Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton got into a debate last week about what it means to be a progressive, which would be marginally enlightening if it didn’t take place on Twitter, a website where people respond to posts by Pope Francis and Chester Cheetah with “fuck me daddy.”
In this debate, Sanders argued that Clinton couldn’t be a moderate and a progressive, and then laid out all of Clinton’s centrist or conservative positions over the years. Clinton responded in kind, arguing that she wasn’t running to “make a point,” and that Sanders was not actually a progressive, particularly on gun control. Clinton continued the argument in Thursday night’s Democratic debate, invoking Paul Wellstone’s vote on the Defense of Marriage Act as proof that someone can be a progressive and not always support progressive policies.
Now, Sanders is just using conventional primary strategy by positioning himself as more sympathetic to the views of Democrats and progressives. Clinton’s response—that any nominee will have to appeal to independent voters — is just as conventional. New Republic’s Brian Beutler went a step further than simply questioning the optics of alienating moderates: He argued that Sanders may be jeopardizing his electability. The argument “turned out to be at least minimally instructive,” he reasoned, “because it underscored a legitimate strategic concern many liberals have about Sanders and his allies.”
Sanders, Beutler said, is imposing a progressive litmus test that only a sliver of the Democratic base can pass, similar to what the Tea Party has done in the Republican Party. By disregarding the many centrist and left-of-center Democrats, the argument goes, Sanders risks losing even more support in an already fraught coalition that he’s never really been a part of.
To an extent, Beutler has a point: Sanders is naturally going to lose some support that would otherwise go to Hillary Clinton, so why take the chance on losing more? This, however, ignores that intra-party primary grudges carrying over into general elections have always been a worry of candidates: A CNN poll taken right before Clinton conceded the 2008 race found that nearly 40 percent of Clinton supporters said they would either stay home or vote for John McCain. Remember the PUMAs? Most of them held their noses and voted for Obama, even when given the choice of a relatively moderate Republican by today’s standards.
Furthermore, there’s really no evidence to back up the claim that Sanders more boldly defining himself against Clinton and modern liberalism could doom him in the general; in fact, the only metric we have says the complete opposite, because Sanders has consistently risen as the primary season has gone on and potential voters have gotten to know him better. Even before the most recent polling was released, Sanders did roughly as well as Clinton against every prospective Republican opponent in the general election. The most recent RealClearPolitics polling averages now have him doing better than her against every single Republican candidate. Of course, head-to-head polls taken this far out aren’t very reliable at all — a Texas Tech professor recently told Vox it’s “absolutely worthless” — but again, it’s all we have.
What gets lost in most arguments about Sanders’ progressivism (or socialism, or New Dealism), and how far it can take him, is the fact that his coalition already includes people who don’t identify as progressive or socialist. Sanders’ appeal isn’t solely based in ideology; if it was, then Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich would have had more success in their runs. Rather, a lot of Sanders’ support comes from people who wouldn’t describe themselves as any of those things. Some supporters respect his consistency on most issues throughout his political career, a rarity in today’s political climate. Others are self-described moderates who want to see reforms to student loan debt and Wall Street, believe Sanders would be better for civil liberties, or see Sanders as the least militaristic of the bunch of candidates. And yes, some of this coalition even includes people who don’t like Clinton — hopefully for policy reasons and not “likability” — but won’t vote for a Republican.
If pure campaign spin and narrative in February actually makes a difference in November, then Clinton has the most to lose from a bitter, drawn-out primary. Sanders has turned out the youth vote in a way that wasn’t really expected in a post-Obama election; a good many of those voters, who aren’t Democratic activists, will grin and bear it in November if Clinton faces a truly regressive politician like Ted Cruz. If the theory that Sanders could alienate moderates by calling them moderates is correct, then couldn’t the Clinton campaign’s casting of Sanders supporters as gatekeepers of progressivism (or worse, sexist, iPhone-obsessed “bros”) turn off some potential supporters in the presidential election?
All of this is to say that these rhetorical debates don’t really matter to voters. Thankfully, neither candidate will lose significant support from their campaigns’ semantics battles on social media, because most Americans (again, thankfully) aren’t active Twitter users, don’t give a damn if Sanders charges Clinton with being a moderate, and have a stronger foundation for their political beliefs than simply spiting another candidate’s supporters.
Most important, some people actually have something to lose in this election. The working class, people of color, organized labor, college students, people with high health insurance premiums, people in need of government benefits: All have been negatively impacted by the marriage between neoliberals and conservatives since the 1990s. For these people – who’ve seen lower wages, growing inequality, high incarceration rates, disenfranchisement, and little to no accountability from their leaders, the police or big business – the outcome of the next election will have a very real impact on their lives.
This is a primary that, despite the best efforts of Democratic Party leaders, is turning out to be a race rather than a tune-up for Clinton. As such, it’s going to get heated between both candidates’ supporters, just as it did in 2008. But the issues that will eventually inform voters are economic security, civil rights, foreign policy, the climate, social issues, etc.; not a spat over definitions in the intermission between February primaries, and definitely not an argument on Twitter.