The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

What Does Bernie Sanders Want Now?

After losing the California and New Jersey primaries, Bernie Sanders is still refusing to quit. But where can he go from here?

by Grace Wyler
Jun 8 2016, 4:00am

Bernie Sanders greets fans in Santa Monica on the night of the California primary on Tuesday, June 7. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

For more than a year, since even before Bernie Sanders announced he was running for president, Gustavo Ramirez has been evangelizing on behalf of the Vermont senator, building up a grassroots network of California lefties and activists to get behind the unlikely White House bid. His efforts started small, as a single Meetup group in Pomona, and spread quickly, across Southern California's Inland Empire and out to the coastal counties, collecting new Bernie diehards who watched for months as their candidate racked up surprising wins in the race against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, eagerly preparing for the campaign's eventual arrival in their own state.

So when Sanders finally showed up at a rally in Carson last month, and promised to make California his last stand against Clinton and the Establishment she represents, Ramirez was overwhelmed. "Hang on a second, I gotta catch my breath," he said, stopping mid-sentence to collect himself during an interview with VICE. "Oh my God, I'm so excited. I'm just so hyped!"

At 44, Ramirez is older than most of the supporters who flooded the StubHub Arena for Sanders's first California primary rally that evening, and unlike many of his fellow Sanderistas, he has worked on long-shot campaigns before. A longtime member of the Green Party, Ramirez graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in social justice, and his business card identifies him as the founder of U.P.W.A.R.D. (Uniting Peace With Actions, Respect, and Dignity), a San Bernardino–based organization that mobilizes for various left-wing causes.

After the candidate had left the arena, Ramirez flitted among lingering groups of Bernie fans, introducing campaign organizers and convention delegate hopefuls and collecting email addresses for down-ballot "Berniecrats." If he had any doubts about his candidate's chances of winning the Democratic nomination, it didn't show.

"We're serious when we say we want a political revolution," Ramirez told VICE. "We need to truly break down barriers. And it's not just Bernie who can do it—it's us." When asked if he would consider returning to the Green Party if Sanders loses the Democratic nomination, he hesitated. "No," he answered. "I'll put Bernie as a write-in candidate if I have to. I'm Bernie or Bust."

At this point, a group of kids in black "Compton for Bernie" T-shirts called Ramirez over to take their picture behind Sanders's campaign podium. But as I turned to walk away, he called me back. "One last thing," he added, throwing his arm around another companion. "We're trying to get Bernie to come to San Bernardino. We need him in San Bernardino—we desperately need a revolution there."

People listen to Sanders speak during a get-out-the-vote concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Ramirez got his revolution—at least in part. Although Sanders effectively lost the Democratic race, he did make it to San Bernardino ("It was electric," Ramirez told me later, his voice almost completely gone at that point). In fact, by the time his campaign wrapped out of California, the candidate had made dozens of stops throughout the state, approaching the last major primary of the 2016 cycle the way most presidential candidates approach a 99-county bus tour before the Iowa caucuses.

"If we can win, and win big here in California and in the other states, and in Washington, DC, we are going to go into the Democratic convention with enormous momentum," Sanders told thousands of young fans gathered at the gates of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday night. "With your help, I believe, we will come out with the nomination."

The promise, which he's repeated across the state, hints at the alternate reality increasingly embraced by the Vermont senator and his Bernie or Bust fans, one in which a win in California would inspire unpledged superdelegates—the majority of whom have declared they support Clinton—to defect from the presumptive nominee and hand the prize to Sanders instead.

The logic has always been a little confusing, given Sanders's professed desire to get rid of superdelegates entirely, and the fact that he would be asking those superdelegates to overturn the will of Democratic primary voters. And after Tuesday primary results, the argument is essentially dead.

By the time Sanders left the stage at his primary night rally in Santa Monica Tuesday night, it still wasn't clear who would win California's Democratic primary. But at that point, the results were largely superfluous: With her decisive wins in New Jersey and New Mexico, Clinton had effectively won the Democratic nomination, locking up the majority of the 4,051 pledged delegates at stake in the race.

But though his justifications for staying in the race had mostly vanished, Sanders promised that he would stay in the race. "Next Tuesday, we continue the fight in the final primary in Washington, DC," he told supporters gathered in Santa Monica. "And then we take our fight for economic, social, racial justice to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania!

"I'm pretty good at arithmetic, and I know that the fight in front of us is a very, very steep fight," he said. "We will continue to fight for every vote and every delegate we can get." Concluding his brief remarks, he added, "Thank you all. The struggle continues."

Sanders supporters drown out the candidate during his primary night party in Santa Monica on Tuesday, June 7. Photo by John Locher/AP

As the primary cycle reaches its predictable conclusion, this ongoing denial of the mathematical realities of the race—coupled with Sanders's apparent determination to derail Clinton's nomination—raises a pressing question for both his movement and the Democratic Party: What exactly does Bernie Sanders want?

On the surface, the answer seems obvious. As anyone with an internet connection can tell you, Sanders wants a "political revolution"—one that will get money out of politics, overturn Citizens United, punish Wall Street, ban fracking, and install a system of Scandinavian socialism with free public education and healthcare. It's a platform that Sanders has crusaded for during his 25 years in Congress, and has remained devoted to during his unexpectedly competitive campaign, with a message consistency that borders on zealotry.

In California, though, Sanders was focused on a new goal: He wanted to win. Barnstorming the state over the weekend, his speeches veered away from the economic injustice, focusing instead on the injustices done to him and his campaign by the political-industrial complex.

"It is extremely unlikely that Secretary Clinton will have the requisite number of pledged delegates to claim victory on Tuesday night," Sanders told reporters at a news conference in LA on Saturday. "Now I have heard reports that Secretary Clinton has said it's all going to be over on Tuesday night. I have reports that the media, after the New Jersey results come in, are going to declare that it is all over. That simply is not accurate."

"In other words," he said, "the Democratic National Convention will be a contested convention." In an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper on Sunday, he added that the current Democratic primary is "an anointment process, not a nomination process."

Bernie or Busters wait for the candidate in Santa Monica. Photo by Grace Wyler

The message—that the Democratic primaries, like the rest of the political system, are fundamentally rigged—is one Sanders has repeated frequently in recent weeks, turning the angry enthusiasm previously reserved for his left-wing policies against the Democratic Establishment and its "corporate media" lackeys.

"The Democratic Party is going to have to make a very, very, profound and important decision," Sanders said in Carson last month. "It can do the right thing and open its doors and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change." The other option, Sanders explained over a chorus of "Bernie of Bust" chants, "is to choose and maintain its status quo structure, remain dependent on big money campaign contributions, and be a party with limited participation and limited energy."

As Clinton edged closer to the nomination, Sanders's campaign responded by accusing party officials in Kentucky and Puerto Rico of unfairly suppressing the vote. Over the weekend, the campaign went so far as to accuse a Los Angeles city council member of interfering with plans to host a get-out-the-vote concert at a city-owned venue where Clinton was scheduled to host her own rally Monday night.

At rallies in California, the inevitability of what many of Sanders supporters refer to as the "quote unquote math" of the primary race clashes sharply with the overwhelming feeling that their candidate is actually winning. The contrast has left supporters alternately ecstatic and on edge, consumed by the suspicion that Democratic Party has been gaslighting their movement.

"There's a little bit of quiet—or not-so-quiet—desperation," said Danny Baraz, a Sanders supporter and the editor in chief of Janky Smooth, an LA-based music and culture website that recently hosted a punk rock fundraiser for Bernie's campaign. "People seem a little bit more angry, a little bit more desperate, a little bit like we could be letting something slip through our fingers.

"I've been a registered Democrat my whole life, until maybe after this year," Baraz told VICE. "The DNC has been very dismissive of Sanders supporters—I think that's going to be the straw that broke the camel's back." He added, "I fully expect widely reported and widespread voter fraud in California. I would bet my house on it."

The meme and the movement. Photo by Grace Wyler

The sentiment—driven, in part, by the Democratic Party's bizarrely heavy-handed opposition to the Sanders's campaign—has run through almost every conversation I've had with Bernie supporters, many of which began with the question, "Are you good media?"

"If you look at what's happened with the closing of polling places, the problems with voter registration—that's just the stuff we've heard about," Steve Stokes, a self-described "Berniecrat" making a long-shot bid for US Senate in California, told VICE outside a rally in Orange County. "Imagine what's happening that we don't know about." Nearby, a guy in stars-and-stripes pants led a "Never Hillary!" chant through a megaphone.

Ramirez was more matter-of-fact. "The Democratic Party," he declared, "is corrupt to the core."

All this has been the source of predictable handwringing among Democrats, undermining their desperate calls for "party unity." But the insistence that Sanders can actually win the nomination presents perhaps a bigger quandary for the Bernie movement itself. Sanders's campaign has earned real victories and overachieved on a vast scale—the question now is whether his final battle will overshadow the policy goals he set out to accomplish in the first place.

Sanders will enter the Democratic National Convention as the most successful socialist candidate ever to run for president in the US, and with more leverage than any runner-up in recent memory—but short of stealing the nomination from Clinton, Sanders has yet to make it clear what exactly he wants to do with that power.

"I think he's made some huge mistakes," Baraz said. "If he pivoted away from free healthcare and free education, and focused on the money in politics, I think his message would resonate a lot more, and with a wider audience.

"I think the most important question," he added, "is what's going to happen to the movement if and when Bernie loses the nomination. There's no exact plan."

"Where are the transcripts?" Photo by Grace Wyler

Behind the scenes, Sanders has managed to exact big concessions from the Democrats heading into the national convention, including several seats on the platform committee that will decide the party's national policy agenda for the next four years. And his endorsement of Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Shulz's opponent in her Florida congressional race was a sign that the senator will continue to hold the party accountable to the progressive movement, even after he's exited the race.

"There are a number of different ways that Bernie Sanders could continue to have an influence in 2016, whether he's the president, or a leader in the US Senate with an incredibly large grassroots movement behind him," said Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America, a progressive group allied with the Sanders campaign.

"A lot of people," Sroka added, "seem to forget, because he's this wild-haired socialist from Vermont, that this is the guy who has been a master legislator, in terms of deal-making, and figuring out how to get his way, despite the fact that the other side is against him almost every time."

But while Sanders himself has been effective at getting what he wants from his adopted party, he has so far seemed reluctant to instruct his movement on how they can best help him achieve his goals. "The idea that I can snap my fingers and have millions of supporters kind of march in line, that is not what our effort is about," he told CNN Sunday.

So for now, at least, in the absence of an increasingly unlikely Sanders's victory, the candidate's supporters have been left to determine how best to advance their revolution. This has already lead to some unfortunate outcomes, like the doxxing of the Nevada Democratic Party chair last month, and the attacks on Trump supporters in San Jose, which were reportedly carried out in part by Sanders fans.

Young Bernie fans in Santa Monica. Photo by Grace Wyler

Despite these incidents, Sroka thinks that by and large, the Sanders movement will do just fine without more concrete guidance from the candidate himself.

"There is always a challenge when you get into difficult moments like the one we're in right now, closer and closer to the end of the campaign, especially for the kind of grass roots movement that Bernie has built, because you're bringing in a lot of people into the political process who never were involved in politics before," he said.

But, Sroka added, "one of the reasons why Bernie Sanders's campaign has been so surprisingly strong is, because he is so on message all of the time. Most of the time, the movement is saying exactly what he's saying because it's what he's been saying for thirty years."

Still, as Sanders fans face the prospect of actually having to make good on their Bernie or Bust promise, many of the movement's activists seem to be looking to the candidate for guidance on how to continue to achieve his goals after he has exited the race.

"He wants us to raise our level of commitment in whatever way we can," Ramirez said, when I asked how he planned to support Sanders after the California primary. "To inspire people who have not been active, or who haven't supported Sanders, to join the movement, to volunteer, to become more effective in campaigning."

But just what they will be campaigning for in the post-Bernie revolution is much less clear.

Follow Grace Wyler on Twitter.