What We Already Owe to Bernie Sanders

What We Already Owe to Bernie Sanders

Clinton and Obama holdovers may control the Democratic Party’s machinery, but they no longer set the agenda.


As the New Hampshire primary results came in, political pundits designated Senator Bernie Sanders the Democratic Party’s front-runner. After winning the popular vote in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders is the odds-on favorite to win or place in the next two contests.

He’s the only one of the three current leaders who has demonstrated any support from people of color; the only one with the resources and organization to compete nationally. This realization will inevitably ignite a furious assault by the Democratic establishment and the mainstream media to take Sanders down.

Whether they can succeed remains to be seen, but before the scurrilous barrage is unleashed, let us pause to pay tribute to what Sanders has already won—and the scope of his ambitions going forward.

The Ideas Primary

Sanders and his supporters have won what The Nation has dubbed the “ideas primary.” His agenda now frames the debate in the Democratic Party. Every remaining candidate—with the yet-to-be-defined possible exception of Michael Bloomberg—now endorses doubling the minimum wage, guaranteeing health care for all, making college more affordable, empowering workers to organize, taking on catastrophic climate change, and raising taxes on the rich to pay to invest in America. All promise to get out of America’s endless wars; all decry the trade treaties forged with bipartisan support over the last decades. Even Bloomberg now claims that redressing “inequality” is a major priority. Clintonistas and Obamanauts may still control the party’s formal and informal machinery, but they no longer dominate its ideas—or set its agenda.

The Money Primary

Remarkably, Sanders is also winning the money primary. He has proved that a candidate willing to take on big money in politics can not be only financially competitive but also raise the most dough (with, of course, the exception of Michael Bloomberg’s personal checking account). Last month, Sanders announced that he had raised—in 1.3 million small contributions, and without spending any time wooing big donors—a record $25 million, more than any other candidate raised in a full quarter last year. With more than 1.5 million individual donors and 130,000 recurring donors, Sanders will have the resources to compete in the monster primaries of Super Tuesday and across the country. And his network of supporters—independent of party lists—could provide a powerful resource for insurgent progressive candidates going forward, if Sanders makes arrangements to share the lists. Given the distorting influence of big money on our politics, that would be, as Joe Biden might say, a BFD.

A Movement Campaign

By temperament a loner, Sanders is transforming traditional electoral politics by building a movement candidacy. Like Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama, his candidacy has reached out to activist groups. He’s joined Fight for Fifteen picket lines in the battle for a minimum wage. He’s dispatched volunteers to support striking workers and stand with those protesting the baby cages on our border. He helped push Amazon to lift its minimum wage to $15 an hour. His commitment has enlisted movement and community organizations—People’s Action, Center for Popular Democracy, Make the Road Action, Sunrise Movement, Democratic Socialists of America, and myriad other local environmental, Latino, and poverty groups into endorsing his campaign. Sanders leads among younger black and Latino voters, providing young insurgents with a vehicle to challenge older leaders at the local level.

His campaign has poured resources and energy into what is called distributed organizing—enlisting and relying on volunteers to bring in their friends and to persuade them to get involved. His focus is clear: “We win when turnout is high; we lose when it is low.”

By the end of 2019, volunteers had hosted more than 45,000 events, made more than 11 million phone calls and sent more than 88 million text messages. Sanders is the only campaign close to being competitive with the Trump operation that Republicans are driving.

Thus far, these efforts have yet to bear much fruit, with disappointing turnout in Iowa and New Hampshire. And in the coming faceoff against Michael Bloomberg’s big-money ad campaigns, the strategy will get its biggest test.

What’s clear, however, is that the effort contributes to the extraordinary support Sanders enjoys among the young. His candidacy has played a major role at bringing single-issue groups and activists, often turned off by traditional politics, to see the importance of electoral politics.

Establishment Democrats and pundits scorn Sanders’s call for a “political revolution.” But the changes the country needs won’t occur because Republicans, as Biden suggests, suddenly have an “epiphany” if he’s elected. Nor will they result from Klobuchar’s theory of working across the aisle, or from Buttigieg’s sonorous odes to national unity. Sanders is surely far more realistic when he says that the changes we need require taking on the entrenched interests that have rigged a system to work for them—which in turn requires building a popular movement that stays active after the election and forces politicians to respond. Whether Sanders wins the nomination or the presidency, his commitment to building this movement is likely to be a lasting legacy.

A New Democratic Majority Coalition

Sander’s campaign is explicitly challenging the default Whole Foods coalition of the current Democratic Party that seeks to unite professionals, suburbanites, and social liberals with people of color. As Republicans used race-baiting to win inroads among dispossessed white working people over the last decades, Democrats were complacent, assuming that, as Chuck Schumer boasted in 2016, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” That fantasy helped put the most unpopular presidential candidate in the history of polling into the White House.

After the 2018 midterms, Democrats represented more than eight of the 10 richest districts in the country. As Thomas Picketty, the French expert on inequality wrote, with Republicans the party of the rich and corporations and Democrats the party of the affluent well-educated, the working class had no obvious champion.

In contrast, Sanders explicitly seeks to build a majority coalition of working people across lines of race and region. As Ryan Grim put it, “Instead of crafting a platform to fit a coalition, the campaign is trying to create a coalition to fit his platform.”

In New Hampshire, we saw the outlines of that coalition. Sanders won big among voters making less than $50,000 per year and won those making $50,000–99,000 per year. He won big among union members, despite claims that union leaders were put off by his Medicare for All plan. He won 18–31-year-olds by 31 percentage points. He led in the small African American and Latino communities.

It’s far too early to predict the victor in the Democratic primaries. Sanders’s designation as the front-runner only places a target on his back. For all the hand-wringing about whether Sanders supporters will rally to whoever wins the nomination, the real threat to Democratic unity against Trump will be the Democratic establishment.

The Wall Street wing of the party, its deep-pocket donors, its operatives, consultants, and grifters will have to decide whether they are more willing to let Trump win than to lose control. That was the lesson of the McGovern campaign in 1972 when the party’s hawkish establishment turned its backs on the insurgent. That was the lesson of the Republican Goldwater campaign in 1964. The difference was the conservative movement kept building and took over the Republican Party.

This year, whether Sanders gains the nomination or the presidency or not, the challenge will be whether the agenda that he has championed, the movement that he has helped to fuel, and the coalition that he has begun to forge can continue to build—and begin to force the fundamental reforms we so desperately need.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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