Presidential primaries are without a doubt the most annoying part of the political process.
They stir up all of the blind, bitter partisanship of the general election—but applied to far narrower differences in ideology and personality. A lot of people are completely committed to their guy (I’m assuming Carly is out of the running now), so they’re not really debating about the candidates or the issues. They’re just looking for rationalizations to support their choice—and to invalidate yours.
But is there really that much difference between the platforms of, say, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio? Is one really that much more genuine or truthful or personable or decisive? Probably not.
What makes it even worse is that the primaries pit people against one another who are usually on friendly terms and can agree on a wide range of issues—and they’re throwing that out the window on behalf of candidates who are likely to drop out in just a few months’ time. I mean, only one of them can win, so the rest are going to lose, right? You would think that would help people keep a little perspective. And you would be wrong.
I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t have a preference in the primaries. What I’m saying is that your preference is probably exaggerated, even wildly exaggerated. And it’s annoying the heck out of your political friends and allies.
On their behalf, let me say: stop. Just stop. STAHP.
Here is a rundown—tallied over months of hanging out on political Twitter—of the annoying things to stop doing during the primaries.
1. Insisting your guy is the one and only.
Your candidate, you tell everyone who will listen, is the only tolerable alternative and everybody has to like him.
Here’s the problem with that. The day there is just one man who is able to save the republic is the day the republic is over. Our system of government was never supposed to be about one-man rule or a cult of personality.
This is a nation of 300 million people, including many very accomplished individuals who have turned their talents to politics. Maybe the smaller fringe political movements have to get by with only one spokesman who is ready for the national stage. But if a political platform is so widely shared that it can hope to rally a majority in a presidential election, it probably has a dozen leaders who are articulate, reasonably honest—by the standards of a politician—and have some experience in elected office. Each of these candidates will have flaws, but each would be better, from the perspective of your ideology, than that Caligulan monstrosity nominated by the other party.
And they’re all a little bit different. Each has a different emphasis in terms of experience, personality, and ideological leaning. Some of those things, like personality, are hard to quantify; no arguments will browbeat someone into responding to your favorite politician’s winning smile if it just rubs him the wrong way. So other people are going to prefer other candidates, and that’s not the end of the world. This is just a political primary, for crying out loud.
2. Taking your ball and going home.
This is the point at which people always threaten that if their candidate doesn’t get the nomination, they’re just not going to vote. They’re going to take their ball and go home.
But see what I said above about no candidate being the one and only. I can see viewing one of the options in your party as so objectionable that you might consider staying home. But all of them?
I was on record saying that if it’s Bush vs. Clinton, I might give up politics, since we haven’t learned anything in 24 years. Now that Jeb is fading away, Trump—whose offenses are in the other direction—is the only candidate who can make me balk. But every other major candidate is a choice I can live with, however imperfect.
Every candidate has drawbacks. Every choice is a compromise. One guy may be ideologically consistent, but the tradeoff is that he’s less likely to win the general election. Another guy will crush the other party’s candidate in the general, but he’s squishy on a few important issues. Somebody else has inadequate experience, or a questionable temperament, or an inconsistent record. There are always tradeoffs.
The fact is you’re probably not going to follow through on your threat to stay home. Once you’ve had a while to adjust to your guy’s loss, and the news starts showing you a lot more about that intolerably horrible person the other party nominated, you will probably decide that you’d better hold your nose and vote for your party’s nominee.
You are not the first person who has had to vote for the lesser of two evils. This is the normal state of politics, and if you can’t handle it, find another interest. Look for a field where everybody always shows good judgment and character, like sports, or entertainment, or—um, well, forget I said that.
3. Pretending that anyone who criticizes your guy is “the establishment.”
If you back anyone who has actually held office before, chances are that you are going to be criticized as being an “establishment” sellout.
But as I’ve argued, that term has been abused this year to the point of being meaningless. At least two-thirds of Republicans don’t support Donald Trump, and they can’t all be “the establishment.”
Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope math. Among the top three GOP candidates, there’s no one with less than 10% support among self-identified Republicans nationwide. About 25% of voters are Republicans, so each of the top tier candidates has the support of at least 2.5% of all voters. Assuming about 120 million voters, that means each candidate’s base of support is at least 3 million people. The “establishment,” if that concept has any meaning, is at most a few tens of thousands of people living mostly in DC and New York. We’re talking about pollsters, consultants, legislative aides, fundraisers, press flacks, and the like—the full-time professional entourage of a political party. This establishment is influential—when it isn’t totally ineffectual, which is pretty often—but it’s not that big, about the same as the population of a small suburb. It’s about one percent as big as the minimum support for a top-tier candidate.
So you need to accept the fact that the other 99% of that candidate’s supporters are regular, normal, grass-roots Republicans, no less “genuine” than you are. They just happen to like their guy better, for whatever reason. They like his exact mix of policies, his personality, his background. You might want to engage them about why they like him and not your preferred candidate.
Because just denouncing us as “the establishment,” when we know full well we’re not, is totally unconvincing.
4. Giving your guy the benefit of a double standard.
Anything your guy says that you like is his sincere, deeply help political conviction. Anything he says that you don’t like is just a brilliant electoral strategy adopted for temporary convenience.
So if Ted Cruz promises to abolish the IRS, he really means that. If he praises Donald Trump in an attempt to sidle up to his supporters—and you’re not prepared to defend Trump—why, don’t worry about that. Cruz is just making a super-smart political calculation, realizing that if he’s nice to Trump, Trump won’t go out of his way to pick a fight with him. (Well, maybe that wasn’t so super-smart.)
But you see how the game is set up so your candidate can’t lose. If he stands up for something you like, that shows how principled he is! But if he panders to the voters, that shows he’s smart!
Here’s another example. A few years ago, Ted Cruz supported an immigration proposal that differs from his current position—but, he says, he only did it so he could add a “poison pill” to the legislation to make sure it failed. Maybe so, maybe not. Similarly, a few years back, Marco Rubio allowed a global warming bill to move forward in the Florida legislature, but he said at the time that it was only so he could add a “poison pill.”
Now, each of these could just be a classic dodge, a way of explaining away past compromises. Or it could really have been a smart political maneuver to undermine a piece of bad legislation. But if you find yourself reflexively believing one of these candidates and not the other, then you’re giving him the benefit of a double standard.
Which leads us to the next item on the list.
5. Holding the other guy to his record, but pretending your guy’s doesn’t exist.
You’re lividly mad that Marco Rubio once backed an immigration compromise with Democrats. At about that same time, Donald Trump was criticizing Republicans for being too “mean-spirited” on immigration. But that doesn’t matter, because you’re not even paying attention to it.
Similarly, Ted Cruz once stated that he would support a path to legalization for illegal immigrants as part of an immigration compromise. But when it become necessary to attack other candidates for holding that same view—down it goes into the memory hole.
Look, it’s nice to be pandered to. It’s nice when a politician comes out and full-throatedly endorses your position, especially if your position is one that nobody ever panders to. So even if it’s probably insincere, the attention can be intoxicating (which is my ultimate theory about the source of Donald Trump’s appeal). And maybe that’s better than not being pandered to at all, since there’s at least some chance your candidate will feel pressure to follow through on his big promises.
But you might as well go into that calculation with open eyes. And when you spend months insisting to other people that your candidate really means what he says while ignoring his actual record and picking over every minor deviation in their guy’s record, let’s just say that it’s a good way to lose friends and alienate people.
6. Calling the other guy by the worst possible epithet for his position.
Well, maybe not the worst possible epithet. I mean, if you’re the type who goes around calling everyone who disagrees with you a “cuck,” then you’ve got bigger problems.
What I’m talking about are the various disparaging ways we use to describe what are actually minor variations on very similar policies. So if you back Marco Rubio, then Ted Cruz is an “isolationist” on foreign policy. If you back Cruz, then Rubio is a “neocon,” or as Cruz recently put it, a “Wilsonian progressive.” The problem with this is that it reduces real and serious debates to political sloganeering. The Syrian civil war, for example, is a legitimately tough case. You can ignore it completely, in which case you’re likely to vote for one of the Democrats (or Rand Paul). But if you see yourself as a foreign policy “hawk,” you have a real dilemma. On the one hand, you don’t want us to get mired in a civil war where there may not be any good guys to support. On the other hand, if we don’t get involved, then ISIS keeps growing, refugees flood into Europe, and Vladimir Putin treats the Middle East as his playground. The downsides of intervention don’t go away if you call Cruz’s people “isolationist,” and the downsides of neutrality don’t go away if you call Rubio a “neocon.”
There’s a real debate to be had on the issues, and if you and your candidate win the debate on its merits, it’s going to be easier for everyone to live with the result.
7. Telling us we have to “understand” your candidate, but not trying to understand ours.
Yes, we know, your candidate’s appeal is born out of frustration at that ubiquitous “establishment,” or at being sold out by congressional leaders on immigration or the budget or whatever it is that pushed you over the edge. And we’re actually more sympathetic to that than you might think. But we might have our own reasons for being wary of your candidate, or for thinking our guy is strongest on the issues that are most important. So this has to be a two-way street. We’ll try to understand where your candidate is coming from, if you try to understand ours.
But you can see how all of these things are connected: it’s really hard to understand the other guy’s candidate when you refuse to recognize your candidate’s flaws and dismiss any critics as tools of “the establishment.”
We’re going to need to get through the primaries into the general election without strangling each other, so it would be nice to stop doing some of these things that set off each others’ nerves. Because the very last annoying thing you’re going to do in these primaries is that if your guy wins, you’re going to call for “unity”—from the very people you’ve been insulted or denouncing for the past six months. You might want to build a better foundation for that unity.
If you want an even shorter way to remember all of this, there’s a graphic that has been going around on the Internet that pretty much sums up my attitude toward the election. Keep this in the forefront of your mind when you start to argue with your friends about the primaries.