In Iowa on Tuesday night, CNN hosted a debate among Democratic candidates for the president.
Measures were taken to thin out the crowded field of contenders, leaving just six hopefuls to share the stage. But for many voters there were only two candidates who really mattered.
Since the weekend, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have been embroiled in a petty conflict stirred up by anonymous sources and divisive hashtags. The only progressive candidates on the stage—who held to a truce for so long—have now been framed as enemies by the disputed content of a private conversation that took place more than a year ago.
Bernie was on the Defensive in the First Debate of 2020 | NowThis www.youtube.com
Did Bernie Sanders say, in 2018, that he didn't think a woman could win this election? Bernie denies it while Elizabeth Warren stands by the leaked account. Meanwhile, all of their exchanges are subject to a level of scrutiny that isn't healthy for anyone involved. People have been freaking out about the way moderator Abby Phillip ignored Bernie's denial, immediately following it up by asking Warren, "What did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?" Likewise, the fact that Warren didn't accept Bernie's handshake was fodder for outrage.
Twitter is the environment where Sanders' most die-hard supporters hold sway, and they have poured their effort into hashtags like #NeverWarren, #LyingLiz, and #WarrenIsASnake. For many Warren supporters who backed Clinton in 2016, the whole mess carries echoes of vicious attacks against Hillary and the sense that female candidates are held to a higher standard and treated to harsher punishment than their male competitors.
The question of whether the people spreading these hashtags hold sexist views is beside the point. They play into a perception that the Sanders campaign belongs to so-called "Bernie Bros" and to a brand of exclusionary sexism that disguises itself as moral outrage—yet always seems to be directed with extra vitriol toward women.
Bernie Sanders has given no indication that this is the kind of messaging he wants his supporters to be spreading. It doesn't benefit him. As he said of the drama during the debate, "This is what Donald Trump, and maybe some in the media, want." Sanders knows that if he—or Warren, or any progressive candidate—has a chance of overcoming the corporate media-backed centrists who want to quash any hint of real reform, it will only be with the unified support of every progressive demographic. If Bernie's stated mission of "justice for all" means anything, he won't want to alienate voices that advocate for feminist perspectives—nor can he afford to let his supporters do it for him. So the competing hashtag among Warren supporters, #BelieveWomen—borrowed from the #MeToo movement—represents a serious problem for him, as well.
So far this drama has only served to turn these groups of supporters against each other. Warren can't win if voters who prioritize economic justice have decided she's a "snake," and Sanders can't win if people who prioritize women's rights think he's a sexist. But there is another trending hashtag that both groups might be able to get behind: #CNNIsTrash.
The control of political news by a handful of massive corporations is a serious threat to our democracy. The interests of those corporations and their financial backers are fundamentally aligned against progressive movements, and Bernie Sanders' recent surge in the polls made him a particular target. Once it was clear that their efforts to ignore him had failed, CNN and the other media empires made up their minds to use every line of attack they could find.
Throughout the debate, CNN consistently phrased questions and ran chyrons that framed Bernie's stances in the most negative possible light. It's easy enough with issues like increased spending and free trade—where the line of attack is already established—but what they were really desperate for was something that would split the left and trigger progressive in-fighting. Bad blood, left over from 2016, already had some potential to pit feminists and "brocialists," but then Elizabeth Warren's campaign gave them a gift.
The anonymous hearsay, and then the confirmation from Warren, were guaranteed to reopen old wounds and retrench the familiar factions that she supposedly wanted to avoid. The only two options that are being treated seriously are the suggestion that Sanders is a sexist or that Elizabeth Warren is a traitor. There's no real consideration for an error in communication or an imperfect memory of events on either side. So far, so good as far as CNN is concerned. The drama is good for their ratings, and a centrist president is good for their tax burden.
If Warren and Sanders want to move past this controversy and cement the kind of progressive unity they will need if either of them hopes to win, then they need to cut the corporate media platform out of the equation entirely. There is no debate, no segment, no panel discussion that can heal these wounds as long as CNN or any other corporate media empire is hosting. Sanders and Warren have to meet on their own terms to have a public conversation about their shared vision, their shared values, and what they think and believe about sexism in politics and in the United States writ large. A live-streamed summit.
If done right, they might be able to piggyback on the attention being paid to all this hateful drama, and find a way to repair the damage that's been done—to pull us all away from the destructive tendencies that consume our politics. Fortunately, there may be hope for that outcome. Tom Steyer was not just the random billionaire who bought his way onto the stage Tuesday night, he was also the random billionaire awkwardly standing in the background as Sanders and Warren spoke to each other in the aftermath of the debate.
The tension in the exchange was palpable even from the distance of that wide shot. But Steyer was right in the thick of it. After Warren left Sanders' extended hand hanging, the two exchanged a few words and some stern looks while Steyer hovered nearby. He has claimed not to have been listening, but he did say, "They were talking about getting together or something." Let's cross our fingers that they do so soon—preferably before the Iowa Caucuses.
Only the two of them—without the interference of Twitter noise or media bear-poking—can sort this mess out. If they do get together to resolve their issues, and gift the country a symbol of restored unity, there might be some hope left for this election, and for the future of our nation.