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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hillary Supporters for McCain: Principaled or Petulant?

Hillary Supporters for McCain: Principaled or Petulant?
Image © Austin Cline
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What can be said about Hillary Clinton supporters who are now arguing that they should vote for John McCain? Well, for one thing they aren't a monolithic group — there are a variety of reasons and motivations, so it would be wrong to generalize. I think that they are making a mistake, but I think that some are making a worse mistake because rather than standing on principle they sound like they are simply being petulant.

I think I might be able to speak on this matter better than most because, to be quite honest, had Hillary Clinton won the primary I would have thought very seriously about not voting for her. I never would have voted for John McCain, but I would have thought long and hard about voting for someone else or not casting a vote for president at all. So I have an idea of what this looks like coming from the other direction and am at least a little sympathetic to someone taking this position towards Barack Obama.

Why might I have refused to vote for Hillary Clinton and risked giving John McCain the presidency? I live in Pennsylvania, a potential swing state, so votes like mine might have actually made a difference. Early on, I wouldn't have had a problem voting for her in the election and might have even voted for her in the primary, depending on how things worked out. Barack Obama was never my first choice, either, though I can't say that I had strong feelings towards any candidate early on.

Aside from all of the ridiculous attacks she and her surrogates made against Obama, though, one thing really stands out: her suggestion that John McCain was more qualified to be president than Obama. It's one thing to argue to Democratic voters that she is the better choice, but quite another to even imply that the Republican candidate would be a better choice — that's something that should be left to "independents" like Joe Lieberman, and it was the log that broke the camel's back for me. Now, you might argue that it wasn't really so bad or that however bad it was, not voting for her would be potentially worse. You'd have a point.

However, one thing which you could not argue is that I was taking things personally or just being petulant. It would be a stand taken on principle — the principle that such a candidate isn't fit to be president. To what extent are former Hillary supporters who threaten to vote for John McCain also standing on principle? If they have reasonable arguments that Obama's policies would be horrible or that his character and/or behavior render him unfit for presidency, then they are potentially taking a principled stand. If their argument is exceptionally and obviously weak we might legitimately wonder if they are simply rationalizing, but at least in theory this can be a principled stand.

There are also some who argue that Barack Obama is more a conservative than most people realize and certainly isn't a progressive as he is being portrayed. I don't find those arguments to be very strong, but I am sympathetic to the idea that so-called liberals and progressives in America are only so labeled because they are a bit to the left of Attila the Hun.

I've lived in Europe and know that there is no genuinely liberal or progressive political party in America; the idea that the Democrats have anything to do with socialism is laughable. If I were still living in Germany, there's a fair chance that I'd support Die Linke. If someone sincerely feels that Obama's policies aren't progressive enough to justify voting for him, even if that means someone more conservative gets into office, then that's a principled stand — I think it's a mistake, but it's reasonable to object that we shouldn't have to vote only for the least bad option.

Then there are those who argue that they don't "owe" their vote to Barack Obama merely because he happens to be the Democratic Party's nominee — he has to win their vote just like he has to win every other vote. That's reasonable. I would argue that if you don't know enough about him and his policies to at least know if you're strongly leaning towards or away from him, then you probably haven't been paying enough attention. I really don't understand how a person can be sincerely "undecided" at this point. Nevertheless, this is a principled stand to have for the time being.

So there are lots of principled reasons why a Hillary Clinton supporter would at least be hesitant about voting for Obama, and might not vote for him at all. I don't see any of the above justifying a vote for John McCain, however, any more than I would have felt justified in voting for McCain had the positions been reversed. Here I believe we start moving from the "principled stand" to something like "petulant pouting and whining."

In particular, I have in mind "pissed off Clinton supporters" whose reasons for refusing to vote for Obama don't fall anywhere close to the above reasons. They don't think that Obama would be a bad president. They don't think that Obama would be a worse president than McCain. They don't dislike Obama personally. They don't strongly object to any of his policy proposals. When looking solely at the candidate himself, they don't have any reason not to vote for him and lots of reasons to vote for him.

So why not vote for him? Put simply, Obama supporters were mean to Hillary supporters. Obama apparently didn't do anything wrong, but his supporters (presumably only some, though that's not said outright) did do mean things. I could understand if Obama was supported by organized fascists and he refused to repudiate them — that would be a good reason to reject a candidate on account of his supporters. In this case, however, I just don't see it. I don't see a principled stand being made.

To be fair, accusing someone of racism and/or sexism is pretty serious and arguably goes beyond just being "mean," but that's only true if you are personally and directly accused of such things. What did happen quite often is that Obama supporters pointed out that there is still a lot of racism in this country and that there are a lot of people who would refuse to vote for Obama because of his race. This is a simple statement of fact, as is pointing that at least some people who voted for Hillary are part of that group. These facts can't be denied, and talking about them is not the same as making accusations about anyone in particular.

How many Hillary supporters can say that they, personally, were directly accused of being racist? Probably not many. For those to whom it did happen I could understand if it left a bad taste in their mouths, but whether or not you vote for any particular candidate should be based on the candidate themselves, not some personal bit of nastiness from some random supporter of that candidate. How often did it happen that all Hillary supporters were accused of racism or sexism? Perhaps it happened, but I didn't see it and I doubt it happened enough to justify this sort of reaction.

In both of these cases, we would still have someone saying "I'm not going to vote for the candidate I think is best because I want to punish people I think were mean, nasty, and insulting to me." I think that's more about being petulant than taking a stand on principle because it's all about taking revenge and hurting others, which really means that it's about the person in question, their hurt feelings, and their willingness to let this dictate their actions.

If you don't want to vote for Barack Obama because you sincerely think he would be a poor president for some reason, then even if you're mistaken your position may still be principled and reasonable. If you don't want to vote for Barack Obama — and worse yet want to vote for John McCain — simply in order to exact some petty revenge against insults real or imagined, then merely being mistaken is the least of your problems. Grow up.

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