This column ran in Dome Magazine.
What is it about primaries that drive people crazy?
Sure, there’s the theory that “politics makes us stupid,” as Vox’s Ezra Klein put it -- i.e. the more information partisans receive on an issue, the more that ends up reinforcing their previous position.
But I would suggest that presidential primaries are the death of humor. If you don’t believe me, you may have made the wise choice to stay off social media for the last 18 months.
There’s always going to be that one “friend” who responds to any post -- photos of your kids, the death of a relative -- with a monologue about their favored candidate, typically ending with #FeeltheBern or #MakeAmericaGreatAgain.
You should probably unfriend that person immediately.
But I’ve seen plenty of people clawing at their longtime friends, who they thought they agreed with politically on just about everything (and no, this doesn’t just happen on Facebook). Now that they back a different candidate in the primary, however, all bets are off.
Sometimes it dissolves into name-calling (“You’re a liberal squish for supporting John Kasich”). Sometimes there are loud demands not to post certain stories or comments, as some people apparently need safe spaces on Twitter. (Here’s a novel suggestion: Don’t read things you don’t want to or follow people who offend your sensibilities).
I’d like to think friendships haven’t ended over primary politics. But I’m sure it’s just too much for some folks to discover that their allegedly liberal former Greenpeace co-worker now backs Hillary Clinton.
Squabbling becomes more personal and humorless because primaries are internecine affairs. When it comes to general elections, you expect not to agree with your friends who swim in the other side of the political spectrum. You’ve made the enlightened choice to associate with people who have different ideas than you (probably well beyond politics). So you have a tacit agreement to “agree to disagree” or you delight in the thrust and parry of political discourse.
In primaries, candidates typically aren’t that far apart on the ideological spectrum, so voters’ preferences are usually due to style and personality. Even when people argue about issues, I believe it’s largely a proxy for personal preference.
Take establishment Republicans who inveigh against Ted Cruz for being too far right on abortion. In reality, his position isn’t terribly different from “moderate” John Kasich, who just signed a bill defunding Planned Parenthood in Ohio. It’s more about Cruz’s sanctimonious style that’s off-putting to many mainline Republicans (and they worry it will kill him in the general election).
Or take Clinton supporters who eviscerate Bernie Sanders for his more conservative voting record on guns. It’s not that the issue is unimportant to Clintonistas, but let’s be honest. Most of them weren’t on board with Bernie to begin with, so discovering his pro-gun bent just becomes a more tangible way to express that.
And then there’s Donald Trump, who’s defied all political science theories and conventional wisdom. But once again, many of his supporters really aren’t issue-driven. They like his anger and that he’s not “politically correct.” Sure, some on Team Trump love his better-known policies, like building a wall and making Mexico pay for it. But ask them what Trump’s tax policy is. Most will probably stare blankly back at you.
The bottom line is in primaries, your candidate becomes your avatar to people –– you assume their best and worst qualities (real, stereotyped and imagined). Here’s my thumbnail guide to the candidates who made it the longest this year:
Hillary Clinton: Untrustworthy; mouthy; unfeminine; unprincipled; closet Republican; Wall Street lackey.
Bernie Sanders: Communist; shouty; naïve; inflexible; lefty; outside the mainstream.
Marco Rubio: Republican Obama; inexperienced; fresh face; arrogant; all hat, no cattle.
John Kasich: Reasonable; stubborn; straight-talker; career politician; Republican establishment’s last hope.
Ted Cruz: Holier-than-thou; conservative; unlikeable; principled; man of faith; heir to the John Birch Society.
Donald Trump: Rage-a-holic; racist; instigator; irrational; tells it like it is; ringmaster.
Not everyone gives into the insanity, but anyone who’s plugged into politics has probably at least thought some of this, even if you had the sense not to say (or post) anything.
We tend to view politics as clashes of absolutes, of good vs. evil. When it comes to primaries, you’re usually pitted against your ideological brethren and bitterness begins to creep in.
As with anything, it usually helps to take a breath and a step back. And maybe remember that it’s OK to laugh about things –– even politics.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.