After Bernie, now what? To mean anything, the Sanders campaign must outlast its figurehead

Sanders wins the youth—and if the Democratic Party ignores that going forward, they deserve what they'll get

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published March 16, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

 (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)
(Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

We have carved the epitaph onto the tombstone of Bernie Sanders’ improbable 2016 campaign over and over again, and every time we’ve had to paper those somber chiseled letters over with another witty telegram from Mark Twain: Reports of my death have been exaggerated. But as absolutely everyone with a liberal arts education has already pointed out, on the ides of March we have finally reached a parting of the ways. After four defeats and a tie, at best in the big states of Super Tuesday III, Sanders’ path to the nomination — to use the execrable phrase of political journalism — is now a strand of gossamer spider web floating on the breeze.

There may be valid strategic and political reasons for Sanders to fight on into the spring, and there are states ahead that he might yet win: Wisconsin, Oregon, Maryland, maybe California. But as I have argued in previous misbegotten campaign obituaries, sooner or later the Bernie Sanders movement has to get over Bernie Sanders, at least as a plausible candidate for the Democratic nomination. That leaves us with two questions: Where do Bernie’s voters go in 2016, and what happens to all that unexpected energy he released?

That first question, I have to say, is not nearly as interesting nor as significant as it seems, although Hillary Clinton’s campaign will feel obliged to spend the next few weeks taking it seriously. The second question will not be answerable for some time to come, and my Magic 8-ball makes ambiguous predictions. Sanders’ supporters will either vote for Clinton in the fall or stay home, despite whatever you may read on social media today. All the frenzied speculation about enraged Bernie Bros flocking to Donald Trump is worth the paper it isn’t printed on. To the extent any actual person has vowed to do that, it’s more than a little reminiscent of the PUMAs of 2008 (“party unity my ass”), a tiny handful of vociferous Hillary Clinton supporters who threatened to defect to the McCain-Palin ticket after Hillary got her lunch stolen by an unqualified and unelectable male opponent. Believe it or not, there was all kinds of speculation about a disastrous rift within the Democratic electorate; I can remember reading blog posts asserting that Barack Obama would lose 40 states and be remembered as the George McGovern of our day.

If 2016 were shaping up as a normal 21st-century election between a centrist Democrat and a “mainstream conservative” Republican — that is to say, someone far to the right of Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan on every possible issue, but who stops short of overt racism and whose real agenda is protecting the owners of investment capital — then the Sanders electorate might indeed be crucial. That is, it might be crucial in a tiny handful of swing stages where such elections are decided, including Florida, Ohio, Virginia and a couple of others. (In practice, whoever carries two of those three states is elected president.) In that scenario, Sanders voters in New York and California and Texas and Alabama matter exactly as much as all other voters do in the 40 or so states that both parties take for granted: not at all.

But this isn’t a normal election, as even the political establishment has finally noticed from its unique head-up-posterior perspective. We’re getting only half the prescribed ingredients, and the resulting concoction is unstable and unpredictable. If the centrist Democrat has emerged right on schedule, after overcoming a spirited but insufficiently organized opposition, the “mainstream conservative” is nowhere in sight. We can come up with all sorts of words to describe Donald Trump, many of them highly prejudicial, but “mainstream” and “conservative” and “Republican” simply don’t fit. By any reasonable standard, Clinton goes into a fall campaign against Trump as a heavy favorite, but what have reasonable standards done for us lately? Trump is uniquely positioned to exploit her weaknesses with younger voters and working-class whites, and fully intends to attack her record on economic policy and her BFF relationship to the financial industries from a populist, pseudo-left perspective.

Trump-Clinton is full of unknown unknowns that have the leadership castes in both parties understandably anxious. It’s only a mild exaggeration to say that Democrats are afraid their candidate might find a way to lose, while Republicans are afraid their candidate might find a way to win. It’s a multilayered crap sandwich of democratic dysfunction, served on poisonous-mushroom ciabatta. I would suggest that the secret sauce in the sandwich has less to do with actual Sanders voters switching to Trump than with a whole bunch of disgruntled, downscale independents in those middle American swing states who might conceivably have voted for Sanders in a general election, but who would vote for Trump 100 times while eating broken glass and volunteering as a waterboarding practice dummy before they’d vote for Hillary Clinton.

You are free to argue that this election will define an entire political epoch and could lead to the downfall of America and all that, but Bernie Sanders’ role in it is winding down. Of course he will endorse Clinton at some point between now and the Democratic convention, and he may make a few campus speeches on her behalf in the fall. But she’s not going to want him around as a reminder of how close the whole thing came to going south all over again, and if she loses to Trump her campaign will have to find somebody else to blame. If we look past 2016 at the potential aftereffects of the Sanders campaign, we begin to glimpse some tenuous tendrils of possibility.

Those who have argued, and still argue, that the Sanders moment was a bizarre anomaly, that the desire for “political revolution” is limited to an inbred subset of white college graduates, and that it’s time to return to “abject fealty” to the Democratic Party (as Ryan Cooper of the Week puts it, in a useful article) are delusional. The generation gap between Sanders voters and Clinton voters is much sharper and more important than the racial or gender divides that have plagued this campaign. Sanders will not win the nomination for the simple and unavoidable reason that older voters far outnumber younger ones. But he has beaten Clinton by outrageous margins among voters under 35, and has won the under-45 vote in nearly every state.

Yes, Sanders’ voters have mostly been white, partly because the campaign began in predominantly white states, and that fact created an enormous problem of perception that Clinton’s campaign successfully exploited. That’s how politics works; there was nothing unfair about it. But the Sanders electorate has become increasingly diverse as the campaign has progressed, and it appears that he carried the younger African-American and Latino vote in most of this week’s primaries. Skeptics who paint the Sanders moment as meaningless or tainted with some version of politically unacceptable privilege need to talk to the group of African-American high school students I encountered aboard a Brooklyn bus on Wednesday morning, who were eagerly arguing that if it turned out Bernie had actually won the Missouri primary, he might still have a realistic shot.

He probably didn’t and almost certainly doesn’t, but that’s not the point. In Cooper’s article, he argues that the primary defeats of Democratic prosecutors in Chicago and Cleveland, who had refused to bring charges against police officers in the killings of Laquan McDonald and Tamir Rice (respectively), provide examples of the kind of electoral change that can happen at the local level. Any connection between those results and the Sanders campaign is speculative at best — but the fact that energized, activist young people drove the Sanders campaign, the Black Lives Matter movement and the local elections in those Midwestern cities is not speculative at all. If Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party still think they can take this galvanized new generation for granted, or shine it on with bland, Bernie-lite promises, then they richly deserve to lose.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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