When Bernie Sanders began his first presidential run in 2015, he announced his campaign to little fanfare, on a patch of grass outside the Capitol. “This country today, in my view, has more serious crises than any time since the Great Depression,” Sanders said to a small group of reporters. Back then, his campaign was written off as a long shot by a gruff independent from Vermont who might, at most, push Hillary Cilnton left on a few issues.
Today, Sanders suspended his second presidential campaign after a primary season that always favored Joe Biden, but saw, for a brief moment, a socialist Jewish candidate as the frontrunner. “Few would deny that over the past five years, our movement has won the ideological struggle,” Sanders said during a farewell address to his supporters, made via a livestream from his home in Burlington, Vermont. He explained that he was dropping out because his campaign didn’t have a clear path to victory.
Only five years have passed between those two moments, yet it would be hard to deny how much not only the Democratic Party, but the country as a whole has changed in that time because of Sanders. After stubbornly warning the political and media elite again and again about how the system is failing average people, Sanders is now speaking in isolation as a pandemic ravages our world. Even the idea of reporters gathered around him, outside on a DC lawn, already seems like a relic from a different era.
But, as Sanders pointed out, our country was going through a crisis long before coronavirus hit. This is true on the macro level—rising sea levels, crushing student debt, unaffordable health care, massive incarceration rates—but the Sanders’ campaign’s strength was always in showing the ways this translated into personal crises in peoples’ daily lives. As BuzzFeed reported in December, Sanders’ strategy was often just to turn the microphone over to everyday Americans. “His suggestion, by asking you to speak up about your private anxieties, many of them financial, is that you and the millions of people in the proverbial audience will begin to see your struggles not as personal failings, but systemic ones,” reporter Ruby Cramer wrote.
Sanders’ message has changed the country in tangible ways. A bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 passed the House, and a majority of voters now support Medicare for All, things that would have seemed unfathomable five years ago. A wave of progressive candidates, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, who entered the House after the 2018 midterms, were inspired to run in part by Sanders, and were elected on campaigns to abolish ICE and cancel student debt. The 2020 Democratic primary started with many of his most progressive policies in full view, proof that he had pushed the party’s agenda left. In the wake of Sanders’ 2016 campaign and Donald Trump’s election, young activists created a slew of new organizations, while once-small groups like the Democratic Socialists of America gained in prominence. One new organization, the Sunrise Movement, helped push climate change closer to the center of political debate than ever before.
Yet his loss also shows how far there is still to go. Sanders and his campaign were far from perfect. The ideological change that he brought to the national stage has, for a number of reasons both internal and external, not translated electorally. There will be post-mortems and recriminations, and the good faith ones will be necessary.
“How you handle loss is so important, it can turn into a contaminative experience or a redemptive one,” progressive organizer Marshall Ganz told me when I spoke to him soon after Super Tuesday, when Biden’s campaign had surged past Sanders. “How can we become stronger based on what we learned? It’s not just Pollyanna stuff, in our own lives those questions of how we deal with loss, it’s painful. Do we allow it to define us or do we grow stronger learning how to deal with it?”
As many have argued, there is no returning to normal after this—after coronavirus, after recession, and yes, after Sanders’ campaign. As Ellen Willis once wrote, “It is the longing for happiness that is potentially radical, while the morality of sacrifice is an age-old weapon of rulers.” Sanders’ decades-long political career has been dedicated to showing normal people, in small and broad ways, the possibilities of such happiness. The fight will be to keep that vision going, long after his campaign.
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