Bernie Lost. But His Legacy Will Only Grow

By standing against the forces that debase and devalue human life in modern America, Bernie Sanders has given millions something priceless, something that is certain to endure: hope.

Bernie Sanders waves to the crowd during a campaign rally at the University of Houston on February 23, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

A little over four weeks ago, I stood in a crowd with thousands of others at a joyful and spirited rally in Boston Common ahead of a Super Tuesday vote many of us believed would consolidate Bernie Sanders’s hold on the Democratic presidential nomination. In a matter of days, a meek and hitherto hapless corporate establishment would rally around Joe Biden and tilt enough of the contests in his favor to resurrect his campaign from the dead, triggering the series of events that would ultimately end in Sanders suspending his astonishingly promising campaign for the White House and the elevation of yet another soulless liberal to the Democratic throne.

There will be no end of postmortems of the Sanders project and where it supposedly went wrong: by being too confrontational towards the party apparatus it sought to take over; by not being confrontational enough; by premising its strategy in part on winning over traditional non-voters or by failing to assemble a broad enough coalition beyond the younger demographics it performed so well with.

In truth, the cause of its fate is probably a lot more boring and politically nebulous. In a race so unavoidably shaped by the horrors of the Trump presidency, the defining issue became the ouster of the current Republican regime and Biden, for all the wrong reasons, became the principal beneficiary. While no election is ever exclusively about policies or ideology, the bogus notion of “electability” — in practice a rigged and self-defeating game devised to get ordinary people to second-guess their own preferences — became an all-consuming preoccupation for the pundit class and for many liberal voters. More so than at any other point in its long and ignominious history, the establishment of the Democratic Party has effectively conditioned a less than negligible portion of its primary electorate to think and behave exactly like the pundits who assured us all 2016 was a lock for Hillary Clinton — and will quite possibly deliver a similar result.

Little other conclusion can really be drawn given the observable popularity of key parts of Sanders’s program and the high approval ratings he continued to command from Democratic primary voters, even as his campaign faced coverage on cable TV at times worthy of a state broadcaster in a banana republic. Even in South Carolina, the state that resurrected Biden’s flailing candidacy from the dead, a majority of voters reportedly favored a “complete overhaul” of the US economic system. Many, however, were not willing to vote for it, and as cable news and corporatist Democrats alike closed ranks around Biden they dutifully rallied behind the figure they were told was better placed to oust Donald Trump.

Another factor, difficult to quantify yet abundantly clear, is the reality that millions of liberally minded Americans simply do not believe real progress is possible. Traumatized by the state of their country, demoralized at decades of defeat and retrenchment, and conditioned by centrist Democrats to believe that the best that can be hoped for is mitigation of the worst, many who backed Sanders’s project simply did not believe enough of their fellow citizens would join them. The scourge of lowered expectations and emotionally disciplined voters was a hurdle Sanders ultimately could not surmount — and in November the Democratic Party will in all likelihood reap what it has sown.

Sanders and his movement can certainly celebrate the precedent they have set by demonstrating the viability of a campaign that rejects corporate interests and wealthy donors — effectively making clear that those who spurn their model do so out of choice rather than necessity. But their defeat raises difficult questions about left electoral strategy given the contempt and hatred they received at the hands of those controlling the Democratic Party and pulling the levers of opinion in American liberalism.

From the outset, both made abundantly clear that a Sanders victory was an outcome they would neither countenance nor allow and, faced with a youth-driven insurgency offering dynamism and grassroots energy, saw only an enemy force to be contained and crushed rather than a movement to be harnessed or reckoned with. Even Michael Bloomberg, a former Republican mayor with a record as egregious as that of almost any politician in the country would, it turned out, be preferable.

Hatred of Sanders proved so fierce in some quarters of the Democratic establishment that senior party figures, including its now-presumptive nominee, were willing to put the lives of their own voters in danger in order to shutter the race: that a handful of dangerous and increasingly illegitimate elections were what finally put Biden over the finish line was ultimately a small price to pay for stomping down any hope Sanders still had at capturing the nomination.

As in 2016, the hostage situation that invariably confronts the American left will largely define the weeks and months ahead for Sanders and his movement. With the reins of the Democratic Party now firmly in his grasp, a spluttering and morally compromised Joe Biden will be free to make a handful of symbolic concessions to progressive forces while running yet another uninspiring campaign that seeks to triangulate its way to victory. Facing a moneyed and potentially lethal Republican machine armed with greater confidence and unity than it had four years ago, the Democrats will now head into a post-pandemic election with a candidate who somehow inspires even less enthusiasm than the one who preceded him. Everything about Biden, from his penchant for flagrant dishonesty to the multiple scandals surrounding his family and the little-discussed allegation that he sexually assaulted Senate staffer Tara Reade in the 1990s, makes the prospect of even a soft coalition nauseating to contemplate.

Fortunately what comes next will encompass a whole lot more than the outcome of November’s presidential election. A pebble thrown into a river creates ripples on the surface that dissipate in only a few moments, while a boulder dropped into the water can change the current downstream even as it sinks and fades from view. Wherever Sanders goes from here, his movement will undoubtedly leave a legacy that spans far beyond the lean horizons of the present. In offering millions of people a chance to vote, finally and without reservation, for a person and a program they believed in, Sanders disrupted the odious duopoly that controls the American political system.

And, in standing openly against the forces that debase and devalue human life in modern America he gave them something infinitely more precious, that is bound to endure beyond the mourning of the coming weeks: hope.