vision 2020

How to Maintain Civility in a Two-Candidate Democratic Race

All together now: Hee-haw! Hee-haw! Hee-haw! Photo: James Hager/Getty Images

With disorienting speed, the 2020 Democratic presidential nominating contest has gone from a multicandidate affair in which a contested convention seemed a good bet to a two-candidate competition. And it’s difficult to forget even for a moment that the two survivors, much as they have in common as late septuagenarian white men who seem to have been around forever, pretty clearly represent the two ideological factions that have been battling for supremacy in the Democratic Party for the last half-century.

So it’s an opportune time to ask if they can keep their expressions of disagreement within certain bounds to optimize their ability to unite and defeat the dangerous man in the White House.

Now by that I don’t just mean the sort of pro forma “I’ll support the nominee” pledges that are often followed by an explicit or implicit “even him.” And of course so long as Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are in the race, they will and should compare and contrast each other’s policy positions, records, and strategies for beating Trump and for governing. Is there any clear line that can be drawn between legitimate and constructive criticisms on the one hand and violations of basic intraparty comity on the other?

As an observer of and sometimes participant in many “struggles for the soul of the Democratic Party,” I’ve thought about this a lot. Suffice it to say that Democratic progressives frequently question the integrity and courage of “centrists,” who often return the favor by questioning the sanity and loyalty of progressives. We’ve seen this play out very recently in the bitterness of the Sanders campaign toward a “Democratic Establishment” that is as much of an obstacle to progressive politics as the “Republican Establishment,” and the party itself as an institution to conquer and subdue, not to reform and lead. And we’ve seen it in the anti-Sanders freakout among centrist elites that led to a consolidation of support behind Biden, spurring accusations of a “coup.” It does not bode well for a party that will come together in Milwaukee prepared to smite the common foe.

There is not a lot Democrats can do about a news media addicted to viewing politics as warfare or about Republicans who clearly believe stoking the fires of Democratic disunity was crucial to Trump’s win in 2016 and is a key partisan asset now as well. But candidates, campaign surrogates, and allied activists — and even Twitter warriors — can follow a few key rules:

1. Don’t impugn the motives or integrity of fellow Democrats. The very first principle of party unity is to recognize that it is entirely possible to have different policy views, political strategies, constituencies, and rhetorical habits for perfectly legitimate reasons. “Centrist” should never be assumed to mean “corrupt” or “unprincipled,” and “progressive” should never be assumed to mean “extremist” or “inflexible.” Sure there are corrupt and unprincipled and extremist and inflexible people in Democratic politics, just as there are in every field of human endeavor, from aerospace engineering to taxidermy. But never assume the worst of fellow Democrats. They will likely reciprocate the disrespect.

2. Note common principles along with differences of opinion about how to promote them. In the debate over health-care policy, we have heard Bernie Sanders and his supporters suggest that only they want universal health care coverage, and we have heard Joe Biden and his supporters accuse M4A advocates of undermining Obamacare. Both charges are not only inaccurate but ignore the larger reality that Trump and his Republicans want to reduce existing health-care coverage by repealing Obamacare, turning Medicaid into a block grant, and voucherizing Medicare. Similarly, there are reasons other than protecting profits that candidates like Joe Biden don’t want to abolish private health insurance, and there are reasons other than fiscal irresponsibility for progressives’ willingness to expand the federal government to provide health coverage for everybody. Overstating disagreements is always tempting, and always dangerous.

3. Don’t negatively cherry-pick your opponent’s record. The thing about a Biden-Sanders primary battle is that both of them have been in politics and public office for longer than the median voter has been alive. They have immensely detailed records that only a thorough understanding of long-lost contexts can possibly explain. So no, don’t imply that Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s vice-president and the overwhelming favorite of African-American voters, is a bigot for what he said about an overwhelmingly unpopular means of school desegregation in the 1970s. And no, don’t suggest that Bernie Sanders, a civil libertarian if ever there was one, is a crypto-Leninist because he challenged U.S. support for right-wing authoritarian regimes during the Cold War. Beyond that, the poisoned fruits of oppo research should never be front and center in a primary competition.

4. Recognize that different strokes for different folks strengthens the party: The spectacle of the Republican Party becoming a cult of personality focused on Donald Trump should be instructive for Democrats. To a rapidly increasing extent, the GOP is losing touch with any message that isn’t about the power and glory of the 45th president and the anti-American perfidy of those who get in his way. Democrats should rejoice in their diversity and their ability to reach and represent people where and how they live. That applies not just to differences in race and ethnicity and sexual orientation and gender identity and age and religion but to region, class, and occupation. With all that diversity inevitably comes diversity in policy positions, strategic perspectives, and even in hot buttons and sore points. If you want a unanimous party marching in lockstep, look at the monochromatic Republicans and think better of it.

5. Practice coalition politics. Yes, there are occasionally moments when political parties have factional and ideological clashes where there must be a clear winner and loser for a party to move ahead. The ideological realignment of both major parties during and after the civil-rights revolution was a case in point: The long era of the Democratic Party as a coalition of urban liberals, agrarian populists, and southern segregationists had to end, and there were all sorts of consequences that were politically mixed but morally essential. That’s not where the party is now. However much Wall Street donors and DSA activists and African-American legislators and Latino labor organizers and suburban resistance members and boomers and millennials may misunderstand or mistrust each other, this is no time for Democrats to fight and split and wander in the wilderness for a while. Not while the alternative is today’s Republican Party, committed to plutocracy and nativism, hostile to civil rights and voting rights, determined to hang on to a white patriarchal culture by subverting democracy and prone to a bristling militarism toward the rest of the world — and led by Donald J. Trump, who is remaking that party in his terrifying image.

6. Cut deals if necessary to keep the peace. No matter who wins the Sanders-Biden slugfest, it is important that Democrats not treat the outcome as one part of the party conquering another. Unity gestures really can help. In 2016, I urged Hillary Clinton to choose Elizabeth Warren as her running mate to unite the party and double down on gender equity. Instead, she choose a fellow centrist, Tim Kaine. No matter how few progressive defections ensued, there were clearly too many. The winner should do everything possible to integrate the loser and his staff and supporters into the general-election effort. Nomination battles aren’t (or at least shouldn’t be) winner-take-all propositions like general elections.

To put it another way, and more bluntly, there is no virtue or vice either Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders possesses that is worth increasing the odds of a Trump victory in November. That’s worth remembering before savaging the intraparty foe on Twitter.

How to Maintain Civility in a Two-Candidate Democratic Race