An Obituary for Optimism

Sanders

For a brief moment, I was optimistic about America’s political future. As a politically disengaged British teenager, this was disconcerting.

Thankfully, it was also temporary.

Optimism from a post-millennial? Yes, I’m a Sanders supporter. If you’re of a certain political view, you’ll tell me the dream is over, there was never a chance in the first place, and the world isn’t built on fantasy, because all Sanders supporters are naïve fantasists who don’t understand reality.

Tomorrow, the final few states vote in the Democratic Presidential Primary. No one can deny it would take a miracle to usurp Clinton as the nominee, so I won’t do that.

Instead, I’ll try to understand how any of this happened.

Whisper of a Dream

The night January became February, I had a dream.

I’d forgotten to turn the radio off, filling my lapses in sleep with a hazy recollection of music and speech. I knew the Iowa Caucus was taking place across the Atlantic, having spent the previous day reading poll numbers and believing in a Sanders victory.

In my dream, the radio was reporting the Iowa results. They weren’t as I’d wished– my subconscious concocted a 70-30 Clinton blowout at the first hurdle and an immediate end to the Sanders campaign.

When the small hours of the morning arrived, in a dreary uncertainty I still believed the result was real. Once the radio broadcast the actual outcome I realised my delusion. Media outlets would report the Iowa Caucus as too close to call, the final result on Clinton’s side of the knife edge.

A snippet of Sanders’ post-Iowa speech drifted from the radio. The presidential hopeful declared that, from starting as fringe candidate nobody believed could get anywhere, he was now locked in ‘a virtual tie’ with someone everyone assumed would waltz effortlessly to the nomination. A deafening round of applause followed the gruff voice. His words and the reaction tumbled around in my head.

There was something monumental there, I knew it. I believed the world was about to change.

My political engagement has rarely progressed beyond grumbling about UKIP. Politics was nothing but out-of-touch aristocrats arguing about trivialities, a game of choosing who you’d rather screw over.

Yet there I was, captivated by the ramblings of a slightly bald man with a weird accent half a world away.

How had a politician – an American politician – managed to create such an emotional reaction?

My first encounters with the democratic socialist were on Reddit. He was an ambient background presence at first, buzzing in the corner of my vision as the site’s obsession started to take hold. I remember the thread announcing his contention in late April, but I paid no attention. Another insipid politician who’ll never go anywhere, I thought. I hadn’t bothered to find out what he truly stood for.

By the time I visited California in August my opinion must have been swayed by the growing tide of Sanders support, since I remember watching American news channels reporting on the nearing election and wondering where the Sanders coverage was. Even then, even as an uninformed foreigner, I was instinctively aware of the media blackout.

In the coming months I found myself ensnared by the surge. Here was a genuine man seeking the presidency to make a change. No other candidate was anywhere near as inspiring; none could match the positive authenticity of Obama. Not only did America have a proper contender to rival the egotistical campaigns of other, more worrying candidates, but it was someone my views aligned with almost exactly. On the site isideiwith.com, a tool for matching voters with the best candidate to suit their views, I matched 97% with Sanders.

When the primary season started I was hot on the buzzer. Iowa was close, but New Hampshire was a decisive victory. Nevada a slight step backwards, South Carolina a bigger one, but nothing yet to stand in the way of the campaign.

Some of my friends, also in the distant backwater of the UK, were supporters too, more and less fanatical simultaneously. I was soaking in every poll, anticipating every primary, gaining such a foothold on the election process that for the first time in my life I could actually name and place every US state.

I thought my friends were the same if not more so – they seemed to believe a Sanders victory was inevitable if not already a reality. Yet their knowledge of the primaries was so shallow they didn’t even know who Kasich was (but then again…who does?). Not the most reliable election pundits.

So, everything was going swimmingly. That’s what I’d fooled myself into thinking.

The Imprecise Science

Super Tuesday, the largest day of the primary calendar, started the unravelling. Despite an overwhelming victory in Vermont and multiple successes elsewhere, the Sanders campaign lost 200 delegates’ ground in a day.

By this time I was subscribed to SandersForPresident to keep up with the news. This loss, combined with the Clinton sweep on the second, smaller Super Tuesday in mid-March, sent the community into a frenzy. Everybody was to blame, phonebanking wasn’t effective then phonebanking was effective, anybody who didn’t agree with the narrative was a Clinton supporter in disguise.

Somewhere in the drama, one miracle did occur – Sanders won Michigan.

In what some claimed was the biggest political upset in years, he eked out a narrow victory when polling averages the previous day predicted a 30-point demolition.

I remember the disbelief as I saw the results, again in early morning UK time. They’d done it – the Sanders movement had defied all expectations and found itself instilled with faith once more.

To my knowledge, only one person correctly predicted this shocking reversal – Tyler Pedigo. Not a powerful pollster, nor a proven statistical analysist, just a college student developing an election model in his spare time (using the same WordPress theme as me).

Pedigo’s exact method is still under wraps, but it involves the nominees’ Facebook statistics and recent search interest in each state with greater weighting than actual polls. Michigan’s error has since been attributed to polling only landline phones, but Pedigo’s model ignored this.

SandersForPresident declared him a genius. Cynics were unconvinced. Since Michigan his predictions have been mixed, but each result adds data to help correct the model for future primaries, making them gradually more accurate. Unlike the larger polling centres, he’s never claimed accuracy, only a novel model which may or may be effective for primary predictions.

As Pedigo has stressed, political forecasting is an imprecise science. Statistical models of human behaviour can be surprisingly accurate, but each is susceptible to huge variances and external factors. Predictions don’t happen in a vacuum either – polls may encourage or dissuade supporters when it comes to actually voting.

The primary season continued. Sanders and Clinton traded blows, their battles overshadowed in the public’s attention by the more controversial race on the Republican side. It took three blowout Sanders victories in one day with no concurrent Republican contests (Alaska, Hawaii and Washington) to thrust his successes to the top of even the BBC.

New York came soon after. This was it, the hinge of the entire campaign. Clinton’s adopted home state, difficult demographics and a closed primary, but also Sanders’ actual home state and the potential for a game-changing upset. If he could win New York, he’d surely win the White House. Phone bankers went on full attack, making millions of calls over one weekend.

As it turned out, all in vain. New York went 58-42 to Clinton.

Pedigo predicted this result to within 1.8 percentage points. Posted to SandersForPresident before the state voted, the reaction was…frustrating. Suddenly Facebook likes were a stupid measure of support, his process was deluded, and his previous results were all whack. ‘His models are busted’, ‘He seems to put too much stock in the fact the primary is closed, as well as demographics’.

Nobody cared to look back, but all of Pedigo’s SandersForPresident critics had egg on their faces that day. Optimism had become blind and abrasive and I hadn’t even noticed.

Cynicism Strikes Back

New York was the beginning of the end. The combined effort had meant nothing. Motivation disappeared. States since have gone either way, but not by margins needed to save the Sanders campaign, no matter how badly I or anyone else wish for a different outcome.

Ever so subtly, Reddit shifted its opinion.

No longer is he the saviour of America. Now he’s a crazy old man whose continued presence in the race will lead to a Trump presidency, and his supporters are childish fanatics who don’t know when to give up.

Or was it the case it all along and I’d simply ignored it? The concept of an echo chamber comes up a lot in Reddit discussions on the topic, the idea that his supporters will cocoon themselves within a single community where, through positive reinforcement and lack of opposing beliefs, they’ll become convinced of his success despite reality.

Hearts have become bitter and hardened in response to the entire presidential election, and we’re nowhere near November yet. Anger, cynicism and misinformation rule the show.

After seeing months of “Sanders spam”, some are parodying it, becoming greater spammers than Sanders supporters could ever dream.

On the whole, there’s a whole lot of hate against everybody. Clinton’s apparently a lying corporate tool, Trump is a racist, egotistical maniac, and Sanders lives in cloud-cuckoo land where everybody gets free stuff. None of these are entirely accurate representations.

I wanted to see when the world had been a simpler place, before all the strawmen, misjudgement and divisions.

As per its usual brilliance, the internet provides a way to do so: The Wayback Machine. The earliest snapshot of SandersForPresident hails from December 2013, long before anyone knew who was running for the presidency on any side.

Sanders was a nobody to all outside of Vermont. The subreddit was merely a space to discuss a potential fringe candidate. There were calls for him to declare his candidacy, but everything was speculation. No shouting, no paid trolls, no hyperbolic twisting of the facts, no cries for Clinton’s arrest.

It’s refreshing to see the inception of the movement, the untainted beginnings of an honest political campaign. Something pure, something exciting, before the mistakes and compromises.

It’s refreshing until you notice the critics calling Sanders a hypocrite and questioning the need for another old white male president. Nothing changes then.

A Question of Faith

With the revelation that Sanders’ chances are low, the ‘Bernie or Bust’ movement has come under fire, a group devoted to supporting nobody but him. Some claim it jeopardises Clinton’s chance in the general election, making a Trump presidency more likely. It’s even common to see Sanders supporters preferring Trump to Clinton with the view that America will be in sore need of a progressive after the presumably disastrous rule of the whacky wigged windbag. In my opinion, even a moderate Democrat would seem like Gandhi in comparison.

Returning to isidewith.com, I was surprised to find a 92% match with Clinton’s policies. Trump was unsurprisingly low at 20%. From a pragmatic perspective, supporting Trump over Clinton is therefore ridiculous.

Ah, but Clinton is a notorious flip-flopper beholden to corporate interests, they’ll say. Is Trump not then? Is he suddenly in the moral clear? Do his constant opinion shifts mean nothing?

Most of the followers of ‘Bernie or Bust’ defend themselves by saying the DNC is rigged and/or arrogant in its expectation for Sanders supporters to fall in line and switch to Clinton. It absolutely is arrogant to expect half of Democratic voters to switch to the candidate they were, in some cases, voting to hinder. But is it rigged?

I don’t know. My heart says yes, but it’s been listening exclusively to the opinions circulated by Sanders supporters. Have they become the voters who cried fraud, intent on taking a perceived moral high ground at every opportunity? Are they so enamoured with their own opinions that the facts no longer matter?

In the end, that’s all this race has been. Political campaigns are opinion machines, immaculately constructed to spin the stories they want people to hear, using fear and exposure to achieve their goals. The talking point at home is the upcoming EU referendum. Nobody actually has any clue what’s happening. It’s a complicated and unpredictable situation, so rather than explain it, each sides reverts to scare-mongering crafted for the demographics they wish to pander to.

Trump’s played the exposure game perfectly. He defied expectations to become the presumptive Republican nominee, yet few know what stances he takes beyond arguable racism. He’s the only candidate my parents talk about purely because he’s so shocking. Sanders to them is unfit to be president for no other reason than his age, the picture painted by the media.

It boggles my mind that news corporations haven’t latched onto the Sanders story. A fringe candidate from a poor background and a life of political activism has taken on the Clinton machine and maintained his ground, with the potential to be the ideological anti-Trump. Surely that’s a brilliant story to win hearts and minds? Media bias seems a plausible explanation.

Can Sanders still win? Theoretically, yes.

Theoretically, a meteor could strike the planet right now and decimate you, this damn election and everything else anyone holds dear. Anything is possible, but probabilities and statistics are indeed imprecise sciences.

Either way, we’ll all find out soon enough.

For those wondering, Pedigo’s predictions don’t herald an amazing comeback. Even California, for so long the darling of the Sanders movement’s long plan, could fall either way. It seems the only possibility for a miracle is Clinton’s indictment, itself spun wildly out of proportion. Her campaign isn’t collapsing just because a few internet activists say it is.

So here I am, back where I started with no faith in politics.

I haven’t lost faith in Bernie Sanders. The man has remained decent and composed throughout the mudslinging. His ideas still resonate with me. In my opinion, it’s a shame America lost its chance to elect an honest candidate due to deceit and manipulation.

It’s nice to know there are some out there who will do something to change the world for the better. Perhaps in the future fate won’t be so cynical.

Way to go, America. You almost had it.

5 Comments

  1. Wouter Debois

    20 July, 2016 at 3:17 PM

    I now what you’re going through, I too hoped Bernie Sanders would win. However, you make no mention of Jill Stein, the Green Party’s candidate. If you like Sanders, you might want to check her out.

    • Oliveriver

      20 July, 2016 at 4:39 PM

      I have looked into her and agree she’s the best remaining candidate (94% match on isidewith), but being realistic, there’s even less chance of her winning than Sanders, even with two unpopular headline nominees.

      • isidewith is incompetent. I despise Stein but got 81% agreement with her anyway. One of the problems is that it requires diktats; there’s no option for “this is something I want but I realize there is no way in hell I’m getting it.” This is something the left in general doesn’t seem to understand, so maybe that explains why I got the results I did.

      • Also, it says I agree with Gary Johnson on foreign policy. Despite being as far from libertarian as it is possible to be on the subject without being an outright imperialist.

        • Oliveriver

          17 September, 2016 at 7:05 PM

          Yes, you did have to wait for me to approve the comments. Sorry about that. And I’ve heard from other sources that isidewith isn’t the best, but I think most of the points made in the article stand without it (i.e. I agree with Clinton far more than Trump).

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