Bernie Diehards Need to Stop Fixating on Warren
Sanders diehards are scared of Warren’s rise. They should be more worried about Biden.
A panic is beginning to set in across Bernie World. Bernie Sanders is plateauing or losing momentum in the polls and a slew of recent surveys show that Elizabeth Warren is surging in early primary states and nationally, sometimes surpassing longtime front-runner Joe Biden. Warren even seems to be inching past Sanders in New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary where the Vermont senator’s huge margin of victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016 set in motion his stunning performance in that year’s nomination contest.
Sanders supporters are particularly concerned about how Warren is outstripping him among very liberal voters, and are out in full force arguing against Warren’s policies and leftist bona fides. Writers at Current Affairs and Jacobin and prominent members of the leftist commentariat online have made pointed criticisms of Warren, painting her as a figure whose similarities with Sanders are illusory and suggesting she’s likely to tack to the middle while in office. On top of this, the Sanders campaign has loosened the leash on its campaign attack dogs, suggesting an informal non-aggression pact between the two candidates may be unraveling a bit.
This escalation could spell trouble for the left. Should Sanders, Warren, and Biden remain the top three contenders going into the primaries, a protracted and vicious standoff between Warren and Bernie could potentially split the progressive vote, and allow Biden — an incoherent and sleep-inducing status quo candidate — to coast to the nomination. An overzealous campaign to push for the one true leftie could backfire, and produce the worst possible outcome for the left in the general election.
As Iowa approaches, the far left would be wise to temper its yearning for a socalist White House, and to think strategically about the future.
This is not an argument for diehard Bernie supporters to preemptively capitulate, but rather to be clear-eyed about two realities: that a Sanders presidency would share quite a lot in common with a Warren one, and that Sanders is far from building the mass movement that he’s promised will fuel his political revolution.
A protracted and vicious stand-off between Warren and Bernie could potentially split the progressive vote, and allow Biden to coast to the nomination.
Sanders supporters would be well-served by cultivating a political culture that encourages Sanders sympathizers to pivot to Warren if they deem it the best way to ensure a progressive wins their state primary, and that discourages Sanders from staying in the race if it becomes evident that he has no real chance of winning the nomination (in contrast to his decision to stay in it until the end in 2016).
That’s not to say there aren’t major differences between Sanders’ and Warren’s world views. Sanders is a lifelong activist who came up practicing civil disobedience during the Civil Rights movement; Warren is a former law professor who was a registered Republican well into her forties. Sanders believes capitalism is the chief culprit of society’s ills; Warren wants to fix capitalism to make it run more fairly. Sanders displays palpable disgust at the U.S. history of imperialism during the Cold War, and has been a consistent critic of Israel; Warren’s foreign policy record is not especially progressive, and portends the continuation of militaristic U.S. hegemony.
These ideological divergences translate into policy differences. While Warren has put out sweeping and often transformative policy plans on everything from climate change, to housing, to criminal justice reform, Sanders’ policy commitments tend to have even more ambitious aims. Most policy comes to life through legislation, however, and the Senate, a bastion of reactionary ideology, is likely to flatten out domestic policy differences between them, or render them irrelevant. The odds are against Democrats retaking control of the Senate, and even if they do win it back, the narrow margin of control would require the sign-on of moderate Democrats who oppose left-wing policies like Medicare-for-all.
The chief counterargument from Sanders supporters on this point is that Sanders has a weapon in his arsenal that Warren doesn’t: his grassroots army. Sanders optimists point to his remarkable fundraising hauls from small donors as a sign of his ability to gain traction with ordinary citizens. If Sanders were to make use of a massive socialist movement to pressure opponents of a left-wing agenda while in office, it would certainly mark an improvement over Obama’s squandering of his grassroots support.
But Sanders’ theory of change will ultimately remain a mere theory unless his supporter numbers improve dramatically. Despite agitating for a political revolution in mainstream U.S. politics since 2015, an agent of the status quo has held a double digit-lead over him in 2020 polls since spring; his approval ratings are underwater; congressional campaigns to support his vision with grassroots candidates have not been fruitful so far; and some labor unions perceive Warren as more capable of delivering on reform promises. Sanders has shown that his base is far more diverse than critics have suggested in the past, but he has not proven himself capable of mass appeal in the manner that Warren’s numbers have begun to hint at.
But Sander supporters can take some consolation in the fact that the practical gap between Warren and Sanders is dwarfed by the gulf between either of them and Biden. Biden entered the race as a “Stop Trump” candidate, and his vision is not a challenge to the establishment but a restoration of it. Given his retrograde record on issues like criminal justice, interventionism in the Middle East, school integration, tax policy, and corporate power, a Biden agenda would be a setback for anyone favoring bold progressive policy.
Sanders’ good ideas might not be enough to take on Biden. He may have reshaped the next generation of Democratic politics, but he’s not a once-in-a-generation political talent. He lacks finesse, ignores the power of personal narrative at his own peril, and has not demonstrated that he knows how to adapt to a deeply competitive candidate field where some of his ideas have become mainstream.
Sanders diehards may be tempted to pay tribute to their favorite politician by going to war on his behalf. But in that war, Warren is an ally. And ultimately their greatest homage would be to build a bigger movement and develop a bigger pool of skilled socialist politicians up and down the ballot who can deliver on the political revolution that Sanders helped start.