Are Political Leaders Responsible for Supporters’ Behavior?

Trump_protest_Chicago_March_11,_2016A 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.

Photo by TheNoxid

Elizabeth Picciuto

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. I agree with two main words here: “Almost entirely.”

    There’s an argument to be had about leader responsibility here, but it’s almost entirely at the margin, except in extreme cases where there is clear incitement. Sanders’ statement left something to be desired, but it was clear in condemning threats and violence. The problem was that it reiterated and affirmed the campaign’s and supporters’ procedural complaints and asserted that the condemnation of some individuals’ wrong actions didn’t invalidate those complaints. That should have been done elsewhere, which was a misstep, but it didn’t negate the condemnation.

    As such, the shortcomings of the statement doesn’t move the responsibility of the campaign for future incidents past the margin.

    Barring further developments, responsibility for actions of individual Sanders supporters will remain almost entirely theirs.

    • His statement afterwards was weak sauce. When you follow, “I condemn all violence,” with, “But…” you’re reaching for straws. When your statement on the violence in Nevada is 75% how you’re being unfairly treated and 1 rote sentence on condemning violence, you’re not taking it seriously. There wasn’t even a passing sentence on telling his supporters that he understands and appreciates their passion, but the way to win is to make their voices heard and go out and participate, not engage in violence and threats.

      • Actually it was fairly strong sauce – highly contentious and not conciliatory. What was needed was weaker sauce, and he didn’t provide it.

        Nevertheless, the condemnation is right there. The emphasis is off, but, I mean, this is a fight. Politics is tough. The condemnation is there. We can prefer it had been more unadulterated and abject, but hey, plenty of people would also prefer Sanders recognize he’s beat and bow out this week. He’s not going to. IMO to be scandalized by a political statement that gets its basic job done (the condemnation is there) in the middle of a political fight is… weak. Which is not to say it was the ideal statement. I’m just not mortified by it as a more-Sanders-than-Clinton supporter. But obviously many people feel differently.

        • He got airtime, he used airtime.
          With all the down and dirty shit that Clinton pulled in NY (mostly institutionally), I’m not going to object to him landing a counterpunch when someone puts a mike in his face.

          • Please provide evidence that anything that happened in NY was either uniquely advantageous to Clinton, or plausibly engineered by her.

            I’ll wait.

  2. As you suggested, Trump’s words have been much more dangerous. I’m not sure how much responsibility for supporters’ actions I’d put on him exactly, but more than Sanders, even after the statement. Trump has created an atmosphere of hate and implied violence. Sanders has made clear that he thinks the system he’s trying to operate in is corrupt and rigged. Some people have tried to suggest these both point toward candidate responsibility for violence and threats; I couldn’t see a clearer distinction between them. We can’t write emphatic procedural critique out of our politics because it can get people riled up. Creating an atmosphere of hate and implied permission for violence just is something completely else.

  3. I agree with you, Elizabeth. I think the way I tend to phrase this in my own head, is that politicians bear do responsibility — within certain parameters and to certain degrees.

    Josh Marshall has spent the past couple of days talking about Sanders and recent behavior. His essential point has been that:

    1. Sanders lost the caucus in Nevada (according to the pre-set rules),
    2. Sanders has attempted to get delegates to change their votes (allowed by the pre-setrules),
    3. Sanders has been unsuccessful in this strategy, and so has told his followers that they have been cheated out of winning the Nevada delegates that they have been cheated and Nevada has been stolen from them.

    Josh’s point is that doing this does indeed give Sanders responsibility for things boiling over. I think he’s right in this.

    That being said, there’s still the question of degree. I am sure we will see lots of BSDI with Sanders and Trump in the near future, but that’s absurd. Trump has encouraged people at his rallies to put protesters in the hospital, and offered to pay the legal bills of people should they beat up protesters. Trump therefore bears far more responsibility for the violence that’s happened on his turf than Sanders has on his.

    And of course, to any degree, each only bears responsibility within certain parameters. The guy who cold-cocked the African American protester while he was in cuffs? Whatever degree Trump fanned those places, I hope we do not get to a point where in order to score political points we let *that* guy off the hook in any way because Trump bore some degree of responsibility. That guy chose to cross that line, and he needs to law to treat him thus.

    • I really strenuously disagree with Marshall here. Pursuing strong procedural critiques of an organization you are trying to change shouldn’t make you subject to claims of responsibility for the untoward actions of your supporters, as long as you didn’t give any suggestion to the supporters that such actions are justified by what you are critiquing. That’s not simply implied in the critique. Even if you’re pushing the edges of perfectly faithful representation of every detail of the situation, IMO. I don’t think we want to hinge our assessment of whether procedural critiques make a candidate morally liable for the actions of her supporters on the candidate’s critiques passing a strict appraisal for factual. That’s not how political rhetoric works. Things do get amped up. But pursuing procedural critiques, even with heightened language and factual exaggerations is clearly on one side of a line (you can certainly critique it just as you would any other political rhetoric, which is to say, stop short of claiming it makes the figure responsible for the actions of each of her supporters), and inciting or creating an implicit invitation to violence or untoward behavior (like Trump has done) is on the other side. One can carry the former across the line by pursuing that critique in ways that create such license, but simply advancing that kind of critique, which is all Sanders can be accused of or in any case is the basis for Marshall’s accusation, doesn’t do it.

      I’d be quite interested to hear what the OPer has to say on this particular question. I do recommend Marshall’s posts on the question to everyone, because they lay out the argument I oppose quite clearly.

      • I’ll read Josh’s posts later today, but this is a first pass.

        This was actually an interesting case, because you’re right, Michael, all he did offer was a procedural critique of Nevada politics. But that procedural critique came at the exact moment when he should have said his most passionate, “We cannot be making voicemail death threats to the grandchildren of local Democratic party officials.”

        That is NOT the time for a procedural critique. It reminds me of the classic example of Gricean implicature (that is, of saying one thing but trying to say another): if a recommendation letter says, “The candidate has excellent handwriting,” you’re being told not to hire the candidate.

        The angry folks were hepped up about procedural stuff. He gave them the most pro forma anti-violence sentence possible so he could have plausible deniability, then continued the critique.

        Of course he can critique procedure. By critiquing procedure right then and there, what was the effect of his words?

        • To be clear, I share your critique of the statement post-weekend, though as I’ve said I’m not as appalled as some. I have no problem with people having such a reaction, as I agree it was less than ideal, I just personally think it’s a little oversensitive given this is the middle of a tough campaign. But each to his own on that.

          But, against to be clear, what I said here above in response to Tod was in response to claims that what Sandrrs had been saying by way of procedural criticism of the party going into the weekend cleared the way and Sanders was thus significantly responsibile for the actions of supporters in Vegas. You’ll see that’s what Marshall argued.

          But I agree that after those events the correct thing was to issue one unambiguous statement condemning violence and especially threats, and to pursue the issues of the campaign, be they procedural or substantive, elsewhere, even if in a separate release issued simultaneously.

        • “We cannot be making voicemail death threats to the grandchildren of local Democratic party officials”

          Did this actually occur?

    • Oh yeah, this is all a moral question. Please don’t think I mean there should be any legal excuses, a la “well, he was only following orders!”

      What’s BSDI?

      • BSDI == Both Sides Do It

        Sometimes good people have to criticize bad people for acting in a particular way. In response, there’s a particular form of argument where bad people point out that good people sometimes engage in the exact behavior that they’re criticizing on the part of the bad people. When the bad people point this out, it’s usually appropriate to claim that the bad people are just screaming “BOTH SIDES DO IT!” and dismiss their criticism of the good people.

        This can be condensed to “BSDI”.

  4. “Violence has no place in our politics. Anyone who thinks they’re somehow supporting or helping me by doing something violent, knock it off. Right now.”

    Is anything less than this statement acceptable from any politician?

    No “buts” or “I understands” or pointing fingers at the other side’s bad behavior.

    • I would say yes. It’s not ideal, it’s not preferred. But it’s acceptable. Maybe barely. But we’re not going to, I don’t think, expel Bernie Sanders from the good graces of our political community over the shortcomings of this statement, so yeah, I think it’s going to prove to end up being acceptable.

  5. So, Sanders was not inciting violence. He’s not morally culpable for the violent actions committed by his supporters.

    On the other hand, though Sanders was inciting enmity. He wasn’t responsible for the violence committed by supporters but he was responsible for the anger and outrage that led those supporters to violence. Ultimately, this isn’t a moral failure on Bernie’s part. Instead, it’s a failure of leadership.

    • Is Obama then responsible for his supporters raising the flag with Hugo Chavez on it? (or whatever the Hispanic folks did that was done purely volunteer, at an Obama office — I have forgotten the specifics)

    • “You’re inciting enmity,” said every cop who pepper-sprayed a protestor to quiet them down.

  6. I would say the opposite: That voters are responsible for politicians’ behavior. It’s voters who choose who gets elevated to these positions. If successful politicians tend to act in certain ways, it’s because voters choose to reward that kind of behavior with votes. I don’t think politicians’ rhetoric influences their supporters nearly as much as the supporters influence the politicians’ rhetoric. Trump and Sanders are symptoms, not causes.

    • Well, of course. Lincoln talked about doing nothing without public opinion. The public chose these folks. But they’re not only symptoms or they’d be powerless.

  7. Perhaps because I haven’t been paying attention, there’s a lot I don’t/didn’t know about violence and the Bernie campaign and about Nevada that most people here seem to have kept tabs on. But it’s not clear to me how much violence was engaged in in Nevada and how much was “merely” threatened for the future.

    So given my ignorance, as I unpack Sanders’s statement (here: ), I come up with two thoughts:

    First, and contrary to one of @tod-kelly ‘s points above about “preset rules,” Sanders at least alleges short dealing. Sanders claims that there was a voice vote in spite of a (according to him) a strong sensibility to have a head count. Sanders also alleges certain amendments were refused to be heard even though they allegedly were “properly submitted.” I don’t know enough about the rules of order, but even if these actions (assuming they happened as Sanders said they did) comply with the rules, they seem like dirty pool. Not unexpected dirty pool (this is a major party acting to nominate someone to the highest office in the land…you have to expect such things). But assuming they’re true, they’re legitimate things to complain of.

    Second, I agree with @mo and @burt-likko above. The “violence is wrong, but….” is not the way to condemn violence. It violates Jim Henley’s Rule of Buts.

    To answer Rose’s main point (by the way, do you prefer Elizabeth or Rose?….I “know” you as Rose, but I’ll abide by whichever you prefer), Sanders probably bears some responsibility going forward because he has not condemned violence heartily enough. But with Tod, I do think it’s a question of degree.

      • Thanks. I didn’t know that.

        Thanks also for the link above to the NYT piece. I read/skimmed it and if those allegations are true, then that is a bad thing and Sanders should have more forcibly denounced it.

  8. As other’s have said, except for direct incitement, none, absolutely 100% no responsibility. You’re taking agency from those individuals who do the violence, and they do, and should, own it all. It’s on them.

  9. I think Sanders should have condemned, in the clearest terms, the harassment and threatening of Lange, and stated unequivocally that such behavior has no place in his campaign or movement. That he did not is to his great discredit.

    That said, I have absolutely no problem with protesting (including being rather unpleasant, but not violent) at the convention, and I’d have thought worse of Sanders (whom I already don’t like, it should be noted) if he had condemned that behavior.

    • Related specifically to the question: By not condemning the threats and harassment done in his name when given ample opportunity, he makes himself responsible for it.

      • I can’t stand him.

        I am, admittedly, impressed that he’s done as well as he has, given that he began as little more than a poleznyye duraki, as the Soviets used to say — a clown, a stalking horse — and even though he’ll end up that way as well. And I get defensive about the way the left end of the American political spectrum is treated by liberals, probably too easily. But I didn’t vote for him in the primary, and I wouldn’t vote for him in November if he somehow got the nomination.

    • I think “rather unpleasant” does a lot of lifting there. How unpleasant is acceptable?

      As I wrote, at Maine’s convention the Sanders contingent loudly booed when people rose to speak against an amendment to change the way superdelegates are allocated. (As I also wrote, one of their own rose to condemn some of this behavior when we broke out into county meetings later that day, much to his credit.) I strenuously object to that. It is profoundly anti-democratic to respond to viewpoints you don’t like by trying to shout them down. It’s not how policy should be debated, and it’s not how business should (or even can) be conducted.

      Protest is one thing. Shouting down people you don’t like because they have the temerity to support or oppose people or policies at variance with your own views is grossly unacceptable.

      • I understand the way you see it, but I see them as I suspect at least some of the more disruptive protesters both in Maine and Nevada see themselves: as outsiders. That makes them less interested in things like changing procedural rules than in disrupting the the basic system within which those rules operate, a system with which they engage only because in order to have any influence they must do so.

        I don’t think, ultimately, many of them would see what they are doing as anti-democratic because they don’t see the process as at all democratic in the first place.

        • That they can justify their own behavior does not come remotely close to convincing me that it should be viewed as appropriate in any way.

          You cannot protest your way to the Oval Office. You cannot yell legislation you want into existence. I know it’s all very stirring and self-affirming to bellow the other side down, but it’s not how shit gets done.

          I’m not intending this to be stridently directed at you. But I have very little patience for the frankly adolescent behavior of people who think it’s OK to stifle debate when it suits them. I object to that in the starkest possible terms.

          • I would be surprised, and honestly think less of them if they actually think they can vote their way into the Oval Office, as outsiders. I think the goal of the movement around Sanders, if not the Sanders campaign itself, has been less about winning — which, let’s face it, was never an even remote possibility — than it has been about changing the Democratic Party, and much of that comes from a deep lack of respect for that party, for how it behaves both legislatively and in choosing its representatives, and for how it treats the left. I would be surprised if they treated its proceedings and its long-entrenched leadership with a great deal of respect.

            Don’t get me wrong, I disagree with what they’re doing, but I get it. For a long time, the left in the U.S. has primarily existed either in the form of issue-based activism, Ivory-tower intellectualism, or counterculture, none of which have done a good job of (or been particularly interested in) engaging anyone or anything but the more progressive members of the center-left coalition that comprises the Democratic Party. The result has been that leftism has had almost no influence on American politics at anything other than the local (and, again, usually single-issue) level for a long time, particularly since union membership has declined so extensively. A lot of people saw Sanders’ candidacy as a way to gain some influence (and perhaps they’re right, though I am pretty sure that come August or October, and certainly by next January, it will be business as usual), but less by winning (which, again, was obviously impossible) than through disruption. I see their behavior (again, not including the harassment; I repeat this not because I worry about you mistaking me, but someone might drop by who knows us less well) as consistent with that purpose.

          • @chris The problem with their behavior, or at least one of the problems, is that it’s self-defeating.

            At least in terms of what happened in Maine, yelling down opponents of an amendment they supported served no purpose. Sanders had won the caucus, and thus there were many more of his delegates on the floor than for Clinton. There was no meaningful chance the amendment would fail, and all that was accomplished by maumauing those who rose to support it was alienating the very people in the room whose help will eventually be needed if the left actually wants to get its agenda adopted.

            It was the same with every ruckus that erupted over procedural issues. The rules committee comprised equal numbers of Sanders and Clinton supporters, but even simple things like setting the delegate count for quorum was greeting with conspiratorial suspicion. Whatever the left’s hostility to the centrist liberals (like me, for one), if it doesn’t even understand when it actually holds the advantage and doesn’t need to be disruptive, it merely looks like an excuse to be disruptive for its own sake. It leaves me convinced that the movement is largely emotion-based, and grossly lacking in the actual thinking that will allow it to reap any real results.

          • I do not think you’re wrong: it is a movement driven by emotion, largely anger. The left in America has always been driven by anger, this has been all the truer over the last 20 odd years as it was first lampooned and then decried as traitorous by the political class. Meanwhile they, the left, watched as that same political class gutted the welfare system, ramped up the war on drugs andadd the prison-industrial complex, enacted NAFTA, and then entered increasingly large and destructive imperialist wars. Then the collapse.

            The campaign and first year of the Obama administration were something of a calming, at least for the less radical left: there seemed to be a promise of a liberal-progressive left coalition, encouraged both in statements against war and police state, and by a health care plan sold as a first step toward universality. Then the public option was dropped so easily, and the “recovery” was jobless and full of debt, and the left became angry again.

            Clinton embodies everything I mentioned in that paragraph as inciting anger, as does the rest of the party establishment, and perhaps the party itself. As outsiders, they are naturally distrustful; as angry outsiders, they are naturally disdainful, not only of the party’s leaders and procedures, but also for the idea that those people are even capable of being worked with. They don’t want a coalition, they eat a coup. This isn’t a merger to them, it is an insurgency.

            The smart ones know they will lose every battle, but the aim is to win the war.

  10. I don’t pretend to know the background of all of this, but I’ve seen a number of claims that there was exactly one arrest for assault at the Nevada caucuses, and it was a Clinton supporter who assaulted a Sanders supporter.

    So, indeed, why is all the noise about demanding that Sanders distance himself from his supporters’ alleged violence, if the only violence that’s strongly enough alleged to go with criminal charges was the other way around?

  11. I enjoyed the post, though I struggle with assigning ‘responsibility’ to politicians for their supporter’s behavior – at least for any individual action.
    However, when it comes to executive offices – I think there has to be some electoral accountability for them. After all, the Presidency or a governership is largely about what kind of administration you will build and lead.
    Especially for the Presidency – there really isn’t anything that makes you ‘qualified’ to be President. There’s no job quite like it out there – being a Senator or Governor or even a big CEO isn’t even close to it.
    One of the few things we have to go on in evaluating candidates is the quality of their campaign organizations and what kind of alliances they can form in their parties. I warmed a lot to Obama in 2008 toward the end of the primary precisely because he’d done a much better job of building an effective national campaign than I ever could have expected.
    So, all that said, the overall behavior of major candidates campaigns and their supporters tell me a lot about whether or not I can support them. No matter what I might believe about Trump’s ideas/policies – his campaign events, the people around him and the rhetoric of his supporters are pure dis-qualifiers for me.
    The last few weeks convinced me that I couldn’t support Bernie Sanders, either. I don’t doubt he’d probably be less bad than Trump, but the odds of a major misstep that causes real damage are too high for me.
    I almost surely won’t be voting for Clinton, but I am quite sure I could stomach her much better than the other two. If for no other reason that I am far more confident she won’t put together a worse administration than I fear Trump or Sanders might.

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