"Marooned on a desert island."
"Bonnie and Clyde."
"It's Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren against the world."
These kinds of whimsical headlines, loaded with Americana folklore and reality TV surrealism, swirled across the Internet after the first installment of the second Democratic debates. They stemmed from the unlikely but oddly seamless union of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the second and third highest-polling and by far the most radically progressive candidates in the race to win the Democratic primary.
Standing in the dead center of the row of candidates, in between the youthful pillars of Buttegieg and Beto and far away from Marianne Williamson's mystic emanations and John Delaney's bitter combativeness, they seemed to cling to each other. By proxy, they seemed to cling to a similar collection of dreams, dreams that have been pulling a great deal of progressives towards the far reaches of socialism, or at least to the dissolution of income inequality.
Image via WLRN
Watching Sanders vehemently defend the policies that he brought into the public eye—Medicare For All, free college, a refusal to accept superPAC donations—and watching Warren defend him (when she could get more than a few words in), the idea of a Sanders/Warren dream team entered the realm of plausibility.
Though either could lead, Sanders seems like the clear choice for the presidential candidate, with Warren as a strong VP. After all, the Warren/Sanders ethos thrives because it is buoyed by the idealism that Bernie popularized in 2016.
The fact that Sanders is a democratic socialist, while Warren is a self-proclaimed capitalist, is the primary reason why Bernie would be the most feasible leader of the duo. Sanders' campaign caught fire in 2016 because he spoke to a generation caught in the stranglehold of mind-blowing income inequality, a generation that faces the destabilizing knowledge that the world faces certain catastrophe if climate change is not addressed—and that capitalism has continuously favored the fossil fuel companies that prevent necessary environmental changes. Like most youth-led movements, Sanders supporters seek radical, totalizing change of the sort that's only be possible when the old systems are completely deconstructed.
On the whole, Sanders is more anti-establishment and seems more likely to reel in the followers of Trump's "drain the swamp" who could care less about actual policy, and she's more likely to inspire mass mobilization and excitement among those seeking radical change. As The Atlantic succinctly put it, "Sanders is fighting for a political revolution. Warren isn't."
Warren, for her part, maintains a link to solid ground with her vast collection of plans and policies—plans that, in theory, could be the perfect antidote to any accusation that Sanders' policies are implausible.
Still, last night, it seemed like Warren and Sanders were out in dreamland, reeling through a political Coney Island. This isn't necessarily a death knell, though. Together on a single ticket, their shared pull could be enough.
Torn apart, though, their campaigns might result in another 2016. Arguably, Bernie's campaign was a death knell for Hillary Clinton, as it provided the initial framework for Trump's demonization of her. In the same way, progressives are now putting up firewalls against the candidates they see as too middle-of-the-road, like Joe Biden.
In her opening statement, the ever-practical Warren reminded the audience that any candidate would be preferable to Donald Trump. While this is true, many progressives feel that the 2020 election presents an unmissable opportunity to completely change the direction of politics. In a nation that was prepared to elect someone as disruptive as Donald Trump, it seems feasible that we could handle a little more chaos, especially if it comes in tandem with the promise of a better world.
At the debate, with rampant arm-flailing and drawn-out storytelling, Warren and Sanders promised that better world. They stood for the dissolution of private health insurance companies and student debt in spite of endless criticisms from the other candidates. Against the totalizing extremity of their views, the other candidates who supported for-profit colleges and private insurance in any capacity seemed lost in the past—or lodged in reality, depending again on how willing you are to take the leap into their alternate state of mind.
But in last night's debate, the binary they created between themselves and the others didn't always work in their favor. Somehow, by the end of the night, both the Warren/Sanders island and the rest of the Democrats seemed to come out as losers.
This raises the question: Is extremism really the solution? For young progressives, it absolutely is. For this group, fighting against a rigged system that buoys the rich and throws the poor to the wolves, extreme action is the only thing that will work. Peace and love failed in the 1970s, and moderation is code for the status quo. For progressives, it's time to wake up from the dream presented at the start of the American capitalist experiment.
For other non-radical or socialism-phobic Democrats, the Sanders/Warren ticket is the stuff of nightmares, and the progressives are the ones lost in the dream. For those who merely want Trump gone and apparent order reinstated in the Oval Office, it seems that the division between the progressives and the middle-of-the-road Democrats is an unfortunate diversion.
Perhaps middle-of-the-road Democratic candidates could accrue more favor with would progressives if they could convince them (and the nation on the whole) that they actually stand for something (other than defeating Trump). In the technologically saturated mess of a modern era, one thing is certain: Policy is secondary to a candidate's ability to shape a vision of a better future.
For a long time, Sanders has been the best architect of that better future that the Democrats have. Though he and Warren presented an appealing team, seeing them cut down to size at the debate last night did nothing for the party and its motivation. Perhaps, had the debate been framed more as a discussion of specific policies rather than a black-and-white argument that pitted stagnancy against change, it wouldn't have been defined by such a strong feeling of premature defeat.