After the Culinary Union expressed criticism of Sander’s Medicare for all plan, members were subject to savage attacks via phone, email and tweets. It was inferred that most of the vitriol was coming from Bernie supporters and the media has been critical of Sanders. To avoid having the discussion fall into the distorting pit of ideology, my goal will be to address the general subject of when candidates are accountable for the actions of their supporters. My intent is to present neutral standards that are applicable across the American political spectrum.
One obvious standard is that before a candidate (or other leader) is blamed for the actions of their supporters (or followers), it must be established that the alleged supporters are (probably) real supporters. After all, anyone from Russian intelligence to Hillary Clinton could be behind twitter handles such as @trumpwhitemasterace8869 and @berniebromaxmarxchronic42069. Anyone can send an email or make a phone call and purport to be supporting a candidate and it makes excellent sense to try to damage a candidate by trying to create the appearance that their supporters are engaging in threats and attacks. A clever and unscrupulous candidate facing criticism about their supporters will this to their advantage—claiming that the bad behavior attributed to their supporters is the work of nefarious forces posing as supporters. As such, while sorting out who is and who is not a supporter is essential to sorting out responsibility, it will be very difficult to do in this age of technological anonymity and trickery. But suppose that supporters can be identified with reasonable confidence—that is, threats and attacks can be confirmed as originating from supporters of a specific candidate. The challenge is to sort out how accountable the candidate is for such behavior.
Since supporters take cues from candidates the character and behavior of a candidate can influence the behavior of supporters. Various character traits of a candidate can impact their supporters. On the negative side, a candidate who is petty, vindictive, angry, ill-tempered and lacking in impulse control will tend to attract supporters with similar qualities and influence them to emulate the candidate. As such, these traits would tend to increase the accountability of the candidate—they are more likely to have a role in the bad behavior of their supporters. On the positive side, a candidate who is calm, even-tempered, and compassionate will tend to attract supporters with similar temperaments and influence them to imitate the candidate. As such, these traits would tend to lead supporters to be less likely to engage in bad behavior. Thus, a virtuous candidate would seem to less accountable for bad behavior on the part of their followers than a candidate tainted with vices.
An obvious criticism of this standard is that supporters often select candidates that differ from them in character and one can question the influence of the character of a candidate on their supporters. Behavior, however, seems to be a stronger factor.
A candidate’s behavior is likely to attract certain types of supporters who are more or less prone to engage in bad behavior. The candidate’s behavior can also serve to influence their supporters. On the negative side, a candidate who engages in angry attacks, threats, insults and name-calling is likely to attract supporters who will engage in the same behavior and influence supporters to behave badly. On the positive side, a candidate who is respectful, polite, and civil in their behavior will tend to attract followers with similar behavior and influence them to emulate their behavior. As such, a candidate that behaves well is less accountable for bad behavior by their supporters—for they are less likely to influencing these supporters in bad ways.
This view can certainly be challenged, and one might argue that the behavior of a candidate has little drawing power or influence—this would be to make a partial case against candidates being accountable for their supporters.
The content of a candidate’s message, ideology and policies can also impact the behavior of their supporters. This content will attract certain sorts of supporters and influence them. On the negative side, a candidate who embraces a content rife with racism, sexism, xenophobia, fear, hate and anger will tend to attract supporters inclined to bad behavior and influence them to behave badly. A candidate who is a sincere racist, sexist, etc. will be engaged in their own attacks and threats—thus encouraging their supporters. On the positive side, a candidate who embraces content opposing racism, sexism, and xenophobia while encouraging courage, love and compassion will tend to attract supporters who behave better and influence their behavior. A candidate who is sincere in opposing racism, sexism and such will generally not engage in threats and attacks; they will tend to be addressing such things. Thus, a candidate with virtuous content will be less accountable than one with vicious content—virtue generally does not inspire bad behavior, while vicious content certainly can.
One could argue that content does not influence supporters, though this seems implausible. One could also argue that a person could truly embrace racism, sexism and such and still be well-behaved and have well-behaved followers; this is not impossible but seems unlikely. One could also argue that a candidate who sincerely opposes racism, sexism and such can be badly behaved and lead their supporters to engage in savage, unwarranted attacks. While this is not impossible, this seems more like propaganda rather than an accurate description of how such people would behave.
A final, and critical, standard is the extent to which the candidate controls their supporters and is able to cause them to act or not act. To the degree that a candidate controls their supporters they can be held accountable for the actions of those supporters.
The degree of control will obviously vary greatly—some supporters are tepid in their support and unlikely to be controlled by the candidate. On the other extreme are fanatically devoted supporters who will obey the candidate. In general, American voters tend to be closer to the tepid side and far from the fanatical side. However, people can still be causally impacted by candidates. Assigning blame requires sorting out the power of the candidate over the badly behaving supporters and determining if they are acting in accord with the wishes of the candidate. This is a critical point as well. To use an obvious analogy, John Hinckley tried to kill President Reagan because of his obsession with Jodie Foster. But she had neither knowledge of her effect on him nor a desire to have him kill Reagan. As such, while Jodie Foster was a causal factor in the attempted assassination, she bears no moral accountability. The same can obviously hold true for followers of candidates.
While this is not an exact method, sorting out accountability for the bad behavior of supporters requires assessing the influence of the candidate’s character and behavior, the influence of the content of their views, the extent to which they control their supporters and their intent relative to the bad behavior of their supporters.