Let’s start with this question: Is there a Democratic Party “establishment”?

David Plouffe, who was on the News Hour last week talking about his new book and a radically pruned Democratic presidential candidate field, says there isn’t. I guess Plouffe (pronounced “Pluff” — I have been calling him “Ploofe” for years) should know. If there were an establishment, he would be in it.

On the other hand, ask various Washington policy advisors if they were members of Yale’s secret society Skull and Bones. Then watch them stand up and leave the room.

I’m just saying.

But unlike my more leftish brethren, I see “establishments” as not just inevitable in a democracy, but in the forms of socialism and communism so profoundly admired among Sanders partisans. History suggests that establishments are sometimes engines of, and sometimes brakes on, progress. As one academic colleague subtweeted this morning, it is forms of critical thinking like this, grounded in decades of historical research, that makes me a shill for neoliberalism.

But I don’t think so: I think it makes me a clear-eyed leftist (forgive me if I don’t ask you about your MA in American Studies.) And, like Elizabeth Warren, I will persist in my determination to create change within democratic processes when I can. Sometimes progress requires blood and teeth on the floor — but candidates who choose that as a default position shouldn’t be surprised if voters fear them.

It is also worth noting that “Establishments” don’t take out candidates in a democracy. Voters do. And don’t color me naive. I write this as a heart-broken Warren partisan who was appalled at the number of prominent politicians who tweeted their praise last week (yes, I am looking at you, Deval Patrick), but actively undermined Warren’s candidacy.

The voice of the ordinary Democratic voter spoke loudly last week, and it is impossible to believe that these voters had members of the Establishment frog-marching them into the voting booth and forcing a vote for Biden.

Voters, even in her home state, clearly said “no” to Elizabeth Warren, and that has been hard to hear. I saw lots of folks on Twitter begging Warren to remain in the race. But past a certain point, as Warren herself pointed out in an exclusive interview with Rachel Maddow (March 5), letting go can be the best way to repay the loyalty of staffers and volunteers. Also, the more it becomes clear that a campaign cannot succeed, the more voters migrate elsewhere, and the more rapidly the candidate’s influence on the party platform diminishes.

Another online phenomenon was women and men who had imagined all along that Bernie Sanders would be their second choice facing reality — and making noises about Biden. The consensus right now is that the Warren vote will break pretty evenly to Biden and Sanders, and thus have a negligible effect on next week’s primaries.

But I don’t think so: I believe that Warren supporters — educated, wine-drinking, progressives all! — are likely to see the Sanders campaign’s failure to engage African American voters and juice youth turnout as a sign to coalesce around the establishment-that-is-not-one.

Because of this, some online Sanders activists seem to be in the middle of a mild freak out: all of the things they presumed to be right about the electorate are not panning out. It seems to be dawning on some of them — although not others — that abusing and harassing people on social media, and ubiquitous tweets about forcing Warren supporters to “bend the knee,” won them no friends.

Still, a typical response to our failure to leave the past behind goes like this: “Just because you once got your feelings hurt, you want to deny healthcare to millions of people?”

I want to stipulate that Sanders is a genuinely unusual, visionary, and extraordinary candidate who has moved the conversation in the Democratic party dramatically. No one in the Warren camp doubts that. But he is not the only person who can reform healthcare. Furthermore, this failure to recognize that principled political radicals have also provided a safe space for a sizable number of unhinged people has, in a nutshell, caused diminished confidence in Sanders’s judgment and philosophy of governance. As Jeff Isaac pointed out last week, he has consistently failed to understand that attacking the Democratic party as inherently corrupt might cause the majority of Democrats to question his capacity to lead it.

Party politics are, at their core, the politics of compromise. Yet Sanders and his partisans have shown little talent for that so far. They believe that only Sanders can achieve the policy goals that he and Warren share. They think that the challenges we face — education, debt relief, climate change, and universal healthcare among them — can only be achieved by bludgeoning Washington into submission. They believe that Sanders is uniquely qualified for this thuggish and thoroughly undemocratic way of doing business. Moreover, they believe that everyone who does not support Sanders is acting in bad faith — but that they never do.

The campaign’s chief vulnerability is that Sanders himself has never grappled with this problem. He refuses to acknowledge the importance of online rage to his campaign’s mass appeal. Until recently, Sanders had a Twitter troll with 4,000 private followers, some of whom must have been on the campaign staff, as his Michigan field director. Graphic evidence that the monster was in the house causes many of us to be concerned that a prospective Sanders presidency might mean exchanging Donald Trump’s paranoid, executive-driven style of governance for a left-wing version of the same thing.

In other words, it is a political — not a rhetorical, or emotional — problem. As Slate’sVirginia Heffernan put it in this tweet, the toxicity of the Sanders movement reveals a troubling vision of what constitutes legitimate politics. Sanders partisans’ implicit assertion that a candidate can campaign with one style and govern with another is pure rubbish: do they not recall the constant reassurances that Donald Trump was not who he seemed to be?

Part of what a campaign season does, particularly one as long as this one, is to provide a very public stage for a candidate’s governance style. I leave it to the experts why masses of African-American voters rejected Sanders for Biden. But it is worth considering that a negative, fear-driven campaign is less than appealing to a community of voters who have a history of being historically targeted by angry white people.

There is no answer to this but to clean house, and Sanders must do it immediately to win back the Democratic party’s left-wing.

As someone who participated in the melancholy task of closing my local Warren campaign office in Northampton, Massachusetts, yesterday, I couldn’t be more distressed about voters’ unwillingness to endorse a progressive agenda. The vision we all fought for would probably only succeed in bits and pieces under a Biden presidency.

But we need a more thoughtful answer to this than to blame the “establishment.” Progressive policymaking that exceeds Obama-ism is was soundly rebuffed by a majority of voters in our party last week.

Our defeated little band took pleasure in one thing: although Warren only won 21.4% of the vote in Massachusetts to finish third we won Northampton for Elizabeth Warren. No, you can’t run the country from Brooklyn, Northampton, or Austin. But an inclusive, progressive plan for the Democratic Party is not dead, even if we can’t have the presidency. Yet.

Warren supporters will not stop dreaming big or fighting hard. But succeed in November, we must. There is no other choice before us but to defeat Donald Trump, whoever the nominee is. I hope Sanders partisans — should they join us in the loser’s circle — can get on board with that.

Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar and Professor of History at The New School for Social Research. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical. Subscribe to her Substack, Political Junkie, here.

7 thoughts on “Warren Supporters Have Vowed to Persist

  1. There is something very puzzling about reading in Public Seminar about “a campaign that cultivates fear and rage”, referring to Sanders’ campaign. Really? We’re going along with the foaming at the mouth “Bernie Bros” myth? Sure, you’ll find some level of overly aggressive responses on social media here and there, but the idea that it is unique to Sanders campaign doesn’t hold water. I have seen plenty of extremely aggressive and rage-filled comments from virtually every side, including Biden and Warren supporters. Maybe we live in parallel social media universes… Sanders is also more often than not on the receiving end of viciously venomous discourse, not only on social media (an across the board phenomenon that doesn’t solely target Sanders) but even in the mainstream media, and this is not paranoia or conspiracy theory. What other campaign was compared on TV to the marching Nazi army? That this situation can generate defensive responses in the Sanders camp is not surprising, yet you see that as “provid[ing] a safe space for a sizable number of unhinged people”.
    As for the critique that Sanders and his supporters are dead wrong to criticize the fact that the corporate wing of the Democratic Party is corrupt…ah, well, we should just look the other way then. Here it is plainly a matter of integrity, and what you are saying is that integrity is not always politically beneficial. Sure. I’ll go with the guy with integrity any time though.

  2. Dear Fred,

    This is the party line — Sanders partisans don’t do anything that other partisans do not do. Perhaps that is true — but Sanders trolling is endemic, and if you don’t see it, perhaps it is because you are wise enough to not be on Twitter much. Someone will, soon I hope, do the research to demonstrate whether this is impressionistic or not, but the fact that other campaigns explicitly came out against trolling, and the Sanders campaign had an active troll as a state field director and engages in “whataboutism” speaks volumes.

    No one is wrong to challenge corruption — ever — particularly in politics. But all establishments are not corrupt, and when a campaign culture takes that is a given — while trying to take over the establishment for its own purposes — is what I am talking about.

    1. Thanks ,Claire, for responding.

      I would indeed welcome such a study, because my perception is that it is, indeed, mostly perception, but of course I could be proved wrong. For the most part, what I see–and I’ll give you that I do not follow twitter–is people who care and engage on the basis of the platform. I personally see plenty of nastiness coming Sanders’ way–I mean really really plenty. I see plenty of nastiness coming Nina Turner’s way, quite often shockingly nasty.

      At any rate, whether part of the Sanders base often goes overboard, or some individuals linked to the campaign engage in reprehensible online actions from their private accounts, I think you are really taking a giant leap–bordering on smear, really–to conclude that we should “be concerned that a prospective Sanders presidency might mean exchanging Donald Trump’s paranoid, executive-driven style of governance for a left-wing version of the same thing”. You really think that’s fair? Then you talk about “the toxicity of Sanders’ movement”. So it doesn’t count for anything that Sanders could build a multiracial, multi-generational, highly engaged movement of working class people, behind an agenda of social and economic justice. The only adjective coming to your mind to describe it is “toxic”?

      Chomsky pointed out that the major “crime” committed by Sanders from the point of view of the establishment–though I understand you take issue with the term–let’s call them corporate politicians (on both side), is not so much policy but to have organized a mouvement of people that doesn’t simply show up every four years to push a button, but keeps working on political organizing. As Chomsky put it, for the corporate politicians “the rabble is supposed to stay home, their job is to watch, not to participate”.

      Look at the crowds at his rallies and tell me if you see “fear and rage” and “toxicity”. I see quite a different thing. I see and feel hope, for the first time since I came to the US twenty years ago, hope for a meaningful political mouvement that has the potential to enact real change. Because it is not enough to elect Elizabeth Warren or Bernie (both of which have platforms to fight for), and Bernie understands that. Real change will require a continued popular mass engagement with the issues. As Frederick Douglass so aptly put it “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” I think Bernie does understand that, and this is truly historical to have a viable candidate who does.

      That instead of seeing that we focus–in Public Seminar of all places–on whether some supporters get nasty is, to me, truly sad.

      on a different note, and only to follow up on your comment Re: “establishment”: I see it as a matter of fact that both major parties in the US serve first and foremost the interests of major corporations, with the military industrial complex at the top of the list. They differ on social issues, and on the parameters needed to manage the masses–hence they are not equally toxic to ordinary people in practice– but their purpose is the same. In that respect they are “the establishment”, that is, a class whose function is to protect moneyed interest.
      Sanders campaign is insurgent in this context and of course does not really belong in the Democratic party. In a different political context, his campaign would of course be independent, outside of the shackles of the traditional parties. But we both know that there is no electoral possibility outside of the two party system. The system is setup that way. There is no room for an insurgent from outside. The only option is insurgency from inside, that is, a take over–highjacking really–of one of the party. It is thus only natural that there would be a clear-cut antagonism between “the establishment” and “the insurgency”. Yet this take over is absolutely needed, and Sanders’ movement represents an historical shot at it.

      1. Hi Fred,

        I don’t see a smear or giant leap in pointing out the dogmatism in Bernie’s campaign and its similarity to Trump’s. Many people have pointed out the lack of nuance in Bernie’s responses as well as the nuance Bernie’s supporters fail to understand. Whether they like it or not, nuance matters.

        I’m not sure your Frederick Douglass quote is applicable here. Struggle is a relative concept, which means it is full of nuance. Douglass left the original Garrison/Tappan led group (AASS) for Tappan & Lewis’s break-away group AFASS (also called the Liberty Party). The original group (AASS) represented the more radical path – the path that demanded the constitution be thrown out in its entirety and a new one be written in its place, but they were opposed to using violence as a way of reaching their goals. The group Douglass left for — The Liberty Party (AFASS) — represented the path of using the current constitution and working within the system to make change – including using violence. One would have thought that using violence would have tracked with the first group and not the second. Also interesting and something you won’t read on the Wiki page is that Garrison was over-controlling – restricting Douglass in what he could write and when. Garrison also started a smear campaign against Douglass and his relationship with Julia Griffiths. These things also played a part in what finally pushed Douglass to the other side.

        A new book on Frederick Douglass is well worth reading:

        Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight, Simon and Schuster 2018.

        1. Cmuir, I really don’t want to assume any bad faith from anybody, but you make it somewhat difficult because:
          1) I will not elaborate too much on the condescending bit implying that I must have discovered Frederick Douglass through Wikipedia…It seems you think that surely a Bernie supporter necessarily needs a history lesson…I’ll just say, I think anybody can see what you are doing here.
          2) There is a tragi-comic irony in lamenting the lack of “nuance” of the Sanders campaign while defending a statement to the effect that Bernie is just the leftist counterpart of Trump: such a nuanced statement…Indeed, nuance matters sometimes. Though I’d say that when the window of action to mitigate a looming climate catastrophe is rapidly closing, when families of asylum seekers are separated and kids are put in cages, when people die from rationing their insulin, your priorities might need re-examination if you put this “nuance issue” at the top of your concerns. I really do not like the way the saying “check your privilege” is waved around and weaponized sometimes, but I have to admit that this is what came to my mind reading your comment on “nuance matters”.
          3) you seem to pretend not to understand where I was going with this Douglass quote, and I have a hard time believing that you do not know what I mean. Clearly, today’s context is not that of the quote, and there is no need to dissect the historical context of that quote because I obviously did not mean to draw a parallel between the two historical situations. As used, the quote stands on its own. My point was (as you most likely already understood–apologies for the tedious repetition) that important change does not come through elections alone. You need a vigorous social movement to put pressure on, and an administration sympathetic to these demands. But without social pressure, the political reality is that nothing of substance can be achieved by anybody (and the Douglass quote was just illustrating that point). Bernie understands that and thus focuses on building an engaged movement rather than simply winning an election. A candidate understanding this dynamic represents a unique opportunity.

          1. Hi Fred – I respect Bernie Sanders and those of his supporters who are passionate and civil. Claire’s nuanced account is one of several with which I agree. Also, I am a fan of Wikipedia, but it is not a place to go for nuance (a point for anyone, not just Bernie supporters). We are closer to each other in our political ideals than you know!

            I do not pretend to know or not know something. I engage people in order to discover what they believe. My point about your quote is relevant for the reasons I pointed out: struggle is relative and nuanced. The irony in your use of that quote is thus: Frederick Douglass left a movement that sounded a lot like Bernie does today – Garrison advocated for a “Revolution.” Garrison would accept no compromise with the “establishment” and advocated nonvoting and disunionism believing the Constitution to be a “covenant with evil.” When Douglass disagreed, Garrison launched a smear campaign against Douglass. Douglass left Garrison and joined the break-away group that believed in working within the system (engaging in a positive way with the establishment) and championing the Constitution as it was originally written. It was through this group that Douglass makes his greatest personal and public contributions. I quote below David W. Blight from his introduction:

            ——”The outsider-to-insider story especially animates the second half of the book, and it caused one of Douglass’s most challenging psychic dilemmas. He repeatedly faced the question of how uncompromising radicalism could mix with a learned pragmatism to try to influence real power, to determine how to condemn the princes and their laws but also influence and eventually join them.”——

            I wish you well.

  3. CMuir, I maintain that there is nothing nuanced about saying Bernie is just a leftist version of Trump, but I don’t think we are not going to agree on this. I see your point about Douglass, and I wish you well too.

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