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What’s Left Without Bernie

With Sanders’ campaign officially over, his movement vows to continue the fight

First of all, let’s acknowledge that Bernie Sanders is still here.

Actually, that’s kind of his entire brand: sticking around. Even the former Hillary Clinton staffers who planned a since-canceled Zoom call to celebrate the end of his 2020 presidential campaign couldn’t help but acknowledge this: “He’s finally gone (again!),” the invite declared. To Sanders’ critics and rivals, he is a persistent and recurring headache; to his supporters, he is tireless in his work toward a just society. Last month, headlines declared that Sanders would “stall” the $2 trillion coronavirus aid package, as if he were making some abstruse political point while Americans went without relief. Actually, he was preventing a handful of Republicans from stripping out the provision for boosting unemployment benefits right as millions lost their jobs.

Conservatives who dislike Bernie tend to frame him as a communist kook who entices young voters with outlandish promises of “free stuff.” People in the center, too — including prominent voices of the Democratic establishment — also quibble with his ideas as impractical or expensive. But while scumlord Republicans will gladly wring their hands over any budget item if poor and vulnerable people stand to gain a fraction of what’s freely given to banks and corporations, I haven’t seen any Democrat, no matter how anti-Bernie they are, suggest that the extra $600 per week for laid-off workers was some radical, pie-in-the-sky nonsense. Heidi Heitkamp, a former senator and Democrat whose economic views are far to the right of Bernie’s, shared his excoriation of GOP colleagues on the floor, with nothing but admiration.

Such moments offer a glimpse of the left’s potential future, even after Bernie no longer serves in government. The core principle is there — we must ensure that life is stable, sustainable and dignified for our sick, poor and disadvantaged — and relatively uncontroversial for Democrats with half a conscience left.

All you need is someone (preferably many someones) like Bernie to fight for that ideal, against every bad-faith rationale for cutting the social safety net or burying citizens in debt. He’s shown that you can become the most popular figure in the senate, and the most beloved politician in the country, if you commit to this good, uncomplicated premise.

The proposals that some ridicule as fantasy — Medicare for All, student loan forgiveness, reducing the prison population by half, a higher minimum wage — all flow from a humanistic worldview that cannot actually be refuted. And so it does not die. Younger progressives will carry forward Bernie’s leftism without the perception problems that come with being an old, white, finger-wagging man whose extremely online fans are caricatured as toxic zealots. Another generation of organizers will push for the reforms and restoration of equity that he talks about, not on the presidential scale he described, but wherever opportunity arises.

The caretakers of the status quo call Bernie’s movement a cult of personality, seeing a fire that will burn out absent his spark, and that means they’re unprepared for the truth: This coalition isn’t going to settle for the lesser evil anymore. The catastrophe of 2020 has made their case. It’s no longer a case of whether we can afford big changes — it’s that we simply can’t afford more of the same.

The institutional resistance to a next wave of rebellion (and the next, and the next) remains as well — though we’ve seen it erode in the past few years. It’s almost not worth arguing how stupid the primary system is, what the DNC did wrong or which cable news pundits were biased — these are obstacles until they aren’t, at the exact moment when an unstoppable candidate comes along, armed with the populist agenda of radically improving the conditions under which most of us exist and struggle. The weeks and months ahead will feature plenty of hot speculation as to who that candidate may be (and where Joe Biden’s eventual pick for vice president figures into that augury), yet none of it will fundamentally alter the why of that individual’s ascent. It could be Stacey Abrams; it could be Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Either way, it’s someone who inherits the structure and momentum that took Bernie’s campaigns as far as they went. That is to say: pretty damn far.

Bernie’s slogan — “Not Me. Us.” — served to predict this transition. He never expected the history of progress to end with him, and the bruising disagreements over his identity and likability have always been digressive, a parlor game for the armchair analysts. None of your individual feeling toward him prevents another leader from building on what he leaves behind and pursuing his grand project. Which, again, if you claim the Democrat label, you should already believe in. Maybe, for some private reason, you decided Bernie wasn’t the one to realize this vision, and will happily join ranks with whoever else takes it up. But as we cross the threshold of its possibility — its utter necessity — we have him to thank.

And he’s not even finished yet.