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When Democrats Attack: Hillary, Bernie And The Damage Done

After months of civility on the campaign trail, the gloves have come off of Clinton, Sanders -- and their supporters. In this photo, the candidates are pictured at the CNN Democratic Presidential Primary Debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Thursday, April 14, 2016, New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)
After months of civility on the campaign trail, the gloves have come off of Clinton, Sanders -- and their supporters. In this photo, the candidates are pictured at the CNN Democratic Presidential Primary Debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Thursday, April 14, 2016, New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)
This article is more than 3 years old.

For months, the 2016 primary battles broke down along clear rhetorical lines. The Republicans berated. The Democrats debated. You could listen to Donald Trump and his rivals trade adolescent taunts about their masculine endowments, or you could tune in to hear Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders discuss boring stuff such as income inequality, campaign finance reform and sensible gun control. You know, the issues.

The determination to keep the discourse mature and focused was best exemplified by Sanders’ principled dismissal of Clinton’s email scandal.

Oh, those were the days, weren’t they?

On the eve of the New York primary, the tone on the campaign trail has devolved from gracious to pugnacious. Both candidates have accused the other of being unqualified for the presidency.

Part of this is a function of the race’s unexpected course. Simply put, Sanders has not gone away. Following a disappointing Super Tuesday, after which many media outlets wrote him off, the Vermont senator has gone on an historic tear, winning eight of the last nine contests.

... the tone on the campaign trail has devolved from gracious to pugnacious.

Although she enjoys a lead in pledged and superdelegates, Clinton has failed to consolidate support as the frontrunner. On the contrary, it has become increasingly clear that Sanders will enter this summer’s convention as something far more powerful than a dark horse. Many of his supporters see him as the party’s rightful nominee.

As the stakes escalate, the two candidates have turned on each other. And this spirit of rancor has trickled down to their supporters.

At the extremes, you’ve got Bernie Bros who accuse Clinton of being irredeemably corrupt, and threaten to harass superdelegates. And Hillarybots, who dismiss Sanders as a Utopian dreamer and greet his every criticism as a sexist assault.

Most Democratic voters harbor more conflicted feelings. But when races get close like this, partisans have a tendency to retreat into their own dogmas.

This is why many prominent Bernie supporters are now publicly declaring that they will not vote for Clinton if she’s nominated.

(Seth Wenig/AP)
(Seth Wenig/AP)

Given that the Republicans are likely to nominate Trump or Ted Cruz — candidates whose extremism and instability are worrying even to loyal GOPers — this feels like lunacy.

But as an avowed Bernie supporter, I have to admit that I’ve felt myself growing increasingly skeptical of Clinton.

My own personal dogma goes something like this: For the first time in my life, I have the opportunity to vote for a candidate whose driving ambition is to make government more compassionate and responsive and fair. With our help, he could change the course of history. In voting for Clinton, I’ll be endorsing someone who arises from, and is invested in preserving, a corrupt status quo.

Let me be perfectly clear: If Clinton is the nominee, I will vote for her. But I am unlikely to feel the same enthusiasm as my beloved wife does.

She and other Clinton supporters have their own dogma, of course. It goes something like this: In a perfect world, Bernie’s soaring rhetoric and glib promises sound great. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world where Republican intransigence and corporate influence are political realities. And we need a president who knows how to deal with these realities, a woman with the experience and will and expertise to get things done in an imperfect system.

The challenge in the months ahead will be for the supporters of both candidates to find ways to accept the other side’s dogma, rather than dismissing it as naive or cynical.

I plan to continue to support Sanders. I feel it’s my moral duty. Because I believe, as he does, that sweeping change will require a movement the arises from the working people of this country asserting their will. I also believe that the longer he stays in the race, and the more political capital he amasses, the more influence he will have over the Democratic Party platform.

As a political realist, however, I have accepted the fact that Clinton will almost assuredly win the nomination.

The challenge in the months ahead will be for the supporters of both candidates to find ways to accept the other side’s dogma, rather than dismissing it as naive or cynical.

The candidates would do well to lead that effort -- starting right now.

Clinton, in particular, should be wary of taking Bernie supporters for granted. If she follows the precedent of previous Democratic nominees and backtracks on her more progressive positions in order to chase “moderate” voters in the general election, she will risk losing the millions of us who have been inspired by Sanders. And she will endanger her own chances.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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