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Exploiting fissures on the left is like shooting fish in a barrel — and that’s a big problem for Democrats

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On Saturday, Politico came up with a big scoop: Bernie Sanders’ campaign is trying to convince Democratic voters to support their candidate in the primaries.

It wasn’t phrased that way, of course. “The nonaggression pact between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren is seriously fraying,” wrote Alex Thompson. “Sanders’ campaign has begun stealthily attacking Warren as a candidate of the upper crust who could not expand the Democratic base in a general election, according to talking points his campaign is using to sway voters.” The talking-points were ostensibly distributed to volunteers canvassing for Sanders, although the report noted that “it is unclear whether the script is being used for phone calls or door knocking or both, or in which locations.”

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Everything about the story screamed ragebait–from the headline, “Bernie campaign slams Warren as candidate of the elite,” to the suggestion that a script for talking to voters who support one of the other top-tier candidates–which didn’t focus exclusively on Warren–was a “stealth[y]” attack on the Massachusetts Senator. Thompson then followed up with another piece headlined, “Warren ‘disappointed’ that Bernie ‘sending his volunteers out to trash me.’”

The following day, a tweeter named Eric Isaac claimed that a “random user who’s only ever posted once before posted that document in the Sanders volunteer Slack group. A moderator promptly removed it and stated that it was NOT a campaign source.” Isaac added that while he would happily back up that claim with a screenshot of the conversation, doing so “would be violating the agreement I made with the campaign to not share screenshots from slack.” Isaac has fewer than 2,000 followers as of this writing, but the tweet rocketed around Twitter with over 20,000 retweets and likes, and since then Sanders supporters have been yelling at reporters for spreading fake news. Asked about it later, Sanders rightly called it a “media blow-up.” He said, “we have hundreds of employees. Elizabeth Warren has hundreds of employees. And people sometimes say things that they shouldn’t.” But the outrage cycle was complete. Both pieces appeared on Politico’s list of the most-read stories over the weekend.

There are, obviously, real and substantial differences between all of the top-tier candidates, including Warren and Sanders. They’re all vying for the same nomination and must try to persuade Democratic voters that they’re the best person both to take on Trump and to govern. And while the “nonaggression pact” between Sanders and Warren is mostly a creation of political pundits, the two allies have campaigned against each other in a largely respectful manner, even if some of their surrogates haven’t always followed their cues.

The “attack” on Warren was mild and banal. I only write about it as an example of how easy it is to set off a circular firing squad among the broad left. These kinds of thin nontroversies are a regular feature of our excruciatingly long primary campaigns, and they draw in supporters of all the candidates at one point or another.

After the disastrous 2016 election cycle and three years of Trump, the Democratic coalition is primed to react reflexively to these manufactured nontroversies. The notion that some murky establishment is constantly sabotaging the left is as deeply entrenched within one faction as the idea that Sanders’ persistence in the race cost Hillary Clinton the election and gave us Trump is within the other. These buttons are just too easy to push.

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The real problem is that in their zeal to find perfidy among other candidates’ supporters, a lot of political junkies (most of these kerfuffles don’t even register among average voters) can’t recognize the difference between organic intra-coalition tensions and those driven by reporters looking to exploit controversy for clicks or various actors seeking to sow or deepen divisions within the Democrats’ “big tent” for political gain.

Alex Thompson covers Warren and the left for Politico. He isn’t part of some nebulous plot to undermine progressives–he has to file stories that people will want to read on a regular basis over the course of a two-year-long campaign. But that’s not the case with Republicans or the alt-right or various foreign actors seeking to capitalize on divisions within the American electorate in order to advance their own agendas.

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With the specter of 2016 and the dynamics of social media in the background, Democratic activists on all sides of their party’s divide(s) are primed to react to every bit of purported evidence that their opponents are wittingly or unwittingly helping Trump get re-elected. Many seem unwilling or incapable of letting an opportunity to engage in intra-coalitional combat pass. That will continue to pose a problem for liberals and the left–who need each other to win–as long as activists with big platforms lack the skepticism and media literacy to distinguish between real conflicts that matter and cheap, divisive ragebait.

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