The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion No one has to be the liar

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), right, talk Tuesday after a Democratic presidential primary debate in Des Moines as businessman Tom Steyer looks on. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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“Is it truth, or is it lies?”

This is the question a friend’s grandmother asked him when she received a free copy of a left-leaning magazine in the mail. The question seemed appropriate; she’s a midcentury immigrant from Lithuania, and this sort of binary epistemology screams USSR.

The imbroglio that consumes the political left today suggests it may scream America, too.

What started as a squabble over a he-said/she-said, or at least a he-said he-didn’t-say, has turned into a full-on feud complete with a rebuffed handshake and endless snake emojis. CNN reported that sources said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had told Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that a woman couldn’t win the White House in 2020. Later, she confirmed the tale: “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.”

Is it truth, or is it lies?

“It is a lie,” said Faiz Shakir, who manages Sanders’s campaign.

CNN’s Abby Phillip, one of the moderators for Tuesday night’s debate, pronounced it truth. Phillip asked Sanders why he said what he says he didn’t say, and he said, again, that he didn’t say it.

Phillip turned to Warren: “What did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”

The question was answered before it was asked. But it also wasn’t the right question.

Of course, parity would have demanded Phillip ask Warren the same thing she had asked Sanders. But forget fairness for fairness’s sake, and try the pursuit of truth instead. Don’t ask the candidates whether Sanders said a woman couldn’t win the election — just ask them about what Sanders said.

That simple, premise-less query would open up a realm of very useful complexity. After all, Sanders has already hinted at it in his comments to CNN: “What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could.”

Maybe Warren would say Sanders said, literally, “Elizabeth, a woman cannot win the election.” Or maybe she would say Sanders said more or less what he claims, and that to her it was shorthand for what she has accused him of. That argument goes like this: Presenting the president’s misogyny (or the country’s) as a barrier for a female hopeful only makes that barrier bigger, because it boxes out women even more by suggesting to voters that they’re a lost cause.

Maybe Sanders, then, would have a chance to explain what he meant.

Because life is not always a choice between truth or lies, and the Democratic electorate doesn’t have to choose between a truth-teller and a liar. Yet we seem intent on cutting off our noses.

“I think you called me a liar on national TV,” Warren said to Sanders onstage after the debate, twice, in audio that a drama-mining CNN released.

“You called me a liar,” Sanders replied, before drawing back.

“Believe women,” the white knights for Warren say sagely, without a scintilla of self-awareness. They’re repurposing the popular “believe women” refrain from the movement against sexual assault, already too-often warped into “believe all women.”

With only three weeks to the Iowa caucus, a feud between long-time progressive allies changed the tone of the race. (Video: The Washington Post)

The problem here isn’t only that language employed against rape and harassment is getting hijacked for political point-scoring. The problem is that the binary is back. By all means, extend the benefit of the doubt to a demographic that has historically been doubted — but that’s far from the same thing as imposing an unbreakable rule that literally everything literally every woman says is gospel.

Sanders’s backers, on the other hand, are turning Taylor Swift on their now-enemy and calling her a serpent whose duplicity has lost her their votes. Or are they? The #NeverWarren hashtag that topped the Twitter trends Wednesday morning was surely spurred on by some red-rose-adorned Sanders devotees. But it also looks like the platform’s algorithm was picking up on tweets decrying the tag, and pumping the gas. This way, a could-have-been blip on the primary radar ballooned into a controversy dirigible welcome to anyone who wants to watch the left implode.

Now voters sympathetic to Sanders aren’t allowed only simply to have soured on Warren. They have to loathe her. And voters sympathetic to Warren are supposed to loathe Sanders, too, for unleashing an army of angry, mostly male fanatics on anyone who dare praise the woman who’s his rival (this thing started with sexism, after all).

President Trump is probably thrilled. Vladimir Putin is probably pretty happy, too — because the is-it-truth-or-is-it-lies frame is the gateway drug to seeing a gray world in either black or white. It eliminates all nuance, which is convenient for despots. That’s their script: Appoint themselves the arbiters of truth, and define truth as whatever it is they’re saying today — with no alternative but lying, and therefore no room for doubting anything if you’re unwilling to doubt everything.

Lies exist, obviously, and this president is fond of telling them. But so does word-twisting, and so does reading too much into something, and so does misunderstanding. Your average conversation, not only in politics but also in plain old life, probably contains about 10 different versions of truth, some more truth-y and some more lies-y and some smack in the middle. We’re not even always in control of the version we choose to tell ourselves, or to tell anyone else. But we are in control of whether we’re willing to admit that.

Read more:

Henry Olsen: Elizabeth Warren might regret her feud with Bernie Sanders

Ruth Marcus: Sanders vs. Warren shows the difference between identifying sexism and giving in to it

Jennifer Rubin: The debate might get a bit awkward for Sanders and Warren

Paul Waldman: Here’s what really matters about the Warren-Sanders feud

Erik Wemple: CNN’s Abby Phillip to Bernie Sanders: We don’t believe you