Why you should care
Because the American left will #FeelTheBern long after their movement’s founder is gone.
“Bernie or Bust is a commitment,” the megaphone roared. “A commitment to stay the course.” The embers of revolution should have cooled by now. But the sweltering Philly sun only seems to have heated up the Bernie Sanders movement.
More than a hundred delegates faithful to the Vermont senator walked out of the Democratic National Convention this week after Hillary Clinton become the nation’s first female nominee for president. Last month, we wrote about how Sanders’ revolution would move online, and likely funnel through an Organizing for Action–like committee dedicated to Democratic socialist ideals. That theory has become reality: The Sanders camp recently announced Our Revolution, an organization that will tout Bernie-lite candidacies of folks like Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and law professor Tim Canova. Sanders also seems to be inspiring a new wave of politicians, with one site already promising to draft a slate of 400-something progressives in his image.
Sanders didn’t truly fight until the convention, as he had once promised, but his supporters appear poised to continue fighting to reform the Democratic Party’s rules, including its superdelegate system. Some fans have congregated on Reddit and Medium, plotting regime changes on BrandNewCongress.org and Berniecrats.net, while others looked for love on BernieSingles.com. Yishu Dai, a first-time delegate who eyed the Bernie dating app, admits, “I signed up.”
Today, the Democratic Party is Clinton’s. But where Sanders leads his revolution has deep repercussions for the future of progressive causes in the United States, including Hillary if she steps into the Oval Office.
Beware the Pre-Election Voting Fault Lines
The tremors will first be felt in November, when Sanders supporters could form a crucial bloc by switching to Clinton — or they could refuse to vote, pick a third-party candidate or maybe even back Donald Trump. Any of those latter scenarios would be devastating to Clinton in a general election, where ginning up turnout remains crucial. Some experts — including political adviser Jim Messina — have been publicly skeptical that Sanders voters could swing to Trump.
Yet at Indiana University South Bend, labor studies professor Paul Mishler notes a student recently told him that her entire family favored Sanders — and that Trump was their second choice. “They’re speaking the same language,” Mishler tells OZY. In May, a national Economist/YouGov poll had half of Bernie-ites saying they weren’t ready to support Clinton against Trump in the general election, up from 37 percent in April. That doesn’t surprise volunteers like Gary West, a 35-year-old from Houston, who argues — much like Trump does — that “the system is rigged against us. Both parties are working for themselves.”
The vote could split on fault line issues like campaign finance reform and trade, calling cards for both Sanders and Trump, who do well among blue-collar workers. Clinton tried to win back those voters after all but clinching the nomination in early May, organizing a “Breaking Down Barriers” bus tour from Kentucky to West Virginia and Pennsylvania, but coal workers accused her of promising to put them out of business. Carlton Dallas, a 61-year-old Sanders volunteer who worked decades in the energy industry, notes that the Trans-Pacific Partnership isn’t a trade agreement that would help the working class. “They have experiential pain from it,” says Dallas. “Bernie understands that well. Whether you like him or not, Trump does as well.”
A Postelection Socialist Hangover?
Long after November, the Sanders revolution could live on through the Democratic Socialist’s values. History is riddled with nominees who fell short, only to have others pick up their platform successfully. Barry Goldwater’s loss was historically bad; Ronald Reagan was his ideological heir. The dovish Barack Obama became president four years after Howard Dean’s anti-war candidacy. Sanders has already tapped into, and advanced, the zeitgeist of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. And the Vermonter has pushed Clinton further left on issues such as the minimum wage, trade deals and prescription drug costs. “He can be the guy who set the agenda for the Democratic Party in the post-Obama era,” says Mark Alderman, a party bundler and Clinton backer.
To make those shifts stick, Sanders will have to learn from the mistakes of another revolutionary known for small donors and change rhetoric. Eventually, President Obama’s 30-million-plus email list and loyal supporters formed Organizing for Action, a nonprofit that’s played a crucial role in fighting for certain issues during his second term, including gay marriage and health care enrollment. But time was wasted in the transition, says University of Virginia political scientist Sidney Milkis, who is writing a book on the ways presidents form such organizations: “They lost that grassroots momentum.”
Obama regretted not being able to harness that movement earlier on, says Arun Chaudhary, a former Obama campaign and White House videographer who became Sanders’ creative director. “I think Bernie has internalized that self-critique,” he adds. With Sanders’ own impressive email list and fundraising apparatus, his next steps may include advocating certain causes or personalities through Our Revolution. As a senator, he could “maintain his unfiltered progressivism in a way a president can’t,” says Milkis. Indeed, Obama’s Organizing for Action group was housed (briefly) under the Democratic National Committee, which, Milkis says, “really turned off activists.” That likely won’t happen with the fiercely independent Sanders, but will donors continue to give generously now that he’s no longer on the ballot? And how might that money be used?
Recently, Sanders has shown glimpses of what his post-candidacy position might look like. He often uses his network to raise money for pet causes — like the anti-fracking Keep It in the Ground Act, or the Verizon Wireless workers strike. He’s also fundraised relentlessly for hand-picked Bernie-friendly candidates, including Gabbard and Wisconsin Senate candidate Russ Feingold. And he’s inspired a revolution that can be vindictive too. That’s what outgoing DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz discovered when Sanders recently fundraised for Canova, her progressive challenger. “This isn’t just about winning the nomination,” Milkis says. “There is a broader cause here.”