“Your link-posting skills are as effective as Biden’s campaign.” Ah, primary season on the Yale Dem_talk panlist (a political discussion forum associated with the Yale College Democrats). Dem_talk, of which I am a member but to which I don’t respond, is usually flooded with political articles, events, general cheerleading and, occasionally, some fairly informed debate. However, as the contest for the Democratic nomination began, so, too, began a sort-of-friendly competition among Demtalkers who supported different candidates.
When nine candidates became two, it became personal. The articles sent by various Dem_talk regulars began to resemble the increasingly personal attacks lodged by both campaigns. The regular fare — Frank Rich columns, links from Slate and MyDD — was still there, but only the attacks generated any response.
What intrigued me about these exchanges was not just the intensity of the debate, but that the facts presented and lodged as legitimate criticism were ignored by hotheaded partisans.
A Hillary supporter pointed to a New York Times article alleging that Obama did favors for a nuclear-power company; the responder ignored the charge of political patronage and instead focused on the merits of nuclear power. An Obama supporter leveled the charge that Hillary had mislead people about her experience, a claim that one Hillary supporter dismissed as another negative, Clinton-bashing attack that was certainly not in keeping with Obama’s “highly-touted politics of ‘change.’ ” The moment when intelligent Yalies begin lobbing CNN talking points at each other rather than examining and carefully debating the initial point of disagreement is part of a phenomenon that I like to call psychological partisanship.
The symptoms of this surprisingly common disorder include selective hearing, a triumph of cognitive dissonance and an occasional feeling of superiority — to name a few. This sort of behavior is commonly exhibited by avid political junkies and average voters alike, but in the recent history of our red-state-blue-state culture war, our conception of an anything-that-touches-water-must-be-smarter (or dumber) America, this kind of behavior is usually seen between parties, not within them.
So what accounts for this nasty turn? Let’s begin with the obvious: Despite some minor variations in policy (i.e., health-care mandates), Hillary and Obama differ very little. Instead, this campaign has centered on political style and personality. What makes the problem so salient is that the complex rules of the Democratic nominating process have essentially laid the decision at the feet of superdelegates, or Party Big Wigs. Given that the eventual nominee will be chosen in an (at least somewhat) undemocratic way, people see no reason why the party elders shouldn’t just get on with it and choose their candidate. Hillary supporters proclaim: “He has no experience! Solutions, not speeches!” Obama supporters counter: “She’s unlikable, and no one will give her a chance! Partisanship doesn’t work!”
In a sense, they both have a point. Obama really does have very little experience. Hillary really is disliked, whether fairly or not. (By a majority of the country, too: Recent Rasmussen polls show that 52 percent of voters view her “unfavorably.”) Whether these effect the outcome is a matter of opinion, but they cannot be dismissed by either side: Each flaw will inevitably rear its ugly head in the general election, and maybe even in a Clinton or Obama presidency.
It is for this reason that superdelegates are being so cautious in anointing a leader. With emotions running so high on both sides, they run a huge risk of infuriating the losers’ supporters, many of whom believe with every fiber of their being that their candidate is America’s last, best hope. This explains why we see so much news coverage devoted to superdelegates mulling over various quasi-objective metrics which could be used to pick a winner “objectively”: Who has the most pledged delegates? Who has the greatest overall popular vote? Who won the popular vote in my state? Who won my district? Anything less than a mathematically determined nominee would set the party ablaze.
The truth is that someone will lose and many will be angry. We can argue forever about the broken processes. We can blame the other side and continue to throw bombs at the winning candidate. Or we can stop trying to think rationally with the emotional sides of our brains; we can realize that Hillary and Obama’s similarities far outweigh their differences — and certainly outweigh the differences between Democrats and Republicans.
And then, finally, we can respectfully move forward and engage in high-minded debate during one of the most important elections of our lifetime.
Will Kletter is a sophomore in Pierson College.