Can Democrats Overcome the Tribalism of the Primary?

Near the end of the 2008 presidential primary, I was at a gathering with a few of my women friends. The talk eventually turned to politics and one of them – who I admire greatly – started talking about how painful it had been to see the sexism directed at Hillary Clinton. As she did so, she began to cry.

My response, as someone who was supporting Barack Obama, was to empathize. She is my friend and she was obviously feeling this deeply. But I had just been to a meeting where a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago (where Jeremiah Wright was the pastor) was in tears over her anger at the vitriol directed at the entire congregation. And so I said to my friend that her pain was mirrored by those who were experiencing the racism directed at Obama. She replied: “What racism?” She literally didn’t see it.

That was a valuable learning moment for me. Neither my friend nor I were especially “tribal” in our everyday life. But our support for one of the two candidates in that race had dimmed our capacity to see what was going on from the other side’s perspective. We had empathy for the candidate we were supporting, but none for their opponent.

Since Barack Obama won that primary, my friend had to eventually bridge that gap and find a way to support him. Her tears had already accomplished that for me if Clinton had won the race. I was able to see the dynamics through her eyes.

I think about that experience now as the race between Clinton and Sanders is becoming calcified. The fingers are pointed at the opposing side with very little effort to understand their perspective. Perhaps time dulls the memory, but it seems to me that the acrimony is deeper today than it was in 2008.

Will the threat of a Trump or Cruz be enough to overcome that acrimony and work together? Given the realities of this race, that is a question that Sanders’ supporters will soon have to face. The candidates themselves will need to do their part. Clinton will need to reach out to those who have opposed her. But the bigger task will rest on Sanders’ shoulders. How he handles that moment will signal to everyone whether he does, in fact, believe that having a Democrat in the White House is important.

Yesterday Sanders addressed how he might handle the situation in an interview on CNN. On the one hand, he said that Clinton will have to court his supporters – that it’s not up to him because he doesn’t control them. But then he undermined whatever she might say to win them over by suggesting that her words are merely rhetoric and that she can’t be trusted to follow through because of the money she accepts for her campaign.

Perhaps that is just Sanders’ attempt to shore up his leverage in potential negotiations with Clinton over demands he will make to get his support in the general election. But relying on the “you can’t trust her” angle could be permanently corrosive. He’ll need to do better than that.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .