A plea to Bernie Sanders: Stay grumpy, but not Trumpy
Item: On Feb. 1, 2020, two minutes after the Des Moines Register, renowned for its integrity and accuracy, announced it would not release its poll of likely voters in the Iowa caucuses because at least one interviewer failed to include former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s name from the list of candidates, a Bernie Sanders supporter tweeted “Bernie’s Surging! #ReleaseThePoll.” Another user added, “Didn’t the Des Moines Register endorse Joe Biden? Must be embarrassing. #ReleaseThePoll! #BernieWillWin.” The paper had, in fact, endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Nonetheless, in the next hour, these tweets received more retweets and likes than any other post with the release-the-poll hashtag. Other users kept the conspiracy theory — that the Democratic establishment did not want to help Sen. Sanders (I-Vt.) by reporting that he was in the lead — going: “There is virtually no way this is not a cover-up. The corruption in the @DNC is real. #ReleaseThePoll.” Although there was no evidence that anyone on Sanders’ staff orchestrated or encouraged the messaging, his campaign declined to comment.
Item: In the immediate aftermath of the chaotic delay in reporting the results of the Iowa caucuses, apparently caused by the failure of a new app to tabulate votes from across the state, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a Sanders supporter, suggested that Buttigieg enlisted Shadow, the company that produced the app, to make it possible for him to declare himself the winner. Echoing Donald Trump Jr. (“the fix is in – AGAIN”), Nina Turner, a national co-chair of the Sanders campaign, blasted DNC chair Tom Perez’s call for a recanvass: “It does look fairly intentional… If the DNC believes it is going to get away in 2020 with what it did in 2016, it has another thing coming.”
Item: On Feb. 21, 2020, Sen. Sanders, who has been highly critical of Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon, owner of the Washington Post, and one of the richest men in the world), suggested that the timing of the Post’s story about Russian attempts to boost his campaign was suspicious: “I’ll let you guess – about one day before the Nevada caucus. Why do you think it came out? It was The Washington Post? Good friends,” he said, sarcastically.
Item: During the Feb. 19 debate, Sen. Sanders was the only Democratic candidate to claim that the person who amasses the largest number of delegates in the primaries and caucuses should win the party’s presidential nomination even if he or she doesn’t have a majority of the votes (instead of having the “contested” convention proceed according to its rules). “I’ve got news for the Democratic establishment,” Sanders has said repeatedly. “They can’t stop us.”
To be sure, Sanders has good reason to believe that the Democratic establishment does not support his candidacy. After all, in 2016 DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz put a thumb — or two — on the scale to ensure the nomination of Hillary Clinton (who, as recently as January, proclaimed “Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done”). And as Sanders has emerged as the front-runner in 2020, the media has reported widespread concerns among Democratic officeholders that he will not win the presidency and will drag “down ballot” candidates down with him.
Sanders has a well-deserved reputation for candor and consistency. He should stop using conspiracy theories to buttress his anti-establishment rhetoric.
In our hyper-partisan, polarized political climate, with its siloed sources of “information,” slowing or stopping the spread of sensational but baseless speculation is in everyone’s interest. As Jennifer Grygiel, a professor of communications at Syracuse University, reminded us recently, “once a conspiracy theory launches, alternative conspiracy theories could quickly surface to counter them. The result is a toxic disinformation soup.”
In the end, stoking conspiracy theories is also likely to come back to bite Bernie Sanders. They won’t help him get the nomination. They will make it far more difficult to unify the Democratic Party. And no matter who is nominated, conspiracy theories will add to the “toxic disinformation soup” in the general election, providing nourishment to President Trump, the now (and possibly future) king of fake news, and many members of his Reddit-retweeting base.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.
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