Friday, December 18, 2015

Some Thoughts On #VANgate

There’s a lot being said about how Bernie Sander’s campaign maybe, sort of, ummm tried to steal a bunch of the Clinton campaign’s data after a computer glitch in the Democrats VAN voter file system let them briefly on Thursday night. Suffice it to say much of the reporting about this issue (so far at least) has been pretty bad. Political reporters simply don’t know a whole lot about VAN (and haven’t really cared to learn anything until last night) and so much of the more specific write ups about what-this-all-means isn’t very helpful. Still if you are interested in learning about what was pretty bad about what the Bernie campaign did (and how the VAN works in general) check out this Twitter essay by Pat Raynard from the independent Iowa site “Iowa Starting Line.” 

As a Party Decides person and recent Hillary convert I’ll just say that this whole brouhaha doesn’t mean that much to me. The Democratic Party clearly coalesced around Hillary some time ago and so baring indictment or a meteor strike she’s going to be the nominee. Meanwhile the political media is having a field day with this because since Hillary consolidated her support sometime back in 2014 or early 2015 the Dem side of the race has been boring as hell, hence the media firestorm over #VANgate. Finally there’s something to write about other than Donald Trump!

Having said that I do think that this whole episode does highlight two big points about left-wing/progressive politics that a lot of lefty/progressive types miss. I’ll call them “the ethic of purity” and “the ethic of fairness.”

The ethic of purity holds that the key to winning political battles is to campaign as a new sort of politician that is pure as the driven snow and will use this purity to great political effect. Bernie does this a lot, hence his focus on “revolution” or his idea that by banning super PACs and such somehow American politics will become supper left-wing.  

The problem with the ethic of purity is that if you are going to campaign as a “new kind of politician” who is pure as the driven snow, you better be as pure as the driven snow or the whole narrative collapses. In other words once it appears that Bernie Sanders (or his campaign which in the political media’s eyes are the same thing) engages in underhanded political tactics too, he becomes just another regular old hypocritical pol. It’s like taking money from lobbyists, once you do it, even once, you can’t really criticize any opponent for taking that sort of money either. Or it becomes yet another case of “both sides do it.”

Bernie Sanders was clearly running an “ethic of purity” style campaign: and it seems to have blown up in his face (as it has for so many other progressive types over the years).

The second idea that comes up is Bernie’s claim that he’s being treated “unfairly” by the DNC. Again as a Party Decides person I think this is ridiculous. Of course party actors have favored candidates and try to help them out, deciding on a nominee every four years is one of the biggest things our political parties collectively do! Sorry, but claiming that Bernie should automatically get to keep his VAN access even after he broke a host of rules is favoritism and trying to help out your candidate too. There’s no way to “fairly” settle a contest where the rules are created and enforced by the party actors playing the game. Is this perfect? No, but letting parties fight it out themselves is a core part of what democracy is. And in my opinion the alternatives to this are worse, and fundamentally less democratic.

Meanwhile the whole “fairness” claim is utterly ridiculous when it comes to scope of Sanders’ ambitions. Does Sander’s think that Ted Cruz or Donald Trump is going to run a fair above board campaign? The Republicans have been pushing for years to make it harder for minorities, young people, and poor people to vote; of course they are going to fight dirty!

In other words complaining about how unfair Hillary and the DNC is being is basically just admitting you don’t have what it takes to become or be president. That’s a little harsh, but then again Bernie did just sue the party he hopes to lead, which is incredibly short sighted and irresponsible.