Bye Bye Bernie, Kind Of
This weekend, Bernie Sanders announced he was suspending his campaign for president after realizing that “the path toward victory is virtually impossible.” Unlike other candidates, though, the end of Bernie’s campaign is much less final. He’s stopped running ads and doing campaign events, but pieces of his campaign are forging ahead. He's staying on the remaining 27 ballots and keeping his delegates. He's trying to broker whatever power he has for the convention this summer. While he won't be the candidate for the Democratic party, Bernie's not going anywhere just yet.
This was an unusual candidacy. Bernie ran for president in 2016 and never stopped. An almost five-year campaign came to an end this week. Bernie radically changed the Democratic party and the country. Ideas that only four years ago were reserved for the far left have become regular fixtures of American politics, and central to the Democratic party. Sanders is not the only, or even the primary cause, for the speed of social and political change in the last ten years, but he's been the face of a new political movement for the past five years.
If there’s one word that defines Bernie’s impact on American politics, it’s socialism. There have been socialist candidates before in American politics. It's a guilty pleasure that politicians have found impossible to sever ties with. Bernie brought socialism out of the ivory towers of Ivy League social science programs and into the public square for a new generation. One of the enduring intrigues of the “Feel the Bern” movement is that so many of his supporters are young. In the past, socialism has typically been advanced as an economic position, but not for Bernie. I think the most enduring change in American culture will be Bernie's moral argument for socialism.
Bernie didn't argue that the government should take control of the means of production - a classic socialist position. He argued that the current system isn't fair and we need to do something about it. The disparity between the poor and the rich is wrong. The 1% must be taxed to pay for the welfare of the poor. Student debt is unjust and should be forgiven. Everyone should have the same healthcare coverage. These are not primarily economic arguments; they’re moral arguments. Sanders’ legacy, promulgated by AOC and the squad, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Rogan, and the infamous mob of Bernie Bros, will be this brand of moral socialism. People want the world to be fairer. Socialism seems like an excellent way to make that happen.
There’s another vital aspect of Bernie’s popularity. He posed as a populist alternative to Trump. It’s intriguing that even as he’s become the face of Democratic politics, Bernie is not a Democrat. He’s never registered as a member of the party, and even when he was leading the Democratic primaries, he never formally joined. Of course, there are a lot of similarities between Bernie and other Democrats, but there are differences too. Bernie is as much a populist as anything else, which is why it will be so interesting - if not decisive - to see who his supporters vote for in 2020, if they vote at all.
From a political standpoint, Bernie pulled the Democratic party further toward big government. Even as Sanders is ending his campaign, the country has come together around some of the most aggressive government interventions since WWII. Is the coronavirus proving Bernie correct? In the Financial Times, Edward Luce remembers Reagan's quip, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help" are the nine most dangerous words in the English language. Governments across the world have forgotten that line during the virus. Big government is in, and the measures taken to shore up the markets during the last two months may make it hard to ever go back to a smaller federal government. Bernie has to feel at least a little bit vindicated.
There's a tweet of Bernie's from a few months ago that now stands as an ominous marker of his revolution. In the last week of February, he tweeted, "I've got news for the Republican establishment. I've got news for the Democratic establishment. They can't stop us." Bernie did start a revolution. He provided a populist alternative to Trump, ran on small donations, won the young liberal vote, and eliminated every candidate on the far left from the field.
Despite his lasting influence, Bernie was unable to win the nomination because he failed to win the voters in the Democratic party. Thomas Edsall pinpoints Bernie’s failure as an inability to see past the goal of party reform; “Unfortunately, intraparty dissension often brings the whole house down. Strategically, the challenge for progressives in the wake of Sanders’s departure from the race is not to defeat the Democratic Party, nor is it to generate a constant drumbeat of hostility from the left. The challenge is to combine forces with the rest of the party and deploy that power to win elections and change lives.” This will be an essential task for Biden, albeit in a photo negative of what Bernie saw in the Democratic party. Biden has been the safe choice from the beginning in a party that has since declared war on the safe option. It was just a few months ago that Democratic candidates were standing on a debate stage outdoing each other in distancing themselves from Obama.
While he won maniacal support from his base, Bernie never built a coalition, and he never won over the party elites. There are some striking similarities to what Donald Trump was able to do in 2016. Nate Silver’s analysis of why Trump was able to win in 2016, and Bernie wasn’t is right on. The two parties are very different. Coalition building is more important in the Democratic Party than the Republican Party because the Democratic party exerts so much more control over the nomination process. Whereas Trump won several winner-take-all states and solidified his lead, Bernie was never able to pull away - and when it looked like he was going to, a Democratic coalition formed against him. Trump faced a broad field through the primaries, but two of Bernie’s main opponents dropped out and endorsed Biden the weekend before Super Tuesday. After watching Trump’s success in 2016, maybe the Democratic brass decided they didn’t want to let the same thing happen.
In the end, Americans never bought the specifics of Bernie’s platform. You can only run so far on sentiment, and once Sanders became the likely favorite for the second presidential race in four years, the tide started to turn. Maybe Bernie’s impact had more to do with the direction he was heading than the destination he wanted to reach. Biden’s candidacy going forward will have to deal with the specter of Bernie hoving in the background. People wanted affordable college, but the plan to make it free went too far. Others desire affordable healthcare, but Bernie’s absolutist Medicare for All plan doesn’t seem feasible. Many Americans are concerned about the environment but hesitant to triple the national debt with the Green New Deal. Bernie successfully dragged the party and the country to the left, but he failed to win any significant policy battle or lead the party to adopt a single piece of his platform.
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak.