On January 11th, a memo was released by Politico detailing a Bernie volunteer’s script encouraging canvassers in Iowa to “go negative” on Warren. Although the document was promptly deleted by official Sanders organizers and was not an official campaign memo, the benign script set off a digital war over the weekend of January 10th. The whole situation is a jarring suggestion of how fragile the US’ left-wing movement may be.
Some context. The event became exacerbated when Warren, after being asked about the memo, responded by saying she was “disappointed” in the Sanders’ campaign for going negative. She went on to use the perceived attack to make a case for herself as a consensus builder capable of building a broad electorate. Despite the relative banality of the statements, Warren’s response prompted outrage and counter-attack from Team Bernie, creating the conditions for a digital skirmish to begin. Salivating over a fresh fight in the primaries between two campaigns who had otherwise avoided serious clash, the furor within each camp would be stoked by the mainstream press eager for a weekend story: see press such as “Bernie Sanders’ campaign goes on the attack”, or the NYT reposting comments from nobodies as if they were a gossip magazine.
The loudest and most obnoxious bases of both supporters declared this mix-up to be legitimate rationale for launching slanderous attacks against each other. Sanders supporters decried Warren’s base as illegitimate progressives (“rich elites”), and accused Warren herself of being a duplicitous carpet-bagger of the left. Warren supporters accused Sanders’ supporters of being anti-intellectual and misogynistic, going further to labeling Sanders himself as an unserious curmudgeon partially responsible for Clinton’s loss in 2016.
Thankfully, the Sanders Campaign defused the situation, reiterating his friendship with Warren, clarifying that “no one is going to trash Elizabeth.” But still, across the internet we see supporters on both teams attempt to litigate each other for fault or blame, like children arguing who started a fight over cheap candy. Some supporters and official campaign apparatchiks are attempting to portray the other as the illegitimate progressive movement. In this spectacle, the deep distrust between certain segments of the left becomes disturbingly apparent.
In this, I am reminded of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, where he details the heartbreak and depression sourced from the ecstasy of seeing an anarcho-communist society cut-short following pointless infighting between different left-wing factions. Just as the left of Spain failed to maintain an operating basis of engagement with one another as fascists began storming the gates, factions on the left have been successfully goaded into whacking at each other over pointless squabbles as larger ideological enemies challenge the movement all together. There are differences between Warren and Sanders that are worth debating (I have argued that their difference is largely a disagreement in tactics rather than short-term objectives), but a path to unity and reconciliation is necessary if the left is to ever have a shot at seriously achieving a left-wing Federal government. Hostile squabbles reduce the ability of the left to coagulate into a force with legitimate agency.
Forget winning the general election – if Sanders or Warren have any shot of making it out of the Democratic primary, they will first need to overcome Joe Biden’s overwhelming support among African-American and older voters. There will be no victory for Warren or Sanders through the campaign of the other; these worthless internet battles are fruitless struggles over a relatively small, largely-white range of supporters. Even if cannibalizing each other was the path to victory, the sort of ruthless tactics deployed by each candidate’s worst supporters is hardly a winning tactic. You don’t subsume a base of support by trashing an individual’s supporters – you do it by building trust that your candidate is amenable to the concerns and world-view of the other. Bad-faith attacks are not only damaging to a left-wing movement as a whole, it’s just bad campaign strategy.
Although this infighting is mainly sourced from unofficial supporters compared to campaign leadership, this event reveals the weaknesses endemic in each candidate’s campaigns. Warren’s failure to retain perspective and escalate a fight with Sanders’ supporters over an unconfirmed document reveals a lack of clear strategy for building out a broader base of support from her campaign. Falling for an unconfirmed document also reveals that the candidate and her campaign may not truly understand how to anticipate or navigate tumultuous media events; a skill that must be perfected if the campaign is to remain victorious in a showdown with Joe Biden in the primary, against Donald Trump in the general election, or in exercising political power as President. In Bernie’s campaign, we observe its inability to contain its most toxic supporters that threaten the campaign’s ability to stay on message and navigate a hostile centrist media. In this lack of control, we observe the sort of toxic chaos Sanders’ “organizer-in-chief” presidency may unleash. If his supporters cannot be steered or guided to exercise self-restraint, it’s difficult to see how his movement will be able to persuade or coerce necessary political factions to conform to Sanders’ far-left priorities as President, let alone build a winning political coalition in the general election.
It is proposed…
that anyone serious about seeing the throes of capitalism seriously challenged in this country must accept that both Bernie and Warren are legitimate leaders to head a conceptual left-wing government. We must be willing to rally around the other, when the time is right, to ensure that the Democratic Party anoints a left-wing leader as opposed to corporate centrist by way of Biden or Buttigieg.
In this acceptance of legitimacy, anti-capital supporters of each candidate must be willing to form a pact to strategically deliver their votes to the candidate with the best shot at winning. Voters in those early states – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, have won the ideological lottery that allows them to appoint a leader of the left-wing movement. However, voters in later states – of which your writer resides – must be willing to deliver their votes, strategically, to the candidate with the best shot of winning the primary at that time. The candidates’ official campaigns could never publicly arrange this sort of pact. This is an unofficial execution of political agency between individuals, as we all share a desire to realize a true left-wing government. In pursuit of this strategy, the forces of each army should not be assigning personal distrust or hatred onto the other. That will only make the others’ supporters less likely to make the leap into the other when the time comes.
There is a scarier implication in all of this – specifically, how susceptible we are to the addicting violence of social media. Logging into Twitter and witnessing this battle reminded me of my childhood addiction to online, toxic fantasy worlds, where individuals transformed individual users into avatars of hate and malice. But now, these virtual battles are no longer constrained to the plains of Azeroth, but include entire political campaigns, their supporters, and everyone one of my friends and family. Digital battlegrounds are being used to sow anger and distrust between individuals rather than build relationships and consensus. This makes building a left-wing movement harder and more treacherous than it may have been in the analog days of the past. And we may seriously question if this whole skirmish was started by real people at all; it is possible that this discordance was stoked by trolls, bot-armies, or saboteurs deliberately looking to sow discord within the left-wing movement. There is no victory in conducting warfare on each other.