The day she dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary race, senator Elizabeth Warren sat down for an extended interview with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. The conversation was a prime opportunity for Warren to encourage her supporters to back senator Bernie Sanders—the race’s last remaining progressive, and the candidate she has overlapped with more on policy than any other during a grueling contest that once had nearly 30 contenders. But that didn’t happen.
Instead the liberal firebrand spoke briefly of her long friendship with Sanders, and then spent seven minutes—about a quarter of the interview—discussing her concerns about the problem of online harassment among Sanders supporters.
“It's not just about me. I think there’s a real problem with this online bullying and organized nastiness,” Warren said. “I’m not just talking about, ‘Ooh said mean things.” I’m talking about some really ugly stuff that went on.”
Warren pointed to the fact that leaders of the Nevada Culinary Union were sent threatening messages and had their personal information leaked after they published a flier criticizing Sanders’s health care plan. She also condemned the way that officials from the Working Families Party were harassed with sexist and racist language after the progressive group endorsed Warren. And she went on to blame Sanders for it: "We are responsible for the people who claim to be our supporters.”
Warren’s grievances—which are held by a number of other Democrats—are rooted in some legitimate concerns: there is a toxic political subculture among a very small but influential set of Sanders supporters online. But her emphasis on it at this critical political juncture is also puzzling. After South Carolina and Super Tuesday, Sanders is trailing Biden in the delegate count and faces a more challenging calendar. An endorsement from her wouldn’t solve Sanders’s problems with older black voters, but could give him a much-needed boost heading into the next set of primaries. And yet she appears to be holding Sanders hostage over a small part of his following that he has extremely limited control over. In light of her and Sanders’s shared project of breaking decisively from the lifeless neoliberal politics that former vice president Joe Biden is pushing for—in fact Warren’s entry into national politics was going head to head with Biden over bankruptcy reform—hammering Sanders on the issue is misguided, and could help deal a lethal blow to her political goals.
In a partial reprise of the 2016 primaries, there’s been a heated national debate about the scope and implications of Sanders’s more adversarial online followers. This isn’t just confined to Sanders’s critics: leftist political analysts and prominent pro-Sanders activists like Bree Newsome Bass have questioned and criticized the practice of degrading potential allies online. (To be clear: there’s a consensus that outright harassment and bigotry is unacceptable; the bigger picture question is if there really is toxic culture in existence.) While it’s hard to quantify whether the proportion of noxious Sanders supporters is larger than for any other candidate, the simple fact that he has the biggest, most enthusiastic, and youngest following effectively guarantees that he has the largest number of thorny followers in the race. Anti-Sanders Democrats have also been demeaning and cruel online, and in particular targeted Nina Turner, the national co-chair for Sanders campaign. But the Sanders group likely makes an outsize splash in civil society because it eagerly seeks out confrontations with members of the press, Democratic party elites, liberal activists, and supporters of other Democratic candidates across social media as part of an informally coordinated political strategy.
It’s tricky to quantify how pervasively people experience aggressive Sanders supporters firsthand. Exit polling from several states indicates that 10-20 percent of primary voters follow political news through Twitter. Not all those people are likely to be plugged into the exact corners of Twitter that experience or discuss the. But income and education trends on Twitter suggest there is a disproportionate amount of Warren-friendly users on Twitter in general.
We know that there are many Warren supporters online who have complained about venomous Sanders supporters and explicitly cited it as a reason that they’re reluctant to or opposed to backing Sanders. There’s also been reporting that suggests this set is turning people away from his candidacy. “Lots of people at Warren and Pete town halls I talked to were weighing a Sanders vote but said they were turned off by the culture and crowds,” Sam Stein, the politics editor of the Daily Beast, tweeted in February. When I wrote about the issue as a liability for Sanders’s ability to expand his base, I saw some former Sanders supporters online explain that it’s why they migrated to Warren. “Bernie Bros definitely pushed me to the Warren camp,” tweeted Twitter user Meerenai Shim, whose bio says she lives in Campbell, California, and noted that she voted for Sanders in 2016.
But ultimately it’s Warren’s recent comments that confirm that this is real. Her decision to decline to endorse Sanders and instead discuss her problems with his online following at extraordinary length has officially made it a salient issue. This is a tragedy on a number of levels. It’s sad that a tiny subset of Sanders supporters at odds with the spirit of the movement may have discouraged a non-trivial number of Warren supporters from consolidating behind Sanders after Warren’s drop-out. And it’s astonishingly sad that Warren might consider the phenomenon a reason to avoid backing Sanders.
Warren’s claim that Sanders is responsible for all of his supporter behavior is holding him to a bar that candidates are never held to. Sanders has consistently and unequivocally condemned bullying, harassment, and intolerant discourse since he rose to national prominence. “Our campaign is building a multi-generational, multi-racial movement of love, compassion, and justice,” Sanders said after reports of harassment against the Culinary Union leadership. “We can certainly disagree on issues, but we must do it in a respectful manner.” That’s in line with his own style of leadership. Sanders is a gruff and shouty politico, but it’s well-known that he is almost constitutionally incapable of personally attacking other politicians, preferring to keep things strictly focused on policy and uniting against the 1 Percent. There is no precedent or feasible tool for a campaign to monitor and somehow control millions of accounts across decentralized social media platforms, which allow for anonymity and naturally incentivize abuse from people all across the political spectrum. A presidential campaign organizes rallies to talk about what an ethical society looks like, not identify the two assholes in the crowd and enter them into therapy.
And who exactly is behind the behavior? We cannot verify the identity or political leaning or mental health of the people involved in insults and pile-ons. Personally I don’t doubt most of it is from some lefties. But intelligence officials have reported that Russia is interfering in the 2020 election, and the possibility that outside interference is exacerbating the problem cannot be ruled out, especially in the nastiest attacks like doxing and death threats that seem to be a departure from the more typical obnoxiousness we see online every day. That’s to say nothing of the strange chaos of online skirmishes: The Nevada Independent noted that at least one person hurling abuse during the Culinary Union debacle turned out to be a Trump supporter.
But ultimately the strongest case for Warren—and her progressive supporters—to back Sanders is her own political goals. Sanders and Warren developed a nonaggression pact that lasted for most of the race precisely because they share a great deal in common compared to every other candidate in the race. Their utopias are different: Warren is a former Republican who favors heavily regulated capitalism; Sanders is a lifelong socialist who thinks social democracy is the least we can expect of a civilized society. But both of them believe in economic and social rights, and reject the market-fetishizing consensus that has plagued Democratic thinking since the Reagan era. Both of them have a unique understanding of what’s needed to fix the barbarism of American healthcare, our coming ecological catastrophe, and the breakneck formation of American plutocracy. Both of them understand on a visceral level that something is deeply wrong, and that Biden’s delusion that he can work with Republicans to achieve meaningful change is a form of denial of the crises we face.
Warren supporters might be tempted to think that declining to endorse Sanders could help her win influence over a Biden administration through friendly relations. But as The Intercept’s Ryan Grim has pointed out, that’s a misread of her influence works: Warren’s greatest power lies in inducing fear in presidents with fiery rhetoric, threatening to block appointees, and pulling strings through the powerful Banking Committee. Rumors that Biden would consider appointing Warren to Treasury Secretary in exchange for an endorsement should not be trusted—Biden’s longstanding ties to the banking industry and his longing for harmony with Wall Street and corporate America make this almost inconceivable.
Warren can lean into her power as a threat to a centrist Biden administration by backing Sanders as he fights to regain momentum in the race. Through much of the primary, a plurality of her supporters have favored Sanders as a second choice. While Biden is gaining momentum—even among her former followers—an endorsement would go a long way to making Sanders seem more viable, especially in the eyes of her most diehard supporters who trust her political instincts and value her fighting spirit.
In the long run, the left needs to be introspective about how to improve its political culture online, and think through the implications of highly visible supporters eschewing the more disciplined work of coalition-building for cathartic snark. But Warren and the progressives who backed her know better than most exactly what’s at stake in this political moment—it would be a shame to let some pricks on the Internet get in the way of that.
Zeeshan Aleem is a political columnist for VICE.
They were an all-star crew. They cooked up the perfect plan. And when they pulled off the caper of the century, it made them more than a fortune—it made them folk heroes.
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