forwarding progressive values; it’s about exposing a cartoonishly absurd conspiracy to rig the election that somehow involves the media, the DNC, Hillary, a vague cadre of corporations, and all us “sheep” who are brainwashed by “the establishment.”
And the hysteria has not stopped with Arizona. There is no shortage of hand wringing regarding how that primary in New York was “rigged.” In particular, the belief in voter registries being purposefully “purged” has spread like wildfire online. I could spend all day rebuking this conspiracy, but it doesn’t even pass the “it would work” test. Every poll in existence showed Hillary leading among registered Democrats in New York, so any systematic effort to remove voters from the registries would disadvantage Hillary, not help her.
There are plenty of principled reasons to support Bernie over Hillary, but a belief in preposterous conspiracies is not principled, it’s vapid and cynical. Now I’ll be the first to admit that the Bernie supporters I speak of here are not representative of all his supporters. Indeed, I know many Bernie supporters who are life-long progressives and their activism will not hinge on any election. Conversely, I believe many are opportunistic populists who will inexorably disengage once the primaries are over, regardless of whether Bernie wins. I think most Bernie supporters are somewhere in between and to them I ask this: what behavior will Bernie’s campaign engender in you once it is over?
I’m not talking about reluctantly voting for Hillary in November, I’m talking about becoming engaged in the political process. Will Bernie’s campaign inspire you to volunteer for progressive political causes, fight voter suppression efforts, support pro-LGBT legislation in your state, attend political rallies, write your representatives, and vote in all elections? Will you vow to stay informed and engaged with the political process? Or will Bernie’s defeat cause you to disengage from politics? Will you employ trite, conspiratorial platitudes about “the establishment” to justify an unwillingness to vote? Will your progressive values only manifest in the insipid memes you share on Facebook, where you think it’s funny to equate Hillary and Trump?
If you choose the latter of these two worldviews then you have no right to call yourself a progressive. The only mantle you can claim will the that of a bitter, petulant cynic. Sanders cares about progressive causes, as does Clinton, as do I. And if you actually give a damn about what progressives stand for, act like it. Abandon your paranoia, develop an incredulity to anyone who sells you simple narratives like “the system is rigged,” and start behaving like Sander’s candidacy means something more than cynicism writ large.