Bernie’s campaign is dead. Long live Bernie.
On Wednesday, April 8, 2020 Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders announced he was dropping out of the Democratic presidential primary. Many post-mortems on his campaign will likely focus on what it means for his “faction” of progressives. But whether or not it survives as a cohesive faction in the future, there is no doubt that the ideas of the left will endure — because of Bernie’s two campaigns.
In 2016, when Bernie first ran for president, the initial goal was to move Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party further left on labor, healthcare, and the social safety net. At the time, the goals of the Obama-led Democratic party focused heavily on securing Obamacare as well as incremental improvements in education, such as universal (two year) community college.
In 2020, Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president, is campaigning on free four year college for most, and expanding Obamacare to include a public option. These shifts and others made by the “establishment” of the Democratic Party were made possible by Bernie’s push for universal healthcare and universal higher education, and the grassroots movement that mobilized for this message. Candidates who run in the future on Medicare for All, erasing student debt, and raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy will no longer be seen as fringe, but as mainstream.
Paths to high office that antagonized the donor class were once unthinkable. Now, there is a grassroots movement, with its email and phone lists, that will reliably back such candidates. Beyond the policy shifts that Bernie (and Senator Elizabeth Warren) contributed to, there must be an examination of what worked and what didn’t for his campaign.
Unlike 2016, Bernie entered the 2020 race with nearly 100% name recognition, a formidable advantage at the start of the primaries. But Bernie’s campaign faced hurdles before the primary even began. From the start, there was disproportionate media coverage against Bernie and Warren’s campaigns worrying that they were pushing the Democratic Party “too far-left.”
This is a reality any economic populist will have to contend with in the future: Major media coverage in America will always be owned outright or heavily dependent upon corporations. Consciously or not, this did and will skew the coverage when the candidates in question campaign on reducing the political influence of corporations and taxing the wealthy.
But Bernie’s “revolution” was predicated upon turning out people who did not regularly vote. Bernie did not position himself as the electable candidate, despite poll after poll showing Democratic voters prioritized someone who could beat President Trump. Instead of presenting himself as a committed Democrat and Hillary’s successor, Bernie opted for a strategy that positioned him as the outsider who was bringing in outsiders. That strategy was not predicated on winning over existing Democratic voters and did not include the kind of outreach to other factions that successful candidates have achieved in the past.
And there’s a message here: Presidential candidates who opt into Bernie’s “lane” of economic populism in the future would do well to revise their campaign thesis to build bonds with reliable Democratic voters, particularly black voters, long before they run for the job and not rely on a strategy predicated upon turning out people who don’t reliably vote in Democratic primaries.
But whether or not such a lane exists in the future, when Democrats regain control of the White House, expect to see executive action on climate change, labor rights, and the social safety net.
Should Democrats regain control of the senate, there will be bold progressive legislation. We have a zayde from Brooklyn to thank for both.
Alex Zeldin is a contributing columnist for the Forward. His work has been featured in Tablet Magazine and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @JewishWonk.