Why Bernie, Not Warren (Definitely worth reading)

January 11, 2020

In Blog News

It is time to unify. This is a historic opportunity. Don’t be a fence-sitter.

Bernie Sanders has just pulled even with Joe Biden in Iowa and is beating him in New Hampshire, giving Sanders a reasonable claim to being either the frontrunner or the co-frontrunner for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Bernie has struck fear into the heart of the establishment, and even more moderate commentators like Chris Cillizza have noticed that Sanders is in a very good position now: Not only does he top the polls, but his fundraising blows every other candidate out of the water, he has a powerful organization of committed supporters, he is the most liked of all the candidates, he is rated “the best” on critical issues, he has the most enthusiasm, and he has a strong message that distinguishes him from the other candidates. Despite being constantly shunned or attacked by the media and bitterly opposed by the Democratic establishment, Bernie has managed to pull even with the former Vice President.

Bernie Sanders also has a strong case to make that he is the most “electable” candidate in a race against Donald Trump. As Matt Yglesias of Vox has noted, Sanders “has good ideas on the topics in which the choice between Democrats matters most, he has a plausible electability case, he’s been a pragmatic and reasonably effective legislator, and his nomination is, by far, the best way to put toxic infighting to rest and bring the rising cohort of left-wing young people into the tent — for both the 2020 campaign and the long-term future.” (Being an effective legislator is one of Sanders’ most underappreciated assets.) This magazine has been saying since 2016 that the best way to get rid of Donald Trump is to let Bernie Sanders at him. Sanders can neutralize Trump’s “anti-establishment” message by offering a far more persuasive, authentic, and compelling left populism, and Trump will find it hard to attack Sanders as a hypocrite and fraud the way he can attack Joe BidenElizabeth Warren, or Pete Buttigieg. Bernie has a very clear pitch to apolitical and disaffected people, and he is fantastic at going after some of Trump’s own voters in a way that none of the other candidates can. Ryan Grim of the Intercept, in a recent report on Sanders’ powerful organizing operation, noted that there is now a “well-resourced and complex organizing apparatus that has been five years in the making, the most ambitious effort yet to link face-to-face movement-style organizing with technology not available to previous campaigns.” (Alarmingly, it is noted that the only campaign doing the same kind of organizing Bernie is doing on the ground is Donald Trump’s—which should be reason enough to support Bernie.) Bernie’s fundraising capacity, the borderline-fanatical devotion of his supporters, his strength among teachers, nurses, bartenders, and construction workers—all of these are unique assets that Democrats would be colossally foolish to squander.

People are beginning to notice that Bernie Sanders (1) has a good shot at the Democratic nomination and (2) is the best available candidate the Democrats have. You’re even starting to see headlines like “Be Prepared for President Sanders” on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Now is the time, then, that all progressives need to come together and seize their moment. There is a historic opportunity waiting to be taken. Whether you believe in the left social democratic agenda that Bernie so powerfully articulates, or you just want to defeat Trump, the task is the same: Everyone needs to get on the Bernie train and they need to get on it now.

The sooner we can unify behind Bernie, the sooner we can focus on the real enemy: Donald Trump, a cartoon of an evil billionaire, a sadistic war criminal who inflicts hideous suffering on migrants and cares about nothing except his own power and glory. Too many progressives have sat on the fence; even labor unions whose fortunes would be transformed overnight by a Sanders presidency have avoided backing him. The time for that is over: This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. The moment is now. Let’s push Bernie over the edge, wrap up the nomination, and take the country back from this monstrosity.

The case is not just pragmatic, but principled. Bernie’s agenda is the morally right one. He zeroes in on precisely the issues that should outrage us most: war, despair, racism, debt, exploitation, deportation. He does not spend his time tutting at Donald Trump for his incivility and lack of respect for process, but talks about ordinary people’s lives, the problems with them and how to fix them. Bernie gives a shit, in a way no other politician ever seems to have, to the point where he’d give everything he has trying to build a fair, peaceful, social democratic America. He shows you a possible world where you are no longer in debt, you can call an ambulance without thinking about the cost, your decision to go to college is based on your curiosities rather than your cash reserves, public services are well-funded, teaching is a prestigious, well-paid profession, the United States isn’t constantly mired in some new barbaric, pointless, costly war, and new parts of the world aren’t constantly catching fire. That last point is critical: Bernie Sanders is the only candidate ambitious enough on climate change, so if you accept the scientific consensus, you cannot stay with the Democratic mainstream, which pays lip service to the issue but doesn’t actually plan to do anything real about it. As Australia burns, if you care a lick about stopping climate change, it should be unthinkable to support anyone except Bernie. And you will regret not having seized this opportunity and given it everything you’ve got.

The democratic socialist vision is one that is worth fighting for. People who hear about it, come to understand it, and see it in action feel like they have been touched by something special. Why do you think Bernie supporters are passionate like no other candidate’s are? Why do you think they cried so much when he lost in 2016? It is not because they are part of a cult, or because they just love Bernie so much as a person. (He’s not actually that lovable of a person.) It’s because they had come to believe that old leftist slogan, A Better World Is Possible, and seeing that better world snuffed out before their eyes was crushing. We are for Bernie not because we love Bernie, but because we love humanity and we have confidence in what it could be.

By contrast, Donald Trump accelerates this country’s descent into an amoral dystopia where strength is the only virtue and the weak suffer because they deserve it. The world we will live in if we do not reverse course is a brutal and bleak one. It is a neo-feudal nightmare-state, where people like Trump, Jeff Bezos, and Rupert Murdoch control the world, and democracy is reduced to a joke. It is a place where non-Americans are treated like animals (and animals and nature are treated as worthless entirely). It is a place where your value as a human being will be based on how much you can command in the free market, and where self-interest will rule absolutely. It is a world that will burn, because greedy psychopaths would rather let millions die than sacrifice even a tiny bit of profit or give up one of their $100 million houses. It is socialism or barbarism, and Donald Trump is running on barbarism.

We need a candidate who fully understands the stakes. They need to know the source of what has gone wrong and have a radical alternative. They can’t be some tepid compromiser talking about the need for some new Rules And Regulations. They can’t capitulate before the fight starts. They need to have a moral seriousness that shows they take the pain of others seriously. They need to fill people’s souls, to assuage their fears, to challenge them to be their best selves, and to present a vision of the beautiful world that could be if humanity got its act together, versus the horrendous world that will be if we allow the deadly logic of nuclear weapons and climate change to continue unfolding. This moment demands something, a kind of power, we have never before mustered, a resolve we have never before felt, a breadth and depth of vision we have never before dared to pursue.

Thank God we have Bernie Sanders.

I hate to sound like Margaret Thatcher, but there truly is no alternative. Joe Biden is a centrist candidate, but 2016 should have finally put to bed the idea that centrism is synonymous with effectiveness. Nobody is enthusiastic for Biden, he’s struggling to raise money, he can barely fill a room of supporters, and he has glaring weak spots. (For one thing, he’s running as the “anti-malarkey” candidate while constantly spewing grade-A malarkey.) Pete Buttigieg would be lucky if anyone under 40 voted for him, especially after he has relentlessly trashed left ideas with dishonest right-wing talking points. He is also the least likely candidate in the primary field to solve one of Hillary Clinton’s core problems: the disillusionment of black voters. Buttigieg is a humorless consultant who comes across as the kind of guy who fires people for a living. Good luck defeating Trump without any young people or people of color.

Some people are still desperately trying to make the case that Amy Klobuchar is the Democrats’ secret weapon. If this catches on I will take time to explain why it is laughable, but since only about 10 people seem to believe it (one of whom is Nate Silver), I do not see the need to right now.

Okay. Elizabeth Warren. It is time to be honest about Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy. I think every Bernie supporter would say she’s one of the top two people currently serving in the United States Senate, just as she is one of the top two candidates in the Democratic primary. But unfortunately, this has led many to avoid being blunt about the massive differences between running Sanders and running Warren, and to refrain from forcefully making the case that progressives need to unify behind Sanders immediately.

Personally I have long believed that Elizabeth Warren would be a disaster against Donald Trump, and I am not the only one who senses this. She literally kicked off her campaign with a video doubling down on her Native ancestry claim, in response to Trump. She has waffled on issues in a way that makes her seem either dishonest or uncertain (she was for single-payer in 2008, then she was against it in 2012, then she was for it during this campaign, but now she might be against it, I’m not sure, but she’s made it clear she doesn’t intend to fight for it.) Her track record of building political support is worryingly tepid even in Massachusetts. She was a latecomer, not a leader, on every part of the Sanders agenda she now (sort of) supports. Her much-heralded Plans, the centerpiece of her campaign, are often convoluted and confusing. She thinks the existence of billionaires is fine, which means she thinks feudalism is fine. She is evasive where Bernie is frank: Where he explains how tax rises are offset by the elimination of premiums, she tries to disguise tax rises while echoing Republican anti-tax rhetoric. She bends the truth in transparent ways, and is open to charges of hypocrisy on her key issues, having previously raised money in exactly the ways she now says she opposes as corrupt. She cannot run on a steadfastly antiwar platform against Trump, because her record on foreign policy is horrible. (This moment demands a staunchly antiwar candidate, which in and of itself should be enough to disqualify Warren and every other non-Bernie Democrat.) She cannot run on an anti-corporate platform, because she spent years taking money to defend giant corporations and installed former bank executives in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And she is likely to inspire nobody with slogans like “capitalism without rules is theft” or gimmicks like an inflatable replica of her dog. Bernie motivates crowds by telling them that if they join him in building a movement, they will never have to spend time negotiating with an insurance company again. Warren inspires with promises of doing “double selfies” with the former cabinet official who pushed the privatization of public housing. (And dancing as the world burns.)

In order to run an effective campaign against Donald Trump, you need a very clear message that can counter his own effective promise to “make America great.” You need a trustworthy and authentic persona that will give voters confidence. You need to not have engaged in the kinds of deception, hypocrisy, and evasions that will dampen your ability to call him out for his own misdeeds. You need to offer an inspiring vision of something truly different. You need to not have glaring vulnerabilities to charges that are difficult to defend against.

In Warren’s case, the list of vulnerabilities is huge. Trying to fool you into thinking she won’t raise taxes, and being evasive when asked. Fabricating her racial identity. Inconsistency, flip flopping, and trying to have it both waysLyingPlagiarismShoddy scholarship. Being paid huge sums to defend polluters and chemical companies against the legal claims of retired coal minerswomen sickened by faulty breast implantsrural cooperatives, and dead NASCAR drivers, and then intentionally misrepresenting that work to fudge which side she was on. (The hard-right Wall Street Journal op-ed page portrayed Warren as noble for her corporate work, saying she was “working honorably to limit the extortion of an American manufacturer at the hands of personal-injury lawyers and other self-interested parties.” That this is the Journal’s take should tell you all you need to know about Warren’s work.) Warren’s supporters might say that many of these are unfair or irrelevant or distorted and that reality is more complicated and nuanced. They may be right, but enough of these are not unfair that it will be easy to create a narrative that Warren is insincere and unprincipled. (Just as it will be easy to successfully paint Biden as a corrupt Washington insider who embodies Democratic failure and needs to be put out to pasture.)

Some fellow progressives have asked me why I’ve been so harshly critical of Elizabeth Warren. Why, given that I’ve also stressed the need for Warren supporters and Sanders supporters to ultimately unify, attack the second-best candidate? And the answer is: because this is a historic moment, and progressives need to unify and do it now. We have to make clear the contrasts between these two candidates, and then pick one and go all in for that candidate. We have to do it right now, because if we don’t, Joe Biden might be the nominee and that would be a catastrophe.

Bernie Sanders doesn’t like to criticize Elizabeth Warren. I understand why. Lots of other progressives are disinclined to as well, especially now she has slipped behind. I get it. Circular firing squad. But look: If we say “Oh, there are two good progressives in the race, and let’s not talk about the differences,” we are risking a political calamity. The centrist vote is split between Biden, Buttigieg, Booker, and Klobuchar. If the progressive vote wasn’t still being split right now, Bernie wouldn’t just be tied for frontrunner. He would be crushing it. The primary would be over before any votes had been cast.

I have been fully prepared to give Elizabeth Warren a chance. I thought that if she beat Bernie early on, he should literally drop out and endorse her. But importantly, I also felt the reverse was true: If Warren’s candidacy was hurting Bernie, but he was ahead, she needed to do the same for him if she lost near the beginning. The only reason any of the other candidates are even considered viable right now is because the progressive vote is being torn. So we need to hash out what the differences are quickly, and people need to support. It’s incredible to me that In These Times, a supposed “labor” publication, would run dueling cover stories touting the candidacy of one candidate who opposes Trump’s NAFTA 2.0 and another who supports it. These candidates are not the same. Warren-supporting progressives need to confront the question: Are the differences here so staggeringly large in Warren’s favor as to make it worth running an ultimately doomed compromise-heavy campaign that may destroy the only opportunity we have to oust Trump?

Now that Bernie has a solid lead, and is in a good position to capture the nomination and the presidency, we need to encourage those still clinging to the prospect that Warren might bounce back not to cling to a campaign that could well kill a historic opportunity for the left. Let’s win this primary, get it over with, unify Bernie people and Warren people, apologize for any hurt feelings, express our deep respect for one another, and start the real fight. Declining to get on the Bernie train, right here and right now, is indefensibly damaging and risky for both the country and the planet.

Bernie Sanders’ candidacy is something special. It has the possibility of truly transforming the United States—possibly even the world—into a more humane place. Other candidates are having to run on ideas that Bernie Sanders has been pushing for decades, because they know the power of his message. People are waking up to the idea that maybe it would be a good idea to nominate the candidate who is hugely popular, has the most money, the sharpest message, the fewest obvious openings for Trump to exploit, the best organizing ability, the most devoted supporters, the ability to go on Fox News and get the audience cheering. If you want to stop climate change, Bernie is the only serious choice. If you want to stop America’s endless wars, it’s Bernie or nobody. If you want to beat Trump, Bernie is your guy. Best organizing apparatus. Best fundraising ability. Best liked. Best message. Best policies, including best climate plan. How can we choose otherwise?

The good news is that slowly, everyone seems to be realizing this. Maybe hindsight is 2020.

For a more comprehensive case for Bernie Sanders, see my colleague Paul Waters-Smith’s recent essay.