A few days ago, I shared what I thought was a fairly innocuous observation about a fundamental difference between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Warren spends most of her campaign unpacking and explaining detailed policy proposals, many of them excellent, while Sanders splits his emphasis between his own strong plans and his calls for the political revolution he has consistently said will be required for any substantive progressive policy wins.
“Smart policies are very important,” I tweeted. “But we don’t lose because we lack smart policies, we lose because we lack sufficient power to win those policies up against entrenched elite forces that will do anything to defeat us.”
Within seconds, I was in the grip of a full-on 2016 primary flashback. I was accused of being a shill for Bernie and an enemy of Warren (I’m neither). My feed filled up with partisans of both candidates hurling insults at each other: She gets things done, he is all talk; she’s a pretender, he’s the real deal; he has a gender problem, hers is with race; she’s in the pocket of the arms industry, he’s an easy mark for Donald Trump; he should back her because she’s a woman, she should back him because he started this wave. And much more too venal to mention.
I immediately regretted saying anything (as is so often the case on that godforsaken platform). Not because the point about outside movement power is unimportant, but because I had been trying to put off getting sucked into the 2020 horserace for as long as possible.
Liberals in the U.S. often say the Trump presidency is Not Normal. And yeah, it’s a killer-clown horror show. But the truth is that from most outsider perspectives, there is nothing about U.S. politics that is normal — particularly the interminable length of campaigns. Normal countries have federal elections that consume two, maybe three months of people’s political lives once every four to five years; Canada caps federal campaigns at 50 days, Japan at 12. In the U.S., on the other hand, there’s a total of about nine months in every four-year cycle when politics is not consumed by either a presidential or midterm horserace.
The very last thing we need is for the two strongest left/progressive candidates and their supporters to tear each other apart for the next eight months.
It’s a spectacle that comes at a steep price. The relentless process of picking electoral winners sucks up intellectual energy, media airtime, movement muscle, and boatloads of money that are badly needed elsewhere. Like organizing to stop war with Iran, for instance. Or supporting movements trying to free migrants from Trump’s concentration camps. Or figuring out what a transformative Green New Deal should look like on the ground. Or building international alliances with people in countries facing their own hate-filled authoritarian strongmen.
There’s another reason to resist attempts to turn Sanders vs. Warren into a redux of the 2016 primaries eight months before the first vote is cast. Today’s electoral dynamics are absolutely nothing like 2016. That was a two-way race between two candidates with radically different records and ideas, in which one candidate’s gain really was the other’s loss. A winner-takes-all race like that pretty much always turns into some kind of death match.
These primaries are another species entirely. There is a small army of candidates, with two of the leaders running on platforms so far to the left, they would have been unimaginable for anyone but a protest candidate as recently as 2014. The frontrunner, meanwhile, is eminently beatable (especially if Joe Biden keeps showing us exactly who he is, as he did about six times this week).
All this means that for leftists and progressives, the name of the game is not canceling out each other’s candidates. It’s doing everything possible not to end up with a Wall Street-funded centrist running against a president with the power of incumbency. That means making the case against the idea that candidates positioning themselves as the “safe choice” are in any way safe, whether at the polls or once in office. And it means helping to bring more and more people to one of the genuinely progressive frontrunners. There’s plenty of time to worry about vote-spitting down the road — the task now is to enlarge the number of votes available to be split (or combined).
Because Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was absolutely right when she said on ABC’s “This Week,” “We have a very real risk of losing the presidency to Donald Trump if we don’t have a presidential candidate that’s fighting for true transformational change in lives of working people in the United States.”
That was clear on the morning of November 9, 2016. In case more proof is required, see the recent devastating elections in India and Australia, where right-wing incumbents won despite predictions to the contrary, as well as the results of the European parliament vote, most notably in France and Italy, where the far right has surged. Again and again, we learn the same lesson: Tepid centrists carrying the baggage of decades of neoliberal suffering are no match for machineries of scapegoating willing to stop at nothing to win. Luca Casarini, a longtime Italian activist who now works on an Italian ship that has rescued dozens of migrants in the Mediterranean, recently put it to me in these harrowing terms: “There is pleasure being taken in the suffering of others. That is what these politicians are selling.”
Even on the off chance that Biden did manage to pull off a Macron and win (which he’s about 35 years too old for), there is the problem of what he would (and wouldn’t) do once in power. “No one’s standard of living will change. Nothing would fundamentally change,” he told a swanky fundraiser at the Carlyle Hotel — a philosophy he helpfully reiterated, for those at the back: “You beat them. Without changing the system.”
As I’ve said before a time or two, in the age of climate breakdown, if nothing fundamentally changes in the political and economic spheres, then absolutely everything is going to change in the physical sphere. Indeed these changes are already well underway. So we either change those human-created systems or the natural systems on which all life depends will ruthlessly force change upon us. Given this and so many other life-and-death crises, would it still be worth substituting Trump for Biden or some similarly compromised runner-up? Without question or hesitation. Getting rid of Trump in 2020 is a civilizational imperative, if only to slow this slide into barbarism.
But what the progressive surge in these primaries is telling us is that we can, and must, do so much better.
For that to happen, the very last thing we need is for the two strongest left/progressive candidates and their supporters to tear each other apart for the next eight or so months, in a desperate bid to discredit a perceived rival. What should be happening instead is exactly what Sanders and Warren have been doing (with only a couple minor lapses): steadily building their bases by talking about ideas and strategies, thereby sharpening the contrast — in policies, track record, and electability — with Biden.
Because despite the various transparent attempts by Democratic power brokers to boost the narrative of a pitched Sanders vs. Warren battle over a finite pot of progressive voters, there is less overlap between the two candidates’ bases of support than is commonly assumed.
There’s plenty of time to worry about vote-spitting down the road — the task now is to enlarge the number of votes available to be split (or combined).
“Sanders and Warren have competed for months over the party’s left flank,” Politico recently claimed. In fact, both have dramatically expanded that flank, drawing on different parts of the U.S. electorate. Sanders’s base is younger and more multiracial; Warren’s is older, whiter, and wealthier, according to a CBS News poll and one from Fox News. Sanders galvanizes traditional nonvoters and is more likely to peel off some Trump voters down the road; Warren is more able to shift former Hillary Clinton supporters to the left.
What is really happening in this race, and this is why the rivalry is being so relentlessly stoked, is that centrist candidates presumed to be frontrunners or at least serious contenders are flailing, and the progressive flank is expanding — to the extent that Sanders and Warren’s combined bases exceed Biden’s. This is an extraordinary turn of events representing an unprecedented revival of unabashedly left ideas in U.S. politics. In short, it’s not 2016, when broad support for Sanders’s bold progressive policies took nearly everyone by surprise — it’s something entirely new.
None of this is to say that Bernie and Warren are interchangeable. There are big differences between their policies, styles, and world views: on the role of markets and the military; on the depths of our structural crises; on the urgency of standing up to the Democratic Party machine; on the role of outside movement power; and more. These differences are important and should be explored and clarified during this interminable campaign. Like everyone else, I have my own preference (hardly a well-kept secret), and I’ll be writing more on that later. We should all also pay close attention to how messages resonate beyond our particular tribes and ideological circles — because beating Trump is paramount.
But as we make these assessments, let’s not lose sight of the depths of the shift we are witnessing. Whether it’s Sanders’s stalwart support for Medicare for All or Warren’s plans to break up big tech, neither politician is primarily trafficking in the kind of win-win market based “solutions” that never ask the wealthy to give up much of anything at all. Both are saying to the multimillionaire and billionaire class: You have won enough, now you have to share so other people can thrive.
It’s also tremendously significant that these sorts of policies are catching fire not during an economic crisis like in 2008, but in an economy that is considered booming by conventional measures. In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the New Deal to solve the most profound crisis in the history of capitalism, one for which markets had no semblance of a solution of their own. Warren is calling for New Deal levels of market intervention, and Sanders is leading a revival of democratic socialism at a time when the economic fundamentals are strong — and that has significantly further-reaching implications. Because it means that when capitalism is doing precisely what it was built to do — produce unprecedented wealth — it is a crisis for both the majority of people and the planetary systems on which we depend.
The threat that this realization represents to establishment players like the Wall-Street-funded Third Way think tank and Center for American Progress is the real reason that both have begun to hold up Warren as a more palatable version of Sanders. It’s not because Warren actually has their backing; it’s because this revved-up rivalry is viewed as the most effective way to undercut Sanders and, with it, the left’s growing base in the party.
There is no question that the elite antipathy for Bernie runs deeper than for Warren, for obvious reasons. Writing on his landmark speech on democratic socialism at George Washington University earlier this month, Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor marveled that “he named capitalism as the culprit and democratic socialism as a solution. What a breathtaking turn of events.” And as the very real prospect of an attack on Iran heats up, it’s equally clear that Bernie represents the far greater threat to the bipartisan consensus for endless war.
But Warren, because of her track record and her competence, is a threat in her own right. To Wall Street, for whom she has been a nemesis since 2008; to big tech, whose obscene profits and monopoly power would take a hit under her plans to break them apart; to the ultrarich as a class, because of her proposed wealth tax. So make no mistake: For corporate Democrats, the endgame is still to defeat both Warren and Sanders. And in this never-ending and crowded campaign, that effort will shape-shift many times over.
It is true that Biden has had a bad week. But if Biden implodes, there’s a phalanx of other candidates, recently seen hopping from one $2,800-a-head Wall Street fundraiser to the next, all with variations on the same reassuring message: I’ll change things just enough to fend off the pitchforks and to save you from the social embarrassment of Trump, but not so much that you will notice a thing.
“It is important to rotate the crops,” David Adelman, a financial industry lawyer, told the New York Times. He was ostensibly explaining why he had co-hosted a fundraiser for Beto O’Rourke, but in doing so, he also summed up precisely how Wall Street sees Washington: as its plantation. It engineers the seeds, plants them, then reaps what it sowed.
These forces, and the think tanks they finance, want the Warren and Sanders camps at each other’s throats, demoralizing and weakening each other. Because that’s exactly how the progressive bloc stalls or shrinks enough for Biden (or some newer political GMO crop) to walk away with it.
The current political map is confusing, there is no doubt. Progressive vote-splitting is a real possibility down the road — but so is vote-combining, and the more progressive voters there are, the more viable that prospect will become. There are multiple routes by which a progressive majority spread over several candidates can be translated into a Democratic ticket that is more progressive than any we’ve seen in nearly a century, maybe even ever.
There are also multiple ways that the historic opportunity of this progressive surge can be lost. And that loss begins with scarcity thinking, trying to tear each other down, and fooling ourselves into believing that it’s 2016 all over again. When in fact, we are somewhere we have never been before.