Are Political Leaders Responsible for Supporters’ Behavior?

Trump_protest_Chicago_March_11,_2016A couple of posts ago, beloved co-blogger Russell wrote about his experiences as a delegate at the Maine Democratic Convention. Although this convention had not gotten any national press of which I’m aware, Russell reported seeing Sanders delegates shouting, heckling, cursing, and acting with general uncouthness of the sort much more widely reported in Nevada. (No chair throwing or threatening voicemails to party leaders, though.)

I asked a question in the comments, and I want to open it up for discussion here. Here’s the question: “What responsibility does a political leader have for his supporters’ behavior?”

Here’s my tentative answer for this current election cycle, the reasons for which I’ll lay out briefly below (but I’d love to hear from others). Trump does bear significant responsibility for the violence at his rallies and the anti-Semitic trolling attacks on reporters (among other bad acts carried out by his supporters). Sanders is not responsible for the chair-menacing, etc., that occurred in Nevada and Maine but was seriously remiss in his statement yesterday. Therefore, he may be partly responsible for some behavior from this point forward. He would not, however, bear nearly as much responsibility as Trump. As far as I know, Clinton is not responsible for the bad behavior of her supporters.

Full disclosure: I am a reluctant Hillary supporter. I detest Bill and don’t much like Hillary, in no small part due to how she ran 2008 campaign against Obama. I decided to support Hillary because my preference for political pragmatism won out over my dislike of Hillary as a person. I’ve grown to like her a bit more over the course of the campaign. She’s likable enough. I firmly believe, though,  that if situation were reversed, and Hillary supporters had shouted people down, harassed, made death threats, etc., and had Hillary released Bernie’s statement, I would draw the same conclusion as I have.

First, there are always going to be some people who act out violently in someone else’s name. We’re not going to blame Jodie Foster for John Hinckley’s attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan.

But how about this? I saw someone tweet in defense of Sanders that just recently Wendell Pierce, the actor from The Wire and apparently a far more rabid Hillary supporter than I, assaulted a couple who were Sanders supporters after a political argument. If people are blaming Sanders for his supporters’ behavior, why aren’t they blaming Clinton for Pierce’s behavior, the tweet (which I can no longer find) asked.

There’s one way to look at this, which is that a politician bears no responsibility whatsoever for the actions of her supporters. People are going to do what people are going to do. As long as the supporters are fully autonomous adults, they make their own decisions, they alone are responsible. End of story.

And surely each individual supporter is mostly responsible. Almost entirely. Very largely.

But politicians are running for their offices in virtue of the fact, in part, that they can offer leadership. They are asking to influence our lives and behavior in the aggregate and showing us their skill at doing it. (In the case of libertarians, they are asking to influence our lives by removing regulations and such. Even if a libertarian purports to disdain a cult of personality, they certainly can have influence over our lives.) Supporters of politicians will do things in support of their candidate that they wouldn’t otherwise do. This can be great – a skilled political can influence a generation to, say, public service. Or it can be not so great.

Given that influence politicians can have on our lives, I think they have special obligations in how they use that influence.

Let’s look at Trump first. In speeches, he promotes violence, laughs it off. His slowness to disavow white nationalism has ensured racists’ continued support. Multiple times, he (and his wife) have declined to condemn the anti-Semitic harassment of reporters who cover them. They bear some responsibility, then, for what has been carried out in their name.

By contrast, Sanders never called for violence – it’s been clear that his revolution is meant to be non-violent. As far as I know, he has earned no prominent racist endorsements and then winked at them.

Sanders’s supporters disrupted political events, which I think is bad news but is arguably a legitimate form of protest. The death threats, harassment, and vandalism, are a far clearer no-go. However, it’s not like the supporters were following Sanders’s orders at that point.

Here’s what makes this different from Wendell Pierce. Pierce was acting alone. He’s clearly a one-off situation. In the case of Sanders’ supporters, there were several of them acting the same way, and they were targeting a political opponent. One gets the sense that not only did they feel they were justified, many others felt they were too, and that behaviors like this will continue without some sort of signal from the candidate that this is absolutely unacceptable.

I don’t think Hillary supporters saw Pierce’s actions as justified. I don’t expect that others in growing numbers might follow suit unless Hillary makes clear that it is absolutely unacceptable. If Bernie supporters are more systematically targeted, even in small numbers, then absolutely Hillary gains a responsibility to speak out.

I don’t pretend to know the ins and outs of Nevada politics. Sanders may well have had a legitimate beef. But no matter how big the beef was, it could have been set aside. By not condemning them, he sent a message to his supporters that he thought harassing voicemails and death threats was a legitimate means to political ends.

Since Sanders still has never incited violence or anything similar, he still bears far less responsibility than Trump.

I expected far better of Sanders. I was actually shocked when I read that statement.

Anyhow. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter.

Photo by TheNoxid

Elizabeth Picciuto

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. I agree with two main words here: “Almost entirely.”

    There’s an argument to be had about leader responsibility here, but it’s almost entirely at the margin, except in extreme cases where there is clear incitement. Sanders’ statement left something to be desired, but it was clear in condemning threats and violence. The problem was that it reiterated and affirmed the campaign’s and supporters’ procedural complaints and asserted that the condemnation of some individuals’ wrong actions didn’t invalidate those complaints. That should have been done elsewhere, which was a misstep, but it didn’t negate the condemnation.

    As such, the shortcomings of the statement doesn’t move the responsibility of the campaign for future incidents past the margin.

    Barring further developments, responsibility for actions of individual Sanders supporters will remain almost entirely theirs.

  2. Thanks for commenting! You think so with Trump too?

  3. As you suggested, Trump’s words have been much more dangerous. I’m not sure how much responsibility for supporters’ actions I’d put on him exactly, but more than Sanders, even after the statement. Trump has created an atmosphere of hate and implied violence. Sanders has made clear that he thinks the system he’s trying to operate in is corrupt and rigged. Some people have tried to suggest these both point toward candidate responsibility for violence and threats; I couldn’t see a clearer distinction between them. We can’t write emphatic procedural critique out of our politics because it can get people riled up. Creating an atmosphere of hate and implied permission for violence just is something completely else.

  4. I agree with you, Elizabeth. I think the way I tend to phrase this in my own head, is that politicians bear do responsibility — within certain parameters and to certain degrees.

    Josh Marshall has spent the past couple of days talking about Sanders and recent behavior. His essential point has been that:

    1. Sanders lost the caucus in Nevada (according to the pre-set rules),
    2. Sanders has attempted to get delegates to change their votes (allowed by the pre-setrules),
    3. Sanders has been unsuccessful in this strategy, and so has told his followers that they have been cheated out of winning the Nevada delegates that they have been cheated and Nevada has been stolen from them.

    Josh’s point is that doing this does indeed give Sanders responsibility for things boiling over. I think he’s right in this.

    That being said, there’s still the question of degree. I am sure we will see lots of BSDI with Sanders and Trump in the near future, but that’s absurd. Trump has encouraged people at his rallies to put protesters in the hospital, and offered to pay the legal bills of people should they beat up protesters. Trump therefore bears far more responsibility for the violence that’s happened on his turf than Sanders has on his.

    And of course, to any degree, each only bears responsibility within certain parameters. The guy who cold-cocked the African American protester while he was in cuffs? Whatever degree Trump fanned those places, I hope we do not get to a point where in order to score political points we let *that* guy off the hook in any way because Trump bore some degree of responsibility. That guy chose to cross that line, and he needs to law to treat him thus.

  5. “Violence has no place in our politics. Anyone who thinks they’re somehow supporting or helping me by doing something violent, knock it off. Right now.”

    Is anything less than this statement acceptable from any politician?

    No “buts” or “I understands” or pointing fingers at the other side’s bad behavior.

  6. So, Sanders was not inciting violence. He’s not morally culpable for the violent actions committed by his supporters.

    On the other hand, though Sanders was inciting enmity. He wasn’t responsible for the violence committed by supporters but he was responsible for the anger and outrage that led those supporters to violence. Ultimately, this isn’t a moral failure on Bernie’s part. Instead, it’s a failure of leadership.

  7. I would say the opposite: That voters are responsible for politicians’ behavior. It’s voters who choose who gets elevated to these positions. If successful politicians tend to act in certain ways, it’s because voters choose to reward that kind of behavior with votes. I don’t think politicians’ rhetoric influences their supporters nearly as much as the supporters influence the politicians’ rhetoric. Trump and Sanders are symptoms, not causes.

  8. Perhaps because I haven’t been paying attention, there’s a lot I don’t/didn’t know about violence and the Bernie campaign and about Nevada that most people here seem to have kept tabs on. But it’s not clear to me how much violence was engaged in in Nevada and how much was “merely” threatened for the future.

    So given my ignorance, as I unpack Sanders’s statement (here: ), I come up with two thoughts:

    First, and contrary to one of @tod-kelly ‘s points above about “preset rules,” Sanders at least alleges short dealing. Sanders claims that there was a voice vote in spite of a (according to him) a strong sensibility to have a head count. Sanders also alleges certain amendments were refused to be heard even though they allegedly were “properly submitted.” I don’t know enough about the rules of order, but even if these actions (assuming they happened as Sanders said they did) comply with the rules, they seem like dirty pool. Not unexpected dirty pool (this is a major party acting to nominate someone to the highest office in the land…you have to expect such things). But assuming they’re true, they’re legitimate things to complain of.

    Second, I agree with @mo and @burt-likko above. The “violence is wrong, but….” is not the way to condemn violence. It violates Jim Henley’s Rule of Buts.

    To answer Rose’s main point (by the way, do you prefer Elizabeth or Rose?….I “know” you as Rose, but I’ll abide by whichever you prefer), Sanders probably bears some responsibility going forward because he has not condemned violence heartily enough. But with Tod, I do think it’s a question of degree.

  9. As other’s have said, except for direct incitement, none, absolutely 100% no responsibility. You’re taking agency from those individuals who do the violence, and they do, and should, own it all. It’s on them.

  10. I think Sanders should have condemned, in the clearest terms, the harassment and threatening of Lange, and stated unequivocally that such behavior has no place in his campaign or movement. That he did not is to his great discredit.

    That said, I have absolutely no problem with protesting (including being rather unpleasant, but not violent) at the convention, and I’d have thought worse of Sanders (whom I already don’t like, it should be noted) if he had condemned that behavior.

  11. I don’t pretend to know the background of all of this, but I’ve seen a number of claims that there was exactly one arrest for assault at the Nevada caucuses, and it was a Clinton supporter who assaulted a Sanders supporter.

    So, indeed, why is all the noise about demanding that Sanders distance himself from his supporters’ alleged violence, if the only violence that’s strongly enough alleged to go with criminal charges was the other way around?

  12. I enjoyed the post, though I struggle with assigning ‘responsibility’ to politicians for their supporter’s behavior – at least for any individual action.
    However, when it comes to executive offices – I think there has to be some electoral accountability for them. After all, the Presidency or a governership is largely about what kind of administration you will build and lead.
    Especially for the Presidency – there really isn’t anything that makes you ‘qualified’ to be President. There’s no job quite like it out there – being a Senator or Governor or even a big CEO isn’t even close to it.
    One of the few things we have to go on in evaluating candidates is the quality of their campaign organizations and what kind of alliances they can form in their parties. I warmed a lot to Obama in 2008 toward the end of the primary precisely because he’d done a much better job of building an effective national campaign than I ever could have expected.
    So, all that said, the overall behavior of major candidates campaigns and their supporters tell me a lot about whether or not I can support them. No matter what I might believe about Trump’s ideas/policies – his campaign events, the people around him and the rhetoric of his supporters are pure dis-qualifiers for me.
    The last few weeks convinced me that I couldn’t support Bernie Sanders, either. I don’t doubt he’d probably be less bad than Trump, but the odds of a major misstep that causes real damage are too high for me.
    I almost surely won’t be voting for Clinton, but I am quite sure I could stomach her much better than the other two. If for no other reason that I am far more confident she won’t put together a worse administration than I fear Trump or Sanders might.

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