The Rise of the “Hillary or Bust” Voter

by Benjamin Studebaker

Remember “Bernie or Bust”? Some Bernie Sanders supporters were very cross when Sanders did not win the Democratic Party nomination. They believed he should have won, both because he deserved to win and because some of them believed the DNC stole it from him. They were unwilling to support Clinton in the general election, and Clinton supporters let them have it. How could these Bernie supporters stand idly by and allow Donald Trump to become president? Don’t they care about poor and working people, about the middle class, about people of color, about women, about LGBTs? How could they betray the groups they’re meant to care about like that?  Sarah Silverman told them they were “being ridiculous”:

But the tables have turned. Today we see a new breed of Democrat–the “Hillary or Bust” voter.

Here’s how Hillary or Bust works. There are some Clinton supporters who believe that Clinton should have won, both because she deserved to win and in some cases because the Russians (and/or Comey, and/or  sexism) stole it from her. Because of this, they are unwilling to support any major changes to the Democratic Party or its message. To embrace such changes would imply that the Clinton campaign made political mistakes which contributed to its failure, but these Clinton supporters are determined to believe that Clinton did nothing wrong and that she and her supporters should not have to change their political positions to win power.

Remember during the primaries, when Clinton supporters argued that even if you liked Sanders, you should support Clinton instead because Sanders is unelectable, and Clinton was sure to beat Trump? Many Sanders supporters refused, arguing that even if Sanders were less electable, he should be more electable, so they should continue to support him even if he’s likely to lose (a few argued that Sanders might be more electable than these Clinton supporters alleged, but that’s neither here nor there). Many of those same Clinton supporters are now unwilling to support left egalitarian changes to the Democratic Party’s message, strategy, or candidate slate for the same kind of reason–they think the Democratic Party should be able to win the way it is, so it should be kept that way even in face of defeat.

Of course, the left is now inclined to ask these Hillary or Busters the same questions they were once asked–how can they stand idly by and allow Donald Trump to potentially win re-election? Don’t they care about poor and working people, about the middle class, about people of color, about women, about LGBTs? How can they betray the groups they’re meant to care about like that?

The answer to the question in the Bernie or Bust case is that they believe there are deep political differences between the left egalitarian and neoliberal wings of the Democratic Party. For the Bernie or Busters, someone like Clinton cannot be trusted to take care of their interests and the interests of the groups they care about. They don’t trust her wing of the party to do single payer, to do tuition-free college, to halt or reduce growing wealth and income inequality, to keep the country out of unnecessary and costly foreign wars, or to cut the financial sector down to size. Clinton may be concerned with discrimination, but they don’t trust her to care about distributive justice. In their eyes, a Clinton victory would have allowed these problems to continue to go unaddressed. From their point of view, it would be better to see Clinton lose, so that the Democratic Party might be transformed into the kind of party that might once again take economic fairness seriously.

Hillary Clinton needed to address this mistrust, but she never did. She picked a Vice Presidential nominee from the center of the party and her supporters tried to blame and shame Bernie or Busters into backing Clinton. It was all sticks, no carrots, and in the end it just hardened the Bernie or Bust crowd against Clinton. Blaming Bernie or Busters always missed the point–it’s the job of the candidate and the campaign to win voters over. No candidate and no party is entitled to the vote of a faction that feels ill-served by it.

The same goes for the Hillary or Busters. Their existence indicates that there may be a trust issue that left egalitarians need to address. What kind of mistrust is it? I see three possibilities:

  1. Hillary or Busters don’t trust left egalitarians on race, gender, and sexuality. During the primaries Clinton supporters often accused Sanders supporters of being “Bernie Bros,” of being all white and all male and of being indifferent to the issues of people of color and women. It would be terrible, from their point of view, to leave the Democratic Party in the hands of white men. There’s a catch, though–the Bernie Bros narrative wasn’t true within the younger half of the voting pool. By the end of the race, about half of people of color under 45 were going for Sanders. Women under 30 were overwhelmingly pro-Sanders and the race was tight among women between the ages of 30 and 40. Nevertheless, if this is their concern, the left needs to make a point to allay it by making it clear that it does care about people of color and women. Just because Sanders should have won their votes, doesn’t mean he did or that someone like him will in future. More must be done to win these people over.
  2. Hillary or Busters don’t trust left egalitarians on the economy, because they are precisely what Sanders supporters themselves fear–neoliberals deeply committed to defending the interests of the financial sector and the 1%. If that were the case, they might prefer Trump and the Republicans to Sanders, if that means the Democratic Party doesn’t fall into the hands of leftists who want to transfer wealth and income from the top to the middle and the bottom through Scandinavian-style taxes and social programs. If this is their concern, there’s not much the left can do–giving up on poor and working people is non-negotiable for the left.
  3. Hillary or Busters want voters to think they are concerned about Bernie Bros when really they want to defend their economic advantages. So their political operatives deliberately and knowingly inflate and fan concerns about left egalitarian politicians’ commitments to social causes so as to submarine the left’s efforts to help workers. If this is the case, the left has to make a point to allay these concerns while at the same time highlighting the exaggerations and weaponized misinformation produced by the neoliberal camp and the aid and comfort it gives to right wing economic actors.

The left egalitarians must win the confidence of as many of these people as possible. A recent poll put Clinton’s favorability numbers lower than Trump’s. During the week before the election, Trump had 36% favorability to Clinton’s 42%. With Clinton in a worse position than ever before relative to Trump, it is essential that the Democratic Party embrace the need for strategic change. If it goes into the midterms or the 2020 election with the same old message, it might get the same old result.