Despite winning 49 New York counties to Hillary Clinton’s 13, and more votes in the state than Donald Trump and John Kasich combined, Bernie Sanders is not going to be the next president of the United States. For those of us who really thought he might, his defeat here hits especially hard. The temptation to abandon ourselves to recrimination and despair will be strong. Yet it must be resisted.
For one thing, Sanders himself fights on, in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Oregon, and California: states where he can continue to inspire a movement and upend the “pragmatic incrementalism” that marks the limits of conventional politics. It also makes no sense to walk away in the middle of a debate that Sanders is winning on every issue, from a $15 minimum wage to the disastrous legacy of pro-corporate trade deals, to the need for massive reinvestment in our inner cities, to the rejection of a foreign policy founded on regime change. Workers who have seen their jobs shipped overseas; all those left behind by the Clinton-era boom, as well as the millions who lost a home in the Bush recession or remain excluded from the skewed Obama recovery—they still need a voice, and a champion, in this election.
I spent the day before the vote in Wyckoff Gardens, three crumbling gray-brick towers in the heart of Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill, built in the 1960s and neglected for the past half-century. “People think we’re all on welfare,” said resident Beverly Corbin. “People in public housing are teachers, engineers, social workers, corrections officers. We are a community!” I asked my guides—a half-dozen fiercely articulate African-American women belonging to Families United for Racial and Economic Equality—how they were going to vote, and was surprised that a majority said they were “feeling the Bern.” Yet when Stephen Levin, the 34-year-old city councilman whose office arranged my visit, revealed that he was backing Clinton, there was no animosity.
“You were there for us after Hurricane Sandy,” said Charlene Nimmons, the former president of the tenants’ association. “And we need you with us now.” She was speaking about their fight against a move by the city to turn a parking lot at one end of the development into market-rate housing. For these women, and millions like them, politics isn’t a hobby, but rather a fight for survival. And as he has shown on the streets of Brownsville and on the picket line in Buffalo, there is no more courageous ally than Bernie Sanders. Now is no time for him, or those inspired by his message, to leave the field.
Yet while the struggle continues, the goal has changed. Winning the White House was a thrilling dream. Winning power—durable power, the kind that makes laws and holds elected officials to account—is a longer, more grueling fight. That, however, is the task we face now. In the coming weeks, Sanders and his supporters will need to make clear exactly what he’s fighting for, both inside the Democratic Party and beyond. As his campaign officials rightly point out, Sanders’s support keeps growing. He may well win more states, and will arrive at the convention with enough delegates to push not just for a progressive platform but for procedural changes—such as an end to superdelegates or a ban on PAC money in primaries—that could level the playing field for the next generation of insurgents. He could also demand the appointment of party officials less addicted to corporate cash. In the meantime, he could direct a lot more of his attention and money to candidates down the ticket who share his politics.
An inside strategy alone, though, will never deliver political revolution. As Dan Cantor of the Working Families Party told me, “You can’t occupy the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party will end by occupying you.”
The WFP model of fusion politics—using the opening created by New York’s election laws to build an independent power base by endorsing progressive Democrats without playing a spoiler role—may not be the answer nationwide: Thousands of WFP members worked hard for Sanders, but in New York’s closed primary, many of them couldn’t vote for him. It’s not a bad place to start thinking, though, about how to heal the terrible racial fissure that split progressives in what is arguably the most progressive state in the country. We need to ask ourselves why a movement candidate in a movement moment still fell short, and Sanders and his supporters need to be at the center of that conversation, listening as well as leading.
Finally, the tone of the campaign needs to change—on both sides. Sanders needs to keep fighting hard on the issues, and Clinton needs to pivot—not away from Sanders supporters but toward them. She may gain the nomination by defeating Sanders, but she won’t win in November without embracing his issues and convincing his supporters that she, too, feels the Bern.