The Guilt and Pain of a Sanders Supporter

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Our reader note from Megan was a moving mea culpa over her feelings of responsibility over Hillary Clinton’s loss and the guilt that supporters like her could have done more—more outspoken, at the very least. This next reader, Josh, has similar feelings as Megan’s but from the perspective of someone who wanted Bernie Sanders to clinch the nomination against Trump:

I do relate to Megan, and I am afraid I am worse. I’m a Bernie supporter, and I believe he would have beaten Trump in the general election, and I hope he runs again in 2020.

That is not to say I was ever against Hillary. In fact, I believe she has gotten a really raw deal, and I often wonder if the list of “scandals” the right point to would matter if she were male. It feels unfair, and the microscope has always been on her. I really couldn’t care less about the e-mails, and given all she has been through she has certainly proven her strength and earned her experience.

Regardless, I do think Sanders aligns more closely with my millennial ideals, and given the movement that has been started (and the voting pattern of 18-25 year olds), I am hopeful that my generation will succeed in accomplishing policies that work for all Americans and all people.

That being said, I feel Megan’s guilt. When Bernie lost the primary, I did fall in line with Hillary, and I was encouraged by her adoption of some of his policy ideas. But I did not donate as I did for Sanders. I did not get a yard sign, bumper sticker, or button. I did not attend a rally; I did not retweet her posts; I did not volunteer or get vocal; but I did all those things for Sanders.

That isn’t to say I kept my position private; I made it very clear that I opposed our hypocritical, horrible new president-elect. (I just vomited a little.) I made my support for Hillary clear to anyone who asked—but also with the now almost automatic caveat “I know she’s not perfect.” Why did I not follow that up with “but if there’s a spectrum from perfect to putrid, then Hillary is much closer to perfect than Trump.”

Like Megan, I noticed that nearly every news outlet this election season used similar caveats. What scale was she being measured on and why wasn’t an equal comparison to Trump made on the same scale? Maybe I missed it; there sure was a lot of information to get through this season.

So in short, I am guilty of not vocally supporting a candidate I liked and I am guilty of having too much faith in our system, polling, and people. I will not make this mistake again, I will not be an armchair liberal. Now that I have confessed my complicity, I hope to be part of the movement towards change.

A reader with much less enthusiasm at this point is Tonia:

I feel exactly the same as Megan, even though I voted for Bernie in the primary—mainly because I was already hearing such negative things about Clinton. I was concerned she’d never be “likable” enough. Once she clinched the nomination, I knew I’d vote for her—no problem. But I didn’t put a sign in the yard, or a sticker on my car. When the nice librarian asked me if I wanted to volunteer for the campaign, I smiled but said no.

I partly blame my lack of engagement on my job. As a hairstylist, you are taught from school to never discuss religion or politics. A lot of my clients know I have a gay best friend, that my daughter has a wide and diverse group of classmates that I invite to our home. But I’ve never talked about how Trump scared me, how I’m concerned about her trans friend and her safety. About how I take a certain black young man home after football games because even though he’s close enough to walk, I’m afraid for him to be out at night and alone.

I will recommit to the local causes that are important to me, but I don’t know that I will ever engage in national politics again.

This next reader, Sue, wasn’t a Sanders supporter, but she stayed quiet about her support for Clinton during the primaries. Sue’s note attests to the enthusiasm gap between the two candidates—public enthusiasm, at least:

You asked whether I could relate to Megan’s note and I burst into tears.  Among the many disjointed thoughts that I have had since this election, the one that haunts me the most is “I could have done more. We all could have done more.”

For instance, what did I do when Hillary decided to run for president and the excitement for Bernie flooded my Facebook feed, and showed up on innumerable bumper stickers and window signs? I joined a *secret* Hillary group. Instead of proudly displaying my own enthusiasm for her, I was silent in public and only gushed in private about how much I love her, with people who also loved her.

It wasn’t until it became clear that she would win the primary that I came public with my support, and even then, I didn’t post the daily memes the Bernie folks did, I didn’t buy a sign or a t-shirt. I stayed relatively silent. I think this may be true for many supporters, which of course fed into the “unlikeable” narrative.

And meanwhile, Hillary pushed through the most awful, degrading campaign in our history. Even during this campaign, I didn’t display my support publicly because I didn’t want to engage with the hatred of those who didn’t support her. How cowardly it now seems that I couldn’t wear a button in public while this woman was forced to share the stage with a sexual predator, be called a crook and a liar, and have her life and freedom threatened by his supporters.

If only I did more. If only I showed the same genuine public enthusiasm as the Bernie supporters did from the beginning. If only I had a fraction of her courage in this fight. If only we all did.

Here’s one more reader, David, who like Sue wasn’t a Sanders supporter and attests to the enthusiasm gap—within his own marriage:

Yes, absolutely, Megan’s piece resonates with me. I backed Hillary from the start of her campaign in 2016, just as I had in 2008. The overall reluctance to support her affected me too.

My wife objected to the HRC sticker the campaign sent to our house. I put it on my car bumper for several weeks anyway, acutely aware that as a man it was much less likely I would face a nasty remark about it. I was a bit thankful the sticker was rather small and not easy to see. I drive on Southern California freeways for two hours every weekday and I don’t think I saw another Hillary sticker the entire time. Plenty of people displayed Bernie stickers with no self-consciousness whatsoever.

I donated several times to the campaign, prompting arguments with my wife and ultimately exceeding the dollar limit we had agreed upon. My wife said she would “hold her nose and vote” and questioned my commitment to honesty. I wanted to do more and thought about phone banking, but I couldn’t get up the nerve to try it—again, fearing a nasty remark from someone.  

Do I feel guilty? Yes, some. In the end I only risked the displeasure of my wife and motorists on the freeway. I did what was easy, believing that my fellow citizens would reject Trump the way they rejected Sarah Palin.

I want to say to Megan: It is not your fault. You did what you could. Thinking about you writing that note still brings hot wet tears to my face.