The #BernieOrBust slogan was widely adopted in the 2016 Presidential Elections by ardent supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders. These devotees insisted that they would not vote for any candidate (namely Hillary Clinton, the eventual Democratic Party nominee) in the eventual general election showdown with Trump. Four years later, the slogan has resurfaced as a credible threat directed toward what many perceive to be a recalcitrant Democratic Party establishment. In what follows, I do not claim that “#BernieOrBusters” are morally justified (all things considered), but merely offer a possible defence for why some #BernieOrBust advocates are behaving in a rationally justified manner.
I grant two premises amenable to most critics of #BernieOrBusters: first, Trump is a highly problematic candidate in his actions and dispositions; second, whilst not voting for the non-Trump candidate in the eventual presidential election is not equivalent to voting for Trump, there is some degree of comparability in the two choices – given that the outcome is likely to be an increase in Trump’s chances.
The primary attack on #BernieOrBusters is this: individuals who vote do so on the basis that it can help elect a candidate that can better enact their preferences. It is irrational for any voter to concurrently i) believe that Trump is worse than the non-Trump candidate and ii) choose to not vote for the non-Trump candidate. Given that this is irrational, there are no strong presumptive reasons to find such choices justifiable or justified.
A counter-intuitive deconstruction of voting can be found in Riker and Ordeshook’s (1968) article where they argue that it is irrational for someone to vote if their sole intention is to sway electoral outcomes, given the miniscule probability that a single vote will influence an election with millions of voters. It seems unreasonable to attribute who wins the presidential elections to #BernieOrBusters – no more than thousands in likely numbers spread across various states – who will not end up swaying the elections. Yet suppose, for the moment, that there are both a significant number of #BernieOrBusters and that, independent of eventual outcomes, the individual vote does matter somewhat in slightly increasing candidates’ chances of victory. These conditions would render the vote morally attributable for the elections’ outcomes.
Even then, #BernieOrBusters can easily deny blameworthiness. They may believe that all non-Sanders Democrats (e.g. Warren, Buttgieg, Bloomberg) are likely to, when elected, bring just as bad consequences as Trump. This is not a claim of personal judgment: they may believe that Klobuchar is a better person than Trump, and yet that electing Klobuchar as US President will lead to just as bad outcomes as electing Trump. This is aligned with an instrumentalist account of voting: #BernieOrBusters are indifferent between the two choices because of the trivially identical outcomes. In contrast, those who call for rallying around a ‘unity’ Democratic candidate are more open to embracing selectively de-personalised voting – whomever isn’t Trump must win, according to their calculus.
I suspect the real issue lies with when such beliefs are formulated on faulty epistemic grounds. One way of telling if the reasoning is erroneous is by examining the premises upon which #BernieOrBusters diverge from those who perceive Trump to be the worst candidate. What matters here are the foundational premises on which the support is built: if the foundational premise contains a factual-empirical error (e.g. “Warren is ill-equipped because she sold national secrets to Russia in 2013”), it seems the resultant belief is unjustified; yet if the premise is simply normative-evaluatively different(e.g. “Any inequality resulting from arbitrary processes must be rectified”), the resultant belief may be deemed subjectively reasonable, even if we may share highly divergent moral intuitions. This of course also assumes, somewhat inaccurately, that Sanders is the only candidate who opposes inequality resulting from arbitrary processes.
Yet #BernieOrBusters could also i) believe that Trump is indeed worse than the non-Trump candidate and yet ii) choose to not vote for the non-Trump candidate. It could be reasonable in this case to still not cast the vote that is likely to yield better consequences. The assumption underpinning ii) is that the only, or predominant, factor determining how we vote is whether it yields better consequences on aggregate. It posits that we are normatively guided purely by the specific prerogative of selecting a leader through a political procedure that we neither accept nor endorse, but are required to accept through its default prominence.
There is more to voting than selecting a particular candidate out of the provided choices. #BernieOrBusters may treat their vote-casting as a backward-looking act that reflects our genuine judgments about who deserves the powers, prestige, and status of the American presidency. When individuals aid us at times of need, we may choose to thank them, both in expressing our personal gratitude and recognising their worthiness of praise and appreciation. On the other hand, suppose our requests for aid are turned down by two individuals. The fact that one individual hesitated slightly and expressed mild remorse at not aiding us (she is therefore better than the other refuser) does not render her deserving of our praise. Similarly, voters could view candidates as meriting the presidential office not on relative grounds (i.e. that they are better than the other available choices), but on absolute terms (i.e. that they meet particular thresholds so as to qualify). Hence if no one candidate meets these absolute conditions, it would be emphatically irrational for a #BernieOrBuster – with the above outlook – to vote for the non-Trump candidate, because doing so contradicts their action-guiding principles.
Alternatively for them, voting for a particular candidate may itself embody a valuable act of political free speech, regardless of expected consequences. Many protest voters turn to voting for candidates that neither reflect their genuine beliefs nor interests, simply so as to emphasise the failings of the system and mount a longer-term critique of structural issues. In 2016, for example, some #BernieOrBusters often argued that the only means of awakening the “liberal establishment” was through the election of a figure that contravened its very tenets. The very act of protest-voting possesses traction independent of the eventual outcomes: through renunciation of the norms leading toward races between potentially non-representative front-runners alone, it acts as a bold declaration of the illegitimacy of the two-candidate system. As much as I personally disagree(d) with these individuals, their motivations were entirely rationalisable.
Therefore, critics of #BernieOrBusters must go beyond dismissing them as ineffectual because the “effective selection of a candidate” is not – if at all – the main point of the 2020 elections for many. To demonstrate their irrationality (and ensuant unjustifiability), critics must offer reasons as to why outcome-oriented prerogatives matter more than alternative considerations, which cannot be dismissed by appealing – in a circular fashion – to their decision’s likely consequences.