The Sanders-Clinton Fight is Really About This Philosophical Question


We live in an age of strategy. Our public discourse is largely, though not exclusively, concerned with “what works”, with large-scale analysis of what we think is likely to lead to what. This is not surprising in a culture dominated by technology, and in which the central metaphors for life are often now fundamentally technological- drawn from computing or systems theory, for instance. The fundamental question is, “How do we manipulate systems to get what we want?” High levels of moral compromise and imperfection are assumed. We are concerned with results, and we assume that the end justifies the means.

The Clintons embody this type of pragmatism. Their policy decisions often included horrible means- go to war, incarcerate more African Americans, preserve the death penalty, enrich the wealthy- which did not themselves embody admirable principles but were seen as means to good ends. Hillary and Bill often defend their past (bad) decisions on the grounds that they did the best they could under the circumstances (Bill) or were simply mistaken in their strategic analysis (Hillary), but insist they had the right principles at heart.

One problem with this approach is that human beings grossly overestimate our abilities to act strategically within complex systems. The “law of unintended consequences” haunts all of our skill at manipulation. This is what “principles” are designed to do: principles are derived from centuries of human experience and are meant to protect us from the mercurial paths of short-term thinking and the hubris of attempting to manipulate complex systems with morally relative but, we think, effective stratagems. When we say a principle is “right”, we mean that on a meta-level that principle yields good fruit, or reflects values which we think are true and worth making sacrifices for.

Sanders is not a strategist; he is a man of principle. This frustrates a lot of people. There are endless calls for him to be strategic and, for instance, renounce his candidacy. To do so would be both against democratic principles (that the people should choose) and would be to yield to someone he considers less qualified. In other words, to do so would be unprincipled and so he will not do it. Some people think that he should be less critical of the Democratic party, as calling out procedural injustices foments division and potentially weakens the party against the GOP (now known officially as the ICP- the Insane Clown Posse!) But Bernie believes that procedural injustices and irregularities should be called out, and so he will do that. Some media commentators repeatedly interpret Sanders’ actions as though he were playing chess, but he’s not. Those who insist on analysing Sanders through a strategic lens consistently misunderstand what he is doing and why.

The fight between Clinton and Sanders’ supporters comes down entirely to this issue: principle or strategy. Few defending Clinton claim that she is a person of higher principle than Sanders. Clinton supporters argue either that she is more likely to win against Drumpf, or that once in office she will have more skill at “getting things done”, i.e. she will be more effectively strategic. Sanders supporters criticise Clinton for her lack of moral consistency (i.e. principle), or criticise her actions for being based on the wrong principles, or they point to the fact that her supposedly superior strategic gifts have in fact led to multiple disasters.

This last point is key because it points to the fundamental argument behind the Sanders-Clinton feud. Sanders supporters believe that amoral strategies have shown themselves to lead to disasters, or in other words, that the strategic approach is not an effective strategy in the long term. Though Sanders supporters will more often argue that Sanders is right rather than that he is smart, they will of course also argue that his policies will work. This is because they believe that acting on principle is, in fact, the most strategic approach.

In the end, then, the argument between Sanders and Clinton supporters comes down to a philosophical fight that is not really between principle and strategy, but is about what is most strategic in the long term. Sanders supporters argue that holding to principles produces the most good over time, and Clinton supporters argue (though this is less clearly articulated on their side I think) that short-term strategic thinking is more realistic and effective for the common good. That is the real fight.

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Freelance journalist and writer. I have been published in the Forward, the Jewish Independent, Tikkun, Elephant Journal and elsewhere.

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