If the war between the supporters of Democratic Party candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders this week demonstrated anything, it is that politics is not rational. However, the fatal weakness of the American left is that we believe otherwise. Our tragic delusion is that politics is governed by reason and that, unlike the benighted Trumpist deplorables, we are rational actors. The events of this week are proof to the contrary.
The passions in the Warren-Sanders skirmish were both shocking and newsworthy. Last Saturday, Politico reported that Sanders campaign workers in Iowa were working from a call script that highlighted the sharp contrasts between the Vermont senator and his rivals in the Democratic presidential primary. In particular, the script instructed volunteers, when speaking to voters inclining toward Warren to say that, while they like her, her core constituency comprises “highly-educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what” and that the Massachusetts senator is “bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party.”
Warren indignantly claimed that Sanders was out to “trash” her, much to the delight of mainstream news outlets like the New York Times who reveled in the apparent collapse of the “progressive truce.” On Monday, sources close to Warren told the media that, in December 2018, Sanders had told her that he did not believe a woman could win a presidential election. The paladin of Democratic Socialism, it seemed, had been unmasked as a misogynist. It was Sanders’ turn to complain that he was being “trashed” by his opponent, and he strenuously denied the report.
Such is our politics that, what might otherwise have been, at the most, minor gaffes touched off a continental brushfire of partisan outrage that engulfed the news cycle and social media. It was neither nice, nor polite for Sanders staffers to point out that Warren’s core constituency is largely composed of middle-class college graduates, but it wasn’t untrue. One poll after another (like this Quinnipiac survey from October) has shown that she is the favorite among white, college-educated Democrats. Moreover, much of the momentum with which she closed last year came from her growing appeal to moderate voters in the Democratic Party establishment.
Yet, it was only a partial truth. This characterization elides members of the Warren coalition who are not part of her core constituency. Warren, a brilliant, exceptionally well-educated, middle-class white woman does appeal to educated, white, middle-class voters who recognize themselves in her, and although they are perhaps the most visible, and often the most vocal supporters, they are not her only supporters. The Sanders talking point hurt because its partial truth threatened to overwhelm that reality.
The Warren campaign hit back with the revelation of Sanders’ comment of more than a year ago that, shorn of context and nuance, seemed to reveal that he is little more than yet another fake-woke misogynist “Bernie bro” – just as Warren had been exposed as a bourgeois elitist in bed with the establishment. Did Sanders mean that he believed that American voters are so sexist that a woman candidate faces a potentially insurmountable obstacle? This is not an unreasonable opinion, and certainly one that might indicate a low opinion of American voters, rather than misogyny.
Regardless, the accusation hurt Sanders because it rhetorically interpellated him in the reality of endemic sexism. Moreover, Sanders’ flat denial that he ever said any such thing rang hollow, both because it seemed too convenient, and because it cast Warren in the role of a lying woman and seemed to prove her point. It is in the realm of possibility that Sanders made an off-the-cuff remark along the lines of “a woman couldn’t win the election because of American sexism.” It is a valid point and, because it would be an – entirely unremarkable and uncontroversial observation in the normal course of events, it might not have made a strong impact in his memory. On the other hand, it is exactly the kind of thing that Warren, who has faced sexism and misogyny all her life, would remember very well.
This is not the normal course of events, however. This is politics – tendentious politics at a time of national crisis, no less – and the passions and controversies ignited by these incidents, and stoked by the news media, demonstrated just how distant politics is from reason. The line separating Sanders partisans from Warren loyalists is not one of policy or philosophy; one need only complete one of those political compass quizzes on any dauly newspaper website to see that. The boundary is inscribed not by ideas, but by belonging.
This is hardly a new phenomenon, it is an old feature of partisan politics, indeed it is the mechanism by which parties – in the broadest meaning of the word – have historically mobilized electoral strength. Writing of the Social Democratic Party that so dominated proletarian politics in Germany before the First World War, Hannah Arendt noted that its appeal to German workers was no so much its policies, but that it provided them with a kind of homeland. “One could live very comfortably in this ‘state within a state’ by avoiding friction with society at large,” she wrote, “by enjoying feelings of moral superiority without any consequences.” That the Party accomplished very little at all in the German Parliament, let alone anything revolutionary, hardly mattered. What was important was the sense of belonging, and identification with a group.
This is equally true of the Democratic Party and its factions in our own historical moment. We articulate our political investments and voting intentions in terms of our membership in larger groups; we are moderates, liberals, progressives, or socialists, all within the larger category of the Democratic party. It is, of course, a convenient shorthand to say “I am a progressive,” rather than elucidating a complex political philosophy like “I am committed to inclusive cultural policies, the separation of Church and State, the expansion of social programs, and a more equitable redistribution of wealth by reforming capitalism.”
Yet, the shorthand is also a signifier that obscures the complexity of our political investments and invites us, simply enough, to not actually think about them. Consequently, it undermines the very possibility of recognizing that people who claim membership in other political identity groupings share some, most, or even all of these investments.
We need identities to interact politically as coherent, intelligible actors in public spaces like social media and political discourse. And the identities available permit the production and projection of social subjectivities that both promote what we know to be our legitimate values and political commitments, and obscure whatever doubts and inconsistencies we might have. So a middle-class intellectual in Park Slope produces himself as a Sanders socialist, and a different middle-class professional produces himself as a Warren feminist.
In Fables of Abundance, Jackson Lears observed how the emergence of market capitalism empowered 19th century Americans with a kind of cultural magic that allowed them to invent and reinvent themselves – to be “reborn” in the market in a way once possible only through religion. The all-encompassing marketplace of late-stage capitalism provides the same kind of opportunity – but also the political necessity – to self-fashion identities for public consumption. Personal beliefs are well and good, but they are interior, and therefore of little public value. Our political identities, however, can be projected onto the screen of the digital commons.
They allow us to assume the power and the protection of the group, share its accomplishments, and take on the mystical aura of the leader. Even the most casual sports fan will recognize how this works. We join the team simply by donning a jersey or baseball cap, even if we’re not actually on the field. When the team wins, we win, and when it loses, we feel the a crushing personal loss. The passions, directed at anyone wearing the cross-town rivals’ colours, or at the heroic goalie who saves the day, or at the running back who fumbled in the end-zone are real and powerful, but they are not rational.
Freud noted that “the psychology of groups is the oldest human psychology,” reaching deep into the primal regions of our most atavistic impulses. “Belonging” is not simply a question of comfort or self-expression, but a human evolutionary advantage and strategy for survival. The psychology of an individual in a group is thus embedded in the cultural memory of the “primal horde,” reproduced over uncounted generations every time humans have inevitably and necessarily coalesced in groups. But this sense of belonging articulates primal fears; survival of the individual depends on the survival of the group, and any threat from the outside is an existential threat. The group must defend itself against the other, at all costs – there is no room for compromise.
One cannot, for example, be a Buffalo Bills fan and cheer for the New England Patriots, regardless of how well either team plays the game, because they negate each other and to do so would be to court annihilation in the complete subversion of one’s social identity. In the events of the past week, while the Warren, Sanders, and their staffs maintained a strained cordiality, their partisands went to war. Few seemed willing to acknowledge their respective candidates’ faults, nor what they have in common – which is a great deal – in social media because that would deny the differences that define their uniqueness.
The binary of group identity and its annihilation is an apriori assumption of market segmentation and the driving force of consumer capitalism. We don’t merely deploy consumer magic to fashion our social selves; we also negate other possible subjectivities. As teenagers, we wear fashions both to signify our membership in the in-group and to negate any association with the other, like our boring parents. To be accused in high school of being “dressed by your mom” is to suffer a social death. Apple Computer’s “Get a Mac” ad campaign of a decade ago articulated notions of belonging – in Justin Long’s hip, casual Apple community – only in the negation of John Hodgman’s dull, grey PC world. There might be any number of actual reasons to use a Mac rather than a Windows PC, or even to use both, but that was irrelevant.
What makes the Sanders-Warren skirmish so troubling is how easy it was to activate these atavistic impulses, and how pointless it has been to appeal to reason to counteract them. I intentionally use the passive voice here because we – the left – are not protagonists acting in this drama, we were passive bodies acted upon. We were not the payers here… We were played.
That much is clear in the timing of the events. There is no indication of when Sanders’ Iowa volunteers started using the call script, but it is safe to assume that it was not just last weekend. Yet the story broke, thanks to the inevitable “unnamed source,” only two days after a poll commissioned by the Des Moines Register and the New York Times showed Sanders leading in Iowa, with Warren a close second and Joe Biden trailing in fourth place, and three days before the first Democratic primary debate of the new year.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is said to have remarked that “in politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.” With that in mind it is probably not unreasonable to consider who might have planned to touch off a damaging feud between the leaders of the Democratic Party’s left wing, and the two top candidates in the Iowa polls just days before the Democratic primary debate.
The mainstream news media, ever subject to the advertising-driven logic of capitalism, certainly stood to benefit. As they say in the news business, “if it bleeds, it leads,” because nothing draws eyeballs to ads quite like violence, suffering, and controversy, and the spectacle of the top progressives at war certainly provided the latter. In fact, CNN, which charges $300,000 for a 30-second advertising spot during the debate, drew a million more viewers this week than watched the last debate in December.
However, that is only collateral value because what is at stake in this election campaign is actually worth much more than a few million dollars in advertising revenue. On Tuesday night, Biden was clearly the main beneficiary of the left’s public bloodletting. After all of the gaffes and malapropisms, after falling to no better than the middle of the pack in the polls only a couple of weeks before the Iowa Caucuses, the former Vice President skated through the debate. His beaming grin from the debate podium clearly telegraphed Roosevelt’s axiom. There are no accidents in politics.
In fact, the whole thing suddenly made sense after the debate. But that doesn’t matter because politics does not make rational sense. Take the case to a Sanders partisan, and they’ll say “you know, that’s right; this whole thing has been about dividing the left – but Warren is still a champion of the elite, and the lapdog of the DNC.” Show a Warren loyalist that we have all be played and they’ll invariably say “damn, we sure were, but Sanders is a sexist shit just like all his misogynist Bernie bro supporters.”
It is all a little like explaining to an obsessive neurotic that compulsive behavior like tapping the doorknob exactly seven times before opening the door is not going to make them any safer. They say “I know that,” and do it anyway. The compulsion is not rational, so it cannot be cured by an intervention of logic.
The danger is that progressives believe that our choice to support one candidate and, more importantly, to oppose the other, is primarily based on reasonable deliberation when the evidence shows otherwise. This delusion blinds us to the ease by which our most atavistic impulses can be activated for political gain and, when last week’s flame war is forgotten, and the the Democratic Party has chosen its nominee, we will face a president and a party whose whole stock-in-trade is the politics of irrationality. If we cannot find a way to look directly into the dark regions of our political impulses and control them we will certainly lose.