Why Warren Supporters Aren’t Going To Bernie

Senator Elizabeth Warren’s speech at Washington Square Park in Manhatten (Scott Olsen/Getty Images)

After Senator Elizabeth Warren’s announcement to end her bid for the Presidency, many of her supporters are still reeling and left wondering: where do we go from here?

Senator Warren’s supporters are best described as progressive policy-wonks, and the candidate herself was certainly the best representation of what many progressive policy-wonks saw in themselves. She ran as a candidate who had a plan for almost everything, but at the center of her platform was her understanding of how to restore public trust in our government by ending the structural corruption within those institutions and our economy. She went out of her way to build her campaign on inclusiveness and addressing the socio-economic issues within minority communities with plans built on the insight of black activists, community leaders, and policy experts. From disability rights to racial justice to health care to financial security, she had a unique understanding on how intersectional many issues and how those issues impact every American. For someone who offered a bold and progressive vision for the country, she hardly missed a beat in offering a comprehensive path and framework to get there and to pay for those plans.

Now, with the departure of Senator Warren from the race after the devastating Super Tuesday results, her absence has left a notable impression on the Democratic primary going forward as Warren supporters struggle to pick who to support between Senator Bernard Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden (like Warren herself). To many people, Senator Bernie Sanders seems like the most obvious second choice. As a progressive, he is the most ideologically-aligned with Warren who also wants Medicare-for-All and the big structural change to the government and economy to make them work for all Americans rather than just the few and powerful wealthy individuals and corporations.

Although Warren voters were more likely to pick Sanders as their second pick over Biden, recent polls on who Warren voters are going to are quite close to even and Biden has been gaining support since Warren dropped out of the race. The fact that Warren has not yet endorsed anyone is revealing in itself.

So why are so many of us skeptical of him and hesitant to go to his corner? Well, there’s a lot to unpack.

Medicare-for-All Schism

When Senator Warren unveiled that part of her plan to implement Medicare-for-All (M4A) would be to implement the public option as the first step toward the government-ran health care system, Bernie’s supporters criticized her as being “unserious” and accused her of “backing out” of her support for M4A, and many vocal Bernie supporters on Twitter like this one said that she was not a “true progressive” as a result. The rhetoric that she “backed out” of it is misleading. In her plan to transition towards full M4A, Warren states that this is the first step to the transition period that is necessary in order to make such a significant change to the entire health care industry and explains the steps during that period towards full M4A such as strengthening and expanding the ACA and Medicare. Meanwhile, Senator Sanders’ brief plan on Medicare-for-All lacks the comprehensive details and steps needed into order to get to, and he would rather leave people to believe that such a significant change to American health care can happen immediately over four years solely by decreasing the Medicare eligibility from 65 to 55 to 45 to 35.

Funnily enough, when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York (one of Sanders’ most high profile supporters and another progressive darling) conceded that in the worst-case scenario, they may have to “compromise deeply and… end up getting a public option”, Sanders disagreed with her saying that it “ is in a sense already a compromise”, citing the proposal’s four year transition period with lowering the eligibility age. Then, Bernie supporters like this one on Twitter lambasted Rep. Ocasio-Cortez for back-tracking. If Sanders and his supporters can’t even compromise and think realistically among fellow progressives, how do they expect to convince moderate Democrats in Congress to vote for it?

From my conversations with one of my close friends (who is a strong Sanders supporter) on this issue, this is what I gather:

  • M4A would require the “mass movement” of people to push Congress to pass it.
  • The current Medicare-for-All is meant to be a starting point for negotiating it. In other words, they’re negotiating at a “higher price” than what they actually want or believe is feasible”.
  • Sanders supporters were against Warren’s more gradual approach because they saw it as too incrementalist because they are ready to fight for all of it now; since Warren started with the public option in transition, they thought it was a bad negotiating tactic to start with for M4A and that she wouldn’t fight as hard for it.
  • People upset with Ocasio-Cortez’s comments that the public option wouldn’t be a bad thing felt that she was “giving away the game too early” on how they might negotiate M4A.

The problem with the arguments made here is that they not only ignore the details of Warren’s plan to transition towards full Medicare-for-All, but it demonstrates that Sanders and his supporters naively expect the sheer willpower of their vocal activism led by a President Sanders in order to ram the health care reforms through. Activism is indeed essential to pushing any public policy through, but activism (especially online crusades) cannot be the sole tool at their disposal to pass such landmark legislation. Legislating and being a policy-maker involves being able to thoroughly explain the implementation and funding of the said policy beyond what-aboutisms and how much people will save (aggregate savings does not equate to budget costs). Shooting down other progressives by condemning them as “closet corporatists” who have differing plans on implementing Medicare-for-All is certainly not a good way to build coalitions needed to pass your legislation. It’s certainly not a good way to bring Warren supporters into the fold.

I personally believe that this is when things began to falter for the Warren campaign. By being bogged down by moderates on how she would pay for Medicare-for-All and by being lambasted by Bernie supporters as being “too moderate” and a “backtrack”, it distracted from what she ran on in the first place-for big structural change within the institutions of government against corruption and crony capitalism- a platform which would have excited the base. As The Atlantic said, she was punished for her competence. Meanwhile, Sanders’ plan for Medicare-for-All is scarce on the depth of details that Warren’s plan has, hence the resentment among her supporters.

The Toxicity of His Supporters

This leads to the next issue regarding the toxic behavior of some vocal Bernie supporters on social media, which has been an issue since the 2016 campaign. Remember when I mentioned that I was a supporter of his in 2016 until the convention? In the months leading up to the convention, I had become increasingly disillusioned with the fellowship of his supporters after witnessing some of the vile and sometimes sexist commentary about Secretary Hillary Clinton in various pro-Bernie Facebook groups and Twitter circles. These comments included but were not limited to calling her a “bitch”, a “shrill c*nt”, and other comments. There were, of course, serious issues about Clinton to criticize for, but a lot of the criticism became irrational and vicious ad hominem attacks beyond policy disagreements. Now, there have been similar instances of this behavior towards Senator Warren, towards staffers, towards her supporters (like the Working Families Party after their endorsement towards Warren), and towards those who disagree with them. For example, after the Culinary Union criticized Sanders’ health care plan, two top officials who were women of color received a barrage of sexist and racist comments towards them and had personal information including addresses shared online.

To Senator Sanders’ credit, he did condemn the behavior, stating that those “making personal attacks against anybody else in my name is not part of our movement”.

While Bernie supporters do not have the monopoly of toxicity among candidates and their supporters, they do make up a good number of those on Twitter with active presence with a large number of tweets, which leads people to perceive many of them as toxic. The campaign itself could certainly do more to simmer down the toxicity by following Warren’s advice on the problem, perhaps with their online staff presence even following former Warren staffers’ lead during the campaign to direct message fellow Warren supporters to simmer down when they get too spicy in their tweets.

A lot of Bernie supporters, including those I know, will scoff and dismiss this concern as “civility politics over a snake emoji” and “civility patrolling” (and will probably respond angrily to the arguments made here), but when it crosses the lines of doxxing, misconstruing policy, and making cheap and sexist shots, it reminds a lot of people who dislike politics over vitriol behavior why they don’t want to engage in anything political. By engaging in similar tactics as Trump’s supporters, it distracts from the policies and message of compassion that Senator Sanders encourages. As John Legend said, they’re doing quite a disservice to the candidate. It draws a stark contrast between the nonfeasance of the Sanders campaign on the toxicity from some vocal supporters and surrogates versus the higher ground of the Warren campaign to discourage staffers and supporters from being vicious and toxic online.

On the 11th of January, Politico reported a script through the Bernie campaign that depicted Warren supporters as “highly-educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what” and states that “she’s bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party”. This demonstrated an increasingly divided pact of nonaggression, and those of us who support Warren who did not fit that description were absolutely livid.

“I am disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending out his volunteers out to trash me.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren in Marshalltown, Iowa

I have often said that Bernie reminds me of Jesus. I love the man and I love the message he preaches. But sometimes it’s just his followers’ behavior that I can’t stand. One thing that I and other Warren supporters will never forgive is the viciousness to Warren, her endorsements, my friends, and myself in the campaign both online.

Senator Warren and Senator Sanders during heated exchange after CNN Iowa Debate

All of us remember that heated exchange between Senator Warren and Senator Sanders after the DNC Debate in Des Moines, Iowa. Before the debate, it came to light (likely through campaign aides familiar with the conversation) that Senator Sanders had told Warren privately in 2018 that he did not believe a woman could be president. Warren later confirmed this by stating, “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.”

Sanders denied making the remark during the debate, while Warren stood by her account. After the debate, CNN caught the audio of a confrontation between Warren and Sanders, in which she told Sanders “I think you called me a liar on national TV”.

This was the most obvious sign of the fracturing nonaggression pact between the two progressive candidates, and the effects of this exchange has certainly rippled down to their supporters as Bernie’s camp questions why she would confirm and bring up the account from a private conversation and as Warren’s camp blasts Sanders for demonstrating his possible underlying sexism in his remarks and basically calling Warren a liar over it. It certainly didn’t help when Bernie supporters began calling her a snake on Twitter, which has been considered a sexist trope since before Twitter used it on Taylor Swift.

The Forbidden “S” Word

Then-Mayor Bernie Sanders on a 1988 trip to Russia

Since the 2016 primary, Senator Sanders has notably called himself a democratic socialist and often refers to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the countries of Denmark and Sweden as examples of democratic socialism. In a speech at Georgetown University, he described it as thus:

Today in the second decade of the 21st century, we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion. … We must recognize that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights. That is what I mean by democratic socialism.

According to Andrei Markovits, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, the aim of democratic socialism is to abolish capitalism by creating a “property-free, socialist society”. Many agree, from The Economist, the Democratic Socialists of America agree that he is a social democrat. A member of the Socialist Workers’ Party even criticized Sanders that he is “aimed too much at reforming capitalism instead of trying to change it”. If we are judging solely based on his platform, his platform is not calling for public ownership over the means of production, which is the key characteristic of a socialist society. A social democracy, on the other hand, is still within the sphere of capitalism. According to Mike Konczal at the Roosevelt Institute, the four hallmarks of social democracy are:

  • A mixed economy with a combination of private enterprise and government spending
  • Social insurance program for the elderly and the poor
  • Keynesian economic policy of government borrowing and spending to offset economic recessions
  • Democratic participation in the workplace and in government

This description fits the description of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies alongside the monetary policies of Federal Reserve Chairman Marriner Eccles (whom of which no President or Fed Chairman has come close to in their approach to Keynesianism versus recent New Keynesian); it also fits with Senator Sanders’ and Senator Warren’s policies. Many people will often refer to the United States as a social democracy already, but if it is, it’s a very weak one if we’re strictly going by these Konczal’s hallmarks.

In fact, the countries of Denmark and Sweden are not even democratic socialist countries. They all have a robust mixed market economy driven by private investment with strong welfare systems; the collective bargaining power of their workers is so strong that they don’t even have a need for an established minimum wage to have a livable wage.

Although Sanders may have had past affiliations with legitimate socialist and communist circles in his younger days, it’s possible he may have mellowed out and moderated himself during his long political career as Mayor of Burlington, US Representative, and now US Senator. With his policies aligning more with social democracy and labeling himself and those policies as “democratic socialist”, he may be causing unnecessary confusion and more harm to himself and the progressive movement. The only thing remotely hinting of what the average person thinks of socialism is calling his movement a “political revolution”.

According to the US Census, In 2016, citizens 65 years and older had a turnout of 70.9 percent and 45- to 64-year-olds had 66.6 percent turnout. According to Cornell, 52 percent of those 65 years and older voted for Trump while 45 percent voted for Clinton. 52 percent of those 45 to 64 also voted for Trump. A 2017 study by Pew provides further insight into the political ideology of each generation, with 31 percent of Boomers (ages 52–70) and 36 percent of the Silent Generation (ages 71–88) describing themselves as conservative Republicans or Republican leaners. 17 percent of Democrat Boomers describe themselves as Liberal Democrats versus 27 percent Moderate/Conservative Democrats; 15 percent of Democrat Silents describe themselves as Liberal Democrats versus 26 percent Moderate/Conservative Democrats.

With such high voter turnout from more conservative older voters versus the lower turnout for more liberal younger voters, it would be an understatement to say that American politicians skew more to the right than other countries like Denmark and Sweden. Many of those older voters grew up or were raised during a time in which fear over communism was the big issue of the day, many feel that the concept of socialism is dangerous to the country. Remember when the Tea Party right-wing accused President Obama as being a socialist over the ACA? His praise of Fidel Castro spelled bad news for him in Florida judging by his abysmal results in that state and his comment on 60 Minutes on not being able to “rattle off every nickel and dime” would certainly not reassure those who view Sanders and his ideology (and as a consequence the progressive agenda) as unelectable.

By flaunting the forbidden “s” word to falsely describe his progressive policies, people will automatically shut down to anything else further he might have to say, and it may be doing more harm than good to the progressive movement as a distraction. The conversation can no longer be about “big government” versus “small government” in such a context- the conversation has to be about who the government is working for and to whom the economy is stacked against. At this time, it is all stacked in favor of the wealthy few and the corporations rather than the middle class and the poor. Democrats have to work on their messaging in this regard to run as New Deal FDR-style social democrats rather than self-proclaimed democratic socialists.

Warren caught a lot of flack for calling herself “capitalist to the bones”, but she has run her platform as FDR’s heir for social democracy to reform the rules of capitalism to work for everybody, not just the few, by restoring the basic bargain of workers’ economic and political clout. In this interview, she delves into how the rules of the market- from contract law to bankruptcy law, to the enforcement thereof- are working now and how they ought to work. Many of Sanders’ more left-wing supporters would scoff at the idea of “capitalism that works for everybody”, but therein lies the difference between Sanders and Warren. Senator Warren would rather strike a more cordial tone with Democratic Party leaders and work from within the levers of government to cure the ills of irresponsible capitalism while Sanders would rather have a political revolution to change the system without compromise.

Final Thoughts

Despite what the reader may judge about myself from the arguments I’ve made here, the reader might mistake me as someone who is moderate. I am, however, more ideally left-wing than most, and also see Senators Warren and Sanders as compromise candidates to the huge changes that I’d rather see in America. For the sake of a political future, I’ll keep those views to myself.

However, there is a very real fear that the approach of Senator Sanders and his supporters- from the rashness to the abrasiveness to the uncompromising attitude- will set the progressive movement back by turning people off from anything sounding “progressive”. In the waning days of the Warren campaign, Sanders’ supporters on Twitter would constantly urge Warrent to drop out and endorse Sanders to unite the progressive ticket as Mayor Pete and Senator Klobuchar did, saying that health care for all is on the line. My response to that is this: if you can’t be effective in implementing it and win down-ballot seats in the first place, what difference would it make? His approach would inevitably lead to the loss of down-ballot seats in statehouses, the US House of Representatives, and the US Senate. By supporting Senator Bernie Sanders at face value rather than paying attention to the important details and aspects of an ideal candidate to take on the progressive mantle, US progressives have taken a huge risk in our future. He offers a lot of change with no realistic plan or path to implement that change. The pathway to the nomination of Joe Biden (who is also an awful and risky candidate) is a consequence of that risk.

Former Volunteer Organizer for Warren 2020. Former Director of US Relations in Youth Collaboration on Foreign Affairs. Warren Democrat. Pragmatic Progressive.

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