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Bernie Was a Beginning and an End

Bernie Sanders famously announced his first run for president on his lunch break. He ended his second, and presumably last, run for president with over a hundred thousand people watching a livestream on his website, and many millions more desperate about what his exit means for the future.

In the five years between those moments, Sanders became one of the de facto leaders of a party he’s never been an official member of. He used his new platform to drive the Democratic Party leftward, and paved the way for a small but influential new class of progressives to be elected in 2018, while empowering the left wing of Congress that already existed to challenge the Democratic establishment, a historically entrenched and immovable object. Medicare for All is no longer a pipe dream, but something that’s been supported by the majority of the Democratic electorate in every state that had a primary.

But for all the gains Sanders made, he still lost. He lost to the Clinton machine in 2016, and then, after winning the first three contests in 2020, he watched the establishment get fully in line behind a Biden campaign that had no money and no organizing presence in Super Tuesday states. He lost despite the fact that Biden never had anything approaching a “good” debate performance, and that Biden found himself outshined by a rotating cast of centrist candidates up until Jim Clyburn endorsed him and he won South Carolina by a larger than expected margin.

It’s difficult to reconcile these two things, and so a lot of people on the left appear to be defaulting to one of two conclusions: the idealistic view that we lost the battle but will win the war, and the revolutionary view that electoralism is good and dead.

As unsatisfying as it is, both sides have a point. The success of a 78-year old socialist in winning over key parts of the Obama coalition — young people in 2016 and 2020, and Latino voters this year — proves that there’s a real appetite for socialism, or at least social democracy, in America, even in “good” economic times. Given that the economy had to crash through the floor in order for us to get the reforms of the New Deal, it’s not a bad place to start.

At the same time, there is not going to be another Bernie Sanders—not exactly, anyway. What helped doom him in the Democratic primary was what endeared him to so many people in the first place: He is a living embodiment of the anger towards the bipartisan consensus that produced only war and economic ruin for the working class. And what’s more is that he was successful: he was a mayor, then a congressman, then a senator. Then he nearly won the Democratic nomination twice while running explicitly on the idea that the legacy of the most popular Democrat in America was not enough.

What happens now is up to Sanders and the movement that has formed around him. If the lesson the left takes from this setback is that you can never beat the machine, so either throw all of your efforts into non-electoral organizing or just buy a gun and wait for the revolution, our political future is bound to be defined by a rotating cast of increasingly militaristic and ecologically concerned fascists and feckless 2000s era technocratic liberals, both of whom will be hostile to left-wing unions (if not unions in general) and other organizing efforts.

If the lesson is to double down on electoralism on anything above the school-board level, the reality is that you’re committing to a long-term effort to fundamentally change the Democratic Party into something like Podemos in Spain, or the NDP in Canada. After Bernie, there are no more independents, and there’s very little appetite for a labor party among the sort of high-profile political figures you’d need to get an effort like that off the ground. (This might be change if Joe Biden loses in November and a combination of two losses to Donald Trump and the coronavirus fractures the Democratic Party for good, but even getting on the ballot in many states is an obstacle.)

It’s unclear where the left should go, or will go, and you should be wary of anyone who’s remotely confident about what’s next. But one thing that seems clear is that we’ll never be able to recreate someone like Bernie Sanders, and it’s a major error to try. Sanders provided the building blocks for a movement that can reshape American society over the coming decades, but he personally came up short, and he’s not going to get another shot. Whatever comes next will have to be new in some way: a new approach, a new argument, or a new way of communicating the old ideas.

Photo by Jack Crosbie