Bernie Sanders, The Lincoln Project, & The Fable of the Frog

Back when it looked like Bernie Sanders might win the Democratic primary, some conservatives where happy about this, thinking he would be an easier opponent for Trump to defeat. Let’s call this the Bernie-hopeful mindset. At the same time, a lot of conservatives condemned such attitudes as immoral. The idea was that there was a chance that Sanders could win and it would be immoral for a conservative to be glad about a scenario, let alone try to bring it about, that might ultimately result in a Sanders presidency. It’s better to have a Biden presidency than a Sanders presidency. Sanders or Biden might beat Trump and we should want the least bad candidate. Therefore, we should hope for a Biden v. Trump matchup instead of a Sanders v. Trump matchup.

At the time, I was unsure of this moral reasoning. Suppose that Biden is merely a more gradual path to the same end as Sanders. There’s a case to be made that if that’s the wrong end to arrive at, then the quicker we get there the better. That might sound obviously wrong, but the idea is that a gradual path towards that end leaves a lot of room for people to be unsure exactly why things aren’t working out, to acclimate to worse conditions, and to find scapegoats for a failed economy or failed culture. If we get there quickly and see a sudden shift in economic success and cultural health, it’s more obvious where the wrong turn was made, there’s a stronger memory of when things were better, and there’s less time to find a scapegoat. When I was young my grandmother told me a fable about a frog sitting in a pot of water with the heat being slowly turned up. Because the heat is turned up slowly, the frog acclimates to the temperature increase and sits complacent until it’s too late. It is this sort of phenomena I have in mind.

There are some obvious parallels with The Lincoln project. The logic of The Lincoln project seems to be that if we suffer the consequences of loss more immediately, we can then more quickly rebuild conservativism or the Republican party. But notice that this undercuts one of the moral objections to the Bernie-hopeful mindset. If you support the Lincoln project then you can’t have principled or strategic objections to the Bernie-hopeful mindset on the basis that if Bernie wins it will be more of a disaster than Biden. One could still have consistently opposed the conservatives rooting for Bernie on the basis that they believed Bernie is less likely to win than Biden or they could have opposed the premise that Bernie would be an easy opponent for Trump. (This raises a somewhat related question though: how committed is the Lincoln project to this strategy? Would the Lincoln project still exist if Bernie Sanders had won the Democratic primary? Or, rather, would the Lincoln project have endorsed Bernie?)

On the other hand, those conservatives who believed that we should hope for a Biden v. Trump matchup on the basis that Biden wouldn’t be as bad as Bernie should also be hoping for a Trump victory in the general election if they believe that Trump won’t be as bad as Biden! Of course, a lot of NeverTrumpers have floated arguments that Trump being president for four more years will be worse for conservatives generally and the Republican party specifically in the long term than if he loses. But then this moves back in the direction of The Lincoln Project logic.

My intention isn’t to suggest that those who objected to a Bernie-hopeful mindset should all vote for Trump or that those who support The Lincoln Project should have supported Bernie had he been the candidate. Hoping for a Trump victory or a Biden victory doesn’t necessarily entail that one should vote for that same candidate (cf. the distinction in bioethics between “letting die” and “killing”). My intention is to point out that these various factions have a lot more in common than they present themselves as having when it comes to pragmatic concerns. Each faction likes to present itself as taking the principled stance over the crude consequentialism of the other faction. More specifically, I think some within the NeverTrump faction are hypocritical in their sympathy with the “consequentialism” of The Lincoln Project and their outrage at the “consequentialism” of the Trump voters.

Throwing half-baked ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks.