Navigating the Left-wing Rift

With the Democratic primary effectively over, we are all but guaranteed to march through the Dead King’s Coronation. The apathy is especially discouraging considering the passion extant in the election just a few months ago. It was palpable everywhere –- for once, it appeared that the “left,” that nebulous alliance, seemed capable of sustaining not just one, but two electoral choices in the campaigns of Warren and Sanders. But in the end, divided left-wing factions not only failed to beat back the hum of moderates, but ended the electoral gambit fractured and divided.

How did this primary end with so much dejection and malice between the Sanders and Warren wings? This review doesn’t seek to shift or assign blame, but attempts to chart the significant interactions between the campaigns, and how it eventually devolved into malice. In doing so, revealed are some deeper questions relevant for the left to debate and consider as it attempts to chart its successes and missteps over the past year: When does intra-campaign debate tip from fair to bad faith? To what degree should identity politics be weaponized to challenge political policies? What channels should individuals cultivate between competing but ideologically allied campaigns? And are the left and progressives even really allies at all?

Two theories of change, one alliance

I first hold that both Warren and Sanders had at least a general vision for the future that exists in tandem with one another. I have argued elsewhere, and still maintain, that the rift between Warren and Sanders always represented a difference in tactics rather than short-term differences in policy. Where Bernie argued that radical change is only possible through peaceful revolution, Warren had attempted to pitch that reform is possible through the frame of moderate political discourse. Where both campaigns generally shared similar short-term goals, their largest source of difference was in political approach: Is reform achieved by doing battle in the realm of technocracy, with a first-step defined as defanging the weapons of high-finance and capital; or is it achieved in rejecting the norms of political engagement to instead metaphorically storm the gates of Washington?

Both approaches have their weaknesses. Where Bernie’s rapid mobilization strategy may be useful for maintaining a tight-knit and expansive political coalition, it was always unclear how, even if he were to emerge victorious from a deluge of bad-faith socialist-smearing from a well-oiled Republican machine, his plans would have come to fruition. Bernie’s plots never outlined clear battle-plans for combating and challenging the influence of capital as it exists today, resting on an “organizer-in-chief” discourse that was always vague in its identification and execution of political power. His discourse seemed to imply that the nascent, if shadowy and sometimes obscure, left-wing networks that had been growing over the past decade would be the ones responsible for executing political pressure in pursuit of his vision. However, many within the Democratic Party were simply unconvinced of how a curmudgeon from Vermont would be capable of finding the national allies needed to deliver his ideas. Even beyond securing votes for legislative reforms, it was always relevant to inquire how he would be capable of mobilizing the no-nonsense bureaucratic pencil pushers who actually implement the will of the government to institutionalize even one of his large plans, let alone multiple of them.

Where Warren’s connections to the Democratic establishment and administrative experience satisfied that critique, her strategy, also, had unique flaws. Regardless of how technically feasible her policies were, her failure to consolidate moderate voters before the beginning of the primary called into question her rudderless pollical strategy. Without attracting the support of moderates who held stake in the Democratic brand, her technocratic prose withered in policy binders across Washington. Additionally, while Warren’s political fundraising was also astounding in breadth and scope, her campaign was never capable of utilizing that fundraising to build a national coalition of progressives and moderates that would be essential for not only propelling her to power, but executing the government reformations she had planned.

This is why both camps were always, actually, dependent on the success of one another. Both Sanders and Warren needed each other’s skills and tactics to battle for left-wing priorities across the various planes of political reality. Where the primaries were a contest of ideas and direction, both camps would need to absorb the strengths of the other in order to mitigate the flaws and failings of the others’ strategy.

One alliance, two ideologies

Prior to the campaign, any previous perusal of left-wing spaces, both online and live, would have revealed a quiet, although sometimes outspoken, distrust and dislike of Warren’s campaign in general. Warren was framed in some circles as a carpet-bagger, sweeping in on Bernie’s coat-tails and appropriating the language of Bernie and his base of support, or as some sort of secret neo-liberal.

Some skepticism is warranted: her refusal to step in during Bernie’s original run in 2016 was disheartening to the left-wing’s last attempt at a coup of the Democratic establishment. But Warren’s left-wing receipts check out. She had written the book on mapping the modern travails of the working class, so to accuse her of not understanding the pains of the working class are arbitrary and suspect. Her legislative history is less historical than Bernie’s but far from trivial: she holds a track record of bona fide progressive ideals – voting 93% of the time with Bernie Sanders - and a perusal of this record reveals almost no dissent between the two on any major issues. Her time as a lawyer (not without some legitimate controversy) reveals an extensive knowledge of the entrenched legalese that underwrites the grip of capitalism. She conceptually developed the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a government agency whose authority to hunt down bad faith actors inside the US Financial System – the heart of global capitalism – will undoubtedly need to be weaponized to strike at entrenched wealth. And her campaign had been consistent and detailed – delivering concise but thorough left-wing roadmaps identifying systemically what needed to change and procedurally how to do it. She can call herself a capitalist until she croaks – but her policies and backing were always firmly rooted in the far-enough left.

And so, early on in the campaign, left-wing sniping at Warren was restricted to fringe message boards and “dirtbag” Twitter. A wide primary field did not necessitate a consolidated progressive win early on, and in fact there existed a pseudo-alliance between Warren and Sanders against the centrist candidates vying for the nomination.

Despite some bad-faith mocking from a loud minority of very-online Sanders supporters, this whole arrangement may have been under-appreciated in building momentum for a progressive seizure of the establishment’s apparatus. Where Bernie built a broader cultural context that justified radical change, Warren provided necessary artillery to beat back the pundit class’s obsession with the demand for policy details that don’t really matter. In this, Warren’s proposals have always given cover to Bernie, in that they showed the math to make these things work can be done, providing much needed credibility to his policies. In addition, her strong oratory skills allowed her to infuse complex understanding of policy with emotional imperative. This made her a unique and fearsome debater – especially compared to Bernie’s sometimes lackluster or droning performances. Her invocations, launched at moderate candidates, prevented a gangup on Bernie’s ideas, staying his movement from being written off as fringe and unserious.

But where did things go wrong?

As Iowa began to approach, tensions between the campaigns began to mount. Warren’s reveal of a Medicare for All (M4A) plan that did not include an increase in middle-class taxes, as she had consistently pseudo-promised over the past few months, attracted criticism from the centrist wing. But the left also took issue with her strategy of separating a M4A bill into two legislative pushes, in addition to some criticism levied over the taxation proposals. While some criticism was reasoned and eloquent, the nature of some of these arguments began to take a more invective, rather than critical, character. These attackers would be incensed further, following trails of blood drawn from moderate attacks on Warren's M4A path -- leading some Sanders diehards to take to a more outspoken (and in my view dangerously provocative) aggression towards Warren.

Tension simmered until January 11, when 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 following weekend. 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. Her campaign went further -- attempting to use this provocation to imply that it would be difficult for Sanders to build the sort of broad coalition necessary to win a general election. Despite the relative banality of these attacks, Warren’s response prompted outrage from Team Bernie -- creating the conditions for these digital skirmishes to transform into a full-blown libel war.

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 tagged Warren and her supporters as duplicitous carpet-baggers. Warren supporters accused Sanders’ supporters of being anti-intellectual and misogynistic, going further to label Sanders himself as an unserious curmudgeon partially responsible for Clinton’s loss in 2016.

Although the Sanders Campaign would later attempt to defuse the situation, media forces salivated over a fresh fight between two campaigns that had otherwise avoided serious clash. And so the latent furor that rested between each camp would be stoked by a mainstream press eager for a weekend story (see press coverage such as “Bernie Sanders’ campaign goes on the attack”, or the NYT covering the develops as if it were a gossip rag). Entrenched supporters on both sides were successfully goaded into attack following the reveal of a she-said-he-said gossip of some remarks allegedly made by Bernie. In the debate that followed, CNN brazenly continued to fan the flames between Sanders and Warren, rather than investigating their actual differences in policy proposals. The debate ended with Warren and Sanders staring each other down on live television, as a clueless Tom Steyer encroaches on Bernie for an autograph and Joe Biden quickly disappears into the background – an apt foreshadow for the way the primary would unfurl.

The Left's collapse

From that point on, public tensions between the campaigns calmed. But online harassment campaigns continued. And in the twilight hours following Super Tuesday, a weak finish in South Carolina prompted Warren to open up a last-ditch, all out front on Bernie, where Warren went on to paint herself as pragmatic and Bernie implausible and polarizing. The attempt was not only transparently desperate, but shocking in its flippant denial of Bernie’s electoral successes and her campaign’s inability to deliver on its strategic raison d’etre: the ability to supposedly win over moderate skeptics to the left. At best, this disappointing breakdown marked a sad, desperate end to what was an otherwise issues-driven campaign. At worst, it irrevocably exacerbated the rift within the American left.

I had hopes that Warren and her allies would have come to bolster Bernie’s forces in the end: that we would see all the left-wing heroes and organizations built over the past four years into a unified, national movement. But after dropping out, Warren went on to chatter on SNL -- leaving Bernie short of the sort of allied support needed to overcoming the Democratic consolidation around Joe Biden. It has been difficult to endure: for four years we watched the American left battle the terrors of the Trump Administration only to fracture in the face of a cheap media blitz fueled by moderate indifference.

Why did the campaigns fail to come together at the last minute? The buildup of bad-blood between both factions likely inhibited Warren, her campaign, and her supporters from plugging into Bernie's network in the end. Although the fighting was mainly sourced from unofficial supporters, these events exposed and preyed on the weaknesses endemic in each candidate’s strategies. Battles with Bernie’s supporters demonstrated the Warren campaign’s inability to navigate media events and pick the right battles (as it had struggled with earlier in the campaign). In failing to appropriately control the scale of attack leveled at Warren, Bernie’s campaign failed to demonstrate to voters that his “organizer-in-chief” philosophy could be capable of exercising the control and restraint needed to build broader political coalitions or exercise governmental power. And as both campaigns exposed each other’s clearest flaws, Biden was able to bury his.

There was never a path to victory for Warren or Sanders that saw the complete destruction of the other. It was always important to debate the differences between Warren and Sanders; but a path to a truly left-wing government was always conditional on a consolidation of these two camps in the end. Rather than persuade and build bridges, small cabals of supporters mistook winning an argument for destroying the will of the other’s voters. Hostile squabbles abated the potential for the left to absorb the campaign and energy of the other.

If there is one immediate takeaway in imparting this story, it’s in revealing how susceptible we are to the addicting violence of social media. Logging into Twitter and witnessing these battles reminded me of my childhood addiction to online, toxic fantasy games. But these virtual battlegrounds were not constrained to the plains of Azeroth, but entire political campaigns, their supporters, television anchors, the president, and every one of my friends and family. Digital battlegrounds are being used to sow anger and distrust between individuals of amenable political philosophy rather than build relationships and consensus. We’ve been quick to dismiss this toxicity as irrelevant, but the failure of the campaigns and voter bases to consolidate suggest that these interactions poison the off-line world as well, which were largely cordial and unhostile.

In all of this, I am reminded of “Homage to Catalonia,” where George Orwell recounts the heartbreak of seeing an anarcho-communist society dissolve following pointless squabbles between different left-wing factions. Just as the left of Spain failed to maintain an operating basis of engagement to retain a unified front, Orwell recounted in horror as he watched an anti-fascist alliance disintegrate into pointless philosophical squabbles as larger ideological enemies challenged the movement all together. The suggestion here is that the left has fallen for these traps before - battling those closest to each other rather than identify and rally against larger exogenous threats. More work will need to be put into building discourse, platforms, and institutions that allow debate within the left in a way that doesn’t sacrifice electoral viability. Else, we risk continually falling into the same pitfalls leftist alliances have been falling into for decades. I don’t know how we go about doing that - but I’m hoping someone, somewhere is on the case.

Related Entries