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Life After Bernie
Progressives stare down an uncertain future
A few weeks ago, I pondered the future of the national left, which still remains bound up in what comes after Bernie Sanders. Sanders, now 80, will not run for president again and can only remain in the Senate for so long. At some point, probably in the next decade, his remarkable career will come to an end. Once an itinerant carpenter and fringe candidate for hopeless third parties in Vermont, Sanders managed, in his mid-70s, to almost single-handedly revive a moribund left-wing movement in the United States. Sanders will very likely die without achieving his long-held dream of passing a single-payer healthcare bill through Congress, but there are many thousands of young people committed to a progressive future that never would have been activated had Sanders never come along. The Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that boasts a membership close to 100,000, is one tangible legacy of Sanders’ two presidential campaigns.
It can be argued, someday soon, the viable successors to Sanders will emerge. There is the Squad, after all, the small collective of leftists in Congress fronted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. All boast social media followings and fan bases far larger than any typical member of Congress. Among them, there are probably future presidential candidates. To make the leap, at least one of them will likely have to win an even higher office. Members of the House are rarely top tier presidential candidates. AOC could be the exception, but a serious campaign is still years away. In 2024, she will only be 35, the minimum age to serve as president.
The question for the broad constellation that makes up the left in the United States—self-identified progressives, socialists, left-liberals, and their attendant organizations—is what kind of presidential campaign can come after Sanders and what value it will have. Sanders ran for president for two reasons, with one reason taking precedence for 2016 and the other for 2020. The first, a primary theme of his challenge to Hillary Clinton, was to raise issues that the Democratic establishment was neglecting and offer some kind opposition to a centrist pro-Wall Street campaign that had been anointed by every power broker imaginable. When Sanders announced his first presidential bid in 2015, he was mostly ignored by the press, and the momentum he gathered was a shock to journalists, pundits, and even fellow leftists. Since Sanders was such an underdog, there was never much of a plan for victory. For long stretches of the campaign, Sanders probably expected to be a popular protest candidate, not someone who could defeat Clinton in large states like Michigan.
In 2020, Sanders ran to win. He was one of the front-runners in a race where expectations were much higher. For a time, after his victory in Nevada, it appeared he could run away with the race and succeed on Super Tuesday. Instead, Joe Biden pulled far ahead, buoyed by older Black and white moderates, the sort of voters who show up in greater numbers than Sanders’ cohort. It became apparent, too, that Sanders probably lacked the killer instinct to secure the nomination. In 2008, Barack Obama aggressively attacked Hillary Clinton’s record, particularly her vote for the Iraq War. It was one of the more nasty and bitter Democratic primaries in modern times, eclipsing even 2016, in which Clinton backers maintained Sanders, in highlighting economic issues and noting Clinton’s propensity for taking huge checks to deliver speeches, crossed some kind of line. In 2020, Sanders simply could not lash Biden in the way a young Obama would have targeted Clinton. Sanders felt an affinity for Biden and it showed. Biden would have won the nomination anyway because most voters believed he was the best candidate to defeat Trump and Sanders, the committed democratic socialist, was viewed as a risk.
The 2020 version of Sanders—and those around him—learned several wrong lessons from 2016. What made Sanders unexpectedly successful the first time around was his emphasis on universal economic issues over particular identitarian concerns. Working-class white, Black, Latino, and Asian voters all care, first and foremost, about jobs, education, and healthcare. In 2008, Obama’s status as the potential first Black president was central to his pitch, but the campaign consciously stressed universalist themes and attempted, with great success, to craft a multiracial coalition. The “woke” ideologues of the late 2010s would have found much to mock in the Obama ‘08 effort, but he won and won again. Sanders’ early instincts were correct: to actually be a viable American force, you have to persuade voters with heterodox or even hostile views to accept your cause. Sanders had come up in Vermont when Republicans were still a force—George H.W. Bush carried the state in 1988, two years before Sanders won his first House race—and understood, even as he ran as an unapologetic socialist, there were voters to win who may not fit neatly into a progressive ideological space. Sanders had to build a winning coalition out of voters who liked guns, supported the military, and had warm views of the police. He learned, after years as a failed third-party candidate, that he’d only have the power to help people if he figured out how to speak to the median voter in his state.
Heading into 2020, progressive organizations, advocacy groups, and staff convinced Sanders that his poor showing with Black voters in 2016 was a reflection of his insufficient commitment to cultural liberalism. More activists, like the polarizing Shaun King, had to front the campaign, they said. Sanders’ staff—or those in leadership roles—had to get younger. They did. Sanders, however, fared no better with Black voters, who tend to prefer establishment-aligned candidates without the sort of liberal signifiers that are popular with the college-educated crowd. A voter in South Carolina wasn’t going to support Sanders because he drew closer to Black-led NGOs. Rather, they’d consider Sanders if he stopped identifying as a socialist, formally became a Democrat, or found a way to convince them he, not Biden, was the best candidate to take on Trump. He couldn’t do this.
To win a national campaign, a leftist must find a way to win large numbers of self-identified moderates. In 2016, Sanders got more than halfway there, and in 2020, he made inroads with Latino voters, winning California and Nevada. Some of these Latinos probably ended up choosing Trump over Biden, which demonstrates just how important it is for Democrats to compete for them. Whoever the ultimate Sanders successor is—and it’s becoming increasingly clear 2024 will lack a candidate like him—will be tasked with much more than exciting a base or attempting to revive a dying movement. The left expects to win now, as it should, and Sanders carried progressives further than they had been in decades. If a member of the Squad, or even multiple legislators, wants to claim the Sanders mantle, she or he will need to take seriously the task of speaking to voters who think and act nothing like them. The candidate will have to comprehend that a vast swath of the country, urban and rural alike, doesn’t hold a college degree or any particularly fashionable views. To use two imperfect examples, they think it’s women who get pregnant and police that should be funded. They may not profess a great interest in big, structural, or radical change. They are open to plenty, though, if they are communicated to in an effective way. They are worth fighting for because, one way or another, they’ll determine the future of the country.
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