The Future Belongs to the Movement Sparked by Bernie Sanders

Sanders may be out of the race, but by advancing a bold left agenda and putting capitalism on trial, he ignited a movement that will redefine American politics.

Miles Kampf-Lassin April 8, 2020

The campaign is over, but the movement continues. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Mourn­ing is merited.

Sanders’ run never fit the mold of a conventional campaign. It was an insurgency against the political and corporate establishment—a movement rather than a wholly electoral effort.

For sup­port­ers of Bernie Sanders and the move­ment he gal­va­nized, this is a dif­fi­cult day. What once appeared firm­ly with­in our grasp is no more. That real­i­ty is all the more sad in that it comes as Amer­i­cans are dying by the thou­sands in a pan­dem­ic. Iso­lat­ed, we are unable to mean­ing­ful­ly par­tic­i­pate in the civic life of our nation due to con­cerns for our safety.

Sanders’ deci­sion to leave the race is a loss for the pro­gres­sive move­ment. His con­tin­ued pres­ence on the nation­al stage has been instru­men­tal in bring­ing left-wing ideas into the main­stream of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. By drop­ping out, he will no longer be able to com­mand the cov­er­age and atten­tion he’s received for years as a pres­i­den­tial candidate.

All of this is true, but it also illus­trates just how much Sanders’ run nev­er fit the mold of a con­ven­tion­al cam­paign. Instead, the endeav­or was mold­ed ear­ly on as an insur­gency against the polit­i­cal and cor­po­rate estab­lish­ment: in short, a move­ment rather than a whol­ly elec­toral effort.

That deci­sion, made large­ly by Sanders and his inner cir­cle, came with draw­backs, from ham­per­ing his abil­i­ty to win sup­port from influ­en­tial fig­ures in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to frayed rela­tion­ships with main­stream media out­lets and an us against every­body” men­tal­i­ty that per­me­at­ed much of the campaign.

More for­mi­da­ble issues that any future left cam­paign will have to over­come include the inabil­i­ty of Sanders to win sup­port from old­er African-Amer­i­can vot­ers, and elec­tabil­i­ty” con­cerns that — while fanned by a hos­tile press — helped to sink the chances of build­ing a win­ning coalition.

A sea of post-mortems to come will sure­ly detail these and oth­er issues that led to Sanders’ exit. But such cri­tiques alone will nev­er tell the entire sto­ry of what, in 2016 and in 2020, the inde­pen­dent, demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist and his scores of sup­port­ers were able to accomplish. 

While the pri­ma­ry goal of any elec­toral cam­paign is to win and take pow­er, polit­i­cal projects — and the move­ments they fuel — have more mul­ti­far­i­ous ends. There can be no doubt that both Sanders cam­paigns raised the con­scious­ness of mil­lions, con­nect­ing their dai­ly strug­gles to the larg­er pow­er struc­tures in Amer­i­ca that con­cen­trate wealth and pow­er at the top while squeez­ing the work­ing class.

Through­out the cam­paign, Sanders and his team ampli­fied the voic­es of the most vul­ner­a­ble and mar­gin­al­ized in our soci­ety and asked us not just to under­stand their pain, but to see our futures as bound up with theirs. It was a plea for sol­i­dar­i­ty that, while off­beat as an elec­toral strat­e­gy, helped bring a new lens to how we view our politics. 

Sanders con­sis­tent­ly called out the destruc­tive role that cor­po­ra­tions and the super-rich wield over our lives and our democ­ra­cy. The cam­paign made sure Amer­i­cans under­stand not just how bro­ken our sys­tems are, but what enti­ties are respon­si­ble for that frac­tur­ing — and who is prof­it­ing off of it. While the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment sin­gled out Don­ald Trump as a sin­gu­lar per­ver­sion of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, Sanders always made clear that his move­ment was seek­ing not sim­ply to top­ple the cur­rent pres­i­dent, but also the debased sys­tem that gave rise to him in the first place.

And it isn’t sim­ply a col­lec­tion of bad actors oper­at­ing off of per­son­al greed that’s cul­pa­ble for our inde­fen­si­ble sta­tus quo — Sanders has held firm that it’s a sys­tem and it has a name: cap­i­tal­ism. For the first time in mod­ern U.S. polit­i­cal his­to­ry, a viable can­di­date for pres­i­dent put our prof­it-dri­ven eco­nom­ic sys­tem on tri­al. And by so doing, he com­pelled us to see each of our polit­i­cal con­flicts as part of a larg­er strug­gle being waged between the work­ing class and the cap­i­tal­ists, i.e. the crooks on Wall Street,” the insur­ance and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies,” and the billionaires.”

To counter these pow­er­ful forces, Sanders called for a dif­fer­ent way of orga­niz­ing our eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal lives. By refus­ing to dis­avow the label of demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist — despite the wor­ry expressed by polit­i­cal strate­gists — he helped pop­u­lar­ize the con­cept among a new gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple who now view social­ism more pos­i­tive­ly than cap­i­tal­ism. They’re also flood­ing orga­ni­za­tions like the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca which fight for the poli­cies pushed by Sanders — and will per­sist long after the campaign. 

But the most con­se­quen­tial impacts of Sanders’ run in the short term will like­ly be how he brought bold, redis­trib­u­tive poli­cies to the fore of our polit­i­cal main­stream. Medicare for All is now far more than a broad­ly pop­u­lar pro­pos­al, it’s a bench­mark for can­di­dates to show whether they believe health­care is a human right. As COVID-19 wreaks hav­oc on the pop­u­la­tion and stretch­es thin an already fee­ble mar­ket-based health­care sys­tem, the wis­dom of a uni­ver­sal, free and pub­licly-oper­at­ed alter­na­tive is becom­ing clear­er by the day. Just look at polls show­ing the idea gain­ing in pop­u­lar­i­ty in the past month.

The same goes for Sanders’ oth­er sig­na­ture poli­cies, from a $15 an hour min­i­mum wage to free pub­lic col­lege, mas­sive tax increas­es on the rich, expand­ed labor rights and a Green New Deal. These ideas are increas­ing­ly becom­ing the stan­dard for pro­gres­sive can­di­dates, and enjoy mass sup­port from the gen­er­al pub­lic. What’s more, a num­ber of states and munic­i­pal­i­ties across the coun­try are now work­ing to imple­ment them in var­i­ous ways.

Bernie Sanders did not invent these ideas — they were born of demands from social move­ments. His cam­paign sim­ply served as a vehi­cle to push them for­ward. And there can be no doubt he accom­plished that feat. Just look at the debate through­out the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry, which was shaped to its core by Sanders’ left-wing agenda.

The axi­al propo­si­tion bind­ing these poli­cies togeth­er has always been a belief that eco­nom­ic rights should be con­sid­ered human rights. Health­care, edu­ca­tion, hous­ing, a liv­ing wage, and access to food and a clean envi­ron­ment: These are ele­ments of a dig­ni­fied life in the 21st cen­tu­ry, and should be guar­an­teed to every human being. This frame­work will con­tin­ue to ani­mate pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics for years to come. We may well look back on the Sanders cam­paign as the tin­der that sparked a turn­ing point, lead­ing us to ques­tion, oppose — and, hope­ful­ly, over­come — the forces of mar­ket fun­da­men­tal­ism that dom­i­nate our pol­i­tics and economy.

Bernie Sanders will not become the next pres­i­dent, and as a sup­port­er of his, I believe the coun­try will be worse off for it. But his cam­paign pro­vid­ed an open­ing for the Amer­i­can Left that hadn’t been seen in decades. Far from turn­ing to a revan­chist posi­tion, we must now take full advan­tage of this oppor­tu­ni­ty and push hard­er than ever for the vision we all saw rep­re­sent­ed by the Sanders campaign.

We are in a state of cri­sis. The vehi­cle for our move­ment has been derailed. Mourn­ing is under­stand­able. But con­tin­u­ing the fight is the only way forward. 

Views expressed are those of the writer. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose any can­di­date for pub­lic office. The author is a mem­ber of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of America.

Miles Kampf-Lassin, a grad­u­ate of New York Uni­ver­si­ty’s Gal­latin School in Delib­er­a­tive Democ­ra­cy and Glob­al­iza­tion, is a Web Edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @MilesKLassin

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