You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

It’s Not Bernie Sanders’s Job to Unify the Democratic Party

Bernie and Hillary are at war—and it's her responsibility to call a truce.

Sean Rayford/Getty

Team Bernie and Team Hillary are at war. The two sides have skirmished throughout the election, but the chaotic Nevada Democratic Convention in Las Vegas last weekend has prompted a bloodbath that—if the pundits are to be believed—could tear the party apart and hand the presidency to Donald Trump. On Tuesday, CNN warned that Democrats were worried about the growing “revolt” within their party and headlines throughout the week warned that the Democratic rift could cost Hillary Clinton the election and cause another Chicago 1968, all to serve the growing personality cult of Bernie Sanders.

The Clinton and Sanders camps are, in the usual schoolyard fashion, pointing fingers at each other. The truth is, both sides are to blame. But the onus is on Clinton, not Sanders, to turn down the temperature. If she intends to unify the party, now is the time to prove she can do it—that’s her burden as the frontrunner and likely nominee.

Last weekend, Democratic officials were shouted off the stage in Las Vegas and Sanders supporters bombarded Nevada’s Democratic chairwoman with misogynistic insults and death threats. Babysitting Bernie Bros (and not all of them are bros—some of the harassers were women) is not Sanders’s job, but he made matters much worse with a defiant statement on Tuesday in which he condemnded “any and all forms of violence, including the personal harassment of individuals,” but added, “If the Democratic Party is to be successful in November, it is imperative that all state parties treat our campaign supporters with fairness and the respect that they have earned. ... Unfortunately, that was not the case at the Nevada convention. At that convention the Democratic leadership used its power to prevent a fair and transparent process from taking place.”

But Sanders isn’t the only one stoking tensions. Recent comments from Clinton supporters give the impression that the Sanders faction was preparing to launch a civil war at the Democratic National Convention in July. “I think it would be most regretful if there becomes a schism,” Senator Diane Feinstein warned. “That’s what Donald Trump should want: a schism in our party. ... It’s the responsibility particularly of Senator Sanders to see that that doesn’t happen.” Senator Barbara Boxer, who was harassed by Sanders supporters in Nevada, argued that the race between Sanders and Clinton was more fractious than the Bush-Gore recount. “We’re in a race that is very critical. We have to be united. He knows that. I have in fact, called him a couple times, left a couple messages. I’m hopeful he can get control of this.”

Stephanie Schriock, the president of the political action committee EMILY’s List, which is backing Clinton, said in a statement: “These disgraceful attacks are straight out of the Donald Trump playbook, and Bernie Sanders is the only person who can put a stop to them. Sanders needs to both forcefully denounce and apologize for his supporters’ unacceptable behavior—not walk away,” referring to an incident in which the Vermont senator walked away from a reporter after being asked about his supporters’ actions in Nevada.

Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald was even more hyperbolic:

Yeah, these are exactly the kind of people who Americans want to have as the next president’s base—vicious, sociopathic misogynists. And their threats of violence at the convention is just another sign that Sanders could go down as one of the most destructive forces in American history. Riots and flames at the convention—a repeat of the chaos of the 1968 Democratic Convention—would help open the White House doors for Donald Trump when compared with a nose-holding coronation by Republicans at their gathering in Cleveland.

With the Republican primary decided, the media is more than happy to air these grievances. The Drudge Report and many other conservative outlets have led with stories about the Democratic crack-up for most of the week. Mainstream outlets, particularly CNN, are using it as a way to make the Democratic race more interesting (you might be under the impression that Clinton and Sanders are neck-and-neck, when he has to win two-thirds of the remaining delegates to win the nomination outright). And they’ve had no trouble finding talking heads. While Clinton has held back from fiercely attacking Sanders—she needs his supporters in the general election, after all—this reticence has clearly annoyed some of her closest allies, who were champing at the bit to go after him. These allies are trying to turn Sanders greatest strength—the passion of his supporters—into a weakness. Their hope: to get Sanders to call off his supporters before Clinton has to make compromises that would likely hurt her ability to win over moderate Republicans, whom her campaign is eager to court, in November.

But characterizing Sanders’s supporters as a mob intent on revolting against the party ignores these voters’ genuine grievances and the political and economic changes they want to enact. It’s also a lousy argument, one that relies on conflation—that the trolls and Sanders’s base are one and the same—and a series of counterfactuals and half-baked historical allusions. Criticism of Sanders is based on what might happen if he stays in the race and never considers that an energized youth wing could have positive effects in November. Meanwhile, it ignores the fact that, as The New York Times reported on Friday, most Democrats don’t believe their party is divided: Eight in ten are both hopeful for the party’s future and believe that Clinton can unify it before the convention in July. (Over 80 percent of Republican voters surveyed, meanwhile, felt their party was divided.)

There are some indications that there will be disruptions at the Democratic National Convention, but nothing to suggest large-scale rioting, and there are no indications that Sanders will somehow cost Clinton the election by not dropping out in May (something Clinton refused to do in 2008, during a much more fractious primary, as the New Republic’s Jeet Heer points out). And Clinton’s supporters, in their calls for Sanders to “unify the party,” are harkening back to two historical moments that have little in common with this one—1968, when the party’s riotous convention helped elect Richard Nixon, and 2000, when third-party candidate Ralph Nader was widely blamed for Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush.

The idea that Sanders should drop out because some of his supporters did terrible things is absurd—and it’s more absurd when you remember that a Clinton-affiliated Super PAC has devoted $1 million to paying online trolls to “correct the record.” More importantly, it’s not his role to unify the party. His time to exit will come, sometime between the end of the primary season and the end of the party convention. To create change, he has to stay in the race. Doing otherwise would cede the platform to the party establishment.

Instead, it’s Clinton’s responsibility to unify the party. She should call off her dogs—those whom she can control, anyway—and acknowledge that the abhorrent behavior of a handful of Sanders supporters isn’t reflective of his entire base. She should also begin to make overtures to primary reform, as the existing process—from delegate allocation to esoteric procedural rules—are partly responsible for this mayhem. She can do so even as she continues to treat Sanders as a legitimate contender, and she should start now if she wants to prevent the fractious convention that so many of her allies are forewarning.