Symposium | The Unseen Election

Whither the Sanders Left?

By Theda Skocpol

Tagged Bernie Sandersblack lives matterDemocratsElectionsHillary ClintonOccupy Wall Street

Barack Obama’s successful two-term presidency has brought major policy shifts leading into a pivotal 2016 election that will either continue his new initiatives or put a racist, revanchist demagogue in the White House. Eight years ago, most leftists in or near the Democratic Party backed Obama, but this time many fueled a dogged challenge by independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton, Obama’s heir apparent.

This was not surprising—and certainly not revolutionary. Although loosely interlinked urban movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter can capture media attention for progressive causes, America’s left-liberals have been preoccupied with the presidency since the 1960s and regularly mount primary challenges from the left—such as Bill Bradley’s in 2000, Howard Dean’s in 2004, and Barack Obama’s in 2008. Only the Obama challenge won the nomination, by allying white liberals and African Americans. But progressive campaigns matter and prove revealing even when they fall short, so it makes sense to draw an interim balance sheet for the latest Sanders manifestation. This allows us to imagine how leftist clout in and around the Democratic Party might develop in coming years.

We can start with money, the mother’s milk of politics. By perfecting and expanding the Dean and Obama model of accumulating repeated modest contributions from middle-income supporters, the Sanders campaign raised more than $220 million without big money or PAC contributions. But how campaign money is spent also matters—and on that score the Bernie effort was not innovative. It spent most of its bounty on TV ads, consultants, and huge rallies, doing little to install enduring grassroots organizing capacities. Of course, after losing, the Sanders campaign started out by following the usual path for such failed bids, by using its supporter lists to set up new organizations to “keep the movement going.” But how useful is it to add another round of new after-election organizations to the already huge and fragmented array of leftist advocacy operations? Does any of this really meet the left’s pressing need to recruit, elect, and motivate new representatives in Congress and state legislatures? [See “How the Right Trounced Liberals in the States,” Issue #39.] Soon we will learn if the Sanders post-campaign does more than keep key operatives employed and inspire new MSNBC contracts for Bernie’s highest-profile supporters.

Movement phasing also matters—and here, too, we can ask probing questions about the Sanders campaign. Given the proportional rules of Democratic Party caucuses and primaries, by mid-March—or mid-April at the latest—Sanders fell too far behind Clinton to win the 2016 nomination. But for months, Sanders and his top aides did not acknowledge this reality. Instead of explaining to supporters that they should keep pushing on major issues while refocusing on congressional and state battles, the Sanders inner circle kept touting the notion that they might win the nomination by persuading “super delegates” to defy primary voters and take the nomination away from Clinton. By the end, the Bernie campaign was no longer about winning with majority popular support.

Sanders himself ended up in a pincers. Touting his impact on the Democratic Party platform, Sanders officially ended his campaign and endorsed Clinton on July 12, to clear the way for a unifying convention in Philadelphia. But many Bernie dead-enders were never prepared to go along, and their recalcitrance hardened when Russian hackers passed purloined internal Democratic National Committee emails via WikiLeaks to the U.S. media. Way too much ado was made about very trivial things that appeared in these emails, with some Bernie supporters going so far as to suggest that they proved the nomination was stolen from him.

In the final accounting, anti-Hillary “Bernie-or-Busters” added up to no more than a small minority of Sanders delegates in Philadelphia—at most about 300 out of more than 1,800. Still, Sanders himself seemed genuinely shocked when dead-enders booed his calls for party unity and engaged in foolish convention antics like drowning out some speakers. But should Sanders have been surprised? After all, he never unequivocally told his followers that they lost the primaries fair and square, never acknowledged how much his primary showing depended heavily on delegates won in the most undemocratic caucuses held in the whitest states.

If policies like those pressed by Sanders are to become more than momentary fashions, progressives must counter mid-term voting dips.

At the Democratic convention, Sanders was to some degree bypassed by a rebellious “Bernie Delegates Caucus,” whose California leaders tried to orchestrate walk-outs and push their own vice presidential nominee. U.S. leftism’s most pernicious myopia was on display—its proclivity for ignoring what it takes to spread progressive ideas and electoral victories into swing and moderate states. As the Obama era draws to a close, Republicans and the far right dominate most U.S. state governments and congressional delegations. Left-liberals are mostly quarantined in California, the Northwest, New England, along the Boston-Washington Acela corridor, with some concentrated spots in between, especially around the Great Lakes. Loud-mouthed left activists, mostly from the coasts, demand ever more purity from Democrats while denouncing leaders who have actually made great headway in much tougher settings as “insufficiently progressive.”

Tim Kaine provides a perfect case in point. By any realistic standard, Clinton’s vice-presidential choice has truly “walked the walk” when it comes to spreading progressivism beyond true-blue enclaves. Until Democratic-leaning progressives have more Kaines, progressivism in America will remain more of a media protest than a nationally compelling political force. For Bernie and many of his hard-core activists not to realize this simple truth is a disturbing indication of strategic myopia.

Many signs now indicate that the vast majority of Bernie’s voters (if not all activists) will come to terms with U.S. political realities and throw their support behind Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates this fall. As most participants in the Sanders effort understand, left-progressivism, not to mention the ordinary Americans it says it wants to help, would not get anywhere following a Trump takeover in Washington. In contrast, a Clinton victory could open up many policy and political opportunities for progressives, especially if Democrats take control of the Senate and make gains in the House at the same time. It is not hard to imagine a dynamic 2017 caucus of progressive Democratic Senators spearheaded by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Sherrod Brown able to press for debates and action on a series of progressive priorities such as voting rights reforms, expansion of health reform, enhanced college funding, investments in jobs, and efforts to deal with climate change. In this scenario, Sanders’s primary supporters could remain informed and engaged enough to magnify inside-the-Beltway efforts from the outside. The first months of a Clinton presidency could be a good juncture for progressives, especially if one or more liberals are also confirmed to the Supreme Court.

But the longer-term prospects strike me as more questionable—and certainly depend on much more than this November’s outcomes or the continual deployment of the Sanders primary contact lists. Even if Clinton beats Trump and Democrats take the Senate, the morning-after will bring the usual worries among party leaders about the next big election, in 2018. Democrats face a difficult Senate map then, with seats to defend in moderate and conservative states. During the Obama era, mid-term elections like 2010 and 2014 were a Democratic and progressive graveyard, because younger, minority, and lower-income voters fail to turn out in the same proportions as in presidential election years. If policy agendas like those pressed this year by Sanders are to become anything more than momentary fashions, progressives must counter mid-term voting dips in most districts and states. Much more will have to be done than happened in the 2016 Sanders campaign to permanently engage younger and lower-income citizens.

Today’s progressives need to remember—or learn—that the art of politics is about more than making demands; it is also about shifting the terrain on which the battles are fought to give your forces the widest and easiest room to maneuver. That kind of political work is far from flashy. It is a long, hard slog, with compromises and set-backs along the way. By engaging the imaginations of millions of primary voters, especially younger ones, Bernie Sanders created new possibilities for long-term activism and voter engagement. But it remains to be seen whether his campaign veterans can work effectively with others in and beyond the Democratic Party to realize the possibilities, starting now and stretching well beyond November 2016.

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Read more about Bernie Sandersblack lives matterDemocratsElectionsHillary ClintonOccupy Wall Street

Theda Skocpol is Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University and the Director of the Scholars Strategy Network.

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