So much for unity. Just a week after progressive leaders called for further cooperation between the presidential campaigns of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, a series of media leaks has led to an escalation of hostilities between the candidates and their supporters. For some diehards, the weekend fireworks were vindication of their belief that unity was always a pipe dream; in an election, they say, there can only be one winner, and that zero-sum calculus necessarily leads to conflict. “Perhaps this new level of hostility between the campaigns can be put back in the bag,” said Nathan Robinson, editor of Current Affairs and a vociferous Sanders backer, who last week argued for harsher criticism of Warren. “But it shouldn’t be. We need to be critical and blunt. There is every reason to be hostile toward a candidate who has just tried to destroy your campaign with a damaging allegation.”
Several progressive leaders and groups — some who’ve endorsed Warren, some who back Sanders, and some who’ve yet to endorse either candidate — strongly disagreed. In conversations with The Intercept, they called for a truce, insisting that a slugfest between Warren and Sanders, less than a month before the Iowa caucuses, only helps the corporate wing of the Democratic Party. Leaders from MoveOn, the Working Families Party, Justice Democrats, Democracy for America, the Center for Popular Democracy Action, Sunrise Movement, and Indivisible all called on the two candidates to cease attacking each other and focus on the issues. And the Warren campaign today told BuzzFeed it wants to “de-escalate.” Neither the Warren nor the Sanders campaign responded to The Intercept’s request for comment.
“These new hostilities have been needled and fostered by people who want to maintain control in this current system. It’s the age-old ruling-class strategy of divide and conquer,” said labor leader Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “The only way the people win is through solidarity. So stop beating up on each other, figure out how to find common ground, and get back to talking about the issues that matter, like health care, the dignity of all work, and the existential threat of climate crisis.”
The rising conflict sets up a primetime showdown between Sanders and Warren at CNN’s debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday night. “These campaigns need to understand that spats like this will diminish aggregate support for progressives,” said David Segal, a progressive strategist and former Rhode Island state representative who has advocated strategies to unify progressives.
“Last week’s Des Moines Register poll suggested progressives might come in first and second in the Iowa caucus,” he added. “It’s hard to imagine something more likely to undermine that outcome — and hand it to [Joe] Biden or [Pete] Buttigieg — than a three-weeklong throwdown between Sanders and Warren. They need to simmer down and provide a clear display of solidarity on the debate stage tomorrow.”
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich put the same point more colorfully: “If progressive Democrats don’t hang together, corporate Democrats will hang them separately.”
Over the weekend, the de facto nonaggression pact began to fray when a voter outreach script, obtained by Politico, appeared to encourage Sanders volunteers to say that Warren appealed only to “highly-educated, more affluent people” and that she was “bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party.” Warren responded by expressing disappointment that Sanders was “sending his volunteers out to trash [her],” while Sanders denied that he had approved the script, blaming it on one of hundreds of employees who work on his campaign. “Elizabeth and I continue to work together. We will debate the issues. Nobody is gonna trash Elizabeth,” he said.
The fires were stoked again on Monday, when CNN reported that in December 2018, during a private meeting between the two candidates, Sanders had said he didn’t think a woman could beat Donald Trump. Sanders called the story “ludicrous” and lamented that “staff who weren’t in the room are lying about what happened.” Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir called on Warren to clear the air. After several hours without comment, Warren confirmed the story but downplayed its importance. “Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed,” Warren said. “I have no interest in discussing this private meeting any further because Bernie and I have far more in common that our differences on punditry.” Warren said she had “no doubt” the two candidates would “continue to work together to defeat Donald Trump.” On Tuesday, the BuzzFeed story notes, Warren campaign officials told key supporters in a group chat, “Re: where we go from here — our goal is de-escalation and focusing on our shared goals.”
But the damage was done. By Monday night, headlines like “Warren and Sanders’ Famous Friendship Finally Ices Over” were ricocheting across social media — and diehard supporters of both candidates were openly railing against each other. Sanders supporters blamed the Warren camp for leaking details of the conversation to paint him as a sexist — a charge with uneasy resonances of the 2016 primary, during which Sanders and his fans were often accused of misogyny. (The precise provenance of the details is still unknown; Warren told The Intercept’s Ryan Grim that it was not intentional.) Many took Warren’s statement to mean that Sanders had lied. Meanwhile, Warren’s fans, who have often complained — with good reason — about the media’s gendered treatment of their candidate, saw another conversation about sexism in which the man (Sanders) was being figured as the victim.
“I don’t think this is what Warren wanted to be talking about yesterday,” Joe Dinkin, campaigns director of the Working Families Party, said. “Friends don’t always agree, but we believe that Warren and Sanders have much more that unites them. And their supporters should turn their fire on the corporate wing of the Democratic Party and not on each other. A battle between Bernie and Warren supporters only helps Biden and the corporate wing of the Democratic Party.” WFP has endorsed Warren.
“I think the campaigns are falling for the media’s longheld desire for a brawl between the two progressive candidates,” said Waleed Shahid, spokesperson for Justice Democrats, an organization that was founded by former 2016 Sanders staffers, but has not endorsed in 2020, “when they should be focused on taking on the two corporate-friendly candidates in the race and earning the trust of voters.” Shahid pointed out that nothing that has happened so far approaches the negativity of the 2008 primary contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
“The left has a long history of eating its own and destroying itself.”
“When a fire breaks out, you can put it out quickly or you can fan the flames,” said Charles Chamberlain of Democracy for America, who has been advocating a unity approach for weeks now. “We’re at a moment right now where the candidates understand how important it is to put the fire out. We’re calling on the campaigns to make sure they do that at the debate on Tuesday night. Make it clear they stand together against the corporate wing of the party.” (Democracy for America, which was founded by Howard Dean in 2004 and endorsed Sanders in 2016, told The Intercept last week that it will decline to endorse before the first set of primaries.)
Indivisible, a major player in progressive politics founded by former Hill staffers in the wake of Trump’s victory, also called for unity. “We know that Senator Warren and Senator Sanders’s respect for each other goes deep,” said Leah Greenberg, Indivisible’s co-executive director.
“We’ve spent a long time as an organization fighting against and calling out false electability arguments and will continue to do so,” said Greenberg, alluding to the notion that a woman couldn’t defeat Trump. “But right now, we think the most important fight we need to have is against the forces fighting for the status quo, instead of for the big transformational change we need to make our democracy work for all people.”
When debate moderators on Tuesday inevitably try to stoke a conflict between Warren and Sanders, Ana Maria Archila, executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy Action, cautioned them not to “take the bait.” (CPD Action has endorsed Sanders.) “I believe that they see each other, fundamentally, as allies,” Archila said. “They should be able to display that kind of politics on the stage. They have so far.”
“The fact is the left has a long history of eating its own and destroying itself,” Archila said.
MoveOn — one of the most influential progressive groups in America — has yet to endorse in the primary. “There are multiple progressive champions in the presidential race who MoveOn members are excited about and support,” said Rahna Epting, executive director of MoveOn Political Action. “The way we advance a progressive future starts by defeating Donald Trump. Trump benefits most when we are divided.” (On Monday, Trump tweeted, “Bernie Sander’s volunteers are trashing Elizabeth ‘Pocahontus’ Warren… Elizabeth is very angry at Bernie. Do I see a feud brewing?”)
“Infighting between Sanders and Warren only benefits big oil, fossil fuel billionaires, the GOP, and the moderate wing of the Democratic Party,” said Zina Precht-Rodriguez, political communications manager at Sunrise Movement, a youth climate justice organization that endorsed Sanders last week. “In our shared commitment to a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and a government and society that works for the many, not the few, supporters of Sanders and Warren have much more in common than we have apart. Going into tonight, we hope that Senator Sanders and Warren and their campaigns are smart and strategic enough to focus on the issues that matter to Americans.”
“Infighting between Sanders and Warren only benefits big oil, fossil fuel billionaires, the GOP, and the moderate wing of the Democratic Party.”
Nelson, a rising icon in organized labor, said brawling between Warren and Sanders camps will turn off new voters, which a progressive nominee will need to defeat the centrists. “Do the math,” she said. “We need a progressive supermajority to win this; they’ve shown that if it’s close, they’ll steal it.”
Most voters, Nelson said, are not paying attention to every little detail of this spat. “There are millions of people out there who don’t have the luxury of caring at all about this conversation because they’re just fighting to survive.”
“I think it’s great that this [conflict] can be someone’s whole world right now, because there are two reasons that’s possible. Either, you’re not in the fight of your life in this election, and so, good for you that you’re living comfy,” said Nelson. “Or else you’re burying your head in the sand about what we have to take on and getting distracted. Both of those things are human nature. But wake up!”
Nelson did not downplay the seriousness of sexism in our society and our electoral system, but nonetheless encouraged supporters of both candidates to have perspective. “Both Warren and Sanders are firmly on record identifying sexism as a major problem and block in our democracy,” Nelson said, “So let’s talk about the issue, not about how we’re going to allow the issue to divide us.”
Nelson compared progressives’ challenge in this election to her experience preparing for a strike vote. “There’s always a good 10 percent who are ready to burn everything to the ground at any given moment, and those people will express their frustration that we aren’t moving fast enough to burn everything to the ground. And I have to say to them, ‘I don’t care where you’re at now, because when I bring the other 80 percent to where you are, you’re still going to be with me.’”
“And so, we have to be focused on the 80 percent. And, for them, this is a turnoff. The majority of people are conflict averse. A fight among those who have common values is going to prevent people from hearing our ideas, from wanting to be part of our movement.”