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What the Bernie Sanders candidacy meant, according to a historian of the left

Bernie Sanders’s campaign is coming to an end. But what did it all mean, anyway — for the American left, for the Democratic Party, and for the country? And now that Sanders has lost, where should activists who hope for progressive change focus their energies?

To get the long view on these topics, I recently spoke with Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown, co-editor of the political magazine Dissent, and author of an excellent book on the history of left-wing activism in America.

That book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, traces the evolution of the various strands of the American left from 1829 to 2011 (the year it was published). In it, Kazin describes numerous times progressive activists in the past have actually managed to get their way — along with many other periods of failure, which often lasted for decades.

So in late June, I asked him to give his thoughts on what the Sanders phenomenon meant, how the American left has managed to make change happen, and why he’s "hopeful" — though not quite "optimistic" — about progressivism’s future. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity, and where we paraphrased other sources I’ve substituted the exact quotations.)

The roots of Sanders’s success

Debs is a major personal hero of Sanders's
Sanders sits in front of an image of Eugene V. Debs in 1990 (Steve Liss/the LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
Steve Liss/the LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Andrew Prokop: You wrote this book in 2011. When you did, could you have imagined that a self-identified "democratic socialist" could win 22 states, be phenomenally successful among young people, and give Hillary Clinton a real run for her money for the Democratic nomination?

Michael Kazin: No! [laughs] It’s funny, my book came out probably about a week before Occupy Wall Street began. And in a review of it in the New York Times, the first sentence was, "We might as well call it: The American left is dead." Now, that’s obviously not my argument in the book!

But in retrospect, the Sanders campaign didn’t really start anything so much as it’s the beneficiary of the rise of left-wing critiques that began probably in the late '90s, with MoveOn. Then, of course, came activism against Bush’s administration, and most importantly from that, the Great Recession, and Occupy, and Fight for $15, and Black Lives Matter. There was a left in and outside the Democratic Party that was looking for someone to challenge the party’s establishment.

So it’s not surprising, in retrospect, that you had a candidate like Bernie. If he didn’t run, people would’ve wanted someone else to run. Elizabeth Warren would’ve said many of the same things. She probably would have said them better, actually.

How Sanders changed the conversation

AP: In a lot of ways, though, Sanders did feel quite different to me, in that he almost seemed to turn back the clock, as far as where the energy in left activism is.

He was much more focused on economic issues and much less on issues of identity and so on. When I profiled him, Garrison Nelson, a political scientist from Vermont who’s observed his career for a long time, told me, "Bernie is in many ways a 1930s radical as opposed to a 1960s radical."

MK: In some ways even 1890s: populist. I wrote this piece for the Times magazine about the word "populist," and in some ways a lot of stuff he’s saying could fit right into the People’s Party of the 1890s.

But he combines a sort of Scandinavian welfare state platform — secure income, secure health care, free public education, free college — with a kind of left populist rhetoric, which is much angrier. Very much in the American tradition, he rails against the rich, he rails against billionaires, he rails against people who make money from other people’s money.

He’s also sort of detoxified the word socialist and the whole idea of socialism. Not completely — the majority of Americans still would not vote for someone who’s a socialist. That’s, in the end, why I supported Hillary even though I liked a lot of what Bernie was saying, because I didn’t really think most Americans would have elected him when the Republicans started attacking him.

For a long time, though, socialism was considered to be anti-American. "We have great ideals; we don’t need these foreign ideals." But now, especially among younger people, there’s a sense of, "Oh, well, he calls himself a socialist, but he says things I like, and that’s fine."

Should Sanders supporters go third party? And how has the left actually made change happen, historically?

FDR signs the Social Security Bill in 1935.
Underwood Archives/Getty

AP: Now that the Sanders campaign is ending, though, some of his supporters argue that the Democratic Party is too corrupt, too bought by special interests and corporations. So as a result, Sanders supporters shouldn’t support Hillary Clinton, and perhaps should stop supporting other Democrats too, to show them that they can’t take the left for granted anymore. What do you think of that argument?

MK: It seems to me that unless something catastrophic happens, most Sanders people will vote for Hillary or at least won’t vote for a third party. Trump is a great motivator. If it had been Rubio or Kasich or someone like that, they could’ve made the argument to some people on the left — I don’t think credibly — that it doesn’t make much difference whether you elect a more moderate Republican versus a more-or-less moderate Democrat.

Still, there are some people in that coalition who really think the Democratic Party is rotten at the core. That’s going to be a big problem going forward, because as I and other people on the left have argued for years, there’s no alternative! In American electoral politics, third parties are a nonstarter.

I was talking to some people who are die-hard Bernie people, and I said, "Look, if the Stalinist Communist Party could support Franklin Roosevelt in the '30s, then you can have a popular front with Hillary! You’re closer to Hillary than the Stalinists were with Roosevelt!"

AP: That’s reflected in your book, because one argument you made there is that the left has had a great deal of success in transforming American culture. But that as far as politics and legislation go, the left has never been able to do things on its own — that "when political radicals made a big difference, they generally did so as decidedly junior partners in a coalition driven by establishment reformers."

MK: Which is not a small thing.

AP: Yes, if that’s the most promising mechanism to make change in our system, in the absence of a stronger alternative, that seems like a perfectly good strategy to employ.

Are center-left presidents good for the left? And what should Sanders supporters do now?

Hillary Clinton
President Hillary Clinton: Good for the left, or a disaster?
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

AP: But a lot of progressives are worried that now that the primaries are over and Clinton is the nominee, and probably the next president, the left will lose its momentum, as she makes compromises with Republicans and pivots to the center.

MK: There is a risk, of course, of this energy being frittered away. But one of the things that people on the left don’t often realize is that liberal presidents are good for the left. I argue about this with my fellow leftists — people a lot younger than me who work on my magazine, and in other places too.

These presidents make demands, and they use rhetoric that, in many ways, is the rhetoric that people on the left have also used and the demands they’ve also made. But then they don’t follow through. Because there’s lots of pressure on them given the exigencies of American politics — the realities of American politics.

That was true for Theodore Roosevelt, it was true for Woodrow Wilson, it was true for FDR, it was true for Kennedy and Johnson as well, and to some degree for Clinton, and very much so for Obama I think. So what happens is there’s a revolution of rising expectations, and people will be pushing her.

AP: So what should activists be doing now to keep the energy going over the longer term?

MK: That’s the big question. I actually have a very good piece in our current issue by Harold Meyerson about "The Democrats after Bernie." He makes, perhaps too optimistically, a good case that because of the generational support for Sanders, if his people stay in the party they basically can take it over.

One of the best things Bernie has done since he clearly lost the race is urge people to run for office. They should be running for state legislature or county executive, the kinds of offices that, with the exception of city council, Democrats on the left have sort of forgotten.

There’s this disconnect between talking about how we need a grassroots movement and just focusing on the presidency. It’s very bad strategy for progressives to think that way. So to the extent that he’s getting people to tilt toward running for state legislature, that’s a very good thing. The problem, of course, is that they have no organization and no institution right now.

Has Sanders won by shifting Clinton?

Chris Usher/CBS via Getty Images Chris Usher/CBS via Getty Images

AP: Tying things back to Sanders a bit, do you think he has had success already when it comes to moving Clinton and moving the party? You can point to all sorts of issues — the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the minimum wage, and all sorts of other issues on which she has moved to the left, at least in her policy proposals, in a way she might not have if there were no challenger.

MK: Oh, very much so. The fact that the $15-an-hour wage is pretty much in the platform.1 And her shift on trade is — well, the Clintons were very associated with the push for NAFTA and being in trade agreements in the '90s.

This interview took place before the platform was essentially finalized last weekend.

AP: It reminds me a bit of what you write about William Jennings Bryan and the populist left of the 1890s and 1900s. They never won the presidency for one of their own, and Woodrow Wilson wasn't really one of them, but by the time he got to the White House [in 1913], he had moved toward what they were doing on so many policy fronts that they had won, in some sense.

MK: The last Democratic president before Wilson was, as I’m sure you know, Grover Cleveland. One of the things he did was, he put out the troops against the railway strike Bernie’s hero Eugene Debs was leading. He basically said during the worst depression in American history, in the 1890s, that he wasn’t gonna create any jobs, he wasn’t gonna do anything to help people.

So I argue, in that book and in my biography of Bryan, that Bryan and his supporters really transformed Democrats on economic issues to be very much the party that wanted a much stronger federal government role with the economy.

Does the left’s future look bright?

AP: The last question I have here is, you conclude the book calling for the left to rediscover some of its old energy, its "passion for beginning the world over again," because, as you write, "reformers from above always needed the pressure of left-wing movements from below." Do you think that has happened in the five years since you wrote that?

MK: In many ways, I think it has; I think that’s true. Part of that is bringing class back into American politics in a major way. Which is something that Sanders, with other people, of course, has done, and that’s really important. Because if the left is only about various identities, that can help give people rights, but that can’t help bring about a more egalitarian society in an economic sense. You have to talk about haves and have-nots economically to get there.

But I think the left always has to operate both on a practical level — figuring out what to do about this decision, that candidate, or this campaign — and also on a more utopian level. Because otherwise it runs the risk of getting to where the social democrats in Europe are right now. Nobody knows what they stand for, except they’re trying to keep the welfare state going, even though it’s difficult to do that economically. In Europe, the left has become the conservatives in a way, just trying to conserve what they have. In this country that is not happening, which is a good thing.

AP: Are you optimistic compared to the past few decades?

MK: Hopeful! Hopeful! Not optimistic. Hopeful. As a historian I never want to expect great things to happen, because I know all the obstacles that can get thrown up in their way. I do agree with that Weber quote that "politics is the slow boring of hard boards." Especially in this country.

I used to be a revolutionary when I was in college, in the New Left; I’m not a revolutionary now. I’m a social democrat, basically, so I think the more pressure the left can bring to bear, the larger it can be, the more coherent its views, the more organized it is — the more it can win. Because that’s how politics works.