Matt Yglesias wrote a surprisingly good article over at Vox, Bernie Sanders Can Unify Democrats and Beat Trump in 2020. It glides over how easy it would be for Sanders to be a unity candidate, however. I’ll come back to that.
First, I want to discuss something it points out about Sanders that is very good: despite what people on both sides of the Sanders War claim: he’s shown himself to be highly pragmatic. I really like this, but this fact has made listening to Sanders supporters on Twitter very annoying.
Almost all of the complaints about the other candidates from Sanders supporters are that he is Good and Pure and they are all Compromised. But the record shows this isn’t the case. It’s all motivated reasoning: when Sanders was not pure, it was justified because he was getting something important.
Great! I agree. But why does this only applied to Sanders? Why is he always given the benefit of the doubt and otherwise held up as impeccable? This kind of thinking is at least a bit cultish.
Nathan J Robinson
Similarly, I saw that Nathan J Robinson produced an hour-long video, Why Warren Supporters Should SWITCH to Bernie.
However, Robinson evidences a lack of understanding about how presidential primaries work. He thinks Warren should drop out if she doesn’t do well in Iowa and New Hampshire. Let’s leave aside the fact that Robinson will suddenly abandon this argument should Warren do well and Sanders poorly. Presidential primaries just don’t work this way.
Major candidates normally run through the vast majority of the race as long as their funding doesn’t collapse. (Contra Robinson, $21.2 million in the 4th quarter is not a sign Warren is having trouble fundraising.) And it now looks like the 4 top candidates will do this. Thinking that one candidate will drop out for the good of some vague notion of “the movement” is just not reasonable.
He also seems to think that if Warren weren’t in the race, Sanders would get most of her votes. But in fact, he would get maybe half her votes. It’s become clear to me if this race were between Sanders and Biden, Sanders would lose with about the same percentage of the vote he got in 2016.
There seems to be the idea that Sanders is destined to be the nominee and it is just these pesky candidates standing in the way. And this is, again, a little cultish.
I don’t want to rag on Robinson because he is at least trying very hard to make a positive case for Sanders rather than complaining about Warren — which has been the default for as long as Warren has been a threat in this race (something Robinson himself has done).
However, the argument he makes is not that compelling. But I’ll admit: I’m biased in terms of my orientation. I like concrete arguments. I want to hear that the candidate is doing well with black voters and so they will do well in South Carolina and so on. I don’t find it compelling to make gauzy appeals to what a politician actually believes and so forth.
What’s more, these arguments are too finessed. You can see that they are designed post hoc to place Sanders inside the set of Candidates Who Are Good and Warren outside.
Where Presidents Can Make a Difference
Where Sanders most shines — and where I support him more than Warren — is on foreign policy. However, this is an area that is most easy to demagogue. And the Republicans will do so.
Additionally, because this is an area that a President Sanders would have the most power, it is also an area where the next Republican president would have the most power. Is 4 or 8 years of better foreign policy worth the cost of the next Republican demagogue cheered on by over half the nation insisting that America be “strong” once again?
It’s also worth noting that Warren’s ability to better manage the regulatory state is something that is simply ignored by her detractors. I’m not sure why this is so. People spend a lot of time making the (correct) case that Sanders is best on foreign policy and would have great power in enacting it. Why not conceded the same thing about Warren?
I believe a focus on domestic affairs will allow for better long-term foreign policy. Sanders seems too focused on Medicare for All, and I have a hard time seeing it pass.
Is Sanders a Unity Candidate?
My main concern about Sanders is that I believe it will do the opposite of what Yglesias says: it will divide the party. Many of the people we need working to elect him will be standing around: nominally supportive but not very helpful.
And this is not going to be made up for by the enthusiasm of young people. I don’t have hard data for this. It’s just that I’ve heard this for decades — including about Sanders himself — and it has never panned out.
The Case Against Elizabeth Warren
None of this is to say that Elizabeth Warren is a great candidate. There are a number of things that I worry about with regard to her. The first is a personal reason: I don’t like her foreign policy positions. That isn’t a deal-breaker for me because I don’t see the American empire torn down under Sanders either. But there’s no doubt that things would be marginally better under Sanders.
I also worry about the politics of a Warren vs Trump fight. Warren is great. She’s positive and authentic. But I have a very low opinion of the American general election voter. Sanders and Biden look the part. There are doubtless a lot of people who would vote for either of these men but wouldn’t vote for Warren.
In fact, data from FiveThirtyEight shows that almost as many Sanders supporters have Biden as their second-choice as Warren. I tend to think that is sexism — if not that of the voter themselves than of how they perceive other voters.
(It’s also possible that this is the case because for a lot of Sanders supporters, defeating Warren is the most important thing. Reading YouTube comments and Twitter threads, you don’t see nearly the bile directed at Biden or Buttigieg as you do Warren. There’s a real People’s Front of Judea aspect of it. “The only person we hate more than Donald Trump is Elizabeth Warren!”)
One good thing about Warren is that, without the hysteria coming from Sanders supporters, she is a unity candidate. She bridges the divide between the left and the right of the Democratic Party. But the Sanders supporters have been very all-or-nothing and I suspect that means they are going to get nothing. And that takes away one of her main advantages. Good job people!
I Don’t Know
But the truth is that I can argue against any of the candidates. I just don’t know. I do know that Sanders isn’t going to bring the Democratic Party together. Just the same, anyone but Sanders may make a notable section of his supporters turn away — even from Warren, a candidate they would have loved 4 years ago. Now she’s just an impediment to Sanders taking his rightful place. Cultish? You decide.
Any Democrat will be good. There really is no comparison between them and Donald Trump. Trump is a negative force in the world. The Democrats will all be a mixed bag but generally positive. That’s even true of Joe Biden, who will almost certainly be the nominee.