The great ‘Bernie vs. Warren’ online wars have yet to fully commence, and the current state of affairs resembles something like an uneasy pre-conflict standoff. No tentative pact between the candidates themselves can last forever and early shots have already been fired from their respective squadrons: small skirmishes or drills that precede the outright warfare. Political prognosticators tend to lump Bernie and Warren into the same generic ‘progressive’ category, but for their most committed backers — the ones who will be in the online trenches — the differences are vast and unbridgeable.
For the devout socialists, Bernie represents a once-in-a-generation (or even lifetime) opportunity. Never before in modern history has a candidate who proudly touts his socialist credentials been this close to power. Just a few years ago it would have been virtually unthinkable. Today, Bernie has surpassed one million individual donors, and his national organizing infrastructure is almost unparalleled. For Warren to muck up this arrangement — by poaching some of his ideas and filtering them through an ideological paradigm more palatable to the party establishment — is an egregious affront. Warren has repeatedly affirmed her commitment to capitalism as such, and that’s just not a divide that can ever be reconciled in their eyes.
Again, most primary voters probably don’t think in these terms. They mostly like all the candidates, and aren’t particularly interested in arcane ideological debates. Beating Trump comes first for them, and the rest is somewhat immaterial. But the typical primary voters are not the ones who are going to be engaged in vigorous online combat. That’s a tiny subsection of the candidates’ coalitions, but they have disproportionate visibility on your social media feeds, and therefore disproportionate sway on the media. The media loves nothing if not conflict, so any seeds of it are going to be amplified with gusto.
The first preliminary battle broke out in earnest this week. Only true insiders would have been aware of it, but again, online political battles are an insider-y pursuit. The Working Families party announced its endorsement of Warren, but didn’t disclose the precise vote tallies, leading to suspicion that party membership backed Bernie but the party leadership overrode popular will. It’s clear that striving, professional ‘progressive’ types view Warren as a more suitable vehicle to achieve their career ambitions than Bernie, who in their mind has…‘baggage’. Warren is happy to proclaim her devotion to the Democratic party as such, whereas the subtext of Bernie’s comments on the party is always simmering hostility and suspicion (for good reason). Notably, at Warren’s big rally this week in Washington Square Park, the signage distributed by her staff proclaimed, ‘I’m a Warren Democrat’. Emphasis on the ‘Democrat’. You would not see ‘I’m a Bernie Democrat’ placards passed out at his events. It’s a subtle distinction, but the Cold War is in a somewhat subtle phase.
After the Warren endorsement, Bernie supporters got Mad Online. Shocker. People often get mad on the internet. But the source of their anger was at least prima facie legitimate. The Working Families party endorsed Bernie in 2016, and released their full vote tallies. This time they did not. Noticing the discrepancy, it was subsequently claimed, is evidence of racism. A coalition of ‘leaders’ put out a bizarre screed of a letter denouncing the Bernie campaign for having ‘racism in its ranks’ and employing the tactics of ‘white terror’. That’s quite a charge, and you’d think it would require a bit of evidence to establish. But no verifiable examples of terroristic racism were cited in the letter. The letter merely claims that ‘self-identified Sanders supporters’ leveled ‘hateful, violent, and racist threats’. Who were these alleged supporters? It’s a mystery. Could it be that they were not named because they are random Twitter trolls? And writing a harshly condemnatory letter on the basis of random unidentified trolls is self-evidently ridiculous? I guess we’ll never know.
This nonsensical episode was just the latest manifestation of the ‘Bernie Bro’ myth, which entails journalists/activists/operatives scanning their social media feeds, picking out nasty comments with a purportedly pro-Bernie tinge, and then concocting a groundless narrative about how Bernie supporters are uniquely hateful, misogynist or racist. The trope is then used against Bernie himself, and ‘disavowals’ are demanded. But in disavowing, Bernie simply ensures that the fallacious attacks will persist, because it grants leverage to bad faith actors. Mean comments on the internet will never go away, and therefore the phony calls for ‘disavowal’ will never go away.
This tedious cycle will be one of the primary fronts in the Warren/Bernie wars. Warren is unlikely to ever prod it along herself, at least overtly. But the supporters will, especially those who have a committed interest in seeing a woman elected. Warren doesn’t typically emphasize her womanhood as ostentatiously as some other candidates have (RIP Kirsten Gillibrand) but it’s still a factor in why she garners the support that she does. One middle-aged lady at the rally this week told me she’s sick of old white men running the country and on that basis supports Warren over Sanders. That’s her prerogative, but the mindset she exhibited is inevitably going to lead to frenzied online hostilities between the warring camps. Female Sanders supporters will get offended that their feminist credentials are being questioned, etc. etc.. This happened to some degree in 2016 but the ideological divisions between Bernie and Hillary were much starker. This time they’re a bit more blurred, but only to the naked eye. The most tuned-in supporters will have no problem recognizing such divisions. And because they’re a little more subtle this time, the online rage could actually be even more pronounced.
When will war officially be declared? That remains to be seen. The candidates will try to postpone direct hostilities for as long as possible. But the month of December will probably not be pleasant for anyone.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden has the paradoxical luxury of sitting out the drama. Despite leading in the polls, he has virtually no prominent online supporters. His core voting demographic is lucky if they can figure out how to work the TV remote.