Bernie Sanders has changed America — but how? We don't know that part yet

Bernie Sanders was never going to be president. But he seized an opportunity for change that no one else even saw

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 8, 2020 5:28PM (EDT)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at a campaign rally at the University of Minnesotas Williams Arena on November, 3, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Over 10,000 people attended the rally, where Sanders was joined by Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar. (Scott Heins/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at a campaign rally at the University of Minnesotas Williams Arena on November, 3, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Over 10,000 people attended the rally, where Sanders was joined by Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar. (Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders did everything he could. I think it's important to acknowledge that, amid all the what-ifs and second-guessing and armchair strategic critiques, amid all the lamenting and gloating and conspiracy theory and calls for unity

As a person, a candidate and a leader, Sanders gave it his all across two passionate presidential campaigns that shifted American politics notably leftward — maybe by a lot, maybe just a little — and whose repercussions will be felt for years or decades. If we can lift our eyes from the trauma of this quarantine moment and survey the horizon fore and aft, we might notice that it's flat-out amazing he ever made it this far. 

When Sanders launched his first campaign in 2015, he was pretty close to a joke candidate: The septuagenarian Jewish socialist from Brooklyn, a senator from one of the smallest, weirdest states in the nation, was going to take on the former secretary of state and first lady, who had virtually the entire Democratic Party apparatus behind her. Good luck, ha ha. When he decided to run again in 2019, he was almost universally described — by the same pundit class that misjudged him the first time around — as an afterthought or throwback, whose message and mojo had been repackaged in more appealing form by Beto O'Rourke or Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren or whoever else was flavor of the week that week. 

The pundits were wrong about Bernie Sanders, and then they were right. Both things are true. Because if Sanders gave his all and galvanized an entire generation and forged a political movement of extraordinary intensity, what he did clearly wasn't enough. It wasn't enough to win the Democratic nomination or seize control of the Democratic Party, let alone to get him elected president, and it wasn't enough to banish the doubts many Americans felt, fairly or otherwise, about his campaign and his movement and his message. 

Depending on your subjective experience of the last five years, maybe what Bernie Sanders did wasn't even worthwhile or constructive. I don't think it's remotely fair to blame Sanders or his supporters for Hillary Clinton's flukish defeat in 2016, or to claim that the Sanders campaign damaged the Democratic Party in any material way. Clinton fell victim to such a bizarre set of interlocking circumstances that we will never untangle them all; from beginning to end, her campaign was haunted by premonitions of doom that finally came true. As for the Democratic Party, the damage had already been done and was largely self-inflicted; all the Bernie movement did was to expose it. 

But I'm well aware that some of you reading this will feel otherwise, and will be delighted to express those opinions forcefully. In any case, there's no point trying to litigate those questions right now: Rephrased in larger and more symbolic terms, they are the questions leftists and liberals will continue to struggle with into the indefinite future, with or without Bernie Sanders. 

What lies ahead for the "progressive movement" is unclear. What lies ahead for Bernie himself is not. He has now ended his second and surely last presidential campaign, a decision that has been inevitable since Joe Biden's coast-to-coast sweep in the Super Tuesday primaries on March 3, in the nearly-forgotten Age Before Coronavirus. As many others have noted, there's a cruel irony in Sanders facing his final defeat during a national crisis that has thrust his primary campaign issue — the need for national and universal health care — to the forefront in such tragic and dramatic fashion. History, and especially political history, often seems constructed of such ironies.

Whether Sanders runs for another Senate term in 2024, at age 82, will be between him and the people of Vermont. But his unexpected and unlikely late career as a dominant national political figure is now almost over. Can we possibly know what kind of figure Bernie Sanders will be for posterity? Is he an irrelevant footnote, a prophet without honor, or something in between? 

Of course not — how history understands him will depend on what happens in history. I come neither to bury Bernie nor to praise him. When I say he did everything he could, part of that is to recognize that Sanders was always a flawed figurehead for the resurgent progressive movement and an imperfect messenger with an urgent and necessary message. In both of his failed campaigns, Sanders ran into his own limitations and those of his overly zealous followers, as well as the structural and institutional obstacles placed by the Democratic establishment and the media class and so on. 

These things are not in contradiction: Sanders and his movement faced implacable opposition from those who perceived them as an existential threat — and also fell prey to their own arrogance and intemperance, their strategic miscalculations and millenarian visions. In many ways the Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020 present quite different narratives — if the first iteration was largely a middle-class student crusade, the second was far more diverse and more overtly working-class — but their organizational strengths and weaknesses were similar.

No one who has followed Bernie Sanders' career could plausibly accuse him of being sexist or racist, or of condoning those views in others. (Whereas those questions get a little murky, shall we say, when it comes to Joe Biden.) But on both occasions the Sanders campaign completely failed to win over black voters, particularly in more conservative Southern states, and managed to alienate many college-educated women, especially the moderate "wine moms" of suburbia who drove the "blue wave" of 2018. Since those two groups are without doubt the most loyal and indispensable blocs of Democratic voters, this was not a minor failing.

I suspect the postmortem analyses being written right now place too much value on the online Bernie Bro wars or the endorsement of podcaster Joe Rogan or similar epiphenomena. Those things carried some semiotic weight, for sure, but they all reflect the fact that Sanders' movement had revolutionary, transformative goals and flowed somewhat too readily into apocalyptic and/or utopian language that many median Democratic voters found baffling or off-putting. 

Both personally and ideologically, Sanders was committed to delivering the same message to all voters. This was something of a breakthrough in the 2016 campaign, running against the ultimate slice-and-dice candidate, but like all effective political messaging, it only worked until it stopped working. Sanders himself was never comfortable with the Democratic Party's highly transactional, this-for-that relationship with the traditional African-American voter base — which he viewed, with some justification, as an artifact of Clinton-era neoliberalism — but never found an alternative way of reaching those folks.

Black voters actually like Bernie Sanders perfectly well, as poll after poll will tell you — but they've never been sold on him as the best bet to beat Donald Trump, the vexed question with no answers that has dominated the 2020 campaign. That surely played a role with middle-class white women too, but let's be clear: Both Sanders campaigns had a massive perceived problem with gender, which only got worse rather than better. Whether or not that was unfairly amplified or exploited by his opponents, neither the candidate nor his inner circle did anywhere near enough to address it.

It almost goes without saying at this point that the rising leadership of the post-Bernie progressive movement is likely to be women, and for that matter women of color. (In case you were wondering: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will turn 35 a few days before the 2024 election, and hence eligible to take the oath of office.) But I'm not sure how important Sanders' lack of fluency with intersectional left-liberal discourse really was in the end. Elizabeth Warren ran the most conspicuously intersectional presidential campaign in history, and never managed higher than a third-place finish, even in her home state.

Bernie Sanders is what he is, and we always had to take the good with the bad. He was never going to be president, but he got a lot closer to that possibility than any of us expected. He's a garrulous old radical from Brooklyn who sensed a political opening when nobody else did and became the protagonist of one of the most unlikely narratives of recent American history. He energized a new generation, pulled them into political action and showed them that change was possible — and then showed them that it requires grinding, organizational labor, comes with painful setbacks and always arrives more slowly than it should. His legacy will be written in the years ahead. But now his work is done.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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