Finding common ground in its aftermath
Regardless of any other conclusion from the election cycle of 2020, neither party received a sweeping mandate or a clear win. Dreams of a Blue or Red wave proved to be just that: dreams. The margin of victory will have been razor thin, whether for the White House, the Senate, or the House. It seems clear that the American people do not trust either party to have complete control, which has been the long-term trend of our history (and a healthy one in my view).
We have an opportunity in this moment to learn a lesson personally and to insist that our elected leaders do the same. The country is divided, indeed far more divided than the pollsters would have led us to believe. In general, they confidently predicted sweeping margins for Democrats that just did not exist in reality. Without regard to why those pollsters were wrong and without casting aspersions on their motivation, we must accept the reality that about half the country deeply disagrees with whichever partisan view we personally hold.
Further, we must accept the reality that we've done nothing, as a society, to bridge the deep gap in thinking that exists. Both sides tried everything in this election to convince voters of the perfidy and bad intentions of the other side. The discourse from the candidates themselves fell to the level of schoolyard taunts in the so-called first debate, which actually left me feeling dumber for having watched it.
As for "coverage" of the election, one could quickly determine the point of view of any given outlet, journalist, or commentator as we lacked any coherent, comprehensive, and fact-based reporting on the candidates, their records, or the issues that actually matter. Under such conditions we merely demonize the other and create echo chambers that amplify our own notions: we do nothing to engage with and understand the other.
Of course, one might argue that such a gap cannot be bridged anyway. One might argue that our politicians, political parties, and media reflect, rather than create, the deep difference in culture between the Red and the Blue. One might (merely to take a representative example of the Blue and Red polar ideologies) posit that secular humanism simply cannot exist alongside a theocentric world view. One might, quite convincingly, cite threatening statements from the firebrands of one side or the other as proof that Red or Blue adherents want to destroy their opponents' reputations, livelihoods, or basic freedoms. Indeed, whether by rioting or stockpiling weapons the Blues and Reds give ample evidence of mutual hatred and distrust.
I suggest that we each, as individuals, reject this paradigm. That rejection requires both a conscious decision and actual work.
The decision part involves a choice to open one's mind to the possibility that the other has honest motives and acts in goodwill for humankind. It means deciding to lower, if only by a fraction, one's own very well self-justified guard as a sign of openness to dialog. We cannot even begin to talk if we continue to excoriate each other from behind our respective shield walls like medieval warriors.
The work part involves putting oneself in the shoes of the other in a very real way. I suspect that many of us have the lived experience of telling someone else about a problem, only to have them say, "I understand. That happened to me…." Then that person tells us what happened to them in a way that neither responds to our situation nor gives any indication that they actually heard what we were talking about.
Rather, they turned our experience into a parable justifying their own point of view and actions. I think that we could agree that we don't turn to that person again for advice or counsel, as we no longer trust them to provide either.
And, if we are honest, we also recognize that we have been that bad counsel and that we have turned the experience of others into enabling us to be the hero of our own story. In other words, when we confront the deepest corners of ourselves, we see that we have been the badly counseled and the bad counselor.
What to do then?
Seek common ground. Seek it upon whatever mundane foundations you can find.
I'm reminded of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" by Deep Blue Something. The singer laments:
"You'll say that we've got nothing in common
No common ground to stand on
And we're falling apart
Our lives have come between us
Still, I know you just don't care."
But, the singer finds common ground in the seemingly mundane movie of the song's title:
And I said, "What about Breakfast at Tiffany's?"
She said, "I think I remember the film
And as I recall I both think we kind of liked it."
And I said, "Well that's the one thing we've got."
As much as it sounds silly to seek wisdom 1990s pop songs, I do see wisdom here.
Rather than focusing on that which divides us, let's focus on what we do have in common. We'll never bridge the deeper divides if we can't find ways to relate to one another as people. If we think about our own lived experience, it's a lot easier to find common ground on big things when there is common ground on small things first.
So, let's find those small opportunities and embrace them.
Amy Klobuchar ate salad with her comb and then made her aide clean it.
Prior to their official half-endorsement of Amy Klobuchar as the "Democrats' Best Choice For President," The New York Times covered another side of the Minnesota senator. "Senator Amy Klobuchar was hungry, forkless and losing patience," wrote political reporters Matt Flefenheimer and Sydney Ember.
"An aide, joining her on a trip to South Carolina in 2008, had procured a salad for his boss while hauling their bags through an airport terminal. But once onboard, he delivered the grim news: He had fumbled the plastic eating utensils before reaching the gate, and the crew did not have any forks on such a short flight.
What happened next was typical: Ms. Klobuchar berated her aide instantly for the slip-up. What happened after that was not: She pulled a comb from her bag and began eating the salad with it, according to four people familiar with the episode.
Then she handed the comb to her staff member with a directive: Clean it."
Flefenheimer and Ember's deep dive into Klobuchar's campaign team reads more like a copypasta than an account of real events; but alas, Klobuchar herself even seemed to lowkey brag about her history of mistreating her staff. "Am I a tough boss sometimes? Yes," Klobuchar said during a CNN Town Hall in February 2019. "Have I pushed people too hard? Yes. But I have kept expectations for myself that are very high. I've asked my staff to meet those same expectations. The big point for me is that I want the country to meet high expectations."
The CNN Town Hall audience may have cheered for that line, but voters don't seem to be "eating the salad," proverbially speaking. Klobuchar has consistently polled near the very bottom of people's choices for Democratic primary candidate, with recent polls placing her just over 3%. In other words, The New York Times' endorsement of Amy Klobuchar is strange considering the fact that she's basically unelectable.
But while, statistically speaking, pretty much nobody actually likes Amy Klobuchar, her behavior has struck a chord with a specific demographic on Reddit.
For context, while the overall Reddit community leans white, male, and liberal, many political figures' most ardent supporters use Reddit as a gathering space for promoting their candidate of choice. From the quarantined r/The_Donald with its 785k members (Russian bots included) to r/SandersForPresident with 380k, almost anyone can find their favorite presidential pick on Reddit. Even r/Tulsi has over 17k people who want Tulsi Gabbard to be president for some reason.
And then we have r/AmyKlobuchar. With 147 total members, roughly seven of whom seem to be online at any given time, the truly incredible thing about Amy Klobuchar's subreddit isn't its minimal user base. It's the fact that pretty much everything posted there is ironic.
The most upvoted post on the entire sub is titled "Amy Klobberchar" and contains a meme recounting a fictional incident wherein Amy Klobuchar threw a stapler at a staffer. In fact, many of the posts in r/AmyKlobuchar hone in on Klobuchar's history of staffer abuse, depicting Klobuchar firing unpaid interns and stepping on people's necks.In another top post on the sub titled "Why I am voting for Amy," a user lists off reasons including, "She is abusive towards her staff. We need a fighter, not a wimp," and, "I like the taste of boot."
The same New York Times article that covered the salad incident included a leaked email that Klobuchar has sent to her staffers regarding the things people said about her on Twitter: "We are becoming a joke and it is making me a joke."
As it turns out, Klobuchar's prophecy was self-fulfilling. By continually treating her staff like garbage, Klobuchar invoked the attention of a small but vocal demographic of roughly 147 people who don't like seeing low-paid interns treated like garbage.
Perhaps much more importantly, though, to most of the American electorate, Amy Klobuchar still doesn't matter.
They need to put their differences aside if either of them hopes to win
In a recent interview with New York Magazine Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez commented that "in any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America we are."
With consistent cries for party unity since before presidential candidates even began announcing their campaigns, it would be tempting to attack Ocasio-Cortez as splitting the party, but she is absolutely right. There is only a unified party to split on paper. America's winner-take-all style of voting forces disparate political interests to share a title and to pool donors—unless they have the ability, like AOC, to source their own funding.
The GOP has used this to their advantage, emphasizing social wedge issues like abortion and immigration to pull working-class white voters away from their economic interests on the left—convincing them to cheer on tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy. For the Democrats, however, the powerful faction of the party that represents professional-class interests—the private-public partnership, means-testing, social-program-cutting wing—has represented a barrier to participation for truly progressive candidates and voters.
That's why it has been heartening, prior to this week, to see Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren avoiding the temptation to attack one another. While many of Bernie's supporters online have adopted toxic attitudes toward anyone other than their preferred candidate, and many Warren supporters have questioned Bernie's feminist bona fides (particularly in light of that toxicity from many "Bernie Bros"), the candidates and their campaigns seemed largely cordial and supportive of one another. It's important, as the marginalized left-wing of the party, to focus on commonalities and mutual aid if there is going to be any hope of overcoming the powerful centrist forces that have ruled the party and served moneyed interests with only moderately less zeal than the Republican party.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
That shared effort began to fall apart on Saturday night when Politico ran a story under the headline "Bernie Campaign Slams Warren as Candidate of the Elite." The story included excerpts from a document purported to be circulated within the Sanders campaign, with scripts instructing volunteers how to attack rivals in the Democratic primaries. While criticisms of Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg are hardly surprising, the attacks on Warren—noting that her supporters are predominantly educated, affluent voters who "who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what"—came as a surprise in the context of the candidates' established alliance.
Skepticism in these cases is usually warranted, but the article contained little to suggest that the content was anything less than official and approved by Bernie Sanders himself. By the time Sanders came forward to repudiate the document and deny its official status, the damage was done. The rift was already beginning to widen.
@michelleinbklyn This campaign would NEVER attack supporters. The script, which was not directed by the campaign, p… https://t.co/smcZ6ssrU7— Briahna Joy Gray (@Briahna Joy Gray)1578977594.0
Warren responded that she was "disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me," and she sent out a fundraising email that asked both for donations and for supporters to share personal stories and perspectives to contradict the framing of her base as elitist. If that had been all, then it might have been easy to move on and return to a mutually supportive stance within a few days. But the real damage was done when people close to Warren, perhaps in an effort to retaliate, spoke to CNN about a private conversation the two had in 2018.
Back then, the thought of actual voters making actual choices seemed distant and abstract, and the candidates sat down to discuss strategies against Trump and to establish the general truce that has held until now. Everyone involved seems to agree on those points, but differing reports emerge when it comes to the topic of gender. As CNN reported, Warren laid out her strengths as a candidate: "She could make a robust argument about the economy and earn broad support from female voters." Bernie was not on the same page.
The Bernie cult has been attacking @ewarren for way too long. They’ve minimized her achievements, called her a copy… https://t.co/9zLobcSgBv— Joshua Manuel Bonet 🏳️🌈 (@Joshua Manuel Bonet 🏳️🌈)1578984471.0
According to anonymous members of Warren's team, Bernie didn't think a woman could win. Bernie shot back with his own version of events, saying, "It is ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn't win... What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could. Do I believe a woman can win in 2020? Of course! After all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes in 2016." When Warren herself was finally convinced to weigh in directly, she urged people to move on, claiming that she was more interested in what she and Sanders agree on… But she also confirmed the more inflammatory version of events: "Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed."
While there is certainly a conversation to be had about to what extent America remains too sexist to support a female candidate, it seems like a stretch to accept the idea that, in 2018, Bernie would hold such a categorical view against the possibility of a woman being elected president. What makes it particularly questionable is the existence of footage from a C-SPAN appearance three decades earlier, in which Bernie says, "In my view, a woman could be elected president of the United States. The real issue is whose side are you on? Are you on the side of workers and poor people, or are you on the side of big money and the corporations?"
The suggestion that Bernie's views have become more regressive since 1988 seems far-fetched. The inclusive, forward-thinking persona he has consistently presented to the public for 40+ years doesn't line up with this supposed private view. Then again, the idea that Warren would simply lie about Sanders' comments seems equally unlikely. Who you believe seems to depend largely on who you prefer, and the two camps seem to be moving further from each other as the Iowa Caucuses close in. On one side, Bernie Sanders is a sexist; on the other, Elizabeth Warren is a liar.
Without a recording or a transcript of the conversation, it doesn't seem quite justified to land in either of those camps. Without third-party witnesses, the basic facts of who did and who said what can quickly dissolve. The message that was intended and the message that was received crystallize in each person's mind to the point that they become irreconcilable. Perhaps Bernie did think that a progressive man was better poised than a progressive woman to counter Donald Trump's brand of populism in the 2020 election. Maybe his way of saying so was so clumsy that Warren took it as a broad statement about the viability (or lack of viability) of female candidates, and she recounted it as such to people close to her. Short of calling either of them a liar or worse, that is the best I can muster—a version of events that I prefer to believe in order to maintain my respect for both of these candidates.
Supporters from both sides will no doubt find this middle-ground unsatisfactory. The rift feels real right now, and it's starting to seem like each side is trying to undermine the chances of the other. But while only one candidate can win the nomination in the end, their support draws too much from the same pool of voters to allow this rift to remain. Already Bernie supporters who also donated to Warren are turning against her with the hashtag #RefundWarren. But the sad truth is that neither can win in the general election without support from the other's ardent fans. And who really stands to benefit from continued fighting? The center and the far-right. It can only help Joe Biden and Donald Trump. And Donald Trump seems to know it...
Bernie Sander’s volunteers are trashing Elizabeth “Pocahontus” Warren. Everybody knows her campaign is dead and wan… https://t.co/XaRdJ6P3W8— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump)1578929126.0
If Sanders and Warren can't each count on the other's supporters to get behind them as the primaries shake out, then Biden will likely hold onto his narrow lead. And if one of them does manage to get the nomination with this acrimony still hanging in the air between them, no amount of campaigning for one another is going to muster the sort of passion that we can count on to overwhelm Donald Trump in the general. 2016 should have taught us that much.
This feud needs to end now. Warren and Sanders need each other, and our country needs them. They are the only candidates taking America's economic divide seriously, and the only candidates willing to tackle climate change with the resolve and transformative action it requires. If Donald Trump gets reelected, he will continue to make both of these problems far worse, destroying hope for economic justice and a sustainable future. If Joe Biden is our next president, then we will go back to enacting middling, inadequate reforms—one step forward for every two steps back.
Hillary supporters as 2016 election results came inGetty Images
Warren and Sanders, united, represent our only real hope. Of course, they each believe that they are best suited to the job. They wouldn't be running otherwise. But if either of them is going to win, they need to come together, reaffirm progressive unity with one voice—acknowledging the differing accounts of events and decrying sexist limitations. Either of them can win this election, but neither can do it alone.