The truth is, nobody knows how this story ends. We know what was supposed to happen: Bernie Sanders was a sideshow act, a relic to entertain the kids. After warming up the crowds and falling amusingly on his face in the primaries, Sanders was supposed to disappear, leaving the audience happy to settle down for four—or eight—more years of grown-up government under the Clintons. Instead, Sanders waged a campaign that stunned both Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment. Raising in excess of $200 million through more than 7.4 million contributions, he proved that candidates no longer need rich donors or corporate money to compete.
Winning in state after state, Sanders refused to triangulate, instead expanding the American political universe to the left, putting the vision of a social democracy whose fruits have long been taken for granted in much of Europe—state-funded childcare, paid family leave, universal healthcare, free tuition at public colleges and universities—back on the American agenda. On foreign policy, too, he shattered decades-long taboos, denouncing the legacy of “regime change” from Chile to Iran, and even daring to defy the ban on criticizing Israel.
By the time the last primary votes are cast in California, Sanders will have taken his political revolution further than anyone—including Sanders himself—ever imagined possible. And if he’s had little impact on Clinton’s hawkish stance abroad, on the home front Sanders can claim victories in opposing the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and in supporting a $15 minimum wage and even, as of a few weeks ago, Medicaid expansion. Bernie Sanders has won the battle of ideas, hands down.
But he isn’t going to be president. So if Bernie’s Army isn’t marching to the White House, where is it going? Over the past two weeks, I’ve spoken with dozens of Sanders supporters, staffers, and volunteers, in states from Vermont to Florida, California to the Carolinas. I heard both anger and acceptance, but very little agreement—although in all of those interviews, I didn’t find a single person who said they were going to work just as hard for Hillary Clinton. The closest I came was Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, the group founded by Howard Dean after his candidacy imploded in 2004. Although Dean, who is now a superdelegate, backed Clinton, DFA members voted overwhelmingly to endorse Sanders.
“Of the 88 percent that chose Bernie Sanders, 98 percent of them told us to endorse the nominee,” says Chamberlain, who also believes that Sanders should “continue to lead the political revolution. If he needs to set up his own organization to do that, then that’s a smart move.”
So far, though, Sanders has said nothing about his plans. Although all of the activists I spoke with would welcome his involvement, whatever happens after the primaries, four main groups have already begun to form: