Bernie Sanders has been making the same pitch for a long time.
During his first presidential bid, in 2016, the senator from Vermont’s trademark policy proposals were Medicare for All and free college. This time around, those two ideas are still positioned front and center in his presidential platform. Four years ago, Sanders was shouting himself hoarse about Wall Street and the 1 percent, and his 2020 bid features the same language: oligarchy, income inequality, billionaires. Even his 2020 logo—the white Bernie on a blue background with swooshes and a star dotting the i—is identical to the one he used in 2016.
To critics who have called him a broken record, Sanders has countered that of course he’s repeating himself: His message is the same because America’s problems are the same. But unlike in 2016, Sanders is no longer the only candidate running on ambitious, left-wing ideas. Six of the 14 remaining Democratic candidates support some version of Medicare for All, and four support a form of free college. As his ideas have permeated the rest of the field, Sanders’s own candidacy appears less radical—or at least less exceptional.
But with the Iran crisis, Sanders has found something new to talk about. Last Thursday, U.S. forces killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top military general, raising the possibility of a military conflict and thrusting another aspect of Sanders’s platform into the spotlight: his staunch anti-war position. The stance could give him another way to differentiate himself from his 2020 rivals, just in time for the Iowa caucuses a few weeks away.
[Read: It’s foreign policy that distinguishes Bernie this time]
After news reports began to trickle in about the death of Soleimani, Democrats mostly responded in a similar fashion: They contended that while Soleimani was a bad guy, killing him risked all-out war with Iran. They rebuked Donald Trump, but they also condemned Soleimani. “Soleimani was a murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans,” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said in a statement. “But this reckless move escalates the situation with Iran.” Former Vice President Joe Biden started his response by denouncing Soleimani’s “crimes against American troops and thousands of innocents” before warning about the “hugely escalatory move.”
Sanders, though, offered no such qualification. “Trump’s dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars,” the senator said in a statement. “Trump promised to end endless wars, but this action puts us on the path for another one.” (Two other 2020 candidates, Andrew Yang and Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, offered similarly unequivocal responses.)
The difference might seem like mere semantics, but it helps underscore how different Sanders’s approach to foreign policy is from that of his competitors. “Putting it in context of how awful Soleimani is is taking [the focus] off of where the focus should be, which is two decades of horrendous U.S. policy,” says Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of Code Pink, a women-led anti-war organization. “This is a time that Bernie is going to be able to distinguish himself as somebody who understands the horrific consequences of U.S. policy.”
From his willingness to speak critically of Israel to his forceful rebuke of a “coup” in Bolivia, Sanders has challenged the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus in a way that most other candidates, including other progressives, haven’t. The Sanders campaign views workers’ rights as a “global struggle,” and the senator has aligned himself with leftist leaders around the world. Unlike Warren, the other progressive heavyweight in the race, Sanders voted against the implementation of sanctions on Iran in 2017. Warren “has voted against U.S. intervention in many cases, but she hasn’t made that a key component of her political trajectory overall the way Bernie Sanders has,” says Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank.
Sanders has a long history of anti-war activism. He applied to be a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and in 1991 he voted against the Gulf War. He also voted against the invasion of Iraq in 2002, and has recently been an ardent critic of America’s involvement in the Saudi-led conflict in Yemen. In one of his first tweets after the killing of Soleimani last week, Sanders took a virtual victory lap: “I was right about Vietnam. I was right about Iraq. I will do everything in my power to prevent a war with Iran. I apologize to no one.”
Sanders is already putting more of an emphasis on his foreign-policy platform. Last Saturday, the senator kicked off a campaign event in Dubuque, Iowa, by calling for immediate action from Congress to prevent a war with Iran. He’s especially contrasted himself with Biden, his biggest 2020 rival, who, notably, did vote to support the Iraq War. The former vice president, Sanders argued in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Monday, “helped lead the effort for the war in Iraq, the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in the modern history of this country.” Voters should expect Sanders to stay on this point, his campaign has said: “Bernie Sanders has a proven record of fighting for the right thing at the right time—on the first instance, not on the second, third, fourth, or fifth try, as the case might be with Joe Biden,” Sanders’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, told Vanity Fair on Tuesday. “So yes, you’re going to hear a lot more about his Iraq vote from us.”
[Read: The conundrum facing Democrats about America’s role in the world]
Conveniently for Sanders, such an emphasis could find an audience in Iowa specifically, the first state to vote in the 2020 primary election, and where recent polling shows him with a narrow lead over his rivals. “Iowa has a history of being dovish,” Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist based in the state, told me. Voters there have elected anti-interventionist lawmakers to Congress in recent decades, including former Democratic Senator Tom Harkin and former Republican Representative Jim Leach. And in 2008, Barack Obama upset Hillary Clinton in the state by running, at least in part, on his vote against the Iraq War. “It’s been a recurring theme over the years [that] Iowans pay close attention to foreign policy,” Link said. “From that perspective, it’s smart for Sanders.”
Sanders’s anti-interventionism could also help him beyond Iowa: Polls show that the majority of Americans, including most Republicans, do not support another war in the Middle East. He could potentially pique the interest of a new swath of supporters, including younger Americans who have spent their formative years observing military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even Trump voters who supported the now-president for his own promise to get U.S. troops out of the Middle East. “[Trump] doesn’t have a rudder on these things; it’s whatever he’s feeling at the moment,” Link said. But Bernie “is crystal clear. If we were judging this contest on who has the most clarity on who they are and what their message is, Bernie wins.”
Yet it’s not totally crystal clear that Sanders will gain an advantage: A poll from FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos, released in September before the Soleimani strike, showed that very few Democrats are prioritizing foreign policy in choosing a candidate, and The Washington Post reported that Iowans haven’t been asking many questions about Iran at campaign events. It’s also possible that, if there is no further escalation after Iran retaliated with military strikes of its own on Tuesday, Sanders’s anti-interventionist stance may lose its salience. And Sanders isn’t the only candidate who sees the Iran conflict as a potential campaign boost, though in a different way. Biden has spent the last week promoting his own foreign-policy experience as vice president. “Biden’s been in the Situation Room before. Buttigieg has been shot at before,” Paul Rieckhoff, the host of the Angry Americans podcast and an Iraq War veteran, told me, noting the former mayor’s military experience. “Those are the kinds of things that are going to resonate with the American people.”
But with just three weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses and no obvious front-runner in the state, a new way for Sanders to distinguish himself from his rivals could be exactly what he needs to pull ahead. After all, Americans already know Sanders as the guy who advocates for universal health care and shouts about the billionaires. They may not have heard as much about Sanders the anti-war activist.
Something odd happened this week on Twitter: A hashtag became the most popular topic in the country by accident.
After Senator Elizabeth Warren brushed away the handshake of Senator Bernie Sanders in the moments following a debate, Sanders supporters—or at least alleged Sanders supporters—began to tweet #NeverWarren. Several left-leaning journalists and online Sanders surrogates noticed the rising phrase and sent tweets opposing it. But since their tweets accumulated likes and retweets, they only made the hashtag itself more popular. The algorithm that determines the social network’s most popular topics, after all, could not differentiate between a tweet endorsing #NeverWarren and a tweet rejecting it. When the NBC reporter Ben Collins noticed this phenomenon and tweeted about it, his own tweet picked up more than 7,500 likes and retweets, and lofted the hashtag even higher.
It was faintly ridiculous. It seemed to encapsulate many of the issues with hosting the public sphere on Twitter. And it made me think of Walter Ong, a linguist and Jesuit priest who died at 91 in 2003. Ong spent his life trying to understand the revolutionary technologies, such as the television and radio, unleashed during his lifetime. But he did so by looking far from modern America—and by studying the difference between human cultures rooted in orality and those rooted in literacy. His topic matters for Twitter more than you may think.
Twitter is neither the country’s largest nor its wealthiest social network, but nonetheless it exhibits a curiously tight grip on American culture. In the past decade, it has played a prominent role—if an occasionally overstated one—in the Arab Spring, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the 2016 presidential election. The president of the United States, famously, cannot be torn from Twitter; the chair of the Federal Reserve and several Supreme Court justices reportedly consult it for news, gossip, and debate. If Facebook is the high-school cafeteria where everyone must line up for their slop, Twitter is the classroom where all the the nerdy kids go to eat their lunch—though perhaps this metaphor is too generous: Teenagers, for all their flaws, are kinder and less calculating than many Twitter-adept adults.
Twitter is especially beloved by the press, and the unfortunate affinity that journalists and policy makers have for the social network means that—as with politics itself—you may not care about Twitter, but it cares about you, especially if you’ve just done something embarrassing on national television. Reformed Twitter users who’ve quit the service talk about how tweets are inescapable. They are embedded in news stories, screencapped for Instagram, and quoted on TV shows and podcasts.
[Read: Twitter’s new features aren’t what users asked for]
The sum effect is that Twitter is both leaderless and influential, little used and widely reviled. And at its best, even now, it can still be wonderful: There is a joy and exhilaration in watching a democratic culture at work, in getting to see dozens of people grow and think in real time. At its worst, its rabble seems to adopt that old knock against the British newspapers—that they wield power without responsibility—as a proud boast and way of life.
The spark for the Warren-Sanders spat came on Monday night. CNN broke the story that the senator from Vermont, during a private meeting in 2018, had told Warren that he did not believe a woman could beat Donald Trump. Immediately, my timeline filled with Democrats expressing all manner of views about the incident. Many were angry or dismayed or confused. Virtually all of them did not want the story to eclipse what they saw as Joe Biden’s shortcomings or the ongoing impeachment proceedings against President Trump. Yet they kept making jokes about the CNN story, or complaining about it, or airing hypotheses about it—and so the story seemed to be all that anyone was talking about all night. Eventually, almost without being able to stop themselves, Warren’s and Sanders’s online surrogates were correcting one another’s attempts at tact, and then arguing, and then making a scene.
And maybe the story should have stirred up that froth of conflict and attention. But none of the people who drove its prominence actually seemed to think that it deserved that attention. They all said, at least, that they wanted the media to talk about other things. But the Warren-Sanders spat is what they did talk about.
This contradiction hints at a basic tension of the platform. From my perspective, as a single Twitter user, the online horde is always going on about something. So if I tweet about that something, it’s not a big deal. I’m only thinking aloud, goofing off, and harmlessly chatting with my friends and readers. But if 50 other people tweet about the same thing—especially if it’s frivolous and especially if they all have, like I do, an account with more than 1,000 or so followers—then they’re making that topic even more popular, amplifying it, and reinforcing the media’s toxic fixation on meaningless chaff. My tweets—well, not my tweets, but you get it—are conversational and informal, and they matter relatively little. But taken collectively, everyone else’s tweets are informational and declamatory. They carry weight.
This instability—between the individual and the mass, the high and the low—is also what makes Twitter fun. The site’s worst users are those who monotonously, humorlessly post about the same thing over and over again. But in trying to avoid that fate—and in trying, generally, to act like a regular person online—users push the conversation toward conflict and superficiality.
[Read: How Twitter fuels anxiety]
Ong would have understood. Writing down a language, he realized, is not just a mere shuffling of papers; it forever changes how the language works. Consider the differences between speech and text. For oral cultures, words are primarily vibrations in the air, Ong argued. Words must therefore be memorable, few in number, and tied to the concrete reality of day-to-day life. But after the advent of writing, words become more than invisible sounds. They become permanent symbols that exist outside their utterance and can be read long after the speaker has died. Words can also divorce from the physical world and start to reference ideas, concepts, and abstract states. And instead of words needing to aid memory, as they do in oral cultures (by using a repeated epithet, such as Homer’s “wine-dark sea”), written words can suddenly act as a form of memory themselves.
Before Ong died in 2003, he was asked about a special kind of writing that people do online, a genre of communication familiar to any Slack or AIM user or group-chat texter. It’s a mode that delivers words live and at the speed of speech—in which, as Ong put it, “textualized verbal exchange registers psychologically as having the temporal immediacy of oral exchange.” (This is apparently how a Jesuit talks about sliding into one’s DMs.) Ong called this new fusion “secondary literacy,” but today we just call it texting. Whatever its name, it reigned during Twitter’s early days. As I once wrote: “Twitter lets users read the same words at different times, which is a key aspect of literacy. Tweets are chatty, fusing word and action like orality; and also declarative, severable, preservable, and analyzable like literacy.”
But by 2014, the Canadian academic Bonnie Stewart had noticed a change in how Twitter worked as a social space. Tweets that were written as chatty musings for one group of users were interpreted as print-like declamations by another. “The rot we’re seeing in Twitter is the rot of participatory media devolved into competitive spheres,” she said, “where the collective ‘we’ treats conversational contributions as fixed print-like identity claims.”
I was so taken with this idea that I later wrote about it. Six years later, Stewart’s observation still resonates with insight, even if it no longer feels like news: Twitter has been a mess of speech-like tweets interpreted as print and print-like tweets interpreted as speech for as long as most users can remember. This whiplash between orality and literacy is even part of what makes it fun.
But following this week, I’ve wondered if that instability presents a political problem—particularly for the left in the United States. The word that sticks out to me now from Stewart’s post is identity. The bedrock of politics is that it forges what the left wing calls solidarity: a sense of shared identity or common interest that transcends whatever other differences among people exist. In America, this challenge is more difficult for the center-left Democrats, who are the more heterogenous of the parties. What Jesse Jackson said at the party’s 1988 national convention is still true today: None of the Democratic coalitions—be it farmers, trade unionists, feminists, people of color, or LGBTQ folks—commands a big enough “patch” of America to win power for itself. He continued that Democrats must therefore “build such a quilt” that binds the patches. They must, in other words, forge solidarity. And not much shreds solidarity faster than misstating, or misinterpreting, a co-partisan’s statement about their identity.
Even for those elsewhere on the political spectrum, the whole situation suggests two ideas, neither of which is particularly encouraging. First: Twitter is now so global and crowded and multifaceted that it no longer has a unified “we” at all. Twitter, en masse, isn’t anything like a thinking public; it’s just a bunch of people. Second, it suggests an axiom so puritan that I hesitate to express it: On Twitter, ideas are so commodified that to say something is simultaneously to amplify it. You’re never “just saying” on Twitter. You’re always doing.
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