This is a response to Zeeshan Aleem’s piece, “To Win Elections, Should the Left Be Nicer on the Internet?”, and part of a roundtable on lessons from the 2020 primaries.
The 2020 Democratic primary breathed momentary life back into the promise of political alternatives for working people. Once again, that promise has been snuffed out.
For progressives and leftists, now is the time for tough questions, one of the most critical and enduring of which will be: What genuine barriers to building a winning coalition emerged from this race and what, in retrospect, was just manufactured noise designed to divide us? How much substance is there, for instance, to the charge that a “toxic” online culture cultivated by an ill-defined contingent of Bernie Sanders supporters on social media platforms constituted a serious (and statistically relevant) impediment to building such a coalition?
Depends on whom you ask.
I’ve received my fair share of digital death threats and online harassment, so I’m deeply sympathetic to those who have experienced the cruelty the internet can conjure. For this reason, and in the interest of maintaining good faith, I tend to think that most calls for political “civility” genuinely come from a good place. Whether or not they acknowledge that such calls generally serve (and can be cynically employed) to selectively muzzle or disqualify the righteous outrage of those who are systematically dehumanized by our political economy, I get why civility matters to people, and I think most people mean well. I think we believe that, if we can simply clear out all the fire and noise, we can find the threads that connect us — and we do crave that connection.
As a writer, podcaster, and neighbor, I spend the bulk of my time trying to listen for and fortify the ties that bind the working class together — a working class that is bigger and more diverse than most realize, but whose members have far more in common than our exploiters and dominators would have us believe. These truths about the varied lives and common interests of working people crystallized, however briefly, in the impressively diverse working-class base that rallied behind the Bernie Sanders campaign, from college students and workers in service and retail to farmers, nurses and social workers. But, in the end, the base wasn’t big enough.
It was always an exceedingly tall task for the Sanders camp to bring in a critical mass of supporters from the pool of non-voters who have been, for so long, so systematically disempowered and disaffected by the same political and economic systems that offer them so little in return. Still, it is a goal worth working toward, a dream worth fighting for. A movement capable of securing justice, dignity and a livable planet for working people everywhere demands we continue to expand the political power of the working class itself. But for now, and for the foreseeable future, the question remains: What other groups of people — and how many — do we need with us to win at the ballot box?
One obvious place to look is in the pool of existing Democratic primary voters, specifically the more progressive-leaning members of the professional class who also believe we deserve better than our present lot. These statistically older, more educated, higher-paid professionals (especially white women) — from professors and librarians to lawyers and doctors and those in the nonprofit sector—tended to support Elizabeth Warren.
Regardless of what seems like a natural overlap between Warren and Sanders supporters in their commitment to progressive values, polling after Super Tuesday revealed the preferred second choice for Warren voters was a between Sanders and Joe Biden — with a significant portion (especially older, white, college-educated women) voting for Biden after Warren dropped out.
Arguably, Bernie would have won if he had the full support of Warren voters — and so could a future left candidate. The reasons Warren supporters moved on to Biden instead are varied: Many, including Warren herself, blame an alienating “incivility” and “toxic online culture” among Sanders supporters. Some carry an unshakeable grudge toward Sanders for running a “divisive campaign” against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Others, worried about a second Trump victory, swallowed the Democratic punditry’s case that Biden is just a safer bet.
Frankly, I don’t know if a large majority of Warren voters are open to being won over. Nor am I confident that what policy concessions working people would have to give up would be worth the victory. It seems either disingenuous or naïve to suggest that, if only some people were nicer online, more self-described progressive Warren supporters would have committed to the one then-viable progressive candidate fighting for substantive, desperately needed policies that would alleviate the suffering of working people — from the Green New Deal and Medicare for All to ending “right to work” and at-will employment. To the tens of millions of workers who have lost their jobs and healthcare during the Covid-19 crisis, are the “progressives” who chose to support Biden, the alleged sexual abuser who hasn’t changed his mind about universal healthcare, not practicing something far worse, and far more tangible, than “incivility”?
This is precisely where the well-grounded political skepticism of working people is vitally instructive. Perhaps it was never really a question of liberal professionals’ stated progressive values but of demonstrated commitment to them — and to the people whose lives, along with your own, they are supposed to improve. If those values can be jettisoned over some bad online interactions, what reason do people who are buried in debt and can be fired at will have to see them as allies? I ask these questions in the most serious and un-petty way possible. We must remember: In terms of electoral viability, progressive professionals who supported Warren lost, too, and lost big. So, this street goes both ways. If Warren’s statistically more educated and higher-paid supporters do believe in progressive values, if they want to see those values win out, and if they feel they need Sanders’ supporters as much as we need them to achieve that victory, they need to sit with these questions, too.
Again, I don’t know how many Warren supporters are willing to be won over; that’s more up to them than to me. However, I know there are (potentially) progressive-leaning professionals we can and should appeal to, and forming a coalition with them means cutting through the noise and building on the foundations of the common — the things we all deserve and are all denied, in one form or another, by this system.
The dream of socioeconomic stability for the middle and professional classes has died alongside the dream of upward mobility for the poor and working class. Even if they won’t admit it out loud, many professionals know they are closer to their working-class counterparts than they are to CEOs in corner offices. The 2008 crash taught many of them a hard lesson about their own precariousness and disposability; Covid-19 and its ensuing economic turmoil will ensure they never forget it. No professional with an ounce of humility can escape the fear that their healthcare, their homes, their livelihoods — all of it can go away like that. Nor can they escape that gnawing realization that, when they pack up their desks, their names will be forgotten in a week.
That fear is why they, like most working-class stiffs, work around the clock, sacrificing their time, joy, families and freedom — all in the vain hope of securing a foothold in a system that can and will replace them at its leisure. These are people we can build a movement with, those who are willing to hear the call echoing from their hearts to ours: What kind of life is this?
These are the terms on which any discussion of a political coalition between Sanders and Warren supporters needs to take place. Debates about toxic “online culture” and the like are, by and large, noise. A red herring. They matter most to people who have no other substantive connections to one other beyond Twitter (that goes double for the pundit class). People are much more complex than their social media avatars. And, across the political arena, a certain percentage of them (not just Sanders supporters) will always suck online. We need to accept that, and get over it. It is an infinitely more possible — and valuable — endeavor for us to supplement our online interactions with deeper, more empathetic connections to the lives and struggles of our neighbors than to try to turn social media into something it just isn’t (and to spin myopic narratives about who’s responsible when we inevitably fail to do so).
Moving forward, then, the real issue is not to chide some for speaking truth the wrong way but to get others angry for the right reasons and to enlist them as allies. Doing so means we have to ultimately find ways to convince a critical mass of progressive professionals to become class traitors by ensuring them that, where the present system would let them fall, the society we fight for will catch them — and, together, we can make sure no one falls.
Read other perspectives on lessons for the Left from the 2020 primaries:
Zeeshan Aleem: To Win Elections, Should the Left Be Nicer on the Internet?
Phillip Agnew: Black Voters Are Ready. Are We?
Hamilton Nolan: Bernie Lost Because America Doesn’t Have a Strong Labor Movement
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Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.