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Where to draw the line?

It occurs to me that (and I don’t mean this in a negative sense at all) many of Bernie Sanders’ supporters, the younger ones particularly, are really only now for the first time wrestling with a fundamental question of democracy: what do I do when I lose? Whether it’s candidates or policy positions or whatever, we will lose as least as much as we will win. Someone born in, say, 1990 and growing up in a particularly political family might have suffered disappointment when Howard Dean’s campaign came to naught, but probably didn’t think about it very much, and besides at the age of fourteen didn’t have to decide whether to vote for John Kerry in the general election or not. Then, if that person picked Barack Obama to get his first actual vote in 2008, which is demographically likely enough, there was nothing but the taste of unlikely victory.

That person is now twenty-six.

I haven’t found a really good way to say it, but I have tried repeatedly over the years, here in this Tohu Bohu and elsewhere, to emphasize the idea that we need to find our way to enjoy voting for candidates while holding our noses at their terrible, terrible flaws. There’s no question that we elect flawed people, and I don’t just mean that everyone is flawed (which of course is true) but that sometimes we elect people who are dishonest, or corrupt, or greedy; sometimes we elect people who are vain, or ignorant, or close-minded. Sometimes those people are better than the alternative. Sometimes we elect people who actively work against some of the policies we hold dear. Sometimes those people are better than the alternative, too.

Everyone has to draw the line somewhere. I voted, once, for a Republican, in a local race where I thought the long-standing incumbent Democrat was a good-old-boy-network racist and sexist who seemed to have dedicated his life to preserving a status quo that worked just fine for white men and was actively terrible for everyone else. In that race, I felt that the Republican would do less harm than the Democrat, despite the fact that on official policy lines, I disagreed with the Republican and agreed with the Democrat on almost everything. I drew the line there. Every other time, I have held my nose and voted with my Party, but I held the line there.

Digression: OK, I voted Socialist instead of voting for Sen. Feinstein once, because it wasn’t going to be a close election and I wanted, at the time, to remind the Senator that she could really be a lot further to the left without hurting her re-election chances next time. At that time, I drew the line there. I don’t think I would do it again, in a similar situation now. For one thing, it didn’t seem to work. End Digression.

Two things about democracy. First is that everyone loses a bunch of elections. Primaries and generals and referenda and ballot questions and recalls. In every election there are a bunch of people—not quite half, but sometimes close to it—who voted for one side and have to live with the other. George Santayana, philosophy’s most overrated Spaniard, said that democracy only seems to work because everybody mostly agrees about everything they think is important, and then they don’t care very much about the stuff they do disagree on, so they can stand to lose elections. Other people claim that democracy works because people are surprisingly optimistic and patient, figuring that losing a particular election or three is a temporary setback which they are willing to live through because their correct ideas will eventually win out. My own opinion is that it is enough if we all believe in democracy. It is enough if we all think that democracy is more important than whatever else we disagree on. If we would rather lose an election than lose democracy; if the idea of having a benevolent dictator enforce the policies we really do think are superior fills us with outrage. Whatever notion you want to take up, if you want to participate in self-government, you’re going to have to find a way to live with losing a bunch of elections.

Second is this: whatever way you find to deal with losing a bunch of elections while still participating? It’s good. Whatever way other people find? That’s good, too. The point of democratic self-government—working toward becoming an equal and free people capable of self-government at every level—is that you don’t get to decide for other people where they draw those lines. If a Bernie Sanders supporter decides that their policy preferences would be best met by declaring they will vote Blue no matter what, or that they will vote Green this time, or that they will spoil a ballot by writing in Bernie Sanders, or ignoring the top line and working on the local races? That’s their call. Oh, you should (if you are such a supporter talking with other such) advocate for your preference. But if the whole Bernie Sanders movement were to react the same way—even the way that seems to me best—that would not be good. Not for democracy, not for real participation in self-government.

Who decides? That’s a great question about almost every aspect of democracy. Who decides the names on the ballot in November? Who decides primary or caucus, open or closed, early or late? Who decides whether a candidate should drop out or keep challenging? Who decides whether a movement should come in to the big tent or stay outside? And the answer, generally, is not you. Or rather, you get to decide for you. You can (and should) attempt to persuade your friends and neighbors and compatriots. You can work with the groups you are part of, but even for those groups, you need to be one voice in them. You can rejoice that the group is responding to everyone in it, not just you… or decide that the group’s path has gone too far astray, dissociate yourself from the group and join another. You need to decide that for you; don’t let me or anyone do it for you.

My first primary disappointment as a voter was Senator Paul Simon—I have had plenty of time to wrestle with what to do when My Party passes over an inspiring figure to nominate someone I find somewhere between uninspiring and a train wreck. The struggle is not new to me (nor, and this really is a digression, do I find it at all difficult to support Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, which I find much more compelling than I did Michael Dukakis, or for that matter Bill Clinton (I was a Harkin supporter) or John Kerry; I remain perplexed by the strength of progressive antipathy to her) and I have to admit I have been unsympathetic to Bernie-or-Bust. But it hadn’t occurred to me how many of those voters were trying to draw that line for the first time. Good luck to y’all, I say; keep your eyes on the prize.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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