The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.
Political candidates have a responsibility to disavow the hate or violence their supporters are saying in their name. President Trump has failed more than once to speak out against outright hatred. While he’s been spotlighted many times, no one should be immune to scrutiny, especially as younger people get more involved in politics and use their online platforms to say things they never would otherwise.
Bernie Sanders was recently criticized by Joe Biden for a perceived lack of action in response to his supporters attacking trade union leaders. The Sanders campaign didn’t immediately respond, but at the 10th Democratic debate on Wednesday, Feb. 20, Senator Sanders was asked directly about his thoughts on online attacks by his supporters.
He condemned the attacks and said that the people who commit them are not a part of his campaign’s movement. His words were important and sent a strong and clear message that he cares about what is done and said in his name. While it would have been better to address the situation more quickly rather than waiting for the debate stage, I’m grateful that at least he didn’t just say that those launching attacks online were “fine people” in order to avoid losing their support.
Politicians often go to great lengths to avoid alienating their supporters, which can hinder them from accepting responsibility for their role in political discourse beyond a debate stage. By making a clear statement of “This isn’t okay, I don’t agree with this,” politicians could encourage people to be more responsible with what they’re saying or doing because they’ll know that their candidate of choice will not support hatred.
Following the Feb. 20 debate, many took to Twitter to assert that not all candidates are being held to the same level of responsibility for their supporters’ words and actions. Moreover, people questioned whether politicians should even be held accountable.
The answer is yes. Political discourse is one of the arenas where if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. To be clear, candidates do not need to address every single time someone uses their name or image to perpetuate something negative.
However, politicians are put in a difficult situation when there is a joint effort to breed animosity or more than just a few supporters who are spreading hate. They can either do something to stop it or do nothing and allow the behavior to continue. Political candidates are extremely influential public figures and, whether they mean to or not, play a large role in shaping the everyday behavior of their followers.
If a celebrity going through a breakup can be responsible enough to say “Don’t be hateful” to fans about their former partner, why are we expecting less from people who are meant to lead the nation, especially when it involves serious and influential policies? If politicians turn a blind eye to problems and injustices during their campaign, it’s reasonable to believe they’ll do the same when they’re in office.
Senator Sanders’ response is an example, albeit an imperfect one, of a politician accepting responsibility for their role in shaping the conversation. Hopefully, others continue this practice.