Bad Conflict, Good Conflict: The Fifth Democratic Presidential Debate

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Andrew Pulrang

Have you ever been involved in an argument … among friends, with coworkers, maybe in a meeting … and realized you could actually hear and see the moment that a productive exchange of ideas turned personal?

Have you ever heard someone defend themselves or their ideas by reminding everyone of how hard they’ve worked in the past and how dedicated they are to the cause?

Have you ever noticed that disagreements between allies are often more heated than arguments between rivals?

Watching Thursday night’s debate between the last two Democratic Presidential candidates standing, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, reminded me of arguments I’ve been involved with in real life.

Getting Personal

The first thing I noticed was that Clinton and Sanders got personal in this debate, a lot more personal than they have so far, though not nearly as personal as the Republicans have been with each other in just about all of their debates.

To be fair, although both Clinton and Sanders assaulted each others’ character, most of the personal attacks came from Sanders, aimed at Clinton. This, despite the fact that Clinton is the one who is supposed to be a down and dirty street fighter, while Sanders is portrayed as honorable and above the fray, maybe a bit too pure. And I don’t think Sanders intended to get personal. The problem is that Sanders doesn’t separate policy and political philosophy from moral character. For him, bad policy is immoral, and immorality … not sexual, but rather financial and ethical … makes bad policy. So he can’t really attack Clinton’s policies without seeming to attack her, personally.

Clinton, on the other hand, sees morality almost exclusively in outcomes. So right off the bat, she wins because Sanders can’t boast as many accomplishments as Clinton. Her achievements may sometimes seem small and incremental compared to Sanders’ bold visions, but she’s helped people materially, not just inspired them. It’s a potentially harsh critique, but it’s not inherently personal. Even when she was at her most combative, Clinton never seemed to suggest that Sanders was a bad or morally compromised person.

The Hard Work and Commitment Defense

Clinton managed to handle a lot of hits, but she really seemed to take offense at being called part of ‘the establishment,” to suggestions she’s not a pioneer, not a trailblazer, and not up to date on what being a “progressive” means today. In fact, Clinton often refers back to her years of service and commitment to broadly liberal and humanitarian goals, especially when her progressivism is questioned. There’s an implicit “How dare you? After all I’ve done, all I’ve suffered!” in these replies.

It’s tough for people who devote their lives to “getting things done,” when someone who is philosophically an ally implies that they’re some kind of traitor or, at best, fatally compromised and out of date. It’s tough, but sometimes it’s fair.

Conflict Between Among Allies

Finally, I started to realize that Sanders and Clinton hold each other to such high standards precisely because they are both liberals, both progressives, both on the left side of the political spectrum. Sanders hammers away at Clinton for all of the compromises she’s made in a lifetime of struggle to achieve incremental liberal goals. Clinton disparages Sanders and his supporters for being naive and unwilling to grapple with the gritty details of their grand ideas. In a way, they demand more of each other than they would ever expect from any of the Republican candidates. So ironically, the comparatively small philosophical differences between Clinton and Sanders generate a lot more heat than one might expect.

All of this should be familiar to anyone involved in the disability community.

I have attended scores of meetings of disabled people, who share similar experiences and goals, but snipe at each other anyway for perceived personal faults and shortcomings.

I have heard veterans of the disability rights struggle who take criticism personally and oppose new ideas and strategies because they are new and threaten their self-image.

I have seen how disability activists are sometimes harsher and more demanding of each other than they are of the systems and forces they are all fighting to change. It can be terribly wearing and frustrating.

On the other hand, conflict among allies can be productive, too, as long as it’s the right kind. I don’t like conflict. I avoid it as much as I can, often to a fault. But I also know that there is a difference between good conflict and bad conflict.

Conflict is necessary and valuable when it helps clarify fundamental questions. What do we want to do? What do we have to do to succeed? What, exactly, stands in our way? Bad conflict is when the discussion shifts from goals and methods to “What kind of person are you?”

All of which is further evidence of something I said in my last debate review. In addition to listening for disability issues in Presidential debates, disabled people may bring unique and valuable insights based on disability experience to their understanding of politics.

By the time Thursday’s debate was over, I had heard both kinds of conflict between Clinton and Sanders. On balance, I heard more of the good than the bad.

Stray observations:

In her closing statement, Hillary Clinton mentioned “people with disabilities” when she listed groups of Americans struggling for equality. It was just a mention, not a policy proposal. But mentioning us by name underscores that while all Americans struggle for opportunity and recognition, our struggle is different and distinct, and worth specific attention.

Sanders said that he would not undo current health insurance systems before implementing his proposed single-payer, “Medicaid for all” system. This may be of some comfort to disabled people, who have even more reason than most to fear the chaos of change while at the same time hoping for something might be much better.

Contact: Andrew Pulrang