Bernie Sanders Won’t Unify the Democratic Party

Bernie Sanders

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

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.


Bernie Sanders by Gage Skidmore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Elizabeth Warren by ElizabethForMA licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

14 thoughts on “Bernie Sanders Won’t Unify the Democratic Party

  1. I agree with most of this, so consider my nitpicks as “praise by omission.”

    “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.”

    I don’t know about that. I worry that Biden is more and more seeming like he’s sundowning, and he and Trump would look like a couple of doddering old men shouting at each other. With that visual, a lot of people will assume they’re equally bad and stick with the status quo.

    “That’s even true of Joe Biden, who will almost certainly be the nominee.”

    No, not “almost certainly.” I don’t know what you’re basing that on. I know 538 gives him a 4/10 chance right now, but I think there’s very little reliability to any predictions right now.

    • What I was getting at (and I got some pushback on Twitter as well) is that there are straight-up sexists and there are people who are afraid there are enough Americans who are sexist that they won’t vote for a woman. In the Democratic primary, it would be the latter group.

      On the second point: I’d like to think this comes from my tendency to prepare myself emotionally for the worst. Biden has been very stable in his support. I watch him in the debates and I’m not impressed (even apart from policy). I see a guy who can’t wait for the moderators to cut him off. He’s not all there. The difference between Sanders and him is striking. Yet after each debate I hear from commenters what a good job he did because he didn’t do a really bad job!

      But my worst fears have come to pass regarding Warren and Sanders. They are splitting the vote with neither so dominant that the other can be expected to drop out. It’s possible Sanders can pull this out. It’s possible Warren will come back. It’s possible no one will have the votes by the convention. I don’t know. But I’m worried. I fear we will get Biden and he will disintegrate in the general.

  2. Is this how Warren plans to “unify the party”? By following Hillary’s playbook of smears, false narratives, and total fabrications?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9JZXj7hN1ZI
    and
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQQqoZ53C5k
    Note that this isn’t just the spew of some semi-anonymous Twitter twit. It’s demonstrably a ploy both approved and implemented by Warren herself. As with her treatment of healthcare issues, Warren’s public actions speak for themselves.

    • This is your last comment.

      You aren’t engaging with the content. This is what I see on Twitter every day. You decided Warren was a neoliberal shill a long time ago. Sanders is always right. Blah blah blah.

      And you bring The Rational National as your back-up? Really?! That’s the best you’ve got? No wonder you are so convinced you’re right! I would be too if I only ever listened to people I agreed with!

      But I can’t completely fault you. You were exactly who I was thinking about when I was talking about cultish behavior among Sanders supporters. I like Sanders’ policies; his supporters, represented by you, are the worst.

      If I’ve set things up correctly, everything that comes from you will automatically be deleted. If not, I’ll do it by hand without reading it. Good luck in your future endeavors.

  3. @ Jurgan — sadly, I agree. I don’t see how Biden could move turnout; he never did in any of his previous presidential primary campaigns. At this point, I think Trump would slaughter him. Trump might slaughter the other ones, too. Trump has the advantage of everyone who hates him probably hated him in 2016, as well. We know what his floor is, and it’s high enough to win the Electoral College. We honestly don’t know how many people would avoid Warren/Sanders because of woman/”socialist,” even though their policy proposals are far more popular in blind polling.

    @ paintedjaguar — Best case scenario, Warren and Sanders did meet in private when they began their 2020 campaigns, and each tried to convince the other why they were the best hope for liberal-minded Democrats. In such a situation, I can fully see Sanders saying what he claims he said, which is that Trump would try to motivate his bigot base to turn out against a woman (faux-macho cowards that they are). And I could see Warren angrily misreading that as Sanders telling her no woman could win. Politicians running for President have pretty big, often easily wounded egos.

    I don’t trust her commitment to health care, either. But at least she’s not Bill Clinton, who promised universal health care, tougher anti-crime laws, and eliminating regulations preventing “innovation” in the financial sector. He delivered on 2/3. Warren hasn’t proposed anything awful.

    @ Frank — I think I disagree that a Sanders foreign policy would do more to inspire future Republican victories. They’re going to label any Democratic president a proto-traitor who weakens America, they did it with Obama the Drone King. If anything, I think a Biden presidency would turn more centrist Democrats into Republican voters, since Biden would be a do-nothing, stand-for-nothing President. That’s not to say I prefer Trump to Biden, just that centrist Democratic presidents are always followed by increasingly far-right Republicans. The next Trump will be worse, and possibly less ludicrous. (Although less ludicrous might work against him — and it will be a “him.”)

    @ All y’all — they’re mailing out my absentee ballot on Friday. I still haven’t decided. Minnesota is starting absentee voting much earlier than usual this time, although I don’t think the ballots are due for quite awhile. Hope it’s easy to vote in your states!

    • That is true. However, if Sanders makes nice with Iran and Venezuela (which I would hope he would!) it would be so much worse because Americans already believe that these are evil countries.

      • Funny thing — I looked up when my absentee ballot is due. It’s Super Tuesday; in the past, Minnesota’s been way after that.

        Of course, Minnesota will be an afterthought compared to Florida, Texas, California. But we do have way more delegates than American Samoa! It’s kinda neat that Democrats give some delegates to our colonial islands, the Republucans don’t, shock shock. (They do have some delegates from Puerto Rico, I’m assuming the resident rich honkies there for tax-evasion purposes.) Poor Guam doesn’t get any delegates until May. I’ve been there, once. Wonderful people. Lots of strange seaside critters. You haven’t lived until you wake up on the beach from a stuporous bender and some crawling thing is trying to eat your nipple.

        As stated, I haven’t made my primary voting decision yet. I enjoy your writings & wrestlings on the subject.

        • To be clear: I’m not against Sanders. But I’ve gotten tired of a vocal subset of his supporters who know nothing about Warren other than the lists of “awful things” Warren has done that are repeated ad nauseam by other Sanders supporters. These people don’t even know very much about Sanders’ policies. I believe that is why there is such focus on M4A as though it is the only thing that matters. I highly recommend reading The Case for Elizabeth Warren. It highlights what is probably my primary reason for supporting her: she is to the regulatory state what Sanders is to foreign affairs. For the umpteenth time: Sanders is not a socialist; he and Warren are both social democrats with slightly different skills.

          What’s also annoying is that the behavior of Sanders supporters has only empowered Biden. Warren’s loss has not been Sanders’ gain. He’s where he was before his heart attack. I’ll vote for whoever wins the primary. My biggest concern is that a lot of Sanders supporters are preparing themselves not to do that. And to pat themselves on the back for it. I saw one tweet recently claiming that Biden is better than Warren because if she is elected she will make socialists look bad. This may be why the second-choice of Sanders supporters is Joe Biden. Just kidding; it’s because people don’t actually care about policy. And sexism.

  4. Socialism has been turned into a bad word,
    Bernie is not a Democrat
    many Bernie supporters helped us lose the last presidential election.
    We have no great choice this time.
    Only too look at who has the best chance of winning. Its not Bernie.

    • I think there are great candidates this time. I think Warren would make an exceptional president. And I was very fond of Castro and Harris.

      But it is important to remember that we never have a choice in these matters. We have alternatives. And if it comes down to it, I’ll even vote for Michael Bloomberg. I can’t think of a Democrat who isn’t a better alternative than Trump. (Admittedly, I’m not sure I’d call Bloomberg a Democrat.)

      • Well, I’d vote for Bloomberg if I had to. But I don’t think I’d put one of his lawn signs in the yard. (Not much point to lawn signs anyway, unless they’re for a school funding levy or city council candidate or such. Presidential party nominees have huge name recognition, you don’t need to remind anyone who’s on the ballot.)

        Funny thing about Presidential name recognition — it totally crosses borders. Some years ago, when we were in Denmark, and the Carlsberg beers were flowing, the Danes did a trivia thing — name US Presidents, current-to-previous, in order. Between them, they got as far back as Roosevelt (I think I had to help out with Ford, nobody remembers Ford.)

        Roosevelt, that’s pretty good! Most Americans probably couldn’t do it. I have a college degree in history, and I lose track of which order Cooledge/Taft etc. came in.

        So, for fun, we asked them to name the Danish prime ministers in reverse order. Nobody could get past the last two or three.

        I suppose, once you’ve dropped A-bombs, the world sorta pays attention to which current super-ambitious person has charge of those things…

        • We have better marketing. But I don’t know if you are aware, but that was Ford’s campaign slogan in 1976, “Nobody Remembers Ford!”

  5. Curiously, now that time and Iowa and New Hampshire are in the rear view… and Biden is nowhere… has your perspective changed?

    • Not really. I think most Sanders supporters would agree with me that there are major forces aligned against him. This has always been my concern about Sanders: not him but the almost hysterical reaction to him. But I’m much more keen on his getting the nomination now. I’d like to see him start winning majorities but I’m skeptical. The fractured field doesn’t help. It seems whenever I get horrified by someone new another even worse candidate steps forward. I mean: Bloomberg?! Really? I’m giving serious thought to whether I could even vote for him. Biden or Buttigieg or Klobuchar are no-brainers: they are vastly superior to anyone the Republicans would nominate — certainly Trump. But Bloomberg is an authoritarian — and a competent one. I think it would be interesting if Trump 2.0 turned out to be a Democrat. And it speaks very poorly of Democratic voters that a few hundred million dollars of TV commercials could cause them to rush to his side — including some sophisticated people I know. Part of this is due to the hysteria about Sanders. “Sanders isn’t a Democrat! Sanders is too radical! Let’s nominate a Republican authoritarian to save our party from Sanders!”

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