Susan Sarandon-gate Is a Distraction From an Exciting Primary Race


Susan Sarandon broadcast her decision to die on the hill of Bernie Sanders’ campaign during a televised interview with Chris Hayes earlier this week, and started a free-for-all of celebrity election opinion-proffering from which the internet is still reeling. The actress and activist shocked viewers with the implication that, should her candidate lose in the primary, she would rather let Trump win in the general — thereby ushering in “the revolution” — than cast a vote for Hillary Clinton. By the next morning, she had become the most visible avatar of the “Bernie or Bust” or “Let It Bern” contingent.

Soon thereafter came a torrent of invective from celebrities who disagree with Sarandon. On Twitter, Jamie Lee Curtis and Debra Messing went after her, for instance:

And the following night, Hayes hosted occasionally politically radical playwright Tony Kushner, who it turns out is an avid Clinton supporter. Kushner made the case both for his candidate and for a general election strategy that focuses on party unity, national unity, and pragmatism.

As many people noted, the position Sarandon and whatever small coterie of diehards share her outlook are in appears to be one of both privilege and disconnection. Anyone who needs accessible reproductive healthcare, social services like welfare or Medicaid, those who might be deployed overseas, and those who desire a life free from officially sanctioned racial harassment or violence can’t afford, literally and figuratively, to live under a Trump administration, despite any revolution-spurring potential his presidency might possess. So certainly some of the anger at Sarandon is earned.

I happened to be watching the interview live, and I voiced my displeasure right away, despite my own strong tendency towards feeling the Bern. Why? My political teeth were cut on the 2000 election. I recall the assurances from Ralph Nader supporters (like Sarandon) that Bush and his opponent Al Gore were practically the same, and that in a scenario where Nader voters gave the former the victory, a Bush administration would be so disastrous it would bring about that fabled revolution, creating so much misery and tension that the people would rise up and create space for true democracy.

And indeed, those Naderites were partly right. During the Bush years, beginning with his inauguration, Americans initiated a record level of protest. The threat of the Iraq War inspired the biggest day of protests in worldwide history; repeatedly during W’s eight-year term, hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets, declaring his presidency illegitimate and protesting his policies. And yet he stayed comfortably in power, moving the center to the right, expanding executive authority, plummeting our country into financial ruin and two wars whose consequences we’re still feeling.

I think it’s mostly the ghost of the Bush administration, as well as older ones (the schisms on the Left in 1968 and ’72 that preceded two Nixon victories, in particular) that have turned Sarandon’s rather naive statement into a somewhat hysterical meme — as well as our current propensity to view all our great social debates through the lens of ill-advised celebrity utterances. It’s understandable. And in our age of celebrity fixation, of television clips viewed ’round the world, what better focus for anger about lefty self-sabotage than a slightly dippy-seeming famous actress, and a white one who can’t “check her privilege”?

But should this really be the debate that dominates the last few weeks of primary season?

Because even as even Sarandon’s most vociferous critics have acknowledged, it’s hard to imagine vast swaths of the Sanders-voting populace actually doing what Sarandon claims she will do, particularly those who live in swing states. The threat of a Trump presidency is not a joke for these voters, Berniacs though they may be. Like their antecedents, the mythical PUMAs who refused to support Obama after he edged out Clinton for a primary win, the “let the world Bern” contingent is a small but vocal group that receives undue attention.

These diehards become a focus for general anxieties over a clash between “purist” voting and pragmatic voting. And yet the best thing about the Clinton vs. Sanders race is that it has brought that far more interesting debate to the fore. It’s good and healthy to argue over the virtues of idealism vs. pragmatism; to ask whether it’s best to focus on social programs over identity politics, or vice versa; to talk about what motivates young voters thinking about their future. The great advantage of the Sanders campaign is that it has encouraged people on all sides of these questions to articulate their values and vision.

It’s the other party that’s sliding into racism and just generally imploding. Yet liberals remain terrified. Whether it’s a Naderite, a PUMA, an Occupy activist, or, now, a Bernie-bot, the specter of the voter who’s “on our side” but won’t fall in line understandably, if disproportionately, haunts liberals. Yet Sarandon-gate shouldn’t distract us from the invigorating aspects of this campaign.