The morning after the seventh Democratic primary debate, and less than three weeks before the critical Iowa caucuses, a friendly competitive tension between the two most progressive candidates in the race has devolved into Bernie Sanders’s supporters bombarding Elizabeth Warren’s Twitter feed with snake emojis—a metaphorical throwback to the Bible’s original untrustworthy woman—after Warren refused to shake his hand on stage.
How did we get here?
It started with a private conversation between Warren and Sanders almost two years ago that the candidates seem to have interpreted differently. Sanders, who encouraged Warren to run in 2015 and then ran himself because she declined, says that he expressed concerns to Warren in 2018 that “Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could” against her if she were the Democratic nominee. This is unarguably true.
Warren perhaps interpreted Sanders’s comments to mean that he didn’t think a woman could win in 2020—also an understandable conclusion, given the collective national hangover from Hillary Clinton’s shocking loss to Trump, the freshly-stoked fears among Democratic voters that the country is still not ready to elect a woman, and the media’s continued harping on whether Warren is electable despite her having already beat a male Republican incumbent in a tough Senate race.
The non-aggression truce Warren and Sanders originally had agreed to for the 2020 race has predictably frayed over the past few months as the candidates vie for the heart of the Left. Last week, Sanders’s campaign admitted to deploying an anti-Warren script in early voting states that portrayed her base as wealthy and elite. Warren said she “was disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me,” which inflamed his base a bit. Then, after her slip in the polls, Warren’s campaign leaked to CNN that Sanders had told her a woman couldn’t win in 2020—a move likely designed to revive accusations of sexism that have plagued Sanders, his campaign, and his supporters since 2015, and also to give Warren a chance to directly address questions of a woman’s electability on CNN’s debate stage. Whether Warren had prior knowledge or the four leakers went rogue has been another point of contention.
Sanders said Warren’s campaign was “lying” about the interaction, and a nasty internecine war broke out among the candidates’ supporters. Joe Biden and Donald Trump couldn’t have orchestrated better themselves. Ironically, both of those men standing to benefit politically from this dust-up have perpetrated far more egregious sexism out in the open than Sanders has ever been accused of. Biden is known for being inappropriately handsy with women in professional settings and said out loud earlier this month that the sexism that contributed to Clinton’s loss “won’t happen with me”—i.e., that being a man makes him more electable. Trump has been accused by roughly 20 women of rape and sexual assault, has mocked women’s physical appearances ,and bragged on tape that he can just “grab them by the pussy” because he’s famous.
Now that Warren is running, she’s being Hillary-ized: called a serial liar, called unlikeable, cast as an elitist and a corporate shill.
To be fair, Warren supporters and Sanders supporters both have legitimate reasons to be angry and frustrated. Anyone who tried to call out blatant sexism against Hillary Clinton in 2016 (she was criticized both for not smiling enough and for smiling too much) were told over and over, particularly by Sanders fans, that his voters would be fine with a female president, just not her. They said they would be thrilled to vote for Warren if she were running, but that Clinton was just a bad candidate, regardless of gender. And now that Warren is running, she’s being Hillary-ized: called a serial liar, called unlikeable, cast as an elitist and a corporate shill. Sanders has acknowledged that his campaign in 2016 was overwhelmingly male and white and had real sexism issues; several of his female staffers complained about pay inequity and sexual misconduct. The senator resolved to fix that this time around by hiring a majority female and 40 percent minority staff and implementing new anti-discrimination policies. Some of his more vocal supporters were also as rude and aggressive toward Clinton supporters online as Trump supporters were, so the idea that Sanders cast doubt on women’s electability really strikes a nerve for a lot of people. The snake emojis Wednesday morning certainly don’t clear up the perception of Sanders’s supporters as cyberbullies who can lean on misogynist tropes.
Sanders supporters feel like the accusations of sexism are a low blow at this point against a candidate who has a long history of supporting women’s rights in Congress, who has been saying since at least the 1980s that a woman could be president, and who now has a much more diverse and gender-balanced campaign and support base than he did in 2016. They’re tired of being cast as “Bernie bros,” when many women and people of color support Sanders too. They are also rightfully angry that the mainstream media has long been so clearly biased against Sanders, often noting in headlines and cable news segments that other candidates are surging without mentioning when Sanders moves to the top of a poll.
Last night, when the CNN presidential debate inevitably turned to the contested meeting, one debate moderator asked Sanders “why he said that.” And after he forcefully denied having ever said a woman couldn’t win, the moderator then turned to Warren and asked her how she felt when he told her a woman couldn’t win, as if his words simply carried no weight. On Wednesday morning, the New York Times misleadingly framed the interaction as a “continued debate over the fraught subject of whether a woman could be elected president,” when Warren and Bernie had actually both agreed on stage that a woman can.
Presidential candidates are human, and the collective desire to unseat the most corrupt president in United States history has understandably raised the stakes in this race and flared tensions among them. Sanders supporters see him as a once-in-a-lifetime transformational candidate, which seems to drive some of the frenzied passion. And while many of them were ready to support Warren as a second choice, others were clearly looking for a reason to hate her, and they found that in this latest dust-up. Warren voters, too, who had been annoyed by Sanders and his campaign the last time around, found new legitimacy for their anger after reports that he had told Warren she couldn’t win.
It’s unreasonable to expect Warren or Sanders to never go after the other when they both genuinely believe they are the better candidate to take on Trump. Warren’s campaign arguably erred in leaking the private Sanders meeting, but Sanders’s supporters risk further alienating potential new voters by calling her a back-stabber and a liar and posting snakes all over her Twitter feed. The hashtag #NeverWarren is infuriating those who already blame Trump’s election on the Democrats who stayed home in 2016 because Sanders wasn’t the nominee. And the accusation of sexism has exacerbated actual sexism against her, which is the reason many women—and especially those in politics—are afraid of ever calling out gender bias in the first place.
Unfortunately for progressives, handshake-gate has completely overshadowed Biden’s terrible debate performance Tuesday night and Trump’s insane rally in Wisconsin where he complained—as literal fire tornadoes in Australia wipe out entire species of animals—that rich people in Beverly Hills need more water for their lawns and dishwashers. If Biden wins the Democratic nomination because the progressive base is so bitterly divided over joining a Sanders base that seems to be sexist or just nasty, Democrats will have nominated a man who literally sniffs the backs of women’s heads that he just met. If Warren or Sanders is nominated and loses the general election because the other’s supporters are too angry to vote, a president will be reelected who complained that supermodel Heidi Klum is “no longer a 10.”
Yelling "liar!" and "snake" at a top female candidate is not going to help Sanders’s campaign combat allegations of sexism, nor is kicking over the hornet’s nest of passionate Sanders supporters going to help Warren unite the base. The only way to get a progressive candidate in the White House is to refocus on the common cause of getting the truly problematic men out of power.
Laura Bassett is a freelance journalist writing about politics, gender, and culture.
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Originally Appeared on GQ