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Johnson ’19: Political conviction or self-righteousness?

Staff Columnist
Thursday, March 10, 2016

A memorable line from the Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan Sunday came from Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-VT: “Democrats are not always right.” That truth should be acknowledged more often than it is, especially in our contentious political climate. Bernie’s assertion is important because even though his politics are deemed radical, he can clearly differentiate between conviction and self-righteousness.

Some Bernie supporters who claim they will not vote at all if Hillary Clinton wins the nomination could learn from his message. Just as Bernie does not cling to the party as a flawless source of information and support, his supporters should not cling to one candidate as the only means of success. The election is much bigger than one candidate or the other. According to a recent Guardian article,  more Democratic support would have allowed Obama to make more progress on liberal causes during his presidency. Those who purposefully silence their voice by not voting this year punish the marginalized who feel they have no voice.

Self-righteousness occurs both within parties and within the greater two-party divide. On the conservative side, the  Grand Old Party’s name itself points to historic self-celebration. And it is not difficult to find entitled attitudes and harsh language toward Democratic candidates in the Republican debates. It is also not difficult to see that American exceptionalism is supported by Republicans’ unabashed focus on the individual. But the Republican focus on the individual is often translated as uncompassionate and greedy in liberal speech. This stereotype shows that self-righteousness is not limited to conservatives. Generalizations, cheap jokes and harsh judgments, no matter the conviction behind them, are abundant in liberal culture. From both sides, it is easy to perpetuate the political divide. It is easy to generalize a party and its platform without understanding how that further broadens the chasm, destroying the chances of a bridge being built.

At Brown, it seems automatic to assume everyone is liberal. Looking back at my political discussions so far at Brown, I have fallen into the many traps of hypocrisy. Often, I assumed people were Democratic before starting a conversation. And if it was made clear they were Democratic, then I assumed our views lined up without considering the nuances and complexities of politics. I made sweeping generalizations and unfair, though funny, jokes about “those Republicans.”

Most students at Brown are, in fact, liberal. A Herald poll last semester showed 68.6 percent of students intended to vote for a Democratic candidate and only 6.8 percent intended to vote for a Republican candidate. But the expectation that people are liberal with the implicit justification of superiority is toxic.

Bringing that attitude home over winter break was just as destructive. Sarcastic political comments alienated me from my more moderate or conservative friends, and I was sending a negative message about Brown’s liberal environment and even about the progressive movement. The most effective way to gain support and followers of a cause is most definitely not through pretentious and unconstructive criticism. Liberal self-righteousness is just as distasteful as conservative self-righteousness. It is entirely possible to be passionate about a value, a policy or a cause and criticize an opponent with tact and accuracy.

Congressman Elijah Cummings, D-MD, spoke at Brown Tuesday and emphasized a message of respect and awareness. His political agenda does not present itself as the morally superior option but seeks to promote passion, humility, equality and grace. He argued that we need to respect constituents and politicians in order to reaffirm their existence and dignity. Cummings’s transparency is a quality both to admire in a politician and to mimic in our own conversations.

Cummings referred to respect in politics, which means thoughtfully considering the validity of different views. As Bernie correctly pointed out: Democrats are not always right. Thinking critically is an important part of thinking maturely and involves questioning the source of an argument, even if that means reconsidering your own sources and affiliations. There is a naïveté in believing a source to be infallible, so approach them all with a respectful skepticism. Every person has her own subjective opinions and personal motivations, and those should be carefully analyzed regardless of their label. And when we disagree, we should do so respectfully.

Grace Johnson ’19 is a member of Brown Students for Bernie and can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to

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  1. Ron Ruggieri says:

    Is that Brown University poll that has Hillary Clinton defeating Bernie Sanders by some 8 percent in next month’s Democratic Primary in Rhode Island any more credible than the one that predicted Hillary the big winner-by double digits – in Michigan ? Sanders victory there shocked the political world.
    As an old democratic socialist myself I think there is more principled difference between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton than between Donald Trump and his GOP rivals- all varieties of Ayn Rand fans, even the born again Christians.
    Explaining the violence at the cancelled Trump rally in Chicago, Trump out – Sanders Sanders : the anti-Trump crowd is economically oppressed, he suggested.
    I guess class does trump race, after all. I will be voting for Bernie as a ” critical supporter “. There is also Jill Stein , the presidential candidate of the Green Party.
    There has been a greening of socialism in recent years.

  2. ShadrachSmith says:

    Your choice in ’16: Trump or Communism

    Choose wisely 🙂

    • Ron Ruggieri says:

      Worthy of a Brown University intellectual scholar ! A lot of free thinkers on this campus. At least Hillary has come out in support of ” more love and kindness ” -and Wall St.

      • ShadrachSmith says:

        Trump is unknown, Hillary is evil, perhaps you noticed?

        • Tom Butler says:

          Donald Trump is a misogynistic, combat veteran hating, xenophobic, megalomaniac who suffers from narcissistic personality disorder. He’s an awful person who personifies all of the negative traits of humanity.

          • ShadrachSmith says:

            Which compares Trump favorably because Hillary is a mean-tempered, corrupt & corrupting, hubristic, sociopath who is both chronically ugly, and criminally insane. She is an agent of Sauron, and her morals would embarrass orcs. So Trump is your clear choice 🙂

          • So what makes him any different from Bill Clinton, given that you Democrat sheeple had no problem electing twice to the office of POTUS?

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