The first skirmish of the 2020 Democratic primary, a wave of attacks on Beto O’Rourke by supporters of Bernie Sanders, took almost everybody by surprise. On the outside, it looks like one of those inscrutable, personality-driven online spats that characterize the Twitter era. But the feud is neither petty nor personal nor irrational. It’s the first shot in a war that may well continue for the next year and a half.
I have opinions about the parties involved in this conflict that are not difficult to guess. But my aim in this article is not to persuade readers of the merits of my preferences, but instead to provide a descriptive account of an important conflict that I believe is being widely misunderstood. Indeed, I think the online warriors of the Bernie movement are getting too little credit, and their mainstream liberal antagonists would benefit from a better understanding of their motives and thinking.
The Sanders partisans who are attacking O’Rourke — like Zaid Jilani, David Sirota, Branko Marcetic, Elizabeth Bruenig — are not representative of Sanders voters as a whole. This distinction is the key to deciphering the whole episode. Sanders attracts the intense support of a small left-wing intellectual vanguard who see American politics in fundamentally different terms than most Democrats do. The primary struggle in American politics as they see it is not between liberalism and conservatism, but between socialism and capitalism.
Sanders labels himself as a socialist and frames his rhetoric in Marxian class terms, which sets him apart from other Democrats. (Even a progressive like Elizabeth Warren calls herself “a capitalist to my bones.”) Socialists — at least those who aren’t willing to settle for the incremental advances traditionally held out by liberal Democrats as their only option — see Sanders’s presidential candidacy as uniquely compelling. The struggle between Sanders and other Democrats strikes them as far more significant than the contest between the non-socialist Democrats and the Republicans.
The voters who pulled the lever for Sanders, by contrast, are ideologically indistinguishable from the rest of the party. Among the minority of voters who identified as “very liberal,” the most left-wing choice, Sanders and Clinton performed about equally. In 2016, Sanders voters actually had more conservative views on economic inequality and changes to Social Security and Medicare than Clinton voters did.
Sanders built most of his support on personal contrasts rather than ideology. While Clinton was mired in scandals over fundraising, speaking fees, and the use of a personal email server, her opponent presented an earnest, scandal-free profile. Sanders dominated Clinton among young, white, and male voters.
The rise of Beto O’Rourke poses an obvious threat. The Texas congressman has replicated aspects of Sanders’s appeal — his positivity and refusal to accept PAC money — while exceeding it in some ways. Sanders is charismatic in an unconventional way, the slovenly and cranky but somewhat lovable old uncle, while O’Rourke projects a classic handsome, toothy, Kennedy-esque charm that reliably makes Democrats swoon. Hard-core loyalists find the contrast irksome. “Reading Karl Marx is cool,” said Nomiki Konst, a Sanders loyalist and candidate for New York City public advocate, to NBC. “Doing a livestream while you’re doing your laundry is a gimmick.” The comment sums up the left’s well-grounded fear that Sanders’s hard-core ideological appeal can be easily disarmed with personal charisma.
And while O’Rourke has yet to decide on a presidential campaign, and would have to overcome an enormous field if he does, the Sandernistas are hardly paranoid to discern the kind of groundswell that could quickly propel O’Rourke to the front of the pack. Former Obama strategist and current Pod Save America host Dan Pfeiffer wrote a piece urging O’Rourke to run (without endorsing him). O’Rourke reportedly met with Obama, who favored him with public praise. “What I liked most about his race was that it didn’t feel constantly poll-tested,” Obama said. “It felt as if he based his statements and his positions on what he believed.”
What Obama is describing here is O’Rourke’s ability to speak naturally and with apparent conviction — one never knows if a politician is expressing genuine conviction or just performing it well — without taking hard-left policy stances. O’Rourke’s short career has allowed him to avoid being pinned down on every item in the party platform. He generally occupies the center of the Democratic Party, and often expresses broad sympathy for left-wing policy goals while suggesting he favors a more pragmatic alternative. On health care, he advocates “achieving universal health care coverage — whether it be through a single-payer system, a dual system, or otherwise — so that we can ensure everyone is able to see a provider when it will do the most good and will deliver health care in the most affordable, effective way possible.”
One of the deeper strategic goals of the left is to equate progressive maximalism with authenticity, like Sanders did. They want candidates who take uncompromising left-wing positions to be seen as authentic, and candidates who adopt more moderate lines to be seen as calculating and phony. The socialist left will attack any non-Sanders candidate, but O’Rourke is especially dangerous to their project precisely because of his Obama-like personal appeal.
The frequently invoked comparisons between O’Rourke and the 44th president explain both O’Rourke’s wide appeal within the party ranks and the mistrust he has inspired on the far left. Socialists generally regard Obama as a failure; Sanders often critiqued Obama implicitly, sometimes explicitly.
O’Rourke’s burgeoning image as the next Obama is the very reason socialists reject him. “I think they are suspicious of Beto because he has taken oil and gas money, he’s becoming the darling of big donors, and Obama likes him,” says historian Michael Kazin. “Beto is a lot like Obama, true;” writes Breunig, “it’s perhaps time for left-leaning Democrats to realize that may not be a good thing.” Of course, given that 95 percent of Democrats approve of Obama, this message has fairly limited utility as a line of attack.
The response to O’Rourke’s leftist critics is tellingly devoid of ideological content. “There are plenty of progressives who might run — from Beto and Bernie to Kamala and Booker and others,” says Jon Favreau, a former Obama speechwriter Pod Save America host. “And I think it’s more productive to focus our time and energy talking about why we support the candidates who inspire us.” Notice that Favreau is bracketing all the candidates he names as “progressives.” That is accurate, but it also elides the distinction — between the socialist candidate (Sanders) and liberal ones (everybody else) — that the Sanders left finds so crucial.
Contrast Favreau’s big tentism with this rebuke of O’Rourke by Jilani: “He has become a uniting figure for Democrats, beloved by all and loathed by none. What kind of Democratic politician can be so adored? Maybe one who rarely, if ever, challenged the powerful.” Liberals like Favreau are aiming to unite the party. To a leftist like Jilani, O’Rourke’s ability to appeal across the breadth of the party is a reason to reject him. Turning the primary into a faction fight is not a pitfall to be avoided but the very goal.
Baffled liberals, many still nursing wounds from 2016, see the passionate intensity of the Bernie movement as a personality cult, propelled by unthinking devotion to him (or spite at the party that they believe rigged the primary against him). It is anything but. The socialist left belongs to Sanders simply because there is no other presidential candidate who meets their exacting ideological criteria. They see O’Rourke as a threat to their project because, in important ways, he is.