vision 2020

Bernie Boneheads and Liz Losers Unite!

Stronger together. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

If you are interested enough in politics to know the proper pronunciation of Pete Buttigieg’s name — and progressive enough in your ideological convictions to consider him a soulless centrist (if not a covert CIA agent) — then there’s a good chance that your Twitter feed has taught you the following things over the past 48 hours:

• Bernie Sanders is a secret sexist with no social skills; a curmudgeon with so little tact, his response to a close friend telling him that she intended to run for president was (as BuzzFeed News confirmed) to declare that a woman couldn’t possibly defeat Donald Trump in 2020. Never mind that female candidates delivered the House to Democrats in 2018, while Senator Tammy Baldwin won reelection in Wisconsin by double digits, and Gretchen Whitmer won the governor’s mansion in Michigan — the “brosocialist” senator’s fetishization of the white male proletarian rendered him oblivious to the demographic character of the emerging Democratic majority. And in the last two days, Bernard has displayed exactly zero interest in trying to do better: After an unidentified third party (probably some eavesdropper on the Buttigieg or Biden campaigns) leaked word of Sanders’s misogynistic punditry to the press — and Elizabeth Warren had the temerity to not politely cover for a male ally’s sexism — Bernie baselessly attributed the leak to Warren’s staffers, called them liars, and then literally gaslit his supposed friend on national television at Tuesday night’s debate in Iowa. When Warren let him off easy, pivoting away from a question about Sanders’s comment to a broader case for her own electability, Bernie added pedantic insult to microagression: After Liz said that she was the only person on the debate stage who’d defeated an incumbent Republican in the past 30 years, Sanders mansplained that actually he had beaten one in November 1990, which was only 29 years and two months ago. Now, for the crime of refusing to shake their patriarch’s hand, Bernie’s troglodytic Trotskyite supporters have declared Warren to be Margret Thatcher incarnate. More interested in preening displays of their supposed ideological superiority than actually making change for America’s marginalized (their trust funds having left these dialectical materialists with only post-material needs), the Bernard Brethren are setting fire to the fragile foundations of the progressive movement in their maniacal quest to burn the “neoliberal” witch.

• Elizabeth Warren is a snake and a wrecker. After Bernie Sanders dutifully honored the terms of their nonaggression pact for nearly a year, her campaign used the disclosure of an alleged call script — that merely suggested the Vermont senator has built a broader base of support than she has (which is a fact) — as an excuse to assassinate the character of the progressive movement’s most viable challenger to Joe Biden on the eve of the Iowa caucuses. Of course, Bernie Sanders did not tell Warren that a woman “couldn’t defeat Trump.” After all, as the senator himself notes, Hillary Clinton came within an inch of defeating Trump in 2016. Obviously, in that years-old private conversation, Sanders merely observed that Trump would attempt to weaponize misogyny against a female nominee (as the Washington Post has confirmed). Maybe — maybe — he suggested that a woman would have a harder time defeating Trump than a man would, because a woman would have to overcome our patriarchal culture’s pervasive misogyny. But then, wouldn’t it be a scandal if he said the opposite? Isn’t it sexist to deny the reality of America’s sexism? What, Bernie Sanders listening to women when they explained the causes of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat is a scandal? No. The scandal is a cynical, professional-class, faux-gressive leaking a distorted, decontextualized account of a private conversation, willfully erasing Bernie’s 1990 triumph over Republican incumbent Peter Smith, and then performatively refusing to shake Sanders’s hand, all in a desperate bid to derail his candidacy — no matter the consequences for the movements and causes she claims to be “fighting” for. After all, deep down in her “capitalist bones,” she’d prefer a Joe Biden presidency to a socialist one anyway, and so would her PMC careerist supporters. More interested in social climbing than socialism (their Ivy League diplomas leaving these capitalist progressives with no stake in progressing beyond capitalism), these Liz Lads are now setting fire to the fragile foundations of the progressive movement in their maniacal quest to cast Bernie as Archie Bunker, and then burn him in effigy.

There are, of course, other versions of this story. And, as far as I can tell, the median extremely online Warren supporter would reject the first as a caricature (of both Sanders and their position), while the typical Twitter-addled Bernie backer would say much the same about the latter. Nevertheless, on the morning after the final Democratic primary debate before the Iowa caucuses, intra-left enmity persists. And for understandable reasons. Given limited publicly available information, Warren and Sanders’s dueling accounts of the latter’s private punditry, and the anonymous sourcing of every news article on the matter, the question of what Bernie Sanders told Elizabeth Warren over dinner in 2018, and how that conversation came to be a national news story today, is at least partly a Rorschach test. And it is hard to maintain faith that your campaign — and its ideologically proximate rival — share the same values when you no longer share the same reality.

My own (inescapably subjective) read on the controversy is this: I don’t think it’s possible to know with certainty whether or not Sanders ever told Warren that a woman “couldn’t win” in 2020. And, based on current reporting, I also don’t think it is possible to know with certainty whether Warren herself, a rogue Warren staffer, or someone else seeded the CNN story that kicked off this mishegas. But whatever the facts on those points, Warren did have the option of either declining to confirm the story, or else confirming it in a manner that allowed both sides to save face (“Bernie raised the concern that Trump would weaponize misogyny against a female nominee,” or some such thing). She chose otherwise. If her account is true, I don’t think she had an obligation to characterize Sanders’s remarks in more charitable terms. But it does seem to me like killing this story fast was unambiguously in the best interest of the progressive movement, and likely in her campaign’s best interest as well (her campaign reportedly came to the latter conclusion by Monday night). Flatly contradicting Sanders’s account was guaranteed to give the story legs, while fudging the matter had no obvious downside, unless Warren saw an upside in seeding a “Bernie is a sexist” narrative (even if some staffer came forward and said, “Actually, Warren told me that Bernie said verbatim, ‘a woman can’t win,’” and the press somehow invested this hearsay with more authority than Warren’s own telling, “Elizabeth Warren selflessly lies to cover for Bernie” does not seem like a bad story for her campaign, in my opinion). The fact that Warren chose to directly contradict Sanders anyway may reflect nothing more than her desire to tell the truth. But it’s not clear to me why asserting the absolute authority of her memory of a year-old conversation should have taken precedence over avoiding sowing intraleft acrimony at a critical juncture in the 2020 race. Strategically fudging the truth to advance causes you care about is more or less every politician’s job. So, it strikes me as reasonable that some Sanders supporters interpreted her statement as confirmation that this was a fight that the Warren campaign had both picked and wanted. Meanwhile, if Warren did wish to de-escalate the conflict with Sanders Tuesday night, then declining his handshake while standing on a stage in a room full of reporters and cameras was political malpractice.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter that much what I think about this, nor what any other progressive does. You can believe that Bernie is a secret sexist (his decades of advocacy for the rights of women and LGBT individuals notwithstanding). Or you can believe that Warren is a secret corporate shill (who only took the side of working people in their conflicts with credit card companies, big banks, and the Obama administration as a savvy exercise in political brand-building). You can believe that the typical Bernie supporter’s favorite pastime is online harassment, or that the typical Warren supporter’s is updating their LinkedIn page. Or you can believe, in spite of everything, that Bernie, Warren, and their people are truly good at heart.

Regardless, your position on these matters will not change three brute facts: (1) There are not very many people in this country who are eager to spend copious amounts of time, money, and attention on progressive politics. (2) There are not very many politicians in America who are as responsive to the demands and desires of such people as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. (3) As a consequence of the first two points, Bernie and Warren supporters cannot win much of anything without each other.

Sanders’s nomination is not going to trigger a proletarian uprising that frees democratic socialists from the indignity of seeking common cause with left-liberals. Warren’s nomination, meanwhile, is not going to make the Democratic Party’s Wall Street wing stop worrying and learn to love “accountable capitalism.” And anyhow, neither candidate is going to win the nomination without the aid of the others’ supporters. This inescapable codependence does not mean that the left must conduct the primary like a game of patty-cake. Two people can’t win the Democratic nomination. And although Warren and Sanders have disparate demographic strengths, both would nevertheless (almost certainly) be better off if the other dropped out and vigorously endorsed them. Drawing contrasts is healthy and fine.

But neither candidate is dropping out before Iowa. And the lower Joe Biden places in that state, the better both Warren and Sanders’s chances of catching him will be. It is therefore in each candidate’s immediate interest to see the other gain ground on the Democratic front-runner in the coming weeks. And it is in the long-term interests of both candidates — and the progressive movement more broadly — to maintain a modicum of goodwill and fellow feeling among the small minority of humans who care deeply about pulling American politics to the left.

There are some “normie” suburban Democrats who are receptive to a social democratic message when it comes from Warren and her allies, but not when it comes from Bernie or his. And the reverse is true of some disaffected, non-college-educated voters who’ve given up on both parties. A movement that cultivates a comradely attitude between Bernie and Warren activists will be one that is better able to cohere the candidates’ disparate bases into a faction large enough to compete for hegemony within the Democratic Party. A movement that cultivates internecine conflict for its own sake — which is to say, for cathartic, expressive, or media brand-building purposes — will allow meek centrists to inherit the (increasingly uninhabitable) Earth.

Cultivating intra-left solidarity does not mean keeping silent about substantive conflicts, or sincerely liking or respecting everyone to the left of Amy Klobuchar. But it does mean making some effort to interpret other progressives’ actions and intentions with charity, and keeping in mind that the world is shot through with ambiguity, that all us our prisoners to your own subjectivity, and thus, that people can earnestly share most of our values without sharing our perception of any given event. And it means — once you’ve extended such charity and epistemic modesty, and arrived at the unavoidable conclusion that a supposed ally is just an incontrovertible jerk or hack or wrecker — at least considering whether saying as much serves a constructive political purpose, or just a cathartic, personal one. In simpler terms, it means not filling Elizabeth Warren’s mentions with snake emoji. Twitter may reward brawling factionalists. But the American political system rewards movements with numbers. And no faction of the U.S. left has much hope of building that kind of movement without all of the others.

Bernie Boneheads and Liz Losers Unite!