After Hillary Clinton won the 2016 Democratic nomination for president, some supporters of her strongest rival for the candidacy, Bernie Sanders, said things like, “I’ll even vote for Trump before I vote for her. I’m so anti-Hillary.” While most Sanders supporters thought differently, this group of people who shared the anti-Hillary sentiment was large enough to make a potential impact in a close election.
This is a most interesting development for several reasons.
- Character wise, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are polar opposites. Sanders drives a small car, Trump lives in a golden apartment. Sanders sees the world in nuanced ways and acknowledges its complexity, Trump generalizes and promotes simple solutions. Political scientists would expect people who admire Sanders to resent Trump, not support him. On paper, Hillary Clinton’s character seems much more in line with Sanders’.
- Politically, Sanders and Trump are polar opposites. Sanders wants more redistribution, Trump less. Sanders wants to treat legal and illegal immigrants better; Trump wants to build a wall and deport them. Sanders wants to stop climate change, Trump to ignore it. Political scientists would expect people who want to achieve Sanders’ goals to prefer Clinton over Trump if Sanders could not win the nomination. Her goals were much more in line with Sanders’.
- Bernie Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton and asked his supporters to prevent a President Trump. Why did some Sanders supporters ignore his strong endorsement? Why did they trust him on all issues but this one? If some Sanders followers were unwilling to vote for Clinton, they could have simply stayed away from the election. But that is not what they did. Not only did they not vote for Clinton, they voted for Trump. What motivated them to take this baffling step?
Whatever Sanders supporters initially sought to accomplish, they were unlikely to do it by voting for Trump. In a democracy, voters can vote for whomever they want, and for people who want to build a border wall, Trump is the obvious choice. But when voters switch their support from the most left-wing candidate to the most right-wing candidate, they must be motivated by something other than political goals.
What superseded their initial intentions? And how can we do a better job with future voting decisions? These are important questions, so let’s answer them.
Why did some Sanders supporters create destructive ideas?
Current theories are unable to explain why some Sanders supporters preferred Trump over Clinton. Left without a rational explanation, many analysts point to irrational ones, for example by questioning the intelligence of these people.
These explanations are of little help. Those Sanders supporters who voted for Trump can’t all be stupid. By using a simple answer, we fail to recognize the bigger dynamic behind these decisions, and we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn lessons that we can then transfer to similar issues. The Theory of Moral Duality helps us to better explain the mental processes behind these decisions and transfer the lessons learned to similar issues.
Interestingly, those Sanders supporters who preferred Trump over Clinton were also the most fanatical. The Theory of Moral Duality points out why this connection is no coincidence.
In 2016, some people in the U.S. were frustrated with the government’s inability, in their minds, to get things done. They blamed this dilemma on, “the establishment”, a group that, allegedly, served its own interests by following the will of rich donors. The good of the other 99 percent was of little importance. If politicians were truly concerned with the people’s needs, spent resources more wisely, and structured the government more fairly, said Sanders supporters, they could easily provide services to improve the lives of all people, for example free education and universal health care.
Bernie Sanders was the candidate who would put an end to the establishment’s reign, Hillary Clinton personified that establishment.
This idea, in itself, is perfectly benign. Voters in democratic societies are often dissatisfied with the people in power and choose to replace them. The problem with this idea is that it set Bernie Sanders up as a savior – and this narrative has a high moral quantity. It shows the three signs of destructive ideas:
- Division into irreconcilable groups. There is an establishment and a non-establishment. Both are inherently opposed, and the fight can only end by one group winning and the other group losing.
- Appeal to higher wisdom. The establishment is inherently evil and follows its own Bernie Sanders alone acts in the best interests of the people and can, therefore, do what nobody has done before.
- Binary argument. Hillary Clinton is the ultimate establishment person and therefore an infinitely evil threat. Bernie Sanders is the ultimate non-establishment person and therefore the protector of all goodness.
Considering someone a savior automatically creates an infinitely evil threat from which this person must save us. This infinitely evil threat always leads to destructive ideas. Just like Don Quixote– a knight in shining armor without a dragon to fight– political saviors need an infinitely evil threat, or no savior is required. Still – so far so good.
The problem is that the recognition of the hero often precedes the creation of the infinitely evil threat. People passionately support a candidate’s ideas and ask themselves, “Why hasn’t my hero received the party’s full support?” Often, there are good reasons for this lack of support – maybe the candidate’s ideas are less popular in the general population than the false consensus bias leads us to believe. Maybe the politician is a difficult person, a bad speaker, or has some skeletons in their closet. But when we consider someone the best politician in the world and our immediate social circle agrees, these problems are often difficult to recognize.
We believe that our hero has been unfairly robbed of his legitimate role as a political leader. This poses the question, “Who took away our savior?” Regardless of how we answer this question – whether we point to the opposition, a group within society, or, as happened in the case of some Sanders supporters, to “the establishment” – the people who are to blame become an infinitely evil threat. These are the persons who stand in the way of goodness, the people who must be fought.
In the case of Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton was the infinitely evil threat that justified Bernie Sanders’ role as savior. When Sanders lost the nomination, some of his supporters were unable to vote for Clinton because she was still their infinitely evil threat. Fighting this threat was their top priority, and anything that could stop it was better than the threat itself – including a President Donald Trump. Even Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton and the fundamental differences in political positions and character between Trump and Sanders were unable to override the idea’s high moral quantity.
How can we make better voting decisions?
Of course, not all Sanders supporters voted for Trump. Many kept the moral quantity of their argument low. They liked Sanders’ ideas, but once he lost the nomination, they took the next best thing and voted for Clinton. This more closely resembles a good democratic process.
In a democratic society, people can vote for whomever they please. But it is interesting to understand how these voting decisions come about, and how the ideas behind them develop. The 2016 U.S. presidential election has brought more interesting developments than any other, and the phenomenon of Sanders supporters voting for Trump is one of them. It teaches us that we should be careful not to elevate people to savior status because it automatically creates an infinitely evil threat from which we must be saved.
Voters who supported Sanders because he promised more redistribution could have better achieved their goals by voting for Clinton than for Trump. Those Sanders supporters who liked Sanders’ promise of free education, for example, could have achieved their political goals much faster by voting for Clinton.
At first, they supported Sanders as the tool to achieve their political goals – which is precisely how a good democracy works. However, after Sanders lost the Democratic nomination for President, some of these people mistook their tool – voting for a non-establishment person – as the goal itself, which led them to support Trump over Clinton.
This development is dangerous. When it turns out that our savior can’t save us – because they lose the nomination, for example – the infinitely evil threat remains and influences our perception of reality. As a result, we might vote for people that will never create the changes we want.
When people are incapable of voting for candidates that represent their ideas, we open the door for destructive ideas, manipulation, and propaganda. Democracies need citizens who are sophisticated enough to translate their political goals into voting decisions that can achieve these goals. The Theory of Moral Duality is an important tool in this process.
In a democratic society, the only savior worth our worship is the system itself. In the long term, democratic systems create better results because they hold politicians accountable for their actions, which forces them to do what is best for the people. This process works because it pits the self-interests of power hungry politicians against the self-interests of other power-hungry politicians. This process can sometimes seem messy, but is necessary for the continuance of freedom and liberty.
When our favorite politicians are denied the opportunity to govern, it is normal to be frustrated. But we must stop this frustration from tricking us into supporting ideas (and candidates) we would normally oppose. As long as the essential democratic institutions can work unhindered, they will create the best possible outcome. The integrity of the political process is more important than the fate of any single politician.
Keeping the moral quantity of our own ideas low is the first and most important step to accomplishing our political goals. A high moral quantity only blinds us to the real issues and distorts the democratic process.
- When we consider a single person more important than the system itself, we create destructive results – regardless of who this person is and how well-intentioned they might be. We can be misled to support candidates that question the basic institutions that make a democracy successful. Attempting to fight a momentary crisis, we could create a permanent one.
- Because some people considered Bernie Sanders their savior, they had to consider Hillary Clinton an infinitely evil threat. When Sanders lost the nomination, fighting the infinitely evil threat became their priority, which is why even a president with an opposite agenda and personality became a viable choice.
- To avoid this dilemma, we must keep the moral quantity of our decisions low. We should vote for the candidates who can best serve our interests while maintaining the integrity of the political process.