Bernie Sanders’s Campaign Was Trying to Save American Democracy

Bernie Sanders’s campaign was caricatured as irrationally angry, even Trumpian. In reality, it gave voice to the voiceless, raised people’s sense of what’s possible through collective action, and refused to accept that exploitation and the fear of economic devastation should be the lot of millions.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds a campaign rally at the Los Angeles Convention Center on March 1, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. David McNew / Getty

Democracy means that people choose how we will live together, rather than accept the hierarchies and boundaries we are born into as fate. It means making that shared choice in a way that honors everyone’s equal value and tries to give each person equal political power. By that simple standard, the United States is not much of a democracy. In 2016 and 2020, one campaign tried to make democracy more real, and in doing so became a movement and a generational watershed for people who have come to understand how an unequal and undemocratic country is killing them and laying waste to what they love. Such a thing doesn’t end when a campaign stops, but what it becomes is uncertain.

Bernie Sanders’s departure from a Democratic primary race that is shuddering from the impact of COVID-19 marks the end, for the moment, of the greatest wave of social-democratic energy and socialist imagination in the United States for about a century. It comes, too, just as events are once again vindicating his calls for universal health care, economic security, and worker power, as a pandemic tears through the communities of the most vulnerable, precarious, and powerless Americans.

It was astonishing to hear the Sanders campaign described, as it routinely was in the mainstream press, as angry, bellicose, even a Trumpism for the Left. To be anywhere near the campaign — to know any of the people going door to door and making regular small donations — was to understand that it was idealistic in spirit, hopeful in tone, generous in its sense of possibility. It modeled what you might call patriotism for adults, disillusioned patriotism without exceptionalist bullshit.

Sanders talked about the United States as a normal country with terrible problems, where people exploit one another, fear of poverty and illness stalk seemingly stable lives, and mass incarceration undercuts freedom and democracy. But his campaign made sense only if you also believed that the United States remained a place decent in possibility, not because of some providential promise, not because of the Declaration of Independence or Abraham Lincoln, but because democratic majorities have the power to change their shared lives. It is hard to imagine an attitude more patriotic (as distinct from nationalist) than believing that your fellow citizens can hear the truth about their country and then vote for fundamental change.

There was anger, but it was most often the anger of people who have realized that their medical bankruptcy, their workplace abuse, their uninsured illness, didn’t have to be that way. It was the anger that comes when shame turns to determination and solidarity, as happened again and again when Sanders opened his rallies to unscripted, unplanned testimony from people who narrated their suffering.

There was “us-versus-them” politics, but one of the lessons of Sanders’s campaign is that politics does not begin in consensus-seeking. It begins in determining where you want a common life to go, which implies knowing who is standing in the way. Denunciations of “the billionaire class” and “a racist criminal justice system” are not mellifluous, but democracy and justice don’t start in pretending that everything is fine and we are all on board. Criticizing the Sanders campaign for being intemperate evinced at best a naivete about politics, at worst a kind of class bias that prizes soft-toned niceness over the often-invisible lives that this country desolates.

At the heart of the new socialism is a keen awareness of the distance between how life is in the United States and how it could be — not in a techno-utopian future, but right now — and a conviction that the purpose of politics is to close that gap. That is what “political revolution” meant. Polling showed solid majorities, and especially substantial Democratic and youth majorities, liked the world that the Sanders campaign conjured: health care for all, a tax on great fortunes, more economic security, more public goods, green infrastructure and a path to a livable planet.

Not everyone wanted this future, of course, even among Democrats, but what stopped Sanders from taking control of the party was voters’ doubt that American democracy could build a bridge to a better world. For decades, the Right has attacked and denuded the state, while liberals have fought for half-measures, accepting the premises and quarreling over specific applications and results. Pundits and party leaders identify political wisdom as world-weary acceptance that you don’t hope for too much, that politics is all small increments and ideological compromise.

It is hard to ask people to vault over everything they’ve been told stands between them and the life they would like to believe is possible. It is especially hard when Donald Trump’s destructive presidency has made #Resistance, rather than transformation, the essentially defensive posture of the American center and center-left. We all know something about what bad political change looks like. Few of us have much experience of the good kind.

Considering all this, the achievements of the Sanders campaign are astonishing. In a country where socialism was recently supposed to be impossible, in an era when it was supposed to be dead, Bernie convinced large majorities of young and Latino voters to get behind his vision. He won the California primary, dominated the Nevada caucuses, and nearly prevailed in Texas. These victories are where the future of American politics is taking shape. The policy substance of the primary campaign was a long commentary on the Sanders platform. Nominally, even Joe Biden is running to the left of the last twelve years of Obama-Clinton candidacies.

Will the movement go on after the campaign ends, as Bernie promised in his speech conceding the race? There are good augurs. His bid, contrary to uncomprehending criticism, was never a cult of personality. The iconography was fun, and it was moving to work for a person of decency and integrity, but from the beginning the campaign was bigger than Bernie. That was always part of his point. And the campaign produced its own climate of opinion, a self-identified democratic-socialist or social-democratic camp — even a generation — that future candidates can’t ignore. In light of all this, the easy thing to say is that it’s up to us, the demos of the political revolution. And there’s a lot to that.

But, notoriously, we don’t get to choose the conditions in which we make history. Plenty of Democrats would gladly bury the Sanders legacy as a bad dream, a brief internet fad in a populist decade. Plenty of nationalist looters of the Trump variety will take the social-democratic insight that the state shapes the economy for human ends, but toss aside the solidarity and egalitarianism, offering ethno-national insiders some security in return for a free hand with government contracts and other handouts for the right kinds of rich people. Other than the questionable Democratic Party, the Left lacks a movement-building, spirit-sustaining, power-accumulating institutional home, which is part of why so much energy has gone into the essential but limited vehicle of campaigns. Movements can dissipate quickly, especially homeless ones in moments of crisis and distraction. If timing and events had been just a little different, Sanders might have gathered a decent and bold approach to COVID-19 around his campaign. Instead, the fight is to save it from disintegrating in the fear and exhaustion of pandemic.

But take a moment here. Something has happened that was as gorgeous and amazing as it was rough-hewn, improvisational, and strange. We found a way to call the world to account. We imagined a country where no one is a paycheck away from hunger, no one is disenfranchised, and education and health care are free and open to all — a county where lives are shaped less by fear and unequal power, and there is room to see what comes in when those recede. We remembered that only solidarity and power can make this change.

Many people who would have found these sentences mysterious at the start of 2016 now know just what they mean. We — all of us — are too good for how we live together, and it is in us, and on us, to build ways to live differently. It is not mysterious, only hard, but it is too important to surrender. Concession, yes, but no surrender. And, to one another and to Senator Bernard Sanders, a world of gratitude.