There are thousands of terrible ways to relitigate the 2016 election, but among the worst is the postmortem analysis that Sen. Bernie Sanders could (or should) be blamed for Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. Clinton herself has clung bitterly to that notion, forcing Sanders to defend his normal course of primary campaigning and reporters to debunk claims that he was any kind of a spoiler. In fact, in the months before Election Day, Sanders showed up at one event after another to enthusiastically support her bid, lending the nominee his appeal with younger and left-leaning voters. He worked hard. But, because Clinton didn’t win, he was scapegoated.
Ignoring this history, Sanders gave Joe Biden the same boost this year following another testy primary season. Biden, in debates with Trump, at times brushed aside the accusation that he was in league with Sanders, “the radical left,” antifa and other bogeymen — noting repeatedly that he, the moderate, had prevailed as the leader of the Democratic Party over the Vermont senator. That didn’t keep Bernie, a 79-year-old, from hitting the trail to stump for Joe amid a pandemic that has killed tens of thousands of people in his age bracket. Meanwhile, he used his own network of small donors to raise cash to take on Trump.
To some leftists and Bernie supporters, this feels like a humiliation, or watching a hero sell out. It’s not a surprise — Sanders was always going to back the nominee (unlike some Democrats who hinted otherwise when he was still in the running) — but it’s hard not to absorb it as the end, for now, of a more serious progressivism. That’s because it’s also easy to be cynical about how Sanders could push a Biden administration leftward; for a host of reasons, he likely won’t be in a cabinet, either.
All the same, a Democratic presidency is a very different circumstance than a Trump term. With Biden elected, the party won’t be as desperate for an internal enemy to hold guilty. If Dems manage to regain the Senate, too, then Sanders becomes a prominent voice in a critical legislative majority. And no matter what, he is an irreplaceable godfather to younger leftists in congress.
Bernie has always been more pragmatic than he gets credit for. Rivals and the media make him out to be a stubborn old man who gets little done because he won’t compromise, yet he turns around and tells the Squad that putting Biden in the White House is a new beginning for their movement. And honestly? I believe him. Even though I can’t get excited for Joe — it’s really a vote to stop the bleeding — I know the country must survive if it is to be healed. So much will be focused on mitigating the immediate damage Trump has done, restoring the theater of decorum he bulldozed and saving the lives he’s imperiled that we might not remember to press for bigger systemic changes. Except Bernie and his allies won’t let us. They will fight to secure those opportunities for transformation on a federal scale. Some such proposals, including a $15 minimum wage, are destined to be triumphs for the entire party.
One should never underestimate the Democrats’ habit of diminishing and circumventing their left wing. As this cycle has shown, though, it is these very same politicians responsible for successful outreach to the future of the party. The DNC has to be incredibly myopic to miss this, and so far, it appears to understand the advantage: Stacey Abrams, who has developed a reputation on voting rights, “wrote the playbook” that made Biden competitive in Georgia. Rep. Ilhan Omar came out swinging at suggestions that he suspend his campaign when Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19, sounding a perfect note of tenacity even as the candidate was obliged to say he would pray for the president’s health. Rep. Rashida Tlaib probably lifted Biden over the top in Michigan — where Trump beat Hillary in 2016 — by ramping up turnout in Detroit.
While older Dems are mocked for tone-deaf or impotent commentary, the younger stars are amassing huge social media followings with polished, fiery, uncompromising (and sometimes just plain relatable) content. And the Democratic Socialists of America won the lion’s share of their races, while the Never-Trump Republican grifters of the Lincoln Project paid themselves millions to deliver… nothing.
Biden represents a temporary ceiling to some progressive ambitions, not to mention an institutional resistance to putting someone like Bernie at the top of the ticket. I wish it were otherwise. Simultaneously, I’m proud to have voted for Sanders in the 2016 and 2020 primaries, and I trust him to play yet another mediocre hand with finesse. As he often reminds his fervent and idealistic audience, the struggle is generational, and his achievement — galvanizing millions to directly challenge inequality and injustice, within their communities and on the grandest scale — is the result of lifelong labor.
We who have been inspired owe him at least the imagination to see how a Biden victory benefits his agenda — by winding it into the DNA of the Democratic platform as a key to their electoral strategy. If the party wants to win, and continue winning, it has to speak to Bernie’s base, and eventually deliver for them. He’s given us the strength to demand it.