vision 2020

The Bernie vs. Warren Debate We Need

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This is a column about Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and why you should or should not prefer the former over the latter. But before digging into that question, I’d like call your attention to something that is too often ignored in the “Bernie vs. Warren” debate: The American left’s bark is louder than its bite.

In recent years, socialists and their left-liberal fellow travelers have accrued an unprecedented degree of influence over our nation’s political discourse. As the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis undermined mainstream economic orthodoxy — and radicalized a generation of overeducated, underemployed journalists and academics — the technocracy’s center of gravity shifted leftward. In 2019, the Democrats’ Establishment think tank is agitating for industry-wide collective bargaining, the mainstream media has adopted a reflexively sympathetic attitude toward striking public-sector workers, and conscious capitalists are giving TED Talks on the evils of neoliberalism.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders’s surprising strength in the 2016 primaries and Hillary Clinton’s devastating weakness in that year’s general election — and the online left’s success in popularizing its interpretations of both phenomena— persuaded many 2020 Democratic hopefuls to stop worrying and learn to love social democracy. At the first three Democratic debates, the middle-ground position on health care was a public option strong enough to jeopardize the viability of private insurance. On higher education, it was free public college for all children from working-class families. On climate, it was “only” $1.7 trillion in green investments, and a mandate for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

But the left’s ideological clout far outstrips its material strength. American socialism is heavy on superstructure, light on base. The current trade-union movement is weak by historic standards, representing a piddling 10.5 percent of the U.S. workforce. Independent leftist organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have grown since 2016 but still lack the scale and mass working-class membership that made such entities formidable agents of social change in earlier eras of American history. In the electoral realm, progressive challengers scored a couple notable victories in the 2018 primaries but failed to foment a “tea party of the left.” Outside of low-turnout elections in deep-blue districts, organizations like Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, and DSA gave Democratic incumbents little cause for fearing their wrath. And where left insurgents did win open primaries in purple territory, they failed to affirm their theory of change: Nominating economic populists unencumbered by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s allergy to class-warfare rhetoric and radical reforms like Medicare for All did not fix what’s the matter with Kansas. Sanders-backed ironworker Randy Bryce did worse in Wisconsin’s 1st District last year than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. Single-payer supporter Kara Eastman failed to flip Nebraska’s 2nd. The 2018 elections did not prove the electoral necessity of moderation — Warren acolyte Katie Porter pulled out a tough win in a historically Republican California district; Senator Tammy Baldwin’s calls for abolishing private insurance and putting workers on corporate boards proved compatible with winning reelection in a Trump state — but nor did they prove that Sanders-ism an electoral panacea.

Thus far, the 2020 primary has further undermined the notion that Democratic voters will overwhelmingly support radical change if only the left can get the Establishment’s thumbs off the scale. Joe Biden owes his front-runner status less to his party’s high-dollar donors than its high-propensity voters. Few Democratic pooh-bahs went into 2019 favoring Uncle Joe. Many saw Kamala Harris as Hillary’s heiress apparent, while others were so averse to backing Obama’s senescent wingman that they put their chips on the mayor of South Bend instead. But the people (or a plurality of them, anyway) have preferred Biden. The fact that Warren and Sanders are his chief rivals — rather than Harris and Buttigieg — may reflect the radicalization of some segments of the Democratic electorate. But much of the rank and file evinces little interest in their party’s ideological divides. And a significant portion of Democratic-base voters still espouse a preference for ideological moderation (however hazily defined).

Finally, even if the left were to build enthusiastic majoritarian support for a radical break with “Obamaism” among both Democratic-primary voters and the general public, it might still have difficulty enacting its legislative agenda. Both chambers of Congress overrepresent the most conservative elements in American society. And with its six-year terms and immense incumbency advantages, the Senate largely insulates Democrats in even the bluest states from grassroots pressure (see: Feinstein, Dianne).

The left is too weak to enact Sanders’s or Warren’s big plans. Do either of them have a plan for that?

Much of the time, the Democratic left is content to wage its “Bernie vs. Warren” civil war in a parallel universe free of this context. Sanders supporters comb through the Warren campaign’s every utterance on health care for intimations of agnosticism on single-payer, as though the chief obstacle to Medicare for All in 2021 will be the next Democratic president’s lack of backbone rather than the fact that there are currently 14 votes for Bernie’s bill in Chuck Schumer’s caucus (and none of the Democrats who oppose single-payer had any trouble winning renomination in the 2018 primaries). Meanwhile, progressive intellectuals debate the relative merits of Warren’s left-liberalism and Sanders’s “democratic socialism” as though the central question facing the next Democratic administration will be whether to implement the Meidner plan or settle for Denmark’s model of social democracy.

This isn’t to say that there are no areas where Warren’s and Sanders’s disparate worldviews and personal backgrounds could have real substantive implications. The commander-in-chief has immense discretion over foreign policy, and up to now Sanders appears more interested than Warren in radically reforming the Democratic Party’s approach to geopolitics. The president also has considerable power to shape domestic policy through regulatory appointments and creative interpretations of existing statutory authority — forms of “lawfare” to which Warren may be especially well suited.

Given how far the left is from possessing the power it will need to turn its wildest “green dreams” into reality, however, the most worthwhile Bernie-versus-Warren arguments may concern tactics, not policy. Whether Sanders’s approach to expropriating the billionaire class is preferable to Warren’s isn’t a question that’s likely to be of much practical consequence in the medium-term future. But whether his approach to winning elections — and using his power to build up the left’s — is more viable than Warren’s absolutely is.

In recent days, the staunchly pro-Sanders publication Jacobin has made the latter case, arguing that Sanders’s theory of change is both radically distinct from and superior to Warren’s. Refreshingly, the socialist magazine premises its argument on a frank acknowledgement of the left’s sorry state. In its account, Warren may have been a suitable agent of structural change three decades ago, when the grassroots left was still strong enough to arrange “a tense but functional relationship between a reformist administration in the White House and a strong and organized working class that could at least challenge capital’s imperatives.” But in the current context, the left doesn’t command enough divisions to make use of Warren’s technocratic gifts. It needs foot soldiers, not plans. And Bernie Sanders is uniquely capable of reassembling the left’s army because of his deeper commitment to radical, bottom-up change, his greater appeal to blue-collar constituencies, and his more unabashedly adversarial relationship with the Democratic Party.

I find this unconvincing. But Jacobin’s case merits examination, as it’s focused on the right questions: How do we get from where we are to a polity in which our plans actually matter? And is Warren or Sanders more likely to get us there?

The differences between Sanders and Warren may be smaller than they appear (in Jacobin articles, anyway).

One obstacle to a productive debate over whether Warren or Sanders is a more viable agent of change is the temptation to exaggerate the distinctions between their respective modes of operation. In “Elizabeth Warren’s Strategy Within the Democratic Party Is All Wrong,” Jacobin’s (typically incisive) Branko Marcetic falls prey to that impulse. In his column, Marcetic argues that the Massachusetts senator’s reported outreach to the Democratic Establishment betrays her commitment to an “inside strategy” that is bound to fail. The problem with his argument is that its central premise — that Warren’s decision to court power players in the Democratic Party sharply distinguishes her campaign from Sanders’s — appears to be false.

Marcetic’s essay is based on a New York Times story from last month that reported that, in an apparent bid to ingratiate herself with superdelegates, Warren had told influential Democratic brokers that she wanted to build power within the party and wouldn’t be assembling her own independent grassroots army. Sanders’s supporters responded to this news with (gleeful) indignation, as it appeared to heighten the contradictions between his and her theories of change. And yet, the most significant difference ostensibly established by the Times article — that Warren was forswearing the kind of independent organizing that Sanders champions — wasn’t actually any distinction at all. Oddly, Marcetic concedes this point in a parenthetical but declines to address its implications for his broader argument:

On August 26, the New York Times reported that Warren has been aggressively courting Democratic officials behind the scenes, assuring them, in the paper’s telling, that she is a loyal Democrat and does not plan to create her own political or organizing infrastructure outside the party. (The next day, the Association of State Democratic Committees announced that Sanders and a number of other candidates have, like Warren, pledged not to create “any organizing or messaging infrastructure that is parallel or duplicative” to the DNC or state parties.)

Marcetic proceeds to suggest that, even if Warren’s pledge is not as distinctive as it first appeared, her courting of superdelegates is:

Besides trying to convince Democrats that her progressive ideas won’t make her “unelectable,” Warren’s private assurances that she simply wants to breathe new life into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and help the party recapture Congress, the Times notes, also have a politically strategic element. Thanks to a rule change last year, if no single candidate wins an outright majority of delegates in the primaries — a plausible scenario in this crowded field — the superdelegates will once again have a large role in choosing the nominee, this time on the second ballot. And, should it come down to a second ballot, Warren wants their votes.


It’s unclear how easily these overtures to the DNC will sit with Warren’s plans for major structural change in the United States. 

This distinction, too, is nonexistent: In May, a Sanders-campaign aide told BuzzFeed News, “We’re taking superdelegates and superdelegates strategy seriously, hence having a team dedicated to delegates who can prepare for multiple convention scenarios. We will be reaching out to them over the course of the campaign. When the senator wins the nomination, he’s eager to work with them to support and unite all the party in the general and beyond.”

There is nothing especially telling about a candidate’s seeking the approval of powerful figures in the party whose nomination he or she is trying to win. To neglect such “inside” tactics would be political malpractice, as the Sanders campaign readily acknowledges.

Nevertheless, differences between each candidate’s relationship with the Democratic Party persist.

All this said, it is true that, as a general matter, Sanders has a more adversarial relationship with the Democratic Party than Warren. He has, of course, refused to join the party for the duration of his congressional career, and he has used that formal independence to criticize the Democratic Establishment with a (generally righteous) fury that Warren has reserved for financial executives. He has also made some efforts to build an independent political infrastructure capable of challenging incumbent Democrats that refuse to get with his program (though he has apparently promised to suspend those efforts upon winning the nomination).

Given these facts, it isn’t wholly implausible to view the “Bernie vs. Warren” debate as a proxy for a broader dispute over the left’s relationship to the Democratic Party. Namely: Should progressives and socialists seek to co-opt the Democratic brand, build power within its institutions, and seek accommodation with its leadership, out of a recognition that the left is strong enough (and, for now, ideologically fashionable enough) to exert influence as one interest group within the Democrats’ big tent but far too weak to establish an independent political identity capable of capturing the loyalties of the Democratic base? Or is the Democratic brand too toxic with the working class — and its leadership too entrenched and aligned with capital — to be worth co-opting? Which is to say: Is popularizing a socialist identity that can bridge America’s partisan divide and mobilize its nonvoters — while building an independent party-like entity capable of disciplining its candidates and putting the fear of obsolescence into the Democratic leadership — the only path to radical reform?

It is not clear to me that Sanders is personally committed to the latter theory of change (given his aforementioned pledge, and decades of productive cooperation with the Democratic leadership, it seems possible that becoming blue America’s standard-bearer would dispel his reservations about working within the two-party system). But many of his most enthusiastic, socialist supporters are; Jacobin’s editors, and many members of the DSA, proselytize an electoral strategy of building an independent socialist party that competes on the Democratic ballot line when necessary. And even if a President Sanders does not directly participate in that project, the election of a self-avowed socialist would surely abet such efforts more than that of a staunchly pro-market progressive Democrat.

So, for the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that Bernie plans to violate his pledges and brook no compromise with the Democrats’ old regime. What is the evidence for the premise that forswearing all accommodation with the Democratic Party would maximize the left’s gains?

Toward the end of his column, Marcetic gestures at one answer:

An insurgent movement like the Tea Party made heavy use of confrontational tactics and primary challenges to wrench the Republican Party toward its end of the political spectrum. Donald Trump’s antagonistic relationship with a GOP establishment that largely opposed him didn’t stop him from both winning the Republican primary and the general election, and today’s GOP has been refashioned in Trump’s image, with even his fiercest Republican critics now fully signing on to his agenda. Trump did this not by convincing members of the GOP establishment that he was correct, but by rallying voters and making it virtually impossible for Republicans to both keep their jobs and oppose him. If the next Democratic president fails to achieve something similar, they won’t just face an obstructionist Republican bloc, but a host of conservative Democrats who will stand as a barrier to their agenda, just as Obama did in 2009…Only a direct challenge to the power of those elites will enable a progressive president to overcome it.

There are several problems with this analogy. First, it is not clear why pursuing diplomacy with Establishment factions — while seeking control of a party’s apparatus — is incompatible with abetting some primary challenges (Warren’s staff has significant ties to the organization Justice Democrats, which exists to orchestrate such campaigns). Second, Donald Trump absolutely sought reconciliation with the GOP Establishment upon winning his party’s nomination in 2016, noticeably adjusted his platform to suit its wishes, and owed his victory largely to the strength of the RNC’s infrastructure (his own campaign being a ramshackle mess). Third, Trump’s fiercest critics have not actually “fully” signed on to his agenda. In fact, Republican senators have repeatedly rebuffed the president on his signature issue, voting down Trump’s proposed reductions in legal immigration by wide margins. One might therefore interpret Trump as a testament to the limitations of the inside game. But then does anyone really believe that America’s nativists would be exercising more power in our politics had they begrudged Trump his accommodations with the GOP’s corporate wing or attempted to popularize an independent political identity, instead of seeking to claim the Republican Party as their own? And can anyone argue that Trump has been too soft on his intraparty critics?

The lesson of Trump’s failure to rally Republican senators behind his immigration agenda is that it is extremely hard to force a U.S. senator to vote for something he or she strongly opposes — whether through direct challenges or backroom cajoling. Six-year terms, sky-high renomination rates, and, in many cases, the ability to obstruct all of a president’s other priorities make it very hard for a White House to hold any senator’s feet to the fire. Putting the fear of a credible primary challenge into all 33 of the Democratic senators who’ve withheld their support for Bernie’s health-care bill looks implausible on its face. And given the left’s showing in House races in 2018 (not to mention its sorry efforts at Senate challenges), the task appears even more implausible upon closer examination.

The left’s weakness makes it trivially easy to demonstrate how someone else’s approach to creating radical change will prove inadequate. It is much harder to make a persuasive case for one’s own. Sanders supporters are right that nothing less than a political revolution can make Medicare for All and a Green New Deal realities. But the evidence that Bernie is capable of fomenting such a revolution is limited. On the one hand, Sanders has assembled impressive small-dollar donor armies and volunteer networks. His ascent has undoubtedly abetted DSA’s growth. And he has used his vast email list to recruit reinforcements for various labor actions and protests, thereby demonstrating his commitment to social movements and to non-electoral forms of political contestation.

On the other hand, Sanders has had a national platform for three years now. He has built up an independent organization and traveled the country proselytizing for class struggle. And none of it has been sufficient for his acolytes to dominate Democratic primaries, or to win him a broader base of support for his 2020 run than he had in 2016, or even to keep his approval rating from slipping underwater. Although one can point to some polls showing Sanders with an enviable favorability rating, RealClearPolitics’ polling average shows the public disapproving of the socialist senator by a margin of 46.3 to 43.1 percent. It is possible that Sanders’s popularity and influence will balloon once he attains power. But it’s worth noting that even Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s historic popularity — and the existence of strong labor, socialist, and communist movements — were insufficient to render FDR’s attempted “purge” of anti–New Deal Democrats in the 1938 primaries successful.

In light of these facts, is it not conceivable that a president more closely aligned with the Democratic Party — and less openly hostile to its key power centers — would actually be able to get senators like Jon Tester and Kyrsten Sinema to swallow marginally more progressive legislation in 2021 than a president with an independent political identity who projected contempt for their wing of the party? Put differently, would such senators feel more inclined to perform their independence from a socialist president who’d deliberately stoked the enmity of centrist Democrats, or a “capitalist to her bones” progressive president who’d nursed Third Wayers’ threatened egos?

I do not want to live in a republic where maximizing the number of Americans with quality health insurance requires buttering up Joe Manchin in back rooms. But are we sure that that isn’t the republic we’ll be living in for the foreseeable future?

To be sure, many of Sanders’s socialist supporters see their project as a generational one. And the incremental benefits of maximizing the left’s clout in the Democratic Party today (with all the distasteful, coalition-solidifying compromises that ostensibly requires) may pale next to the radical possibilities that militancy could open up tomorrow. After all, even if righteous intransigence does not immediately inspire a mobilization capable of cowing centrist Democrats, the struggle could facilitate the recruitment of progressives into the independent, mass-membership socialist party, a development sought by Jacobin. And yet, even if the goal is to maximize the left’s power in 2030, it’s not obvious why building a party-like structure outside of the Democratic tent is a more promising strategy than competing for authority within it.

As Jacobin’s Seth Ackerman has ably explained, American election law treats the two major parties as state institutions and uses discriminatory ballot-access rules to stymie third parties. For this reason, he insists that socialists make peace with competing on the Democratic ballot line, even as they build a “a membership-run organization with its own name, its own logo, its own identity and therefore its own platform, and its own ideology.” And yet the institutionalization of the two major parties, combined with partisan polarization, makes the task of popularizing an alternative, left-wing political identity enormously difficult. The American left will achieve nothing without the backing of the black working class. And while not all African-Americans proudly identify as Democrats, a very hefty percentage of them feel a profound loyalty to the party of civil rights and Barack Obama. And the same is true for many of the left’s other key constituencies. At present, the Democratic Party is an institution that manages to put Latinx housekeepers in Las Vegas in coalition with white industrial laborers in Dearborn, black church ladies in Charleston, and long-winded politics bloggers in Manhattan. The party’s infrastructure is relatively porous on the local level, where even the most formidable Democratic “machines” have proved unable to fend off challenges from charismatic bartenders. And while the party’s base voters have strong partisan identities, many are open to a wide range of definitions of what it means to be a true Democrat in ideological terms; some recent surveys suggest Bernie Sanders is the most popular second choice among Joe Biden backers.

Given these conditions, why isn’t commandeering the Democratic Party’s infrastructure, platform, and considerable social base not a simpler, faster, and more viable path to power than attempting to build an entirely new party and political identity and then hijacking the Democrats’ ballot line — in the ostensible hope that voters who affirmatively choose to register as Democrats will look more favorably on leftist primary challengers who disparage their party than on candidates who claim membership in it?

Proletarians prefer L.L. Bean?

In “Elizabeth Warren Is Thirty Years Too Late,” Connor Kilpatrick and Bhaskar Sunkara do not address this question directly. But their analysis suggests that the existing Democratic coalition is too heavily reliant on affluent voters for the party to serve as an effective vehicle of radical change, and that Bernie’s relative distance from the taint of the Democratic brand and greater affinity for class politics and bottom-up organizing make him uniquely capable of winning back the legions of working-class voters whom Third Way Democrats lost to right-wing populism or political apathy.

Like Marcetic’s piece, Kilpatrick and Sunkara’s draws strong conclusions from limited evidence. The authors observe that Sanders’s support among Democratic-primary voters is markedly less white and more working-class than Warren’s. In fact, many surveys have suggested that Warren owes her viability to overwhelming support among professional-class white liberals — or, as Kilpatrick and Sunkara describe them, “Patagonia Democrats.” This distinction between the class composition of the two progressive candidates’ nascent coalitions has become a popular talking point among Sanders supporters. And it may have some validity. In Vermont, Sanders has regularly outperformed other Democrats with white, non-college-educated voters. It’s plausible that his brand of politics may play better with a critical mass of secular, rural, white swing voters in Wisconsin, and therefore that he would be a stronger general-election candidate than Warren.

But Kilpatrick and Sunkara use this polling data to make a far more sweeping claim. Sanders’s greater appeal with blue-collar Democratic-primary voters doesn’t merely suggest he can improve on Clinton’s margins in Kenosha County, but that he can reorient the polarization of U.S. politics along class lines. In their telling, Warren’s coalition is potentially broad “enough to keep Republicans from the White House but not Congress or state legislatures. It would be yet another coalition that could win but never govern.” Bernie’s working-class coalition, by contrast, would have the numbers and self-interest necessary to force radical change through political institutions that were designed to thwart it.

That America’s low- and middle-income workers do not share a class consciousness or partisan coalition is a genuine constraint on radical economic reform. Kilpatrick and Sunkara’s commitment to overcoming that constraint is commendable. But the fact that Sanders commands the loyalties of a disproportionately working-class 16 percent of the Democratic-primary electorate scarcely qualifies as evidence that his appeal with non-college-educated voters is so powerful it can radically realign American politics. After all, Biden boasts even stronger support among nonwhite and working-class Democrats. Does that mean that nominating Uncle Joe would reassemble the New Deal coalition? Sanders supporters might dismiss the racial and socioeconomic diversity of Biden’s support as a product of mere name recognition. But Warren backers can play that card against Sanders too: In the last week, multiple polls have shown her not only gaining more non-college-educated and non-white support as her campaign rolls on, but actually outperforming Sanders with such voters.

Regardless, the evidence that no Democratic candidate can drastically change the party’s class composition in the near term is considerable. The movement of non-college-educated white voters to the right — and college-educated white ones to the left — is not an exceptionally American phenomenon. Rather, it has been happening for decades across much of Western Europe. The left attributes this development to center-left parties’ myriad betrayals of their working-class constituencies in the neoliberal era. And that is certainly part of the story. But it is also the case that non-college-educated white voters in the West have, in the aggregate, long evinced a preference for restricted immigration in opinion polls. It’s conceivable that, irrespective of economic policy, the demographic shifts of the past three decades were bound to increase the salience of immigration in partisan politics and thus drive a significant portion of the white working class away from center-left parties with bases in diverse urban centers.

But whatever the origins of this development, there is little evidence that left-wing parties can rapidly reverse it by embracing more robustly class-conscious rhetoric and ambitiously redistributionist economic policies. When Britain’s Labour Party elected a democratic socialist as its leader and campaigned on its most radical manifesto in a generation, it gained a historic number of seats in the 2017 general election — by, among other things, flipping Tory-held districts in the wealthiest parts of London. Meanwhile, as already mentioned, the bulk of Sanders-aligned, working-class House candidates in 2018 did not have much more success at winning non-college-educated white voters than did centrist Democrats running in similar districts (Richard Ojeda notwithstanding). None of this means that the left must give up on uniting the bulk of America’s multiethnic working class into a single party. But it does suggest that such a project may require years of patient organizing (and demographic replacement), rather than the nomination of any particular presidential candidate.

If Kilpatrick and Sunkara overestimate Sanders’s capacity to realign American politics, they understate how much the Democratic Party can accomplish with its existing coalition. The U.S. economy does not currently serve the average college-educated voter very well. And most of the marquee items on Sanders’s agenda are in the objective self-interest of virtually all affluent suburbanites. Charles Koch may have little use for free public college, universal health care, more generous Social Security benefits, or child-care subsidies. But the typical upper-middle-class family does. Meanwhile, the indebted and underemployed millennial sons and daughters of the professional middle class are one of the most reliably left-wing constituencies in the country and make up no small percentage of Jacobin’s subscriber base and DSA’s membership. There are limitations on what this coalition can achieve. But in California, the existing Democratic coalition just secured subsidized health care for undocumented immigrants and employment rights for exploited “gig economy” workers, over the furious objections of multibillion-dollar companies. Under Barack Obama, meanwhile, it extended Medicaid to millions of people, likely saving nearly 20,000 working-class Americans from premature deaths. The lamentable shortcomings of Obama’s tenure do not nullify that achievement.

Sunkara and Kilpatrick are right to find no contentment in such marginal gains. But by projecting contempt for one of the voting blocs that made those gains possible — and asserting that the existing Democratic Party can “never govern” — they risk projecting an air of indifference toward such reforms and the working-class people who’ve benefited from them (an indifference that I know neither writer actually feels). Socialists must always guard against the impression that they are more invested in chasing an ideological abstraction than delivering concrete benefits to the exploited classes they claim to champion. As a wise (and/or violently racist and jingoistic) man once said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” For many Democratic-primary voters, expressions of contempt for the organization that represents their best line of defense against racist, reactionary rule can be deeply alienating. Which points to the most immediate strategic upside of Warren’s “inside strategy”: Polls have repeatedly found that Sanders attracts a relatively high level of disapproval or discomfort among Democratic-primary voters, while Warren boasts an aberrantly low one. This reality, combined with the intensity of elite Democratic opposition to Sanders, invites the question of whether Warren is the only progressive with sufficient breadth of appeal (among Democratic voters and power brokers) to prevent Biden from securing the nomination — in which case Sanders’s theoretical superiority as a general-election candidate or president would be moot. The answer to that question is far from clear, in my view. But it’s hard to see how Sanders can negate its premise without stepping up his “inside game.”

All this may read as an elaborate endorsement of Warren. But I do not intend it as such. That Sanders evinces more interest in radically revising American foreign policy is no small thing. Further, as Kilpatrick and Sunkara note, in a context where the left is materially weak, the personal ideological commitments of elected leaders take on a heightened importance. And there is no question that Bernie Sanders has a more deeply rooted ideological commitment to radical politics than does Elizabeth Warren.

But too many prominent arguments for Sanders’s superiority consist of easily debunked distinctions between the two left-wing candidates or blithely unsubstantiated assertions that Bernie is uniquely capable of fomenting a political revolution and thus of bending the Democratic Establishment and U.S. Senate to his will. The first mode of argument risks alienating undecided liberals and obscuring Sanders’s genuinely distinctive merits. The second threatens to replace rigorous reflection on the obstacles to radical change in the United States with magical thinking — and a much-needed debate over how to overcome those impediments with the recitation of rival dogmas.

Which would be unfortunate. In this country, optimism of the intellect is a luxury that no “Champagne socialist” nor “Patagonia progressive” can afford.