Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren supporters, establishment Democrats and corporate media outlets want you at each other’s throats. They want you focused on each other and not on their preferred candidates, all the while using this conflict to generate clicks and satisfy their sponsors.
Don’t take the bait.
In giving this advice, I understand that these matters are fraught with emotion and thus that it’s hard to separate one’s feelings from one’s electoral hopes. Many Sanders supporters, I know, are downright furious with Warren. Warren supporters who believe their candidate of choice are likely disgusted with Bernie and the “Bernie Bros” who reflexively support him. From my perspective, I am less angry than I am disappointed that the situation evidently has turned so acrimonious so fast and in a way that so clearly benefits the less progressive challengers in the field.
So, where do we begin? Well, to be sure, some Sanders and Warren fans don’t need much prodding to get into it with one another, if any. Some of Bernie’s faithful have distrusted Warren ever since she endorsed Hillary Clinton over her more progressive primary challenger in the run-up to the last election, considering the move a betrayal of the highest order. They also see the Massachusetts senator as somewhat of a cheap imitation of Bernie and his ideals.
Some Warren backers, meanwhile, fear Sanders as a candidate who promotes disunity among the Democratic ranks by holding to a my-way-or-the-highway approach. By extension, they might argue he hasn’t done enough to rein in the #BernieOrBust faction of his base or respond to charges of sexism and sexual harassment from his followers and members of his campaign. As it was with Hillary, so is it with Elizabeth. 2016 becomes 2020.
It is against this backdrop that we might view the latest turn in tensions between the Sanders and Warren camps, one fueled by an incendiary report by CNN’s MJ Lee which tells of a meeting in 2018 between the two candidates in which the former expressed to the latter his belief that a woman couldn’t win the presidency.
The account is jarring to many observers for a number of reasons. For one, this depiction of Sanders contrasts starkly with past statements regarding female candidates and his own track record. It was Sanders, after all, who urged Warren to run in 2016 and only took up the progressive mantle when Warren didn’t oblige. He also, despite Clinton’s revisionist history, campaigned heavily for the Democratic Party nominee after bowing out of the race and has been a vocal supporter of women’s rights and of the idea of a woman as president.
Even for critics and outlets that tend to be critical of him, these supposed remarks of his didn’t pass the smell test, and for his part, Bernie denies ever saying anything to this effect. As he recalls the conversation, he simply advised Warren that Donald Trump would try to weaponize misogyny and other forms of prejudice should she seriously contend for the Democratic Party nomination. That’s markedly different from the tale told by the sources cited within Lee’s piece, who some believe are individuals affiliated exclusively with Warren’s campaign. In this respect, it’s at best a fabrication and at worst a baseless accusation.
Warren did not back down from the central thrust of the MJ Lee piece, however, or offer any sort of apology. As she asserted in a public statement, Bernie did, in fact, share his view that a woman couldn’t win the presidential race, a notion with which she disagrees. She did not expand beyond that confirmation of the CNN report except to say that she and Sanders “have far more in common than our differences on punditry” and that, as friends and allies, they would work together to defeat Trump and promote a government that works for the American people.
Elizabeth Warren may have struck a conciliatory tone in the closing of her statement, but as her accusation went viral, the damage, as they say, was done. By the time the latest Democratic Party debate rolled around, mere days after the “bombshell” article release, the stage was set for hostilities to flare up once more.
CNN, the debate’s host, was only too happy to oblige after helping to fuel this fire in the first place. During one astonishing sequence, Sanders was asked why he had said a woman couldn’t be president, directly assigning him guilt in a case in which he disputed the prevailing narrative. Upon Sanders offering his defense and rebuttal, the moderator turned to Warren and asked her how she felt about Bernie’s words back in 2018, as if his denial meant nothing.
This was the most egregious instance of anti-Bernie bias during the debate, but by no means the only example of a question framed in such a way as to immediately put him and his claims in doubt. On more than one occasion, the on-screen text accompanying the questions asked was thinly-veiled criticism of Sanders’s positions. It presumed his opposition to the USMCA is “wrong,” his level of federal spending would “bankrupt the country,” and his health care plan would “cost voters and the country.” It was up to Bernie alone to reverse this narrative. That’s asking a lot from a format in which candidates are jockeying for speaking time and interruptions are par for the course.
When Sanders approached Warren post-debate seeking a handshake and instead getting an indignant and incredulous response from her as to whether her colleague had essentially called her a liar on national television, CNN had exactly what it wanted. The showdown it had built up prior to the event had come to fruition and here was the image waiting to go viral. What was discussed during the debate? Did climate change get its usual token mention at a point halfway or later through the broadcast and never again? Who cares. The two progressive candidates are fighting. That is the story the network ran with.
In the aftermath, Bernie supporters and others sympathetic to both candidates took to Twitter to convey their vehement disapproval with Elizabeth Warren, popularizing the #NeverWarren hashtag and dotting her mentions with snake emojis and electronic shouts of “Liar!” For the observers still lamenting the protestations of the “Bernie or Bust” crowd against Hillary Clinton from 2016, history was repeating itself in an ugly way. That in both cases it was a woman bearing the brunt of Sanders backers’ scorn was therefore no coincidence. Here was the Bernie Bros’ naked sexism on display for all to see.
At this point, most media outlets are treating this “clash” as somewhat of an inevitability, the byproduct of two progressives with passionate followings being in a race together that only one person can win. Throw in some half-baked analysis as to where their differences lie and you have a postmortem column about the growing schism between them ready to serve to a general public eager for excitement amid an otherwise drab discussion of policy specifics.
Even if things would eventually have to come to a head between Sanders and Warren, though, that a spat would not only occur this early but with such antagonism and to be actively encouraged by the American mass media should give leftists pause. After all, this sowing of the seeds of discord is something we might expect from, say, Joe Biden’s campaign.
For supporters of either Sanders or Warren to launch invectives at one another across social media when the prospects of a Biden or Buttigieg ticket are very real feels unproductive. It’s one thing if the primary race were down to a two-headed competition between two of the most progressive members of the Senate. It’s another when we haven’t even gotten to Iowa and New Hampshire and prospective leftist voters are seeking to nullify the other out of spite or an overdeveloped sense of self-righteousness.
Of course, this tends to be easier said than done. To reiterate, our investment in these candidates is fraught with emotion and no one likes to be lectured on what constitutes being a “responsible” and informed voter. That said, splitting the progressive vote with more than half a year until the general election is ill-advised. Plus, there’s the function of sticking CNN et al.‘s attempts at manipulation to them. That’s always fun.
Who do I believe is telling the truth in all of this? Not that it matters or that you likely care, but owing to his aforementioned record of outspokenness on the empowerment of women, I do believe Bernie Sanders. I also am a Sanders supporter, so take that for what it’s worth.
Could I be wrong? Sure, I frequently am. Does this necessarily mean I think Elizabeth Warren is lying if I believe Bernie? Well, it’s complicated. Out of respect for Warren, I would tend to take her at her word as well, and her post-debate emotional reaction to seeing Sanders would indicate she’s not doing this all for show.
Could it be possible that Sanders and Warren recall this meeting differently? Certainly, if not definitely. Under this condition, perhaps Bernie doesn’t remember what he said exactly. I’m not about to suggest that Warren heard it differently or misconstrued Bernie’s meaning. That’s a loaded statement and it certainly doesn’t jibe with her reputation as a sharp policy wonk.
I will note, however, it’s a little disappointing to see her align herself with Amy Klobuchar, of all people, on the subject of not losing elections like her male contemporaries. Based on Klobuchar’s rumored poor treatment of her staffers, the commonality of being a woman and an electoral success are about all she should trumpet. Warren’s recent vote in favor of the USMCA (alongside Klobuchar) likewise doesn’t do her much favor in progressive circles, especially when Chuck Schumer (!) is outflanking her to the left.
In all, though, how much should Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren supporters buy into this divide? Very little, if at all, anger, disappointment, and hurt aside. Because establishment Democrats and corporate media outlets want you at each other’s throats. They want you focused on each other and not on their preferred candidates, all the while using this conflict to generate clicks and satisfy their sponsors.
Don’t take the bait.