At the Democratic primary debate in Florida last week, Washington Post moderator Karen Tumulty asked presidential candidate Bernie Sanders a version of a question people have been asking him since he began his unlikely campaign: If elected, how would he fulfill his ambitious progressive agenda, in the face of an obstructionist Republican Congress and an American public that historically hasn't been eager to embrace big government programs, or the taxes that tend to come with them.
With a signature wave of his arms, Sanders repeated his stock response. "I'm the only candidate who says no president, not Bernie Sanders, can do it all," he said. "You know what we need, Karen? We need a political revolution in this country."
This answer drives a lot of people nuts. To Sanders's detractors—specifically those who support his primary opponent Hillary Clinton—the Vermont senator is a wild-haired ideologue, an angry Brooklyn deli man with a Workers' Vanguard subscription who thinks the United States should try to be a little more like Denmark. While Clinton is a pragmatic problem-solver, they argue, Sanders could never get elected in a general election race.
But to another, more liberal wing of the party, Sanders represents the future. It's no secret that the Democrats' center of gravity has moved left since the Great Recession, propelled by grassroots movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, and a new crop of unapologetically liberal politicians like Elizabeth Warren, Bill De Blasio, and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. For the progressive activists who have fueled this shift, Sanders's campaign, with its promise of political revolution, is a call to arms, a chance to push what was once a fringe left-wing policy platform—free college, single-payer health care, breaking up big banks, et al.—into the political mainstream.
"One year ago, it was almost unimaginable that both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders would be talking about jailing Wall Street bankers who break the law, breaking up big banks, extending Social Security benefits," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "It's such a sea change from where the Democratic Party was a year ago."
Of course, Sanders's political revolution, at least as he envisions it, hasn't quite materialized. Despite the candidate's success at filling arenas and bringing in small donations, voter turnout in the Democratic primaries so far hasn't been particularly overwhelming, raising questions about whether his brand of lefty populism is actually bringing disenfranchised, disillusioned voters into the political system. While the Sanders campaign has outperformed expectations, his chances of winning the nomination are increasingly slim, especially after Clinton's sweeping primary victories on Tuesday night.
"It's one thing to earn the support of young people if you're a self-proclaimed revolutionary," said University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala. "The hard part is to win over middle aged voters who are not in the habit of voting."
Regardless of how Sanders fares going forward, though, Democratic strategists note that his campaign has already had an outsized impact Democratic Party—one that could endure long after Clinton's likely nomination. Green, whose group has not endorsed a presidential candidate, said candidates all over the country are likely to see the Sanders campaign as evidence that running on big-picture, populist issues could be a winning strategy. Already, PCCC-has endorsed congressional candidates who have cast themselves in the Bernie mold, including Zephyr Teachout in New York, Lucy Flores in Nevada, and Pramila Jayapal in Washington.
Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic strategist who managed Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, noted that losing presidential candidates sometimes have a longer impact on the political landscape than the eventual winner. New generations of candidates and political operatives tend to get their start in high-energy, ideologically strident campaigns, he said, like that of Dean or Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party's failed 1964 nominee.
"Goldwater sort of created the conservative foundation of the party, moving forward for the last four decades," Trippi said. The Sanders campaign, he added, could similarly have ripple effects on the Democratic Party for decades. "He's getting young people fired up, empowered," he said. "One of them is going to become president."
If Sanders supporters and donors remain engaged, progressive leaders say, they could become a powerful force in Democratic politics, with the potential to move the needle in local and state races, and even to make inroads with the national party establishment.
Neil Sroka, spokesman for Democracy for America, a group that grew out of Dean's 2004 campaign and whose members have overwhelmingly endorsed Sanders, said he expects candidates at all levels of government to gain strength from the Sanders campaign. "Whether he gets into office or doesn't," Sroka said, "I think people are going to be inspired to take his message and understand that they too can run a people-powered campaign."
It can be difficult to maintain national momentum in the absence of a national candidate, said Peter Fenn, a Democratic consultant. Attempts to shift energy for the Obama campaign into the spinoff group Organizing for America, for example, never really gained traction with progressive activists. "They didn't utilize those people as much as they could in some of their efforts," Fenn said. "This is so important, to keep people involved and keep them informed."
For Sanders's supporters, enthusiasm for the Vermont senator's upstart campaign may not flow back into the Democratic Party. Ethan Earle, a Sanders supporter who works as a project manager in the New York office of the left-wing Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, said he hopes other Bernie fans channel their energy into grassroots efforts outside of traditional politics, including support for labor unions, fair housing, and police accountability. A member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Earle said he does phone banking and data entry for the Sanders campaign, and is already working to link campaign to local activist movements.
"I think this leads to a transformation," he explained, "from politics as something that happens on CNN every four years to something happening around you."
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