Sen. Bernie Sanders tried to take down centrist libs. Instead, he ended up unfairly attacking a left-leaning Cherokee writer and further diminishing the ramifications of Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test.
On Sunday, Sanders released a letter criticizing the Center for American Progress for undermining the efforts of progressive 2020 candidates running in the Democratic Party primary. The letter, which is just over a page in length, can be read in full here.
The feud was more a continuation of an old beef than anything new. CAP is an establishment Democratic think tank founded by John Podesta, the former chief of staff for Bill Clinton and the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign; ThinkProgress is a media outlet owned by CAP. As editor in chief Jodi Enda’s told the New York Times, the site’s editorial content is crafted and published independently of CAP.
Despite this, in the third and longest paragraph of his letter, Sanders honed in on a pair of columns written for the site by Rebecca Nagle, a member of the Cherokee Nation and an op-ed writer on Indigenous, specifically Cherokee, issues:
Sadly, I’m not the only candidate in the 2020 field who has experience personal attacks from your institution. My friend and colleague Elizabeth Warren was unfairly targeted by a November 2017 article on ThinkProgress that echoed Donald Trump’s bad faith claims that she was being a hypocrite about her ancestry. That attack that was linked on the Drudge Report and immediately immersed her into a rather unhelpful debate. Again in October 2018, you published an article stating that she was hurting Native American people.
Nagle initially responded to Sanders’ letter with a thread on Twitter on Sunday. Although Sanders categorized her writing as a weapon deployed by the Democratic establishment, that assessment falls apart under even the slightest scrutiny. When Nagle spoke with me today, she said she voted for Sanders in 2016 and supports the majority of his policies. But she also said his active downplaying of the DNA test mirrors the rhetoric she’s faced from Warren supporters—and the Democratic establishment that she’s purportedly a part of.
While Nagle said she was disappointed when she read the letter, she wasn’t necessarily surprised.
“I have been called and accused of basically everything by people who support Warren,” she told Splinter. “People have said I’m just a tool of Trump, that I’m just part of the right wing, a Republican. I’ve had people call me a Russian bot or Russian troll. So, to be placed, without being named, and have it suggested that I’m part of the Democratic establishment that’s trying to take down progressive candidates, I mean, I’m none of those things.”
Nagle, a freelance journalist and Cherokee language teacher, is not, nor has she ever been, a ThinkProgress employee. Her work on a variety of Indian Country topics has been widely published in the Washington Post and USA Today, among others, in addition to appearances on CNN and other major networks. (Nagle was also among the Indigenous writers interviewed by Splinter for a recent feature on coverage of Native issues by non-Native mainstream outlets.)
“Both of the columns I wrote for [ThinkProgress] about Warren, I pitched to them,” Nagle said. “They were my idea and I wrote them independently. So it just felt really weird to see that work put into this context of an organization that I’m not a part of, really, trying to have this larger smear campaign against progressive candidates.... It just isn’t what happened.”
Nagle said she has not heard from Sanders’ office about her columns being singled out in the letter, even after her Twitter thread went viral. The Sanders campaign’s national press secretary did not respond to Splinter’s requests for comment.
To state the obvious, ThinkProgress is not exactly the pinnacle of journalism or progressivism. (In fairness, neither is Splinter, or any other outlet, really.) Their founding editor in chief Judd Legum, who left the site first to work for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and then again in 2018 to write newsletters, has displayed a similarity to Sanders in his inability to grasp why some Native Americans still care about Warren’s DNA test.
Yet Sanders’ decision to single out Nagle’s work by providing the sole context of it being linked by the Drudge Report and claiming she’s in line with President Donald Trump—and to also accuse her of “unfairly” targeting Warren and pushing the Massachusetts senator into an “unhelpful debate”—not only abdicates Warren of taking responsibility for her actions, but contributes to the ongoing dilution of the Native-led critique of Warren’s actions by those in the Democratic Party. Additionally, it suggests Nagle was not acting of her own accord, which she refuted by publicly posting the emails showing her pitching the columns to ThinkProgress.
The first column in question was a fairly measured take following Trump’s decision to refer to Warren as “Pocahontas” in the middle of a White House ceremony purportedly meant to honor a group of Navajo code-talkers from World War II. Specifically, Nagle criticized Warren’s claims of Cherokee heritage for creating more fodder for Trump and ultimately leading to racist statements and actions faced by those that are actually members of tribal nations. The second column was among the dozens published by Native writers and journalists, including myself, that critiqued Warren’s decision to seek and then highly publicize her DNA test last October.
“Maybe instead of there being some kind of conspiracy theory for which there’s no evidence, maybe I’m just a Cherokee person who has a reason to be angry and was given a platform to express that,” Nagle said. “I’m just still so baffled by the content of the letter and the way my writing was included in it. But to me, it feels like the same erasure tactics that were used in the Huffington Post article that people on the left are trying to employ to make the issue go away.”