Why We Shouldn't Promise to Campaign for a Democratic Nominee Other than Bernie—Yet | Opinion

A week and a half ago, before Bernie Sanders' back-to-back scooping up of majorities in Iowa and New Hampshire, The Des Moines Register and CNN spiked a poll that represented a long, and proud, tradition. For 76 years, the final poll on the Saturday before the Iowa caucuses helped set a tone for the election season. While spirited caucus goers prepared to stand in formation to support their candidate, this poll served as a conversational starting point for media coverage. But when Bernie Sanders took the lead, as revealed in a poll last month, the tradition abruptly ended. The campaign of a small town mayor and dark-horse candidate, Pete Buttigieg, was able to get the 2020 version of the poll spiked, according to multiple reports. Why? Since one of the poll interviews may have failed to mention Buttigieg, the fresh-faced mayor was able to end this 76-year legacy.

I thought about this recently when a conversation on Facebook led to the inevitable request that, as a Bernie Sanders supporter, I would vote for whomever wound up with the Democratic nomination. A recent poll shows Bernie supporters as holdouts on this question.There may be good reason. Since 2016, the question has served to take a more near-term concern for the voters' concerns on whether the DNC and media can preside over an entirely fair election—a credibility question—and turn it, via respectability politics, into a question thrown back at the screwed-over voter. Whatever perceived unfairness comes, via spiked polls, backroom deals and unpledged delegates, whichever abridgments of democratic process we must face, each of us as an individual voter bears the responsibility not merely swallow, but champion whichever worst-best candidate the power brokers foist upon us, whichever abridgments of democratic process we must face.

In 2016, when I answered the question in the affirmative, I did so by knocking on doors for Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia. Somewhere during those fall days I had heard that in Philadelphia Democrats outnumber Republicans at a ratio of 8 to 1, and that good turnout there and in other cities helps Democrats secure a win in the state. Hard as the canvassers I worked with tried, the state went for Trump. (Anecdotally, over my short time in the city, I couldn't get a lot of engagement in the neighborhoods I canvassed. Much of the work was useful, giving people directions to the polling sites, and even a ride on election day, in one case. But the palpable excitement in the air in Ohio when I knocked for Obama in 2008? I just didn't feel it in 2016, in myself or in the conversations I had at doors.)

Hillary Clinton's performance in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh was better than Obama's in 2012. But compared to the rural, working class vote for Trump in the rest of the state, the campaign fell short. The slow economy had done its work. This was just one of the metrics of the 2016 Democratic loss, and it taught me a lesson about the limits of my own salesmanship.

Before the election returns came in, it felt good to knock on doors with some of my primary rivals. Throughout the prior months of arguments, I had understood the passion of even my most enthused Clinton-supporting friends. A black president followed by a woman president would send a powerful message to haters about who we were and are, as a party and country, and address exclusions that were part of an awful legacy of white supremacy and patriarchy.

But the fights we endured during the primaries campaign didn't totally disappear. I was still annoyed that the term "Bernie Bro" was being used as a coordinated weapon, one that felt as if it had been dreamed up in a Clinton campaign session—and that it may not have always been used in good faith. Sometimes it felt like it was being used as a cudgel to silence voters whose candidate seemed self-evidently more consistent and progressive than his opponent.

I am frequently surprised that some Clinton partisans still don't seem to be aware that more Bernie supporters probably voted for Clinton in 2016 than Clinton supporters voted for Obama in 2008, according to exit polls and other data. Whether or not that lack of awareness points to bad faith or a lot of noise around the presidency of Donald Trump interests me less than how it brings us back to the question of this preemptive pledge of allegiance to whatever Democrat is the last one standing.

When I answered the question above in the affirmative by knocking on doors for Hillary Clinton, I was engaged in a pragmatic game of what is euphemistically called "lesser evilism." When I use the term, I don't mean to say that there is anything personally evil about Hillary Clinton, or centrists. Just that knocking on doors for her campaign comescame as a calculated form of rationality. Even if I sometimes felt burned by the DNC—which gave Clinton power over its leadership and money long before the convention, weighing the primaries for her—even if I reeled at the times Bernie's egalitarian progressivism was casually writtenbrushed off with the epithet "Bernie Bro," it was nevertheless in my rational interest to get the better candidate elected, even if that candidate wasn't my first choice. To me, that better candidate was obviously meant Clinton, and it meant rising above the bad blood.

But the reasoning could cut another way. It also seemed to be in my interest, in the longer term, to question how this lesser evilism works. It tends to preempt conversations about the intent of the party I vote with. By agreeing with a chorus that said Any Democrat, even before the primaries, I risk end up making an outcome I don't support become even more likely. Since the data is clear that Bernie supporters voted for Clinton in very high numbers, my predictably rational behavior might help make my best choice, as opposed to my second or third choice, less likely—by allowing others to take my vote for granted. Instead of asking if I, a progressive, will absolutely definitely, will I vote for a centrist (which, incidentally, seems like the best way to give Trump a second term), perhaps the question should be: Why sabotage a progressive if you, the party, really want to defeat Trump?

An example: Let's agree that one of the things that unites Democrats is that the Citizens United Supreme Court decision—which redefines money as political speech, and protects it as free speech—was a terrible, even toxic decision. There are many problems with that decision. One of them is that money is not speech. Furthermore, it favors the wealthy in a climate where corporate ownership of the media already results in more "speech" for corporations and the elite, and it disenfranchises individual, especially non-elite, voters.

But the Democratic Party is not, in fact, unambiguously united on this issue. The New Democrats in the 1980s created the Democratic Leadership Council, and this fundraising organization that pandered before Wall Street helped create the Hillary and Bill Clinton juggernaut. Money as speech is the ruling ethos among the party leadership, and this has been made concrete recently in the form of the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, not to mention their Super Pacs. The Foundation was controversial because it appeared to critics to convert money as influence, effectively allowing unscrupulous regimes to buy influence and favoritism from a former Secretary of State running for president. So when you consider this against the Citizens' United decision, you see that it should come as little surprise that the DNC leadership seems often inclined to act in favor of Citizens' United-style policies; after all, big ads for political campaigns cost big money. It challenges the idea that Big Money in politics is only a Republican problem. And one of the worst effects on the Democratic Party is that this addiction to big money incentivizes an approach in the primaries where the distinctions with the GOP blur rather than sharpen: big money over here, big money over there, too.

When describing this paradox in the wake of a very limited economic recovery going into the 2016 election cycle, Bill Clinton's former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, said it best: We're in a populist moment, he argued. So we can run a real populist like Bernie Sanders, or we'll get stuck with the reality TV version in Donald Trump. We didn't listen and he was proved right.

It will still be in my interest, come late summer, to say, "Yes, I'll vote for any Democrat." But as long as there is a progressive candidate in the race, as long as I still have a say (and hopefully a vote, pace Iowa, where I don't live), and as long as it is progressives who are most likely to be cheated against, it is not in my interest to say so before the primaries are decided. If you hear in this caveat a begrudging "yes," consider a few other caveats. Even if I can inspire myself to vote for or knock on doors for the next centrist failson or dynasty candidate shepherded through the party's coronation process in the big media, it will not only be harder for me to be convinced: it will be much harder for me to convince others.

And while we're at it, it bears repeating here that the centrist-as-electable formula has failed more often than it's succeeded since, at least, Al Gore. Of the four centrists we've run, Gore, Kerry, Obama, and Clinton, three have lost; Obama won by running as a progressive even if he morphed into a centrist in office. Polls say Bernie does better than any centrist would against Trump in head-to -head scenarios, even in states like Texas, and time and again the centrist-friendly media ignores all the data that shows Bernie's storied effectiveness at reachingconnecting with independents and building coalitions across the aisle and with independents. But, sStrikingly, even Mayors Buttigieg and Bloomberg have acknowledged this.

Now that Bernie Sanders has won New Hampshire—and no one who has won both Iowa and New Hampshire has ever failed to win the nomination—the question changes a little. Will the Democratic nominees promise their own delegates to Bernie Sanders going into the convention, if he has the most delegates and votes?

The numbers are in progressives' favor this time. This alone should be enough for us to ask this of our fellow Democrats, in the form I've laid out above. But even before we do so, let's ask the media and the party leadership to pledge something else: Fairness. Honor the integrity of the vote. Honor the electoral process. Even Elizabeth Warren said the last one was rigged against Bernie Sanders. If we all demand this, and if it is fair, I'm sure we'll all have a better go in the Swing States trying to beat Trump, and we'll have done something to restore the faith in democracy of many voters who feel left behind.

After all, if some canvassers came knocking on your door and you had every reason to tell them that the primaries were rigged against your candidate—wouldn't their earnest directions to the voting booth feel like a terrible non-sequitur?

Joel Whitney is the author of Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World's Best Writers. His writing appears in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Baffler, The Wall Street Journal, Boston Review, Salon, The Sun Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, World Policy Journal, The New Republic, Dissent, New York Magazine, The Poetry Foundation, The Wire (India) and The Village Voice.

The views experessed in this article are the author's own.