Are Political Leaders Responsible for Supporters’ Behavior?
A couple of posts ago, beloved co-blogger Russell wrote about his experiences as a delegate at the Maine Democratic Convention. Although this convention had not gotten any national press of which I’m aware, Russell reported seeing Sanders delegates shouting, heckling, cursing, and acting with general uncouthness of the sort much more widely reported in Nevada. (No chair throwing or threatening voicemails to party leaders, though.)
I asked a question in the comments, and I want to open it up for discussion here. Here’s the question: “What responsibility does a political leader have for his supporters’ behavior?”
Here’s my tentative answer for this current election cycle, the reasons for which I’ll lay out briefly below (but I’d love to hear from others). Trump does bear significant responsibility for the violence at his rallies and the anti-Semitic trolling attacks on reporters (among other bad acts carried out by his supporters). Sanders is not responsible for the chair-menacing, etc., that occurred in Nevada and Maine but was seriously remiss in his statement yesterday. Therefore, he may be partly responsible for some behavior from this point forward. He would not, however, bear nearly as much responsibility as Trump. As far as I know, Clinton is not responsible for the bad behavior of her supporters.
Full disclosure: I am a reluctant Hillary supporter. I detest Bill and don’t much like Hillary, in no small part due to how she ran 2008 campaign against Obama. I decided to support Hillary because my preference for political pragmatism won out over my dislike of Hillary as a person. I’ve grown to like her a bit more over the course of the campaign. She’s likable enough. I firmly believe, though, that if situation were reversed, and Hillary supporters had shouted people down, harassed, made death threats, etc., and had Hillary released Bernie’s statement, I would draw the same conclusion as I have.
First, there are always going to be some people who act out violently in someone else’s name. We’re not going to blame Jodie Foster for John Hinckley’s attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan.
But how about this? I saw someone tweet in defense of Sanders that just recently Wendell Pierce, the actor from The Wire and apparently a far more rabid Hillary supporter than I, assaulted a couple who were Sanders supporters after a political argument. If people are blaming Sanders for his supporters’ behavior, why aren’t they blaming Clinton for Pierce’s behavior, the tweet (which I can no longer find) asked.
There’s one way to look at this, which is that a politician bears no responsibility whatsoever for the actions of her supporters. People are going to do what people are going to do. As long as the supporters are fully autonomous adults, they make their own decisions, they alone are responsible. End of story.
And surely each individual supporter is mostly responsible. Almost entirely. Very largely.
But politicians are running for their offices in virtue of the fact, in part, that they can offer leadership. They are asking to influence our lives and behavior in the aggregate and showing us their skill at doing it. (In the case of libertarians, they are asking to influence our lives by removing regulations and such. Even if a libertarian purports to disdain a cult of personality, they certainly can have influence over our lives.) Supporters of politicians will do things in support of their candidate that they wouldn’t otherwise do. This can be great – a skilled political can influence a generation to, say, public service. Or it can be not so great.
Given that influence politicians can have on our lives, I think they have special obligations in how they use that influence.
Let’s look at Trump first. In speeches, he promotes violence, laughs it off. His slowness to disavow white nationalism has ensured racists’ continued support. Multiple times, he (and his wife) have declined to condemn the anti-Semitic harassment of reporters who cover them. They bear some responsibility, then, for what has been carried out in their name.
By contrast, Sanders never called for violence – it’s been clear that his revolution is meant to be non-violent. As far as I know, he has earned no prominent racist endorsements and then winked at them.
Sanders’s supporters disrupted political events, which I think is bad news but is arguably a legitimate form of protest. The death threats, harassment, and vandalism, are a far clearer no-go. However, it’s not like the supporters were following Sanders’s orders at that point.
Here’s what makes this different from Wendell Pierce. Pierce was acting alone. He’s clearly a one-off situation. In the case of Sanders’ supporters, there were several of them acting the same way, and they were targeting a political opponent. One gets the sense that not only did they feel they were justified, many others felt they were too, and that behaviors like this will continue without some sort of signal from the candidate that this is absolutely unacceptable.
I don’t think Hillary supporters saw Pierce’s actions as justified. I don’t expect that others in growing numbers might follow suit unless Hillary makes clear that it is absolutely unacceptable. If Bernie supporters are more systematically targeted, even in small numbers, then absolutely Hillary gains a responsibility to speak out.
I don’t pretend to know the ins and outs of Nevada politics. Sanders may well have had a legitimate beef. But no matter how big the beef was, it could have been set aside. By not condemning them, he sent a message to his supporters that he thought harassing voicemails and death threats was a legitimate means to political ends.
Since Sanders still has never incited violence or anything similar, he still bears far less responsibility than Trump.
I expected far better of Sanders. I was actually shocked when I read that statement.
Anyhow. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter.