clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Bernie Sanders can't denounce his supporters. They're his leverage against the Democrats.

Sanders told Trump to denounce supporters' bad behavior. Now that Sanders's supporters are harassing a Democratic official, should he take his own advice?

Bernie Sanders Al Drago/CQ Roll Call

1) Over the weekend, the Nevada Democratic Party's state convention descended into chaos during a fight between party officials and Bernie Sanders supporters over the rules.

Sanders supporters booed and shouted obscenities at California Sen. Barbara Boxer when she tried to call for unity; Boxer said later that while she didn't "want to use the word threatened," she "feared for [her] safety." State party chair Roberta Lange ended up calling an abrupt end to the meeting and fleeing the convention stage to a chorus of boos.

2) You may notice that both of these people are women. To critics of the Sanders campaign, this fits a pattern of sexist behavior by Sanders supporters against not only Hillary Clinton but other women — from Elizabeth Warren to random people on the internet — who are insufficiently supportive of Sanders.

3) After the convention, someone posted Lange's personal information — including her cellphone number and home address. She has since received (according to CNN) "1,000 calls, angry voicemails, text messages and even death threats," such as, "People like you should be hung in a public execution to show this world that we won't stand for this sort of corruption."

4) Democratic officials, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (who is from Nevada), called on Sanders to denounce these actions. In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Sanders only did so in the most perfunctory way: "It goes without saying that I condemn any and all forms of violence, including the personal harassment of individuals," he wrote.

But the statement was focused on rejecting the idea that his followers had a "penchant for violence" — "Our campaign has held giant rallies all across this country, including in high-crime areas, and there have been zero reports of violence," he wrote — and legitimizing the complaints of his supporters about the fairness of the Nevada convention.

5) This isn't the first time Sanders has been asked to condemn the behavior of his followers or help keep them in line. But in the past, he's been more willing to do it. In February, when CNN's Jake Tapper asked Sanders about his supporters making sexist comments to Clinton supporters online, here's what he said:

"We don’t want that crap. ... We will do everything we can and I think we have tried. Look, anybody who is supporting me that is doing the sexist things is — we don’t want them. I don’t want them. That is not what this campaign is about."

6) But February was ages ago for the Sanders campaign.

When Tapper asked Sanders that question, the candidate was coming off a surprise tie in Iowa and was en route to a crushing victory in New Hampshire. It looked like he had a real shot at the Democratic nomination — and it looked like the biggest problem he had was that not enough people were aware of him.

In that context, it made all the sense in the world that Sanders would be less interested in defending the actions of the supporters he had than he was in reaching out to people who didn't yet support him but might if they knew more about him and his ideas — and weren't sidetracked by dramas that didn't reflect either of those things.

7) Now it's clear that Bernie Sanders will not win the Democratic nomination. And while his campaign claims it's still working to expand his base of support (at least among superdelegates), it's more likely that Sanders is working to maximize his leverage with the Democratic Party in exchange for an eventual endorsement of Hillary Clinton — demanding, say, certain policy concessions in the party's platform.

To do that, Sanders needs to retain the base of support he already has, and keep those supporters motivated enough that Democratic Party officials feel that Clinton's success at the polls in the fall is dependent on them making a deal with Sanders over the summer.

8) Bernie Sanders's supporters don't want him to be forced to apologize for stupid or harmful things done by people who support Bernie Sanders. Many of them believe this is one of the biggest sins the media has committed against the Sanders campaign: focusing too much on the most objectionable actions of his supporters and using that to define the campaign, rather than the candidate himself and his ideas. They believed that even when Sanders was willing to apologize for the actions of his supporters — and now it appears that the candidate himself has come around to their point of view.

Sanders's statement Tuesday wasn't a defense of the doxxing of Roberta Lange. It was an attempt to define his campaign as a movement with the power to hold the Democratic Party accountable, rather than getting bogged down in incidents that didn't reflect on its members so well.

Sanders "Finally a reason to vote" banner Ethan Miller/Getty

9) This is where Sanders's critics see a double standard. No candidate wants his campaign defined by the actions of his worst supporters, but that doesn't mean it isn't sometimes appropriate to do so.

When reports surfaced of violence at Donald Trump rallies in March, Sanders was quick to hold the candidate responsible for reining in his supporters. "What caused the violence at Trump’s rally is a campaign whose words and actions have encouraged it on the part of his supporters," he said in a March statement. "When that is what the Trump campaign is doing, we should not be surprised that there is a response. What Donald Trump must do now is stop provoking violence and make it clear to his supporters that people who attend his rallies or protest should not be assaulted, should not be punched, should not be kicked."

10) You can draw the distinction that Sanders's supporters haven't done anything that crosses a line into physical violence — that there's a significant difference between doxxing and death threats versus throwing a punch.

But the left tends not to take much stock in that distinction — they tend to acknowledge that violence can be done in nonphysical ways, and that causing someone to fear for her safety and the safety of her family is a form of violence. (Indeed, Sanders's Tuesday statement referred to "personal harassment" as a "form of violence.")

11) The more salient distinction is that in the eyes of not only Sanders's supporters but basically anyone affiliated with the Democratic Party (and many Republicans as well), Trump's campaign is about hate. The connection between Trump's rhetorical attacks on Mexicans and his supporters' attacks on Mexicans is lost on no one.

12) Bernie Sanders's campaign is not about attacking women. It's not even about attacking Democratic Party officials (although the candidate has actually said negative things about the Democratic establishment, whereas he hasn't done the same about women).

So to his supporters, treating Sanders like Trump is just another way to distract from the true strength of the Sanders campaign: the anti-corporate sentiments he represents, and support for policies like tuition-free college and single-payer health care. Going into the convention (or into negotiations with the party over concessions), they want Democrats to know that those ideas are the reason Sanders succeeded as well as he did.

13) The problem with this is that voting for someone can be an awfully imprecise way to send a message, because people do it for a variety of reasons. Not every Bernie Sanders voter is a supporter of single-payer health care. We know, for example, that Sanders routinely overperforms among voters who think the next president should be less liberal than President Obama.

14) The fact of the matter is that Sanders, as the candidate running against Hillary Clinton, has attracted the voters who oppose Hillary Clinton. Very few, if any, of those voters are motivated by sexism against Clinton. But the ones who are motivated by personal animosity toward Clinton, rather than support for Sanders, are the ones most likely to do things like threatening the families of Democratic Party officials who support her.

A Bernie Sanders supporter holds a NOT WITH HER sign at a California rally. Melina Mara/Washington Post via Getty

A Bernie Sanders supporter holds a "Not With Her" sign at a California rally.

15) Even among the young voters who've been inspired by the Sanders campaign — who might not otherwise be interested in Democratic politics — it's not clear how strong the fundamental opposition to Clinton is. Most primary voters join the fold and vote for the party's nominee, but it's possible that people who have never voted for a Democrat before won't do so in November, either.

16) These are the people who are most likely to say that "there's no real difference between Democrats and Republicans." And for better or worse, the Democratic Party coalesced around a candidate for whom that critique seems particularly persuasive — soft on capitalism, hawkish on foreign policy.

17) The people who voted for Sanders because they hate Clinton aren't the supporters Sanders thinks he has. And they're not the supporters he necessarily wants. He's done nothing to attract them, other than run against Clinton and attack her as an insurgent would attack a frontrunner. But they are a part of his coalition.

18) When Sanders finally comes around and endorses Hillary Clinton, the people who support him for his ideas are likely to listen. They're likely to come around, too. But Sanders doesn't actually lead all of the people following him now. And if he can't control their actions now, he certainly won't be able to control them when he endorses the candidate they despise.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.