Trump Wants to Divide the Left. The Left Should be Wary.

Donald Trump is making an open play to divide the left by stoking progressive anger at the Democratic Party:

The Democratic Party is again trying to manipulate its presidential primary elections, President Donald Trump suggested in a two-part tweet on Saturday night.

“The Democratic National Committee, sometimes referred to as the DNC, is again working its magic in its quest to destroy Crazy Bernie Sanders….,” the president began, following those remarks with: “….for the more traditional, but not very bright, Sleepy Joe Biden. Here we go again Bernie, but this time please show a little more anger and indignation when you get screwed!“

It will not come as news to longtime readers that I was a supporter of Sanders during the 2016 primary before backing Clinton in the general. My sympathies generally lie with the progressive side of the Democratic divide, and I have spent a decade pushing back against the more centrist and conservative elements of the party, from my opposition to the invasion of Iraq to supporting a public option as part of the Affordable Care Act, anger over the lack of prosecutions of Wall Street executives in the wake of the financial crisis and much else.

It can be extremely frustrating to push against institutional and establishment forces on the center-left, and to be tarred and disrespected as a disloyal troublemaker only to see what had been radical policy become mainstream ten years later. It can be even more frustrating to see the same people who were consistently wrong about everything from finance sector deregulation to marriage equality to drug decriminalization continue to get all the attention as candidates, plum gigs as consultants, cable news hits as influencers and big column space as writers even as the Democratic Party’s center of gravity continues to move toward more popular, just and effective policies in spite of them rather than because of their stances.

So it’s in a sense understandable when some activists’ frustration with the more recalcitrant elements of the Party boils over into unproductive anger.

But that doesn’t make it OK to in any way enable what is perhaps the most dangerous version of the Republican Party in American history. And the Republican Party knows that it cannot succeed without a divided left.

In 2016 many supporters of Bernie Sanders went overboard in attacking Clinton, the DNC and other institutional actors on the center-left. Some grievances were more legitimate than others, but most were blown out of proportion to the offenses. Superdelegates did unfairly give Clinton a media advantage in terms of perceived delegate totals–a problem that has now thankfully been rectified by denying superdelgates a vote on the first ballot, but one that also likely had only a slight effect on actual vote totals. The DNC did finagle to put debates at dates and times where fewer people would likely watch them, which has led to an oddly widespread talking point among disgruntled Sanders supporters about the DNC “rigging the election.” It was certainly a petty and unethical move by an organization that was supposed to be neutral in the contest, but it likely had little effect on the final outcome. In other words, yes: the establishment did unethical things to protect its own interests–but those actions are not why Sanders lost the primary. Also, it should come as no surprise to progressive activists that when you take the fight to the machine, the machine does fight back. It comes with the territory.

As for Sanders himself, he gets far too little credit among some corners of Clintonland for his tireless campaigning on behalf of Clinton after the Democratic Convention. That said, one reason he gets so little recognition for this is that he continued waging far too aggressive a campaign against Clinton well after it was clear that he could not win. His hypocritical attempt to try to persuade superdelegates to nominate him over Clinton was not his finest hour. And he did far too little to push back on the statements being made by some of his most obnoxious supporters–a failure that served to give him, his campaign and his entire movement a black eye by association. The vast majority of Sanders supporters were and are not “Bernie Bros,” but the failure to corral the worst elements tarred all his supporters.

And, unfortunately, the divide did have a small effect on electing Trump. Now, it’s verimportant to note an enormous caveat here. First, the Sanders-to-Trump vote was far smaller than the Clinton-to-McCain crossover, the closest relevant data point. While only 10% of Sanders primary voters went to Trump, a full 25% of Clinton voters in 2008 went to McCain. An untold number of others may have stayed home. It’s also important to note that in many cases these may have been the same voters, for the same deplorable reasons. And no, voting for a man who explicitly wanted to go to war with Iran instead of America’s first African-American presidential nominee, Barack Obama, is in no way more morally justifiable than a vote for Trump in the ravaged Rust Belt.  Finally, in America’s terrible two-party system, there will always be voters who are unhappy with their final two choices, sometimes for contradictory or uninformed reasons. That, too, comes with the territory, and statistically third party and crossover voters will always get the blame in an adequately close election. Those who claim that Clinton only lost because of Sanders are mostly shameless hacks with no leg to stand on.

That said, the election was close enough that switchers, crossovers and stay-at-homes did make a difference. And it’s entirely possible that 2020 will be just as close as well. Which means in turn that it’s incumbent on all sides of the Democratic divide to attempt to minimize their numbers as much as possible.

Both sides of the Democratic divide will need to be much smarter and more ethical this time around. The establishment will need to take pains to be as open and transparent to all sides, offering no favoritism to Biden, Sanders, Harris, Warren or anyone else. Progressives in general and Sanders supporters in particular, meanwhile, need to refrain as much as possible from making blustery and irresponsible claims about center-left proponents, and especially from saying things that may lead to supporters refusing to support the eventual nominee should they lose. The same goes, too, for much of the center left and its supporters.

In other words, while a strenuous debate about policy and tactics is healthy in a Democratic primary, at the end of the day everyone needs to be prepared to support the eventual nominee. Sanders supporters need to be prepared to back Biden or Harris if it comes to it, and Biden and Harris supporters need to be prepared to back Sanders or Warren if needed. The threat from the right is too great to do otherwise.

Trump and Fox News will attempt to exacerbate the left’s divides for their own purposes. Everyone on the left needs to think hard about that, and act more responsibly in 2020 than many did in 2016.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.