A few days ago, I shared what I thought was a fairly innocuous observation about a fundamental difference between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Warren spends most of her campaign unpacking and explaining detailed policy proposals, many of them excellent, while Sanders splits his emphasis between his own strong plans and his calls for the political revolution he has consistently said will be required for any substantive progressive policy wins.
“Smart policies are very important,” I tweeted. “But we don’t lose because we lack smart policies, we lose because we lack sufficient power to win those policies up against entrenched elite forces that will do anything to defeat us.”
Within seconds, I was in the grip of a full-on 2016 primary flashback. I was accused of being a shill for Bernie and an enemy of Warren (I’m neither). My feed filled up with partisans of both candidates hurling insults at each other: She gets things done, he is all talk; she’s a pretender, he’s the real deal; he has a gender problem, hers is with race; she’s in the pocket of the arms industry, he’s an easy mark for Donald Trump; he should back her because she’s a woman, she should back him because he started this wave. And much more too venal to mention.
I immediately regretted saying anything (as is so often the case on that godforsaken platform). Not because the point about outside movement power is unimportant, but because I had been trying to put off getting sucked into the 2020 horserace for as long as possible.
Liberals in the U.S. often say the Trump presidency is Not Normal. And yeah, it’s a killer-clown horror show. But the truth is that from most outsider perspectives, there is nothing about U.S. politics that is normal — particularly the interminable length of campaigns. Normal countries have federal elections that consume two, maybe three months of people’s political lives once every four to five years; Canada caps federal campaigns at 50 days, Japan at 12. In the U.S., on the other hand, there’s a total of about nine months in every four-year cycle when politics is not consumed by either a presidential or midterm horserace.
The very last thing we need is for the two strongest left/progressive candidates and their supporters to tear each other apart for the next eight months.
It’s a spectacle that comes at a steep price. The relentless process of picking electoral winners sucks up intellectual energy, media airtime, movement muscle, and boatloads of money that are badly needed elsewhere. Like organizing to stop war with Iran, for instance. Or supporting movements trying to free migrants from Trump’s concentration camps. Or figuring out what a transformative Green New Deal should look like on the ground. Or building international alliances with people in countries facing their own hate-filled authoritarian strongmen.
There’s another reason to resist attempts to turn Sanders vs. Warren into a redux of the 2016 primaries eight months before the first vote is cast. Today’s electoral dynamics are absolutely nothing like 2016. That was a two-way race between two candidates with radically different records and ideas, in which one candidate’s gain really was the other’s loss. A winner-takes-all race like that pretty much always turns into some kind of death match.
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