Fellow Liberals, Let’s Stop Doing These Things

The bad tics and hideous behaviors of intralefty discourse today.

From left, shirtless supporters John Nelson and Dan Stifler cheer for Hillary Clinton as she speaks in Buena Park, California, on Wednesday.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

I count myself among the many silent liberals who have largely kept their feelings on Bernie versus Hillary to themselves—partly because each speaks to me in different ways. But largely because, faced with the specter of a hateful orange man suffering from personality disorders that should have been disqualifying being elected president, the war between the Bernie people and Hillary people always felt like a luxury I couldn’t afford. It’s not that I don’t care which of them is the Democratic nominee. It’s just that I care far more about staving off the apocalypse. Also, my response to the very existence of Donald Trump as a serious contender for the presidency has been one of anger. I am angry almost always. Pouring more kerosene on the anger strikes me as pointless.

That said, I have been taken up short by the number of comments and scoldings I have faced, from close friends and casual acquaintances alike, for voicing even a hint of support for one or the other in recent months. The tone hasn’t merely been dismissive and furious; the message beneath has almost universally been that I am a moron.

The 2016 campaign has been focused on rage. Donald Trump’s cunning redirection of his supporters’ economic and racial fury into electoral support has been well-documented. But the fury on the progressive end of the spectrum has been harder to pin down. Some of us on the left seem to be suffering from many of the same symptoms we deride in Trump supporters: outrage with the political process; over-identification with our anger and under-identification with our commonalities; and a pervasive sense that anyone who doesn’t agree with us suffers from debilitating false consciousness.

I’m not a psychologist and can’t speak to the outrage. But I think a lot about how we speak to one another, and I worry that my progressive friends and I are falling victim to some habits and ideas that have made it virtually impossible for the left and right to even engage—much less debate—serious issues anymore in this country. I see them in myself in alarming new ways when I find myself digging in on Bernie vs. Hillary. I wonder if now is the time to talk about it out loud. Right now, some of the following hideous behaviors have become a reflexive part of my political conversations. It’s a partial list, but it’s a start:

1.      “Hillary, c’est moi.” I have spent my whole career being a woman. Things that bothered me 10 years ago may still bother me, but they don’t enrage me. But something about the persistent vicious sexism in the attacks on Hillary Clinton this year has reignited my umbrage in ways I’d almost forgotten. I have been the only woman on a panel full of men at most events for over a decade. Only this year, it infuriates me. Casual slurs and trivial comments mostly roll off my back. But the more I feel that Clinton’s story is my story, the more I think of each of these episodes as the hill I chose to die on.

There is no doubt in my mind that sexism is at work in this campaign and that Donald Trump is the most misogynistic potential leader in decades. But I am finding that wearing my gender goggles exclusively in this campaign leads me to default to behaviors that stop discourse in its tracks. I dismiss anything said by men as “mansplaining” and sigh, like a reality show participant, “You couldn’t understand, you’re not a woman.” The fact that sexism taints this election in ways I have never encountered doesn’t mean it’s being directed at me—and it doesn’t diminish the need for me to engage. When we over-identify with the grievances of our candidates, everything starts to sound like a personal insult.

2.      “The system sucks!” The election system in this country is cumbersome and confusing and unfair. This has been true for a long time. It’s easy to turn substance arguments (“Bernie isn’t getting a fair shake”) into process arguments. (“The whole system is rigged—against me!”) Of course the system is terrible, but that is no more about Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump than it is about cheese or the infield-fly rule. The system sucks because we don’t fix it. It doesn’t suck in order to persecute each of us personally.

3.     “The media is broken!” It really is. It’s terrible, and shallow, and most days I am just embarrassed for the profession. But we also demand and devour it, and many of us on the left have fallen into the trap we decry on the right—consuming hours and hours of like-minded media, dismissing everything that doesn’t correspond to our pre-existing views as propaganda or the establishment or outright lies. When a conservative legal activist once told me “every word printed in the New York Times is a lie,” I remember thinking that there should be medication for that kind of thinking. More and more I hear friends on the left saying the same things about publications on the left, and I find myself wondering whether we are doomed to exist in ever-shrinking media bubbles predicated on the notion that everyone who reads or produces anything else is part of the conspiracy. It certainly remains possible that people with whom we don’t agree aren’t stupid or brainwashed. But the fact that someone reads or consumes different media from me doesn’t make them victims of some tragic conspiracy.

Read more Slate coverage of the Democratic primary.

I will confess that I am not as sanguine as I once was about Democrats and Republicans healing the rifts that have emerged in this primary and rowing together to defeat Trump. Insults have been flung, wounds have been reopened, and everyone feels that his or her truth has been called into question. I know I do. But some of these tics and habits that poison and polarize ideological discourse generally are creeping into the ways we talk and think. If we are treating our friends and allies like we treat our enemies, we are not really a movement so much as a collective of grievances. This may be a good moment to try to think our way through it—not only to defeat the Lethal Orange Narcissist, but in service of the values this country was founded on: the obligation to listen, the right to disagree, and the ability to move on.