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Progressives warn Warren and Sanders are undermining the movement by fighting

The left has a message for the Warren and Sanders supporters fighting it out online: remember who the real enemy is.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in a tense exchange after the January 2020 Democratic debate in Des Moines, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Progressives are hoping they have a Taylor Swift-Katy Perry situation on their hands and not a Taylor Swift-Kanye West scenario when it comes to the beef between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

It started when some of Sanders’s supporters flooded Warren’s Twitter and Instagram mentions with snake emojis after the last Democratic debate in January. The pair had clashed on stage over a report that Sanders told Warren at a private meeting that he didn’t believe a woman could win the White House (he says it didn’t happen, she says it did), and a post-debate moment where she refused to shake hands with him went viral online.

Whatever détente the pair had agreed to in the presidential race, it appeared to be over. But some on the left are pushing for Sanders and Warren — and their supporters — to make up. The idea of the two progressive candidates in the 2020 presidential race feuding instead of focusing their fire on moderates such as former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is, to put it lightly, less than ideal in their eyes.

Mom and Dad are fighting” became the meme-ified manifestation of the conflict on Twitter. But underneath it are serious concerns on the left that dueling Sanders and Warren factions will cannibalize one another and cost the progressive movement a chance at the Democratic Party nomination come July.

“The more time we spend writing and talking about this negligible, speculative divide between Bernie and Warren, the less time we are spending talking about the really problematic records of candidates like Biden and Buttigieg when it comes to their inability to really focus on the heart of the problems and inequalities that are facing Americans today in the year 2020,” said Zina Precht-Rodriguez, national political communications manager for the Sunrise Movement, the climate change group behind the Green New Deal.

After a year of campaigning, we’re on the eve of the 2020 primaries, and the stakes are high. There’s essentially a four-way race in Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which vote within the next two weeks. Sanders is surging in the polls, but the contest is close enough that it’s impossible to predict, and second choices matter, especially in Iowa and then the Nevada caucuses later in February and as the field starts to winnow.

Some progressives are calling for Sanders and Warren backers to bridge their divides and refocus attacks on others in the race. The candidates themselves appear to have returned to their non-aggression pact, at least temporarily, even as some members of their campaigns continue to battle it out online.

And ahead of primary voting, a coalition of 18 grassroots groups on the left has launched a campaign to promote progressive unity in Iowa and beyond. Their overarching message: Remember who the real enemy is.

Conflict between the Warren and Sanders camps was inevitable. But it doesn’t have to be so intense.

Heading into the 2020 Democratic primary, Warren and Sanders, who are longtime friends and allies, purportedly had a non-aggression pact where they agreed not to attack one another. The candidates declined to attack one another when prompted on the campaign trail, and during debates, they backed one other up on policy matters. That didn’t stop their campaigns or supporters from some aggressions — and, eventually, the candidates themselves broke the pact as well.

Beyond the day-to-day barbs traded on Twitter, some of the biggest dustups between the factions have landed around endorsements. When Warren landed the backing of Medicare-for-all advocate Ady Barkan and grassroots political group the Working Families Party, some Sanders supporters expressed dismay, and at times, the rhetoric on Twitter became particularly vitriolic. Soon after Barkan’s endorsement, Sanders took to Twitter to remind his backers that he is a “friend” and apparently send a message for them to back off.

“By and large, people were understanding and sympathetic. There were responses on the margins that definitely upset us, but by and large, people understood that Ady had the right to his views,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesperson for Be a Hero, Barkan’s political action committee.

The Sunrise Movement’s decision to back Sanders, and the split of “the Squad” of progressive women in Congress — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, who backed Sanders, and Ayanna Pressley, who endorsed Warren — have also caused consternation. And podcast host Joe Rogan’s Sanders endorsement revealed deep divisions on the left.

But the candidates themselves largely remained above the fray — until this month. Politico reported that the Sanders camp had deployed anti-Warren scripts to volunteers. Then, days later, a CNN report emerged that Sanders had told Warren in a 2018 private meeting that he did not believe a woman could win the presidency in 2020. He denied the report, and she eventually confirmed it. On the debate stage in Iowa, both reconfirmed their versions of events. They tried to move on, but a tense post-debate moment in which the pair appeared to have a heated exchange showed all was not well between the pair.

Since then, Sanders and Warren appear to have returned to their non-aggression pact — they haven’t been outwardly critical of one another, and they marched together in South Carolina on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. That doesn’t mean everything is all fine and dandy between both camps, especially among online supporters. Which is why there’s an effort to get the two camps to pledge to unite.

Progressives are trying to push Warren and Sanders supporters to think strategically

In the progressive viewpoint, the good thing about having two progressive candidates in the race is that you have double the opportunity to get your message out there and attract voters to your side. The negative is that only one can be the winner here, if either of them is to win at all.

“At the end of the day, it’s not ideal to have two standard bearers of the progressive movement when you can only have one,” said Julian Noisecat, vice president of policy and strategy at the progressive think tank Data for Progress.

In an op-ed for In These Times, Noisecat pointed out that Warren and Sanders are generally popular with one another’s voters. That gives them an opportunity to team up against the moderate candidates while both are still in the race. And if neither wins, at the very least, Sanders and Warren delegates can join forces once the convention arrives to try to push more progressive policies into the platform, if not try to rally behind one of the candidates in the event the convention is contested.

But ideally, progressive groups argue, it wouldn’t get that far. If and when it becomes apparent one has a better shot at the nomination than the other, it’s important for one to throw their support behind the other, Noisecat wrote. And that could matter especially when it comes to convention delegates, who are ultimately the ones who will vote to select the Democratic nominee in Milwaukee this summer.

“A campaign has to reach a 15 percent threshold within the state to win state-level delegates, and the same threshold in each district to win district-level delegates,” Noisecat wrote.

In other words, if supporters of one recognize their candidate isn’t going to reach the 15 percent threshold, it matters that they back the other candidate in order to help them get there.

In January, political action committee Democracy for America launched Progressives Unite 2020, a coalition of 18 grassroots group, aimed at reminding progressives to keep their eyes on the prize and vote strategically during the primaries. They’re asking progressives to sign a pledge to fight against “the corporate wing” — as in moderates — instead of one another and come together in state caucuses, primaries, and conventions to champion whoever the progressive candidate may be.

As a first step, Progressives Unite 2020 is focusing on the Iowa caucuses and encouraging caucus-goers to rally behind either Sanders or Warren if their first-choice candidate does not reach the 15 percent viability threshold at their caucus site. Basically, they’re saying if you have candidates such as Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang, or Tulsi Gabbard as your first choice in Iowa, and at your caucus site, they don’t have more than 15 percent support, don’t go home, go back Warren or Sanders instead. (Or if Warren or Sanders don’t hit 15 percent, go to the other.) The group has launched a $50,000 social media campaign to try to get out the message.

“We can’t train our fire on a progressive in this race, and we have to make sure that we have the delegates at these state conventions and at the convention in Milwaukee who share our commitment to making sure a progressive leaves Milwaukee as the nominee for the Democratic Party,” said Neil Sroka, director of Democracy for America. “We can’t leave any progressive voters behind.”

Twitter is not real life. It also does not make things better.

In the Sanders vs. Warren tensions, two things can be true: The conflict probably isn’t as bad as it seems on Twitter, but Twitter makes it worse.

The Democratic electorate in America is by and large not reflective of what’s going on on Twitter. However, some of the loudest and most influential voices on the left are on Twitter, and they can shape the debate that happens in the media, offline, and in real life. Controversies that start on social media have a way of seeping into the real world pretty quickly. Moreover, rhetoric online can feel depersonalized, and that sometimes leads to exchanges that are extra cutting. Internet culture can be really mean and hyperbolic, especially in politics, where the stakes are pretty high.

Those pushing for progressives to tone it down note that those online spats might seem extra tough in hindsight once people are expected to work together. Forgive and forget is easier said than done. Noisecat highlighted the anger some Sanders supporters directed at New York’s progressive Working Families Party when it endorsed Warren. “Ideally, I imagine Bernie-world is going to want WFP to come around to Bernie if he’s the nominee, and I think the people who led the charge to harass the progressive activists of color who lead that organization are probably going to have to own up to their bad behavior,” he said.

Focusing too much on Sanders and Warren is also short-sighted, some on the left say. Deep, irreparable, Twitter-ignited divides over two septuagenarians will not a long-lasting progressive movement make.

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