Why voting for Clinton may trouble some Sanders supporters

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By the time of the Democratic National Convention in late July, the appeal of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had increased among supporters of Clinton’s main primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt). Still, many vocal many Sanders supporters announced they were not planning to vote for Clinton.

Reactions to these particular Clinton-averse Sanders supporters ranged from comedian Sarah Silverman’s cheeky chiding at the convention to rumination by philosophy professors on the ethics of voting.

{mosads}Whether flippant, dismissive or well-reasoned, many responses share consternation and a sense that these Sanders acolytes are not being strategic. My close-up research on progressive social activists over the past quarter-century suggests that the ethical dilemmas of these earlier progressives may help us understand current political choices as active Sanders supporters see them.

For these Sanders activists, a vote for Clinton may not mean “becoming more strategic” so much as switching strategies. This may invite moral quandaries that ultimately go beyond whether or not the former secretary of State truly opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership or supports tuition-free university education. It is wrong to reduce these Sanders supporters’ thinking to selfish “moralism,” or a refusal to compromise on specific issues.

Understanding their quandaries will help policymakers and citizens communicate clearly about urgent choices in what is already a tense, emotional election season.

A distinct approach to political issues plays out in a string of social movements, from the early 1960s student new left, to grassroots environmentalism and feminism, to the recent Occupy movement. In this approach, put simply, personal voice matters greatly. Intensive, personal participation matters because these individuals feel such a heavy, personal responsibility for social change.

People usually create social change in groups, so why does anyone need to make politics so personalized? Personalized politics has emerged and re-emerged when activists introduce big, abstract ideas — participatory democracy in the 1960s, environmental sustainability and feminist consciousness in the 1970s, queer sexuality in the 1990s, alternative globalization in the 2000s — that are not well-established in mainstream political parties and traditions.

When activists introduce these new, dissenting ideas to the public, they cannot do that as political players with an established group reputation and infrastructure to lean on for legitimacy.

Rather, it’s on them, personally, to keep the new ideas alive in relatively small groups of like-minded people. When people carry a strong sense of individual responsibility for social change, they organize action groups the way Occupy activists did. They insist on a maximum of personal voice in decision-making — or, in the case of at least one local Occupy group, they tell a nationally prominent civil rights activist on a tight schedule that he could wait his turn with everyone else in the queue to speak. Strong leaders and hierarchies of prominence do not have much legitimacy in this scenario; everyone is a leader, or wants to feel like that is an option.

It should be clear that this personalized kind of activism is not selfishness or express-myself immaturity. It is a very individualized moral burden for making institutions, including political parties, change.

Personalized politics is a social movement strategy, for political outsiders. This kind of activism has had some strategic, institutional successes over time. After all, some of those big, abstract ideas that started among small groups of outsiders have become established institutionally, at least as aspirations. Ecological sustainability is no longer a big radical idea; most public school children learn about it.

Participatory democracy isn’t just for university student activists anymore; even some corporations say they cultivate it in the workplace, much as workers cannot use it to redirect profits or re-hire themselves if they’re fired. Occasionally personalized activism swings far toward the “personal” and it produces calls for “trigger warnings” or a finely tuned sensitivity to language that some commentators satirize as political correctness. But more often it promotes self-sacrifice for big social change ideas and a sense of political responsibility that is hard to compartmentalize.

As one U.S. Green movement activist told me a long time ago, “I can’t just be a little bit involved.”

Sometimes a social movement brings its insurgent action into an institution. In some ways, the Sanders campaign has been like a social movement, making its way inside the Democratic Party. Its most active proponents, the ones who made it to the Philadelphia convention, are parallel to earlier, progressive social activists in at least one way: They come with at least one, big social-change idea.

It is the one that Occupy activists propounded, that a tiny economic elite, “the 1 percent,” has accumulated far too much political and economic power. It is an idea that until now people have had to keep alive as political outsiders, carrying it and living it individually with relatively small groups of like-minded others — famously, in colorful outdoor “occupations” that sprung up across the world only a few years ago.

Sanders supporters deeply committed to this social criticism now have the dilemma of switching from a social movement strategy to a voting strategy, in the short term at least. In contrast with an egalitarian, personal politics of big ideas, electoral party politics bids voters accept a party with a hierarchy. In the U.S., voters choose that group’s “good enough” candidate, who is “better than the alternative.” That makes sense for those willing to identify with the group, the party, but less so for people whose political identity depends more on oneself in community with others who share an institutional outsider’s cause.

Some activists won’t change strategies so fast. Flashing “Bernie” signs and booing party regulars at the Democratic convention, whether we like it or not, are the social movement strategies of outsiders trying to carry new ideas in. For at least some activists who are used to a social movement strategy, the strategy of voting for what is “good enough” risks being personally inauthentic, like a product of unwelcome, external manipulation.

That does not mean that switching is a bad thing. The goal is just to imagine things from the point of view of the activists who puzzle commentators and frustrate some would-be political allies. Some of the Sanders supporters averse to Clinton might use the same terms a Green Party activist used in 1991 to tell a room of fellow grassroots environmentalists why working with big, established environmental organizations was a bad idea. It was a compromise, and “any compromise is already lost,” he figured, because ecological devastation had grown so vast.

Some current activists may say the same about a “compromise” approach to the devastating effect of money on politics. That environmental activist felt too responsible to go for “compromises” and work with the Sierra Club; better to work as an outsider. Others may calculate responsibility differently. My point is to suggest that for activists such as these, there is more at stake, personally, politically and even morally, than a simple matter of switching candidates. Communication that starts with this realization will be more effective — and more respectful — than hectoring.

Critics see resilient Sanders supporters as rigid moralists who are following a bad electoral strategy. At best, that would be starting the story in the middle. In recent historical perspective, it makes better sense to see them as proponents of a social movement strategy, one that has its own successes and limits in the world of social activism. The real quandary for them is to switch political strategies, not just switch candidates and platforms. It is not as simple as “should I be selfish and politically correct or should I compromise.”

The dilemma is how and to what degree should one remain committed to a social movement for economic justice that lives both partly inside and outside of the power and reputation of well-established groups. Interestingly, some Sanders supporters have suggested the way to resolve the dilemma — and vote for Clinton along the way — is to reconnect at least for the near term with another institutionalized, group identity that Sanders supporters may honor more than a party affiliation. That is their identity as American citizens, committed to the “small D” democratic institutions that they see imperiled by Donald Trump’s candidacy.

Paul Lichterman is a professor of sociology and religion at USC. He is the author of “The Search for Political Community: American Activists Reinventing Commitment.”

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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