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No, Sanders and Warren Don’t Need to Call a Truce

The Nation is calling for a “truce” between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But they’re competing against each other in a primary, and a preemptive compromise does no service to either voters or their two different visions of change.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren embrace after the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre on July 30, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

D.D. Guttenplan, writing in the Nation, echoes what has become a recurring call for a “truce” between supporters of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. For Sanders supporters, this truce — as far as I can tell — can mean one of two things:

1) It is okay to argue that Sanders is preferable to Warren, even though this implies that she is the inferior candidate — but we should simply try to do so in a way that avoids unnecessarily alienating Warren supporters. Or,

2) Our priority is to avoid alienating Warren supporters. And since implying that she is the inferior candidate risks offending them, we should therefore avoid arguing that Sanders is the preferable candidate.

If the truce means (2) then obviously Sanders can only honor it by immediately suspending his campaign. After all, even the most diplomatic, substantive, and constructive efforts to differentiate Sanders from Warren can be taken as a slight against her — and since maintaining peace among the two camps is our priority, it really doesn’t matter whether that reaction is fair or not. All that really matters in this case is keeping peace with Warren supporters, which means that he should just end his campaign right now.

But if the truce means (1), then it really just gives us a political truism — don’t unnecessarily alienate potential allies! — that virtually no one would actually disagree with. There may be disagreement over whether it was necessary to risk alienating Warren supporters over a given issue, or whether particular Warren supporters are indeed potential allies — but these are controversies that have to be litigated on a case-by-case basis. It does nothing constructive, nothing to advance comity between the two camps or to resolve specific disagreements, to declare vague koans like “the two candidates [should] maintain their truce, competing to outdo each other.”

So if this “truce” rhetoric doesn’t actually resolve conflict, what is it good for?

First, for smuggling in the premise that Sanders and Warren are basically interchangeable candidates. This, as Sanders supporters have argued ad nauseam, is simply not true. But if you want to insist otherwise, a good way forward is to simply assume it as the premise of a second, less controversial critique about how we should all try to get along when we can.

Second, it’s good at letting the powerful decide whether Sanders or Warren should win. Does the “truce” mean that Wall Street will stop campaigning? Does it mean that Third Way will stand down? Will powerful people not prefer one candidate to the other, and do everything they can to promote one candidate while destroying the other? Of course. All the “truce” does is guarantee that this asymmetry will go unchallenged by the Left. If one candidate’s left credentials are being cynically hyped in the media, the other camp, by the terms of the truce, is not allowed to challenge this. If one candidate is being attacked so that the other will win, they cannot point this out.

And third, the truce is good at blaming the conflict on someone. Obviously, the only reason we are talking about this nonaggression pact is that someone is accused of violating it. The truce rhetoric is great for vilifying one camp or the other as petty, factionalist, shortsighted, and so on. Instead of discussing particular controversies on the merits, it escalates one’s critique into a grand meta-commentary on a camp’s character and maturity.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to see how these features of the “truce” work in tandem. This rhetoric doesn’t actually resolve conflict — but it does give the powerful a weapon to use against whichever camp they prefer. And it does this while simultaneously denying them the right to defend themselves. There is no reason why any political campaign should accept a “truce” on these terms.