Two articles published online within days of each other in December highlight in very different ways a unique hazard of our current political discourse that is singularly directed at the supporters and campaign of Bernie Sanders. Published by The Federalist, Melissa Longam Braunstein attempts to bring the accusations of anti-semitism thrown at Jeremy Corbyn specifically, and the British left in general to our domestic politics. Recognizing it ill-advised to accuse a Jewish man who lost family in the Holocaust of anti-semitism, in her piece Linda Sarsour is Too Anti-Semitic For the Women’s March, But Not For Bernie Sanders Braunstein attempts to implicate him through association. In her final paragraph she writes:
These associations paint a pattern of proximity to antisemitism that’s hard to miss. That raises the thorny question: Is it that Sanders really doesn’t notice, that he’s willing to tolerate it, or that he somehow also supports it? Because there’s no doubt that by surrounding himself with so much antisemitism, Sanders is not only helping to broadcast that toxic hatred to his (often young) supporters, he’s also helping to normalize it.
The premise of the second article, Bernie Sanders Is Sitting Out One Of The Most Exciting House Primary Races, by Daniel Marans, is essentially that: Bernie is failing to endorse in this Texas Congressional primary. Marans writes, “Sanders’ silence in what has become one of the most closely watched primary challenges in the country has puzzled and frustrated some of the progressive activists who are typically his allies.”
What these two very different pieces have in common is that they’re concern trolling the Sanders campaign. Concern trolling is mostly an internet phenomena that works from the false assumption that everyone in a conversation has the same goals. Here, the assumptions are that Braunstein is especially worried about anti-semitism and that the people frustrated in Marans’ article are focused primarily on Sanders’ revolution. It’s worth noting that those frustrated are typically, but not necessarily currently Sanders’ allies. And anyone following British politics over the last few years knows that the charges of anti-semitism are essentially a charge of being too pro-Palastinian and too critical of Israel’s occupation. The weaponized accusations proved to be effective in helping to derail the candidacy of Jeremy Corbyn and, despite the utter inanity, the contemptible attempts to label Sanders as apathetic to anti-semitism began multiplying immediately following the results of the British elections.
It’s worth looking at these two examples together because of the subtlety of the latter in contrast to the blatant cynicism of the former. A concern troll typically seems to share the goals of the subject. In this case, the people criticizing him have aesthetically similar goals to Sanders. However, they prefer a liberal version of his mission promoted by a candidate like Elizabeth Warren, with whom people like Sean McElwee, quoted in the article, seem to identify. The critique ignores that endorsements may be used against a candidate and vetting takes time. In fact, within days of this article several others were published criticizing the campaign for endorsing congressional candidate Cenk Uygur over objectionable positions in his past for which he has apologized. The critique also assumes that an endorsement assures a candidate will advance Sanders’ mission once elected. This misses entirely that Sanders endorsed and campaigned for Andrew Gillum, helping him to win a close primary for Florida governor, only to have him turn to Hillary Clinton and lose in the general.
The Marans piece helps to illustrate a central element of concern trolling, that it’s focused primarily on the subject’s silence or inaction. Sanders’ critics in the article are fixated on his silence over Jessica Cisneros and his not endorsing her. They are somehow missing that he’s in the midst of running an unprecedented grassroots campaign to be the nominee pushing a working class agenda in a party that represents the richest districts in the country. It’s the only explanation for promoting the notion that not only has he failed to endorse, he’s failed to endorse quickly enough in relation to some arbitrary time frame that reflects poorly on him.
The focus on a subject’s silence or inaction helps to explain why concern trolling is uniquely targeted at the Sanders campaign. In turn, looking at the unique nature of the Sanders campaign helps explain how not all concern trolling directed at his campaign is deliberate. Sanders is consistently seen as the most trustworthy politician in the country. People who disagree with his politics see him as highly moral. From the Karl Rove political playbook, concern trolling attempts to turn this strength against him by highlighting some maximally moral position or action he fails to take. It doesn’t matter that no politician has a better position than Sanders relative to the critique or that many of the positions are politically incomprehensible. Since 2016 his “failures” have included not calling Trump voters racist, not calling Florida and Georgia voters racist, not endorsing open borders, not centering sex workers, not calling Venezuela an attempted coup, not calling Bolivia a coup quickly enough, and now not making an endorsement and ignoring “anti-semitism”.
A Ryan Grim tweet provides a glimpse into the way the Sanders campaign motto, Not Me, Us, acts as something of a discursive vector for this concern trolling to infect the way that some supporters view their relationship to the campaign.
For example, I’m unclear of the historical precedent of building support for a preferred candidate by criticizing the candidate. Grim’s admiration here might have more to do with his suspected support of the Warren campaign than it does the efficacy of criticizing Sanders as a means of growing support for him.
Still, there is an occasional tendency for supporters to take the motto to mean that rather than the campaign being a tool for extending democracy it’s an opportunity to exercise democracy. Through criticism of strategy, rhetoric, and temperament, supporters are essentially saying that, Not Me, Us is about shared ownership of the campaign rather than the shared mission for which the campaign exists. This is not in any way normal. No one can explain how it’s a positive development. The people doing it can’t explain how it serves their professed goal of getting Sanders elected.
In August, one of the podcasts I listen to religiously, What’s Left, did a patron episode essentially offering their advice to the Sanders campaign. It helped to clarify my thinking on the ways in which concern trolling might be unintentional. Co-host Benjamin Studebaker premised his advice on the idea that, especially prior to his heart attack and subsequent Squad endorsements, the Sanders’ campaign was somewhat moribund. He based this idea on Sanders’ position in the polling and lack of earned media.
It was helpful because Studebaker articulates well arguments that represent the opinions of other clear Benie supporters. The advice is useful, especially if the polling is both accurate and expansive enough to offer a full snapshot of the electorate. This is an important caveat. There’s reason enough to suspect that it doesn’t. It might be as tempting to point to the historical accuracy of polling as it is to be fully dismissive of polling because it frequently over-samples older and wealthier voters. The better approach lies somewhere in the middle.
I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth unpacking somewhat here. Polling methodology doesn’t generally capture the class interests of those polled. Approximately 44% of Americans make $18, 000 on average per year. Yet, the economic demographic breakdown in polls typically looks like this:
It’s fair to say that this breakdown will naturally result in an under-sampling of the half of Americans that are low wage workers. Generally, this doesn’t matter, because approximately half of eligible voters don’t vote. Predictably, these non-voters are heavily represented by low wage workers whose interests are often invisible to the political process.
Polling methodology also typically focuses on “likely voters” defined as people who voted in the previous election. It doesn’t capture the support of new voters or voters who are motivated by individual elections more than the voting franchise itself. This is especially relevant when considering what polling would tell us, for example, of the millions of Obama voters who refused to come out to support Hillary Clinton in 2016. Nothing. It’s even more relevant when considering the strategy of the Sanders’ campaign.
Sanders’ platform is focused on the dignity and well-being of the working class. He wants to raise the wages of the half of American workers in low wage jobs and increase their economic security. His electoral strategy is to engage those low wage workers as well as young and new voters. In other words, his strategy is to win with major support from people whose opinions are not captured by the polling. At most, with regards to Sanders’ strategy, we can say that the polling accurately reflects the views of those polled. However, standard polling will never help us predict how effective Sanders’ strategy will be. The people engaged by his strategy and those whose opinions are captured by polling are almost entirely mutually exclusive. Clearly, any advice given to change strategy on the basis of his support in polling is generally counter-productive.
Still, supporter focus on the messaging of the campaign and how it makes its case relative to other candidates is understandable. While Sanders’ 2016 campaign leaned almost exclusively on economic populism, the current campaign also pays respect to several cultural touchstones with mentions of sex workers, immigration, and racial disparities. Some worry that this is his new message, without considering that Sanders will pivot in the general. The predictable pivot for candidates is toward some mythic center as they seek to grow their appeal beyond the party’s base. However, as the nominee of the party now representing 40 of the 50 richest districts in the country, that would mean a pivot to economic populism. While his 2016 economic message might bring people into the party, it doesn’t appeal to the current center of the party.
There is a degree of irony to these fears. The strength of Sanders’ support comes not only from his positions but also from how consistently he’s been right about the predictable consequences of political actions. He is renowned both for his ability to work with anyone and for finding effective technocratic fixes to move his agenda forward. He has set the terms of debate for this primary though his constant advocacy for universal healthcare and higher wages. It’s fair to note the difficulty in winning this primary and general with the forces aligned against him. It’s worth asking, though, whose political instincts you trust more to offer his platform the best path to winning.