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Bernie Sanders’s campaign is over, but his legacy is winning

Sanders ignited a movement that pulled the Democratic Party leftward.

Bernie Sanders waves.
Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign on April 8, 2020.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign is over. And unlike his 2016 run, which surely counted as a kind of moral victory, his 2020 loss is a much more crushing and definitive defeat.

But what remains true is that Sanders ignited a movement that rapidly pulled the party further left than was imaginable just four years ago. His ideas are the future. That’s Sanders’s victory.

Democratic Party primary voters picked a party stalwart in former Vice President Joe Biden over a quasi-outsider promising a revolution. But they did so in part because mainstream figures know how to bend with the wind rather than snap. The version of Biden who carried the day was a strikingly more progressive figure than Barack Obama, to say nothing of the historical Joe Biden whom Obama put on the ticket to reassure more conservative elements of the party.

Layer this on top of the fact that the youngest cohort of Democrats is most attuned to Sanders’s message and it’s clear that the future of Democratic Party politics is going to look a lot more like what Sanders has stood for over the years than Biden.

Democrats have bent heavily in Sanders’s direction

When I wrote nearly four years ago that “Bernie Sanders is the future of the Democratic Party,” I didn’t mean it literally. I meant his ideas and the people brought into politics by his movement were the future of the party.

The left fought the 2020 campaign divided. And Sanders proved unwilling to try to offer meaningful reassurances to those nervous about him or even to acknowledge that the typical Democratic Party primary voter has positive associations with the Democratic Party as an institution.

At the same time, the party bent significantly in the direction of Sanders’s prior critiques.

As Roge Karma and Ezra Klein have written for Vox, on every issue you can think of, Biden’s 2020 policy platform is to the left of where Obama stood. The real change is even bigger than the specifics. The direction of change proposed by mainstream Democrats these days is uniformly leftward.

Everyone in the field agreed that the government role in health care should be more expansive, that education spending should go up, that there should be more income support for the poor, that the welfare state should be extended into matters related to child care and family leave, and that the country needs to be more aggressive about environmental regulation, gun regulation, anti-racism, and LGBTQ rights while taking a less harsh approach to criminals and immigrants.

The entire argument in modern Democratic Party politics, in other words, is simply over how far left to go on a range of issues, not about which direction to take the country or the party. Sanders can take a bow.

Moderates used to be different

The current conception of a “moderate Democrat” as one who declines to meet the entire checklist of left-wing activist demands is a sea change from the 1990s conception of the “New Democrat.”

What marked Bill Clinton as a different kind of Democrat isn’t that he sometimes trimmed his sails politically to accord with public opinion. It’s that he actively pushed public policy to the right on a variety of fronts, expanding the death penalty, pushing for more incarceration, “reforming” welfare to be less generous to the neediest families, and drastically expanding the criminalization of immigration. Some of Clinton’s reelection material boasting of “the death penalty for drug kingpins” and capital gains tax cuts are almost unrecognizable as Democratic Party messaging.

That’s the era in which Sanders cut his teeth as a member of Congress, ambiguously located in the left wing of the Democratic caucus without formally joining it. He didn’t want to join the party because, as a left-winger, while he viewed Democratic politicians as superior to the Republicans, he didn’t want to be part of a political party that wasn’t clearly and consistently progressive.

It’s telling that the new generation of progressive House members — including enthusiastic Sanders endorsers like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Pramila Jayapal, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib — have no such hang-ups. It’s not that they have no differences with others in the caucus. It’s that the caucus really is pulling leftward on policy more or less across the board, so there’s no reason for the leftmost members of Congress not to see themselves as part of that effort.

And while Obama was decidedly more progressive than Clinton, even his presidency was not nearly so clear-cut ideologically. His team made much of things like charter schools, increased accountability for colleges and universities, and the idea of “bending the cost curve” on health care by reducing use through cost-sharing. He pushed a progressive agenda on many fronts but paired it with skepticism of seriously increasing the scope of the welfare state, thus leading to a lot of emphasis on efforts to wring more efficiency out of existing programs. Today’s Democratic Party still has meaningful internal disagreements, but they’re essentially all over how far to go rather than which way to head.

Sanders has become an inspiration — and a distraction

Sanders is not single-handedly responsible for any of those trends. What he is responsible for, however, is mobilizing a new cohort of young progressive people to get interested in politics — thus substantially accelerating a series of changes that were already underway.

Much has been made by Sanders’s intraparty antagonists of the fact that the critical 2018 winners who flipped previously GOP-held seats rarely practiced his style of politics.

That’s true. But while marginal members in marginal seats are the difference between majority and minority status, it’s the much more numerous safe seat members who set the tone for a political party and set the terms of debate in Congress. And here Sanders-aligned candidates are making clear gains, and the age distribution of the Democratic primary vote makes it clear that gains will continue in the future. These kinds of Sanders-esque progressives aren’t poised to hold the pivotal seats in Congress, but that’s never how Congress has worked. Moderate members, by definition, are the ones who win the marginal races.

But the nature of the political center is being redefined by Sanders-inspired forces such that a $15-an-hour minimum wage and an expansive public option for health care now count.

Unfortunately, one thing the 2020 campaign also proved is that Sanders personally is a lightning rod figure who in some ways has become less than the sum of his agenda. Some people don’t like him because they don’t like his ideas. But others dislike what they see as a lack of team spirit, a sense that insisting on taking the 2016 primary all the way to the convention was harmful, and dislike his habit of defining himself outside of the Democratic Party and the somewhat paranoid and insular set of media institutions and Twitter personalities who seem mainly interested in using Sanders as a bludgeon with which to hit other Democrats.

The arguments around these points have become tedious and in many ways painfully meta and second-order to the point where it’s hardly possible to say anything intelligible about them. Suffice it to say that Sanders personally has become a point of division; some people who agree with what most of he has to say hate the guy, and others insist on defining true progressive bona fides purely in relationship to one’s willingness to swear undying loyalty to the Sanders cause.

But as he steps back, perhaps into more of an elder statesman role, those Sanders-specific controversies are likely to fade. What will be left is a new, much more aggressively progressive version of the Democratic Party, infused with the energy of millennial activists, pushing a set of ideas that amount to cut-down versions of Sanders proposals rather than a “third way” or a pretense to non-ideological problem-solving.