It began on Monday.
CNN’s MJ Lee reported on a private conversation between Senators Warren and Sanders in 2018 in which, according to several sources, he was alleged to have told her that he didn’t think that a woman could win the presidency.
Sanders immediately denied that he said any such thing, telling CNN, “It is ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn’t win.”
Then, at Tuesday night’s debate, the question was brought up by moderator, Abby Phillip, who asked Bernie Sanders about the allegation, which he continued to deny.
“I didn’t say it. And I don’t want to waste a whole lot of time on this, because this is what Donald Trump and maybe some of the media want,” Sanders said. “Anybody knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president of the United States.”
Phillip then turned to Warren and deliberately framed her question in a way that asked not whether the incident took place, but how Warren felt about what was said. In doing so, she gave Warren something she hadn’t received so far, something few women ever receive, particularly those in the spotlight: the assumption that she was telling the truth.
Warren responded, “Look, this question about whether or not a woman can be president has been raised, and it’s time for us to attack it head-on.”
“Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost ten elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women — Amy and me,” she said.
The debate eventually moved on, but the drama didn’t. After the debate ended, Warren is seen on camera shaking hands and congratulating each of the other candidates, until she gets to Bernie. She pulls back from his offered handshake and is seen saying something to him, which we now know from audio released on CNN:
“I think you called me a liar on national TV,” Warren tells him.
“What?” Sanders asks, visibly confused.
“I think you called me a liar on national TV.”
“You know, let’s not do it right now. If you want to have that discussion, we’ll have that discussion,” Sanders responds.
“Anytime,” Warren says.
Even before the audio was released, Twitter did what Twitter does and became a particularly deep, dark pit of despair, with the hashtags #NeverWarren, #LyingLiz, and #WarrentheSnake trending for most of Wednesday and Thursday. While it’s all but certain that most of these were from bot accounts seeking to sow discord, there were Tweets from plenty of real people in the mix, voicing their anger directly at Warren.
The message was clear: Elizabeth Warren leaked an outright lie about Bernie via her staffers, and thus she is a snake who cannot be trusted.
In a piece published in The Cut on Tuesday, ahead of the debates, Rebecca Traister discussed both the likelihood that Sanders said something along the lines of what Warren heard, and why it’s similarly unlikely that Warren would have purposefully leaked it. Sexism, Traister correctly pointed out, hurts Warren in countless ways, but it hurts even more if she dares to discuss it:
Among those dynamics is the chilling fact that talking in any kind of honest way about marginalization becomes a trap for the marginalized. To acknowledge the realities of running as a woman…is a trap. You will be understood as trying to leverage the bleak unfairness of it all to your benefit: as if you are the one to enter the arena with the advantage of getting to cry “Sexism!” and not with the multiple disadvantages of … sexism.
And yet, despite the fact that Warren had so much to lose by even mentioning this incident, the default of much of the media narrative was the assumption that Bernie was telling the truth. He was immediately given the benefit of the doubt. What’s more, it was made clear that the only way we could collectively believe Warren’s version of the story is if it were corroborated by Sanders himself.
The question of whether or not a woman can be elected in this deeply toxic country, the country that elected Donald “Grab ‘Em By the Pussy” Trump, is debated by virtually everyone, progressives and conservatives, feminists and misogynists, alike. There is a real fear that whoever the Democrats put up as their candidate will determine how likely they are to defeat Trump in November, and that some candidates are simply more electable (i.e., old and straight and white and, especially, male) than others. Never mind that any of them would be infinitely more qualified for the job than the incumbent.
A poll released in September by Lean In told us as much. The results showed that this is still a topic on the minds of voters, and it’s not one that gets overwhelmingly positive reactions. Numerous op-eds have discussed the issue as well, including one by Michelle Cottle published in the New York Times just yesterday.
None of these people would likely be accused of sexism for discussing the prevalence of sexism in our country, Sanders included. He has a long record on which to hang his hat in this area, and the endorsement of progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, as well. I think most of us understood that what likely happened in that conversation in 2018 was that Warren discussed her plans to run for president with a close friend and colleague, and he brought up how difficult, and maybe impossible, it would be for a woman to win the presidency, particularly after and against Trump.
And who could blame him? He’s probably right. It will be difficult. Not impossible, but surely difficult.
And, what’s more, he wouldn’t be the first person to have told a woman how difficult her path to electoral victory would be. He wouldn’t even be the first person to have told Elizabeth Warren that.
The bigger issue here, and the far more telling one, is not in what Bernie may or may not have said. It isn’t in how that information got leaked to the press. It’s the reaction, by the media, by ordinary people, and especially by Bernie himself.
There are many things about the reactions to this story that are infuriating on a deeply visceral level: the anger toward Warren, the assumption that she must be lying, that she must have knowingly leaked the story, that she betrayed Bernie in some way, that she let her ambition get ahead of her values, that she simply cannot be trusted.
The full brunt of blame and responsibility for the incident and the reports that have followed fall directly on Warren’s shoulders, no matter what the truth of the matter is (and we should be clear that no one knows exactly what was said in that private conversation except for the two people involved).
But what responsibility does Bernie bear in all of this?
No matter how many clear and documented examples of sexism you can point to among Sanders’ supporters and even within his campaign, we’re warned that blame belongs with those few bad apples and not with St. Bernie himself.
Little is said about how weak his attempts to curb that behavior have been. He has done very little to counter the sexist culture that has been a hallmark of his supporters since 2016. He famously shrugged off questions about incidents of mistreatment and pay disparities involving female staff members in 2016, saying, “I was a little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case.”
How could he possibly be expected to control every one of his supporters?
But mere whispers of a Warren staffer “leaking” something Bernie may have said, and not only are those allegations immediately accepted as fact, but all blame is placed directly on Warren’s shoulders. Either she’s a snake and a liar, or she can’t control her campaign. Either way, she’s now clearly unfit for the office she seeks to hold, or worse, unlikable, the deathblow adjective for any woman. And it’s her responsibility to fix this for Bernie.
But Bernie does bear some level of responsibility, even if he doesn’t rise to it, and even if his most fervent supporters refuse to acknowledge that their beloved hero is not, in fact, infallible.
He could so easily have said, “I don’t remember saying that exactly, and I apologize if you mistook my meaning. What I meant was that your road will be more challenging because of the reality of sexism in this country and the nature of the incumbent you’d be running against. Of course I believe that a woman can win the presidency.”
And that would be it. It would be over, and neither would be the worse for wear.
Instead, Bernie called Warren a liar on that stage and emboldened his most fervent and problematic supporters, the Bernie Bros, that crowd of MAGA-like supporters and Twitter trolls bent on harassing anyone who dares speak a word of even mild criticism against Sanders. And, once again, in a repeat of 2016, Bernie has done absolutely nothing to intercede in the vitriol being spewed at his fellow candidate and supposed friend.
He could easily have followed in the footsteps of John McCain, who at a town hall in 2008, responded immediately and decisively to a woman who suggested that Obama could not be trusted because “he’s an Arab.”
“No, ma’am,” he told her. “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that just I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about.”
This wasn’t a perfect response, surely. Being an Arab and a decent family man are not, after all, mutually exclusive. But McCain took the opportunity to shut down blatant racism and refused to allow the kind of behavior we’ve become too familiar with since the rise of Trump. And, in doing so, he was met with boos and jeers from the crowd in Minnesota that night. But he stood up and spoke out because he knew he had to, that it would be wrong not to, and that the political consequences paled in comparison to the morality of the situation.
And if speaking to the inherent sexism of this situation is too much to ask, I’d hope that he could at least address his supporters in an honest conversation about privilege and the many ways that #NeverWarren ignores the vulnerable people who have already suffered over the last three year. There are real people who would continue to pay the price for that arrogance and privilege should Trump win re-election and be allowed to govern with even fewer checks on his behavior.
I don’t know what exactly is stopping Sanders from showing the same level of respect and decency as McCain did in 2008, but his refusal to speak up for women and for other vulnerable groups, even those with whom he has a close personal and professional relationship, tells me everything I need to know about Bernie the candidate and Bernie the person.
It falls on him to show us otherwise.