For many young people across this country, their enthusiastic support for Bernie Sanders was their first moment of political consciousness. His campaign inspired an awakening for a new left-wing movement and a reckoning with the corporate-friendly consensus that dominated both the Democratic and Republican parties. Keep that same energy! Your country, your future, your children, and the world depends on it.
This new generation of activists now confronts a post-Sanders reckoning: what is the best path forward? What do we do now? Indeed, the days since Sanders announced the suspension of his campaign have ignited an intense debate between two factions of this burgeoning movement: those who believe that we can most quickly attain power by working within the Democratic Party’s power structure, and those who believe that the only way to continue this movement is by working outside of the existing duopoly of American politics. These questions will not be resolved in the course of a single opinion piece. I am nowhere near arrogant enough to believe that I have all of the answers right now. Regardless of whatever the correct answer might be, one thing remains abundantly clear: anyone who thinks that the Sanders campaign is the apex of left-wing politics for this generation is sorely mistaken. This is only the beginning of something greater.
The purpose of this piece is to focus on the areas of inspiration that Bernie Sanders provided to his supporters: lessons that we can take from his campaign moving forward.
“Morally and Ideologically Bankrupt”: Deconstructing the Democratic Elite’s Ivory Tower Approach to Politics
The most substantive difference between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden goes beyond debates on economic policy. As Van Jones so eloquently articulated (on CNN, of all places): Biden believes that Donald Trump is a temporary disruption of the status quo and that Americans desire a “return to normalcy,” while Sanders believes that Donald Trump is an indictment of the status quo’s catastrophic failure and that we cannot simply “go back.”
Let me be perfectly clear: Bernie Sanders is right, and this failure to understand the root causes of Trump’s 2016 victory will plague the Democratic Party for years to come. A belief that Donald Trump is so abhorrent, so reprehensible that he must be an aberration is one of the most privileged ideas I’ve ever heard. The scariest thing about Donald Trump is that he does reflect our country’s values. Xenophobia, racism, sexism, and greed. He is an embodiment of what our society has become; this is the deep, dark truth that nobody in the Democratic Party, with their rose-colored glasses, wants to acknowledge. But in order to change reality, we must first accept it.
Even if Biden’s uninspiring campaign somehow limps him into the White House in 2021; it will only serve, at best, as a temporary respite for progressive causes. The right-wing populist fervor will not magically disappear with the defeat of Donald Trump. If you truly care about the future of progressivism, you must open your eyes to the fact that blindly “electing Democrats” is not the end-all-be-all solution to the substantive issues that Americans confront on a daily basis. That’s the exact type of thinking, unfiltered partisanship, that delivered us to this mess in the first place. Am I still a Democrat? Of course! But we must teach the Democratic Party that they cannot take progressives for granted. They are not entitled to our votes. That support is something that must be earned, and getting the party’s leaders to acknowledge that requires sustained pressure.
Believe me, I used to be one of those people: a fanboy rooting for what amounted to a sports team. It didn’t matter who they were or what they stood for, I supported whoever “ran as a Democrat” unquestionably. They were on “my team.” Bernie Sanders showed me that this version of politics is morally and ideologically bankrupt. This “ivory tower” approach cheapens the struggles of the people that we are supposedly advocating for. It turns the working class and marginalized communities into nothing more than political props; their struggles are reduced to talking points and deployed to win electoral campaigns, and then ignored as the electoral cycle repeats itself every two years. We can’t catch a break. But I will always be grateful for the influence that Sen. Sanders had on me: his campaign forced me to start critically analyzing the state of the political discourse that surrounds us. He shattered that elitist idea of “red team vs. blue team” for me, because he asked me to envision a world in which politicians responded to the needs of the people that they serve. It sounds so simple, yet it remains so elusive. One can only hope that the Democratic Party takes these same lessons to heart.
“You don’t get enough credit, Bernie, for being the voice that forces us to take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we’ve done enough.” — Joe Biden
The national Democratic Party needs to embrace a platform more substantive than “Republicans are bad” and “look at how ‘woke’ we are (now)!” Don’t get me wrong: progressive stances on social issues like LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and racial equality are incredibly important. But in order to succeed, the Democratic Party needs to fuse the energy of civil rights activism with a substantive economic platform that addresses the needs of the working class. This is what it will take to build a political movement that is truly inclusive. After years of capitulating to the Republican Party in the name of “consensus-building,” nothing remained of the progressive economic platform championed by iconic leaders like FDR.
Unless the Democratic Party can correct this, those victories on social policy will be imperiled by continued conservative dominance of the judicial branch at every level. Because that is how our country works. Conservative “social justice warriors” (like Mitch McConnell) use right-wing economic populism as a vehicle to ensure their control over the constitution of this country. As long as the right-wing holds a monopoly on populism, the vile, naked demagoguery embraced by Donald Trump will persist for years to come. It is imperative that the Democratic Party provide real solutions for the issues of working class voters.
“Practice What you Preach”: Campaign Finance Reform
Former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill (who now enjoys a lucrative contract as a political analyst with daily MSNBC television appearances) made the case that the Democratic Party will be relying on Sanders to show them a path forward on campaign finance. Because apparently they can’t figure it out on their own. In her estimation, Sanders can help break the influence of corporate donors by teaching the Democratic Party how to transition to grassroots-only fundraising. Sure, that sounds great on the surface. But McCaskill’s commentary highlights the Democratic Party’s fundamental inability to understand Sanders’s base of political support and learn organically from the successes of his movement.
These members of the Democratic Party elite only see the superficial parts of Bernie’s campaign: the massive crowds, the “yuuuge” fundraising hauls. Of course, they want that too! Who wouldn’t? But it was never about the personal popularity of Bernie Sanders. Sure, we liked Bernie. But we liked his platform and his principled approach to politics even more. For some, Bernie’s embrace of the political establishment will only push them further away from supporting the Democratic Party. This is in part because of a lack of trust, which the campaign finance issue perfectly encapsulates. The establishment wants to have their cake and eat it too: they want to leech off of his superstardom without putting in the work to replicate it or understanding the real source of Bernie’s popularity. Their cries of “teach us how to get money, Bernie” should be ignored, because it would be an exercise in futility unless the party is willing to adopt the Sanders campaign’s policy platform.
If the Democratic Party wants to transition to grassroots-only fundraising, then do it on a mass scale! Commit to it, and then I’m certain that Bernie and his supporters would be happy to assist in that effort. But the effort comes first. The thing about Bernie is that he practiced what he preached. It’s that simple. None of this half-baked “I like the idea on paper but we can’t unilaterally disarm or else the Republicans will slaughter us” crap that Elizabeth Warren was pushing in the dying days of her campaign. Bernie not only outspokenly advocated for campaign finance reform, he showed us a new way to do campaign finance in the era of Citizens United and proved the viability of grassroots fundraising on a national scale. He raised more money than any other candidate in history. In the fourth quarter of 2019, Sanders raised a staggering $34.5M with an average donation of $18.
“Don’t Accept the Boundaries of the Status Quo”: Transforming the Politics of Health Care
The signature political achievement of the Democratic Party in my lifetime is the passage of the Affordable Care Act. While it is true that this legislation helped expand access to health care coverage to millions of people, and that is undeniably a good thing, it is important to understand the history of the Democratic Party’s position on health care reform and how we arrived at a “reform” that essentially solidified the for-profit insurance industry. The a policy plan that became known as “Obamacare” was basically plagiarized from the state-level reforms passed by Massachusetts Republican Governor Mitt Romney. The “Romneycare” initiative was based on ideas that the Republican Party put out in response to an early-1990’s push for single-payer health care.
Democrats bent over backwards to get Republicans to support health care reform under Barack Obama. Not a single one of them voted for it. Republicans voted against what was basically the same plan they proposed in the 1990’s. Democrats spent untold hours of airtime and inches of column space bashing Republicans for not supporting their own plan. It was a political “gotcha” moment. However, those talking points papered over an inconvenient truth: over the span of 20 years Democrats went from pushing the boundaries of American politics by debating single-payer health care, the same policy issue that they now lambast Bernie Sanders and supporters for, to fighting tooth and nail to pass what was basically the Republican Party’s health care plan. This is an abject failure of political leadership.
Democrats took the wrong lessons from their experience with health care reform in the 1990’s. Instead of a tactical retreat, the party entered into a full-throated embrace of the conservative agenda. Scared off by the Republican wave in 1994, Clinton immediately pivoted to a strategy of triangulation and oversaw the dismantling of the social welfare state that progressives had fought for since the days of FDR. Conservative “means testing” became the standard for all welfare policy. The country’s rightward shift, which began under Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s, was solidified by Bill Clinton.
What Bernie Sanders taught us is that we should not accept the “boundaries” of American politics as a set-in-stone playing field. Sanders is living proof of the Overton Window theory; the idea that political inertia in one concerted direction can shift the boundaries of “acceptable ideas” within a public discourse. But he also proved that the Democratic Party miscalculated the policy preferences of its voters. For many years, progressives have supported shifting to a single-payer health care system. Even in states that voted for Joe Biden, exit polls showed strong popular support within the party for a “Medicare for All” health care system. It’s possible that none of this would have become apparent if some gadfly Senator from Vermont hadn’t run for President, against all odds and against the much-ballyhooed Clinton political machine, with this policy as a central pillar of his campaign platform.
We shouldn’t be afraid to push the boundaries of possibility. If our political ideologies are defined purely by “what is practical,” we will never be able to convince the broader public to embrace ideas that hadn’t previously been given merit or consideration. The problem is that the Democratic Party doesn’t respond to the current of public opinion, they only know how to react to the Republican Party’s policy positions. If we are to make progress in enacting our policy preferences, this reality cannot persist.
“A Diverse, Multi-Generational Coalition”
In his campaign remarks, Sanders frequently lauded what he described as a “broad-based, multi-generational, multiracial coalition.” Although continuous attempts by the media and party establishment effectively white-washed Bernie’s movement, his campaign did make significant inroads with the Latino population. The best evidence of this was his performance in the Nevada caucus, which shattered the notion that Bernie Sanders was only a candidate for “very online” white males. Bernie’s advisor, Chuck Rocha, explained his campaign’s success as the result of culturally competent outreach that invited local Latino organizations and groups into the process. His campaign embraced a familial and community-based approach to voter engagement: inviting local mariachi bands to perform at campaign events, mobilizing organizations that already have local connections to Latino voters to engage in the political process on behalf of Sen. Bernie Sanders. In order to forge a new path to victory in the electoral college, the Democratic Party must correctly identify the communities in which it has potential for sustained growth and focus on mobilizing those voters.
The #NeverTrump Republicans are not our allies; they are only temporary “frenemies.” Does anyone honestly believe that the likes of Rick Wilson have truly seen the light and will change their stripes after a lifetime of supporting the systemic destruction of progressive causes? As soon as Biden wins, they will go back to bitterly fighting the Democratic Party at every fork in the road. These opportunists are using progressive voters as a means to achieve their own political goals. Nothing more. They do not support us, they do not support our values.
I worry that the Democratic Party takes its base of supporters, and its opportunity to grow that base of supporters, for granted in pursuit of the “white moderate” voter. The Frank Luntzes, Rick Wilsons, and Nicole Wallaces of the world are leading us down a false path. If everything goes according to their desires, those suburban white voters will eventually return to the Republican Party after the defeat of Donald Trump. That is not a sustainable trajectory for the advancement of progressive values.
The truth is that “centrists,” as idealized by the political elite and the mainstream media, are a rare breed. There just aren’t that many people who look at the political discourse and say: “Democrats have this position, Republicans have this position, so let’s find the perfect middle between those two positions and whoever endorses that middle point is the candidate that I’ll support.” It is a combination of views on multiple issues, where positions range from left-to-right on an issue-by-issue basis, that makes someone a self-identified “centrist.” Moderate voters support various ideas from both parties; it’s a mix-and-match approach, not a “perfect middle” approach.
The key for growth, then, is not in appealing to the “perfect middle.” We must make compelling arguments for our policy positions and convince moderates to adopt those positions as part of their grab bag of political opinions. Unless there is a concerted effort to advocate for those policy preferences, the center of our political discourse will never shift in our direction. This approach is something that Republicans have masterfully executed over the course of decades. They have shifted the Overton Window to right through a sustained effort. That is why policy positions that were previously seen as “too far right,” such as the Trump administration’s stance on immigration, are now normalized as part of the broader collection of political opinions.
With the country growing evermore diverse, with the U.S. Census Bureau projecting that America will become a majority-minority nation by 2050, a limited effort to appeal to white moderates who are disaffected by Trump is simply not a long-term sustainable strategy or electoral coalition. Are these voters useful in this particular moment with the single-minded goal of removing Donald Trump from office? Absolutely. But they are not the party’s future. Look at the election returns from this primary; voters under 40 supported Bernie Sanders overwhelmingly. This is true for young African Americans, young Latinos, and voters across every demographic. Young people are the future of the Democratic Party. A failure to acknowledge that will doom the party to another generation of failure. Historically, voters 40+ in the general election support Republican candidates. What is the party’s long-term strategy to engage younger voters and transition into a political future where progressive policy priorities are at the “center” of America’s discourse? The temptation of the “white moderate” must be resisted.
Bernie Sanders made many contributions towards advancing the viability and political power of progressive causes throughout his two campaigns for the presidency. Those accomplishments should not be readily dismissed, regardless of the fact that his two campaigns fell short of executing a full “political coup” of the Democratic Party.
When it comes to the question of a “progressive insurgency” of the Democratic Party vs. an outsiders’ campaign to change politics, both approaches can be equally viable. In fact, they can be executed simultaneously and symbiotically. The idea that our movement should be divided by this imaginary fault line is farcical. However, the biggest indicator in the coming months will be whether or not the Democratic Party’s power structure makes a good faith effort to engage with politically active individuals who are critical of their past performance. That criticism is valuable; if the Democratic Party sends the message that it can take Sanders’s supporters for granted, they will inevitably fail in their efforts to win over those voters to their cause.
The idea that all things must take a back seat to the defeat of Donald Trump, and that we can simply wait until Biden assumes power and then hold him accountable, is patently ridiculous. A shallow and hollow effort that calls voters to action based solely on “orange man bad” will inevitably fail; if not in November 2020, then in November 2022 and 2024. We have the opportunity to unite the Democratic Party with a transcendent political movement, to defeat Donald Trump while simultaneously acknowledging that a “return to normalcy” is an inadequate response to the pressing issues of our time. For the sake of our country, our futures, our children, and the world around us — please, do not take that opportunity for granted.