The Unfortunate Impossibility of Keeping Emotions Out of Elections

The months after both major parties’ conventions may be the most intense time of the election cycle, but in my experience, it’s the primaries that are most emotional. It’s when the narcissism of (often, not always) small differences between candidates erupts into binary stereotypes that make everyone involved look petty, and when people who used to think they agreed with one another begin to see their points of divergence as irreconcilable conflicts. If you’re a Democrat (or a left-leaning person resigned to participating in the American two-party system, anyway) in 2016, that could mean supporting Hillary Clinton and absorbing all the misogyny directed at her campaign — or backing Bernie Sanders and being made to feel like you’ve sold out feminism.

I like to argue and am sometimes paid to express opinions, which is to say that I’m accustomed to putting plenty of distance between my ideas and my emotions. If someone disagrees with me about a book or a film or a candidate for Leader of the Free World, I’m more likely to take it as an invitation to debate than an attack on my character (unless, of course, it is presented as the latter). And so it took me until this week’s Iowa caucuses to get sucked into the Hillary-vs.-Bernie undertow, a general atmosphere of snarkiness and offense-taking that has been chipping away at rational, issues-based political discourse for months now. Watching Twitter on Monday night felt less like bottlenecking at the site of a car accident than stomaching all of Cronenberg’s Crash, as Hillary and Bernie supporters hungrily clawed at each other’s fresh wounds, with the GOP’s nightmare F/M/K scenario of Rubio, Trump, and Cruz providing some dark comic relief.

I can’t remember exactly what made me cross over from bemusement to anger, but it certainly had something to do with how many social media commentators — building on a popular, long-running media narrative — seemed to be implying that all Bernie Sanders supporters were misogynists, or at least inadequate feminists. It did not matter whether we were “Bernie Bros,” jumping into Clinton boosters’ mentions to call her ugly or shrill (which, let me be clear, does happen and is gross), or just people for whom a stridently anticapitalist platform takes precedence over Hillary’s estimable resumé or history-making gender. All of us were callously shrugging off the radicalism of an acceptably liberal woman running for our nation’s highest office. Plenty of the people who suggested this were men.

As a female Sanders voter who’s been involved in feminist organizing around everything from reproductive rights to the arts for my entire adult life — and someone who actually feels quite sad that she can’t in good conscience support America’s first viable female presidential candidate in the primaries — that broke through my defenses. It offended me. Personally. It offended me even as I remained aware that the slights weren’t directed at me specifically and came from a place of genuine, legitimate anger at how Clinton is often treated on the national stage.

And what’s funny about that experience is, it gave me more empathy than I’d previously had for the Hillary supporters I count among my friends and colleagues, particularly the ones who admit they are backing her because she’s the candidate whose anatomy and/or struggle most resembles their own. It reminded me that I’m not above being ruled by my emotions and identifications when it comes to politics — that, in fact, no one is — which is something I probably should have realized back when I started savoring Bernie’s crankiness as a darling in-joke between me and every other socialist Jew under 40. The thing is, when we talk about presidential elections, we’re talking about what our country’s values and priorities should be, even if all we seem to be doing is debating whether “Hillary Harpy” is a more offensive term than “Bernie Bro.” (Bad tweet, Wil Wheaton! Not helping!) It can hurt to see someone we respect prioritize an issue we find trivial over one we find elemental.

That means even our sharpest political analysts can end up diminishing crucial, clear-cut differences between candidates in the course of arguments (ones I agree with, incidentally) about Clinton’s gender –and that intelligent voices for Sanders are prone to petulantly denying problems with his supporters that even his campaign’s staff have admitted and addressed. It means people feel compelled to write pieces like this one, which frames revelations about public perceptions of Clinton that I find mostly obvious (“WOMEN HAVE TRIED FOR YEARS TO ‘HAVE IT ALL’ AND THEN WE GET YELLED AT FOR TRYING TO HAVE THE IMPOSSIBLE ‘ALL’ BUT THEN IT’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH WHEN WE DON’T HAVE THE ‘ALL'”) and arguments about her politics that I find mostly cynical (“YOU DON’T LIKE THAT SHE PLAYS THE GAME? THAT SHE HAS TIES TO THE ESTABLISHMENT? FOR ONE THING, THAT’S HOW SHIT FUCKING GETS DONE”) in language so condescending as to alienate anyone they might otherwise sway. And it means the kind of unconscious misogyny described in that essay, which advertises itself as an “all-caps explosion of feelings,” will draw some dog-whistle woman haters to Sanders while pulling some frustrated feminist voters over to Clinton’s side.

I don’t think it’s good that our emotions — our propensity to personalize, and project, and take offense — play such a big part in our politics. What our next president believes and accomplishes is so much more important than the personal narrative around them. Who cares if we relate to Clinton as a badass, get-shit-done boss lady or treasure Sanders as an adorably cranky, no-bullshit Jewish grandpa? Does the strong likelihood that I will burst into tears of vicarious joy if Clinton become the nominee and goes on to win the presidency mean she should have my vote, even if there’s a candidate who better represents my priorities?

All of which is to ask: Does enduring misogyny or anti-Semitism or red-baiting, horrifying as those things are, mean you automatically deserve the job? I don’t think so. But I don’t think any of us — not you, not me, not @DemSocialist69 or @YaaasHills — is capable of fully separating our thoughts from our feelings when it comes to politics, either. All we can do is be aware of them, and try to never lose sight of how little relevance they ultimately have to the decision we’re trying to make.