Dear Bernie Sanders supporters: Relax! If there's a "revolution," this is only the beginning

If Bernie's movement is to amount to anything, it will be because the people he inspired remain engaged beyond '16

Published March 21, 2016 2:15PM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders   (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)
Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

Last week I wrote an article with a simple message: Hillary Clinton is far less terrifying than Donald Trump. This is not a controversial claim. It's a claim Bernie himself has made over and over and over again. “On her worst day,” Bernie said at a recent debate, “Hillary Clinton will be an infinitely better candidate and president than the Republican candidate on his best day.”

My goal was not to defend Clinton's record. The first sentence contained the words: “I don't like Hillary Clinton.” And I stressed my distaste for her rather long record of capitulations and distortions. I conceded that Sanders is a superior candidate, that he's the most authentic politician I've encountered, and that he's my pick for president. I even said there's no point in denying any of this if you're a progressive: Sanders is the obvious choice.

Almost on cue, an army of pro-Bernie locusts descended, pillorying me with counterpoints to arguments I never made. I was told, repeatedly, how wrong it is to tell Sanders supporters to give up, to surrender their primary votes to Clinton. As happens too often, these readers failed to advance past the headline. I wrote: “Primary voters should still express their will and vote for Bernie so long as they can, and Sanders should campaign until the convention.” I'm not sure that could be any clearer.

Progressives are passionate about Bernie, as they should be. I've written more than a dozen articles defending that passion (here and here and here and here and here and here, for example). I even challenged the myth that Bernie couldn't win back in October, when it was clear that he could. I've also spent an equal amount of time attacking Clinton's neoconservatism and her aggressively corporatist policies (here and here and here and here).

Many people felt it was wrong to declare the race effectively over. I understand this complaint as much as any, but the fact remains: It's extremely unlikely that Bernie can win at this point. It's about math and delegates – that's it. The confidence-inspiring comparisons between Sanders and Obama's 2008 campaign don't survive scrutiny either. Nate Silver explains:

“I spent a lot of time in 2008 arguing that Obama's lead in elected delegates would be hard for Clinton to overcome. But Clinton's lead over Sanders is much larger than Obama's was over Clinton at a comparable stage of the race. At the end of February 2008, after a favorable run of states for Obama, he led by Clinton by approximately 100 elected delegates. Clinton's lead is much larger this year...something like 325 elected delegates.”

Because the Democrats award delegates proportionally, Sanders would have to win by an average of 16 points in every remaining state – and that doesn't include Clinton's massive lead in superdelegates. There is absolutely no reason to suppose that will happen. It's not impossible but certainly beyond improbable. It's true that Sanders is poised to win more primaries, especially out West, but Clinton's lead is near-insurmountable. As a Sanders supporter, I wish it were otherwise. Every state should have its say, and the more Bernie votes the better, but the writing's on the wall.

Another common objection had to do with timing. Why say this now, even if it's true? Here's why: A new poll found that 33 percent of Sanders supporters said they wouldn't support Clinton in a hypothetical match-up against Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. That number will surely shrink by November, but it's alarming nonetheless. No serious liberal who cares about the issues can in good conscience support Trump or Cruz over Clinton.

Trump is a hate-baiting ethno-nationalist and Ted Cruz is a committed theocrat, a man with a Harvard education and a Bronze Age vision. Clinton is intensely flawed, but you're blinkered if you can't acknowledge that she's preferable to these people. And merely admitting this in no way prevents voters from supporting Sanders right up until the convention. This notion that pointing out the daunting delegate math somehow discourages people from voting for Sanders is absurd. If there's any truth to it, those people were likely to stay home anyway. (The numbers aren't secret, after all). The reality of our bloated process is that some states will vote after the race has been mathematically decided - we're not there yet, but we will be soon. No one should pivot from Bernie to Hillary until the general election, but facing these facts now isn't an act of treachery - it's stating the obvious.

There isn't a single thing about which progressives care that Trump or Cruz will advance – not one. Republicans deny climate change; they dismiss income inequalities; they believe women should be chained to their reproductive cycle; they're threatening to tilt the balance of an already extremist Supreme Court; they say almost nothing (with exception of Rand Paul) about our racist criminal justice system; and every one of them wants to repeal ObamaCare. Even if she's wrong about everything else, Hillary Clinton is on the right side of these issues.

Readers reminded me that polls show Bernie beating Trump and Cruz in a general election, or that Hillary isn't reliably liberal. I agree, and I'll continue to make that case publicly. If Bernie's on the ballot in November, I'm voting for him, and I hope others do too. But if he isn't, I'm choosing Clinton over any conceivable Republican candidate. And that's the whole point. If you're a progressive casting your vote for Clinton in November, it's because Sanders already lost and thus the only relevant comparison at that point is with Trump or Cruz or whoever the Republicans nominate.

If Bernie loses the nomination, he'll stand on that convention stage and say what he already has: vote for Clinton! All the cocksure rage of his supporters won't accomplish anything useful in November if he's no longer running. And writing his name on the ballot when he's not eligible is a perfectly meaningless gesture. You're not "sending a message" to the system - no one will hear you and nothing will change. We will have the choice that we have. I've heard many people say they can't bring themselves to vote for Clinton, that they'd rather Trump win. Ok, fine. But of all the messages I received, not a single one addressed my original point about the 2000 election. Ralph Nader's presence in that race cost Gore the election – that's how close it was.

Gore was a weak candidate, but is there any doubt our world looks different and better right now had that election gone the other way? I don't think so. How many Americans would still be alive? How many Iraqis? Would ISIS exist? How many trillions of dollars might we have spent on our decaying infrastructure? What could we have done to address climate change? The purists cast their vote for Nader, and while I understand why, we're still left with the consequences. I'd argue Clinton is a less appealing candidate than Gore was, but I'm not blind to the price of allowing Trump or Cruz anywhere near the oval office.

There's no way around this conclusion: any liberal or progressive who stays home in November out of righteous indignation will be doing the work of the Republican Party. National elections are so close, the country so polarized, that a few thousand votes here or there might make a difference. This is particularly true of swing states. My only point was to consider that before following through on the “Bernie or bust” pledge.

There's the world we want and the world we have. Change is possible, and a better order can be brought into being. But it's not defeatist to bow to reality. If Bernie doesn't win, a choice will have to be made. Not choosing is itself a choice. Bernie's revolution, such as it is, was not set to climax in November. Even if he won, he would face the same constraints Obama has the last eight years. Without majorities in Congress, much of what Sanders hopes to accomplish would not happen – our system of checks and balances guarantees it.

Which is why Sanders says constantly that his revolution isn't about him and that it doesn't turn on this election. If his movement is to amount to anything, it will be because the people he inspired remain engaged beyond 2016. Real change will require a sustained national mobilization, a kind of counter-Tea Party movement that can alter the congressional landscape, where the GOP still has a 30-seat majority. Otherwise universal health care and a higher minimum wage and sane regulations on Wall Street will never happen.

Bernie Sanders, more than anyone else, understands this. I trust his supporters do too.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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Al Gore Bernie Sanders Democratic Party Donald Trump Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton Ted Cruz