March 16, 2020

Democratic Voters Need to Reject Tribalism and Come Together

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The day before the Democratic primary debate between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden that was broadcast without an audience due to the COVID-19 pandemic someone asked me whether I was planning to watch it. I said no and explained that I didn't think doing so would have any point since I had already voted. After a brief pause, I changed my mind and said that I might watch it out of curiosity to see how the candidates handled the elephant in the room: Biden is almost certainly going to be the nominee but desperately needs the support of Sanders' voters to be viable in the general election (assuming we still have one).

As it turned out, both of my responses were correct. I started watching the debate but only made it about halfway through before turning it off in a combination of frustration and disgust. Both candidates made some good points, and I'll support whichever one of them gets the nomination. That said, I didn't think that either of them came across particularly well (although I thought Sanders was generally the more effective of the two). The disgust was about how sick I am of listening to Biden respond to every question he's asked with "Number 1... Number 2..." when he never has more than two points and sometimes seems to have trouble remembering what they are and which number he's on. He's not doing himself any favors here. As for the frustration, that had little to do with the debate itself and requires some elaboration.

It occurs to me that Sanders and Biden have something important in common. It is going to be extremely difficult for either of them to defeat Donald Trump, and the only way either will be able to do it is with the support of the others' supporters. If Sanders pulls an upset and ends up being the nominee, he would need Biden's supporters to show up for him. Of course, he'd also need far more of his own supporters to vote than has been the case so far, but we'll set that aside for now since it isn't directly relevant to the point I am making. He would need Biden's supporters. And if Biden wins the nomination, an outcome that seems far more likely at this point, he would need Sanders' supporters to show up for him (possibly in even greater numbers than they have been willing to show up for Sanders so far). Trump has united the Republican voters behind him. To be competitive, either Democratic candidate is going to have to unite the Democratic voters.

What I desperately wanted to see in the debate and on social media around the debate was clear evidence that both candidates understood this and were working as hard as they could to convince their supporters of it. I haven't seen it. As I watched the debate, I was also watching my Twitter timeline. After a few minutes, I noticed a predictable pattern. The Sanders supporters were objecting to practically everything Biden said and placing their preferred candidate on a pedestal where none of his many flaws were acknowledged. The Biden supporters were doing exactly the same thing (i.e., objecting to anything Sanders said and overlooking Biden's many flaws). Can anyone unite people who behave like this? Is it possible to overcome this sort of tribalism? I'm not sure, but if anyone hopes to defeat Trump, they are going to need to do so.

I get that many people have a preferred candidate. I also get that many people prefer a candidate who was not on that debate stage. The reality should now be settling in that we are past the time where it makes sense to attack the remaining candidates one does not prefer and unite behind whoever wins the nomination. The candidates themselves need to be part of this process. Biden needs to reach out and welcome Sanders supporters, and Sanders needs to reach out and welcome Biden supporters. Both have made some token gestures, but they need to do more. These are two very different candidates with very different visions for the United States, but Democrats and Independents should realize that either one would be a far better president than Trump.