They’re here for Bernie.
This particular spot, in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., is normally a Wisconsin Badgers bar (or a Washington Huskies bar, depending on whom you ask). But last night the place was taken over by members of the D.C. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. There were more than two dozen of them, perched on metal stools in the outdoor section of the bar, facing a massive TV and waiting for the second round of Democratic primary debates to begin. By 8 p.m., the heat was still oppressive, requiring multiple glasses of ice-cold beer. Several members of the group, which appeared to be mostly white and almost entirely made up of Millennials, dressed for the occasion, wearing T-shirts that said No More Fossil Fuel Money and Every Billionaire Is Bad.
Most members at the bar have been Sanders fans since 2015, when the finger-wagging independent first ran against Hillary Clinton in the last Democratic primary. Brian Wivell, a 24-year-old labor organizer who lives in the city, told me that his support for Sanders has only solidified since then. “He is the only one who says the change is going to have to come from outside the system,” Wivell said. Sanders, he added, is the only candidate working to shepherd “a mass movement of working people” to overhaul the country’s political and economic system.
Wivell’s words pinpoint the exact reason many Sanders supporters still prefer the Vermont lawmaker to Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the 2020 candidate who aligns most closely with Sanders ideologically and who, like Sanders, has proposed a number of ambitious progressive proposals. While on a policy level, the two senators are quite similar, there is still a clear and important difference between them, argued the DSA members I spoke with: Sanders is fighting for a political revolution. Warren isn’t.
Right as the debate began, I pulled up a stool next to John Kastronis, a 37-year-old technical writer from nearby Arlington, Virginia, who was wearing a graphic tee with a picture of Karl Marx riding a skateboard. Kastronis, who told me that “the past couple of years have really pushed me into the socialist mind-set,” said he admires Warren’s knowledge and passion, but Sanders, whose 2016 campaign paved the way for so much of the policy discussion under way in the current primary, is still the “most progressive one in the room.”
When Warren delivered her opening statement at the start of the debate, the group listened politely. Some people clapped. But when it was Sanders’s turn, they whooped and hollered. One person in the back yelled, “Yes, Dad!” They pounded the bar to show their support as Sanders rattled off statistics about health insurance and homelessness, and called out Amazon for not paying federal income taxes.
“See? There’s a difference!” Kastronis said, whipping around in his seat to face me. “He’s calling out specific companies and specific people, whereas Warren said more feel-goody stuff.”
Sanders and Warren are both grassroots progressives with clear populist streaks, and both are pushing for massive reforms, with a particular focus on income inequality: Warren’s 2020 stump speeches always include a line about how the economy is “doing great” for only a thin slice of Americans, and Sanders has been railing against the wealth of America’s “top 1 percent” for years. But their political philosophies offer a stark difference: Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who is not an official member of the DSA, views capitalism as unjust, while Warren has called herself a “capitalist to my bones.” Steadfastly refusing to join the Democratic Party, Sanders has embraced and even treasured his status as an insurgent candidate, while Warren, throughout her political career, has worked more closely with the party establishment—more intent on building bridges than burning them.
Group members explained to me that Warren, with her myriad plans for addressing the country’s biggest problems, is operating under the false premise that good laws can fix an inherently broken system.
“It’s not that her policies are bad—it’s just that her stuff would work [better] in a system that wasn’t a failed state,” said Irene Koo, a 24-year-old editor at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. In other words, it’s too late for Warren’s plans. The movement Sanders is building, members told me, aims to overturn that system and inspire a new generation of political leaders. They referenced up-and-comers such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York; Tiffany Cabán, the former district-attorney candidate in Queens County, New York; and Vincent Fort, the Georgia state senator. Compared with Warren, Koo said, Sanders has a “very evidently different theory of change.”
But for many progressive Democrats outside DSA who are less invested in the philosophical distinctions, the two candidates still register as ideologically similar, if not interchangeable. At Netroots Nation, a conference for progressive activists held earlier this month, I spoke with 33-year-old Jered Weber, a Coloradan who said he supports Warren over Sanders for a much more basic reason: “If I have a chance of voting for an old white man or a less old white woman, I’m going to vote for a less old white woman,” Weber told me. Others think Warren, with her gentler tones and careful policy rollouts, offers a safer choice than Sanders. “He seems like a loose cannon in some ways,” said Morgan Fletcher, a young New York City activist at the conference. “Elizabeth [says], ‘Here are my plans, here are my steps,’” while Sanders’s policy prescriptions feel “far more nebulous.”
The latest national polls show Sanders trailing former Vice President Joe Biden by double digits, with Warren following behind Sanders by only a handful of percentage points. To avoid a defeat similar to his loss in 2016, Sanders will have to figure out how to broaden his appeal among Democratic voters. And to do that, he’ll have to convince more Americans not only that a political and economic revolution is necessary, but also that he’s the only candidate able to bring it about.
By the time the Democratic candidates began delivering their closing statements—roughly two and a half hours after the debate began—the crowd outside the bar had dwindled. The remaining democratic socialists were standing, trying to stretch their legs, their eyes darting back and forth between the TV and the Twitter feed on their phones. They chuckled absently at Marianne Williamson’s remarks, and when Representative John Delaney of Maryland offered his own final words, someone near me snorted and said, “Who the fuck is that?”
But then it was Sanders’s turn. The phone screens went dark, and all eyes were fixed on the face of the frowning, tufty-haired septuagenarian. Someone started pounding the bar preemptively. “We need a mass political movement,” Sanders said, looking into the camera. “Please go to berniesanders.com. Become one of our million volunteers. Stand up and take on the greed and corruption of the ruling class of this country. Let’s create a government and an economy that works for all of us, not just the 1 percent.”
The democratic socialists at the bar cackled and cheered at the call to action. It’s exactly what they came for.