I hadn't planned that tens of thousands of people would learn what I thought about this election. In the midst of a conversation about the Democratic primary, I wrote an overly long e-mail about one of the candidates. On a lark, I put it on Facebook, where I assumed a small group of friends might be curious. In an instant, people reacted. A friend suggested it be put it on this site, and in a matter of hours, a flood came.
Because it was critical of Bernie Sanders, many well-wishers suggested that I would be subject to the malice of the so-called Bernie Bros or Bernie Stans. I knew not to read the comments, but I did anyway, if for no other reason than it's interesting to know what total strangers think about you from 1000 words. There were literally thousands of comments, on Facebook, Twitter, Huffington Post, amongst others, and I read a decent amount of them. Most of the comments were pretty banal, repeating talking points from one side or the other, an enormous number positive, a significant minority not so. Whether because of my gender, race, or something else entirely, the negative comments that it got were relatively tame, focusing on my intellectual and moral failings, rather than the more searing experiences described by others.
But what fascinated me is why people commented at all. It's hard to imagine that the ones nominally directed to me were expected to persuade me to change my mind. It's even more difficult for me to believe that an insult to me would change somebody else's vote.
Reading the comments, they reminded me of another political act that seems to be similarly ineffectual; wearing a sticker, or putting up a sign for a candidate. At the local level, those gestures may increase slightly the name recognition of a candidate. But when we're discussing a presidential election, it's difficult to imagine anybody walking through a parking lot struggling to decide Bush or Gore until, finally, the sticker on the car is seen, the vote decided, history made.
In fact, probably the biggest effect of wearing a sticker for a candidate has is on the person wearing the sticker. By making such a visible declaration that you're supporting this candidate, it makes it harder for you to change your mind if you learn new, less appealing information about them, and probably more likely that you'll remember to actually vote. You've put, if not your money, then your social identity, where your mouth is. You're figuratively attaching the candidate's name to your home, your car, your body. A similar phenomenon seems to be taking place with people commenting on, or tweeting for a candidate; in a big way, our Facebook profile is who we are. But the reason many of us do that is probably less to persuade, than simply to say what we think. Most campaigns likely understand that by announcing your support, you are locking yourself into the candidate, rather than persuading anybody else, and that matters too.
If supporters of one candidate were understandably exasperated by my apparent inability to see his advantages, the supporters of the other seemed to react in a very different way. Many expressed a fear that their opinion would be criticized if they declared their support for Hillary Clinton. I empathized; I often avoid discussing my political views on a wide range of issues for the same desire to avoid argument. There is recurrent discussion of safe spaces on liberal blogs. Others said that the article represented what they had been trying to say. Had they the time to write a thousand words on the subject, they would have likely produced something more eloquent and insightful, but them having more pressing responsibilities, this served for some as a make-shift shield, if you will, in a debate that gets vitriolic in a hurry.
For others, of course, it wasn't a shield but a sword. Many supporters of Bernie Sanders seemed to see what I wrote as being an attack. Perhaps on their candidate, but maybe even against them personally.
It began to seem like the wearing of a sticker, or the writing of a comment on a site, or maybe even writing an e-mail, an act so benign at the individual level, when done by many, many people, can be more like the wearing of a uniform. Like everything else, perhaps, it's a matter of scale. A single book is a god-send on a day with iffy wi-fi; an enormous pile is a fire hazard. Call it peer-pressure if you'd like, but many seem to feel so embattled from often well-meaning comments that they struggle to speak. Or maybe, in some political discussions, there comes a point, where everybody has chosen a side, put on their uniform and is on their side of the border, talking becomes violence, designed not to persuade but parry and thrust.