“The Democratic establishment came together and crushed Bernie Sanders, AGAIN!” The pundit-in-chief and America’s most prominent cable news addict Donald Trump offered this incendiary take on Super Tuesday’s results with the purpose of inflaming burning tensions within the Democratic Party. The fissures are so deep and so obvious that even Trump, whose only understanding of politics is as a primordial us vs. them, zero-sum game, is able to discern and weaponize them.
Of course, the primary has shifted dramatically in the seventy-two hours since Joe Biden handedly took South Carolina and emerged as the presumptive challenger to Bernie Sanders. In the days that followed, Biden orchestrated a coalescing of Democratic rivals. He convinced Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg to forego their campaigns. He then persuaded them, along with Beto O’Rourke, to endorse him on the eve of Super Tuesday.
With their support, Biden was able to outpace Sanders on Tuesday and seize the mantle of frontrunner. But, as these things tend to go, there is no shortage of hard feelings.
Among Sanders’s movement there is a growing anger and festering mistrust. The unity gambit smelled to them, like Trump, of a Democratic party operation intended to tip the scales against Sanders. This distrust defines them. Sanders has based his career and candidacy on an open disdain for a status quo fortified by compromise and party manipulation. His passionate followers are liberals disillusioned with backroom deals and business as usual. No matter how some might roll their eyes, when Sanders’s supporters say they want a revolution, they mean it.
Reaction to Tuesday’s results among the movement vacillated between resigned bewilderment and white-hot fury. Some laughed and joked, realizing they’d once again been told to kick a football only to have it pulled away at the last second. They made a joke of Biden’s shortcomings, his campaign that had noticeably floundered before South Carolina, and looked forward to what they saw as Trump’s inevitable reelection and second term of terror.
The anger reminded me of what I saw in 2016 as I reported from the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. While the party nominated Hillary Clinton and Sanders urged party unity, the area around the convention descended into chaos. There were mass marches, calls for the destruction of the Democratic Party and calls for Clinton to be prosecuted. They banged the fences and chanted for justice. At night, they clashed with police and raged against an unjust system. This year might well be worse.
Trump also singled out Elizabeth Warren, calling her “selfish” and characterizing her candidacy as explicitly hurting Sanders. It was a petty move from a petty president who behaves like a child smashing his action figures together or a daytime television viewer screaming for tabloid talk show hosts to throw a chair. But, again, what he’s exploiting is obvious. In this case, it’s the paranoia of the Sanders movement and the understandable frustration and disillusionment among Warren’s supporters.
Warren began the primary season as a strong nominee, but has fallen to one of the least likely candidates, even finishing third in her native Massachusetts. Some could characterize it as peaking too soon, but Warren supporters are angry today with the media for what they see as biased coverage in favor of the white men who came out on top (and some, like Buttigieg, who didn’t).
Their frustrations are understandable. It was alarming to see Biden win states where he had not campaigned, had not opened field offices, had little to no staff, no advertisements to speak of whatsoever, and was behind in polls as recently as forty-eight hours prior. Anecdotal evidence and cribbed interviews suggest the electorate made up their minds last minute on Super Tuesday as coverage championed Biden, depicting him as a surging frontrunner-in-the-making and possibly the only person who can defeat Trump in November.
Such a focus on “electability” has been everywhere this year. The debates centered not on policy, which Warren made the centerpiece of her campaign, but instead the need to find someone who could win. Of course, electability is a state of mind, of perception, and often a media construction that means very little. Warren’s chances were reduced to next to nothing, and a large swathe of the Democratic base is hurting this morning. They’re feeling the weight of a system they’re not sure is capable of change.
Sanders and Biden will brawl into the summer, but the focus should now turn to whether conciliation is possible. Otherwise, the primaries might devolve, to the delight of Trump, into chair-throwing chaos.
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