WASHINGTON — Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign is over. And while it remains to be seen exactly what happens to the movement he built, it’s clear how much of a stamp he’s left on the Democratic Party.
Sanders helped usher in a new era of progressive politics in America, pushing the issues of income inequality, universal healthcare, and free college into the mainstream of the Democratic Party. In the process, he’s gone from being a quixotic senator dismissed by most of the Democratic Party he’s never joined to being one of its most powerful figures.
“Together we have transformed the American consciousness as to what kind of country we can become and have taken a major step forward in the never-ending struggle for economic justice, racial justice, and environmental justice,” Sanders said. “Few would deny that over the course of the last five years our movement has won the ideological struggle.”
It’s also telling that even though Biden, the most moderate candidate in the race besides Michael Bloomberg, won the nomination, his platform is one of the more progressive ever put forward by a modern Democratic presidential nominee. Biden, once a proud moderate, is to the left of where President Obama was in 2008 on healthcare, climate change, the minimum wage and countless other issues. Sanders has moved the party left and his success was driven by Democrats’ leftward drift, and the establishment has come along for the ride.
Biden was quick to acknowledge what Sanders has accomplished.
“Bernie has done something rare in politics. He hasn’t just run a political campaign; he’s created a movement. And make no mistake about it, I believe it’s a movement that is as powerful today as it was yesterday,” Biden said in a statement after Sanders’ announcement. “That’s a good thing for our nation and our future.”
Sanders he won’t go away anytime soon. He’ll remain a loud voice in the Senate, with a grassroots movement ready to mobilize if he thinks Democrats are moving too far right to cut bipartisan deals. And while the election showed his appeal is limited to one segment of the party, it’s also clear from his massive rallies to the whopping $180 million he raised for his campaign, almost all of it in small donations, that his supporters are motivated and ready to keep fighting.
He’s championed youthful political movements like the climate change-focused Sunrise Movement, which bolstered his own campaign with its endorsement and helped gain fame for being attached to him in a symbiotic relationship. And even as he lost primaries by wide margins he continued to win young voters, especially the rising Generation Z, a sign of the party’s future.
Sunrise Movement spokesperson Stevie O’Hanlon called the result a “sad day” and a “real setback,” but found a silver lining.
“We find hope in the fact that Bernie’s ideas are clearly winning.”
“We find hope in the fact that Bernie’s ideas are clearly winning: from Medicare for All to the Green New Deal to College for All, his bold policies have won the argument, they’re beloved by young people, and they’re supported by a broad majority of the American people,” they said. “His campaign represents the future of American politics, but not because of destiny; it’s because the movement that powered his campaign lives on, and we’re not going anywhere.
Sanders has failed to help elect many Democrats in his mold. But one of the few who was successful, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), is a meteoric rising star in the party and served as a top surrogate.
That doesn’t mean that Sanders’ vision for America is what most Americans necessarily want. His Medicare-for-All proposal poll well with Democrats but not with all voters. Americans support many parts of the Green New Deal he’s championed, but plenty of Democrats were on board with many of those proposals before he attached himself to the plan. And Biden’s blowout wins in the last few primaries proved that some of Sanders’ 2016 wins were a lot more about dislike of Hillary Clinton than love for his views.
And the leftward shift of the Democratic Party may have been coming anyway with generational change. Obama’s own emergence came because excited young Millennial voters jumped aboard his campaign a decade ago. Elizabeth Warren, another progressive stalwart, captured the hearts of Democrats before passing on a 2016 run and opening the door for Sanders. Sanders himself had to shift left on immigration and gun control to keep up with the party, having been a moderate on both issues in the past. And while he strongly embraced the Black Lives Matter movement, it took him quite some time to catch up with their tone and efforts.
Sanders simply may have been in the right place at the right time. But he capitalized, even as his campaigns fell short.
The short-term question now is how that movement and Biden engage with one another — whether there’s a willingness by both to work productively, or whether, like in 2016, enough Sanders diehards will fracture off to hurt the Democratic nominee in the general election.
And it remains to be seen how this movement — or any movement — emerges after the coronavirus pandemic, which is reshaping society as it ravages the economy and kills an untold number of people. The pandemic has forced people indoors and ended protest politics for now. But it’s also shown the weaknesses of the American healthcare and social welfare systems, and could further fuel the causes Sanders has championed.
But Sanders’ allies think while they lost the battle, they’re winning the war.
“The campaign has moved the debate in a substantial and historic way that has the potential to be a change that will be with us for generations to come, and nobody can take away that result. There are the election results and there are the results of what people talk about moving the goalposts, the Overton Window, how people talk about things as a society,” said Sanders adviser David Sirota. “Today is a one step back kind of day but that doesn’t mean there aren’t two steps forward to be made.”
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) holds hands with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) during his speech at a campaign rally in Queensbridge Park on October 19, 2019 in the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo: Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
This article originally appeared on VICE US.