For months—for some since Super Tuesday—Hillary Clinton's supporters in politics and media have insisted that Bernie Sanders accept reality, accept defeat, and concede the Democratic nomination to Clinton. On Tuesday, he did just that. The primary is over.
But rather than savoring the victory, several prominent members of the media spent the day ferreting out pockets of resistance, searching for Sanders supporters—from delegates to journalists to private Facebook users—who did not accept their candidate’s embrace of a system he had vowed to dismantle, and holding them up as sore, petulant losers, for public mockery.
Let us set aside, for a moment, that these holdouts represent a considerable minority of Sanders voters. Let us set aside that their already small numbers will dwindle over the next few months. Let us set aside that Clinton partisans have spent the better part of a year accusing Sanders's overwhelmingly young base of juvenile hero worship only to treat it as even more childish when those same supporters show signs of breaking with their purported hero. After all, the grievance was never with any particular attitude of young left-leaning Democrats, so much as those voters insisting on a hard price for their support.
Let us set aside also the fact that Clinton and her supporters won, and won handily, and there is something strange in looking at a major symbolic milestone in that victory and ridiculing every little place it’s not complete; that for all the talk of sore losers, these may be the sorest winners in the world.
I want to ask a more basic question: What is the relationship between candidates and constituencies supposed to be?
The position of the Sanders holdouts is straightforward: Bernie Sanders campaigned for a host of policy positions significantly to the left of the Democratic mainstream. More broadly, Sanders campaigned against the political system that produced Clinton’s positions, one that, in his view, gives a disproportionate and corrupting influence to monied interests and rewards political leaders willing to service those interests: for example, Clinton.
While Sanders extracted some limited (and questionable) concessions from Clinton on a few of those issues, he was largely unsuccessful. On bank regulation, universal health care, Israeli apartheid and others, the more moderate Clinton positions remain intact. Then, by endorsing Clinton, Sanders conceded the larger point: Political revolutions have their limits, and it was now time, in his view, to unite and defeat Donald Trump.
Given all of this, the Sanders holdouts would seem to have a perfectly coherent reaction: Sanders was only a vehicle for their political values. Now that he has conceded his fight for those values, he should be abandoned as a vehicle. Clinton supporters treat this as only the latest in a long line of tantrums, but isn’t this the healthy attitude toward candidates? You vote for someone who represents something acceptably close to your values, and then you move on.
What’s the alternative?
One alternative, of course, is the politics of teams above values, a politics where voters do not select representatives so much as leaders, where principle plays a role but a role subordinate to loyalty; that is, a politics of deference and trust. The goal is to win. The goal is to believe that your support is not something to be won, but to be given as a precondition to the attention of the powerful. This is the style of politics that cannot fathom refusing to follow the direction of a leader. This is the style of politics that cannot fathom abandoning that leader, no matter her shifting values, no matter her past, no matter how much these things may contradict your own purported dreams. You win first, then you trust your leader to deliver.
Some might call this style of politics hero worship. But hero worship, as we’ve been told, is only for the petulant and the childish.
Emmett Rensin is a writer based in Iowa City, Iowa. His previous work has appeared in Vox, The New Republic, The Atlantic and The Los Angeles Review of Books (where he is a contributing editor). Follow him on Twitter at @EmmettRensin.