The primary season comes to an end next Tuesday in Washington D.C. where Bernie Sanders is unlikely to win, mostly due to the demographics of the city. Of course it’s been over for Bernie for some time. Tuesday made it semi-official but it was hardly a secret as his path for winning continually narrowed and became more improbable with every passing week.
It’s time for a postmortem, and perhaps now is the best time, as the body hasn’t cooled yet. Where did he go wrong? There are lots of mistakes to point to, some not obvious at the time. For me, I don’t feel like chastising Bernie Sanders. I think his campaign was remarkable. Most Americans had no idea even who he was when he announced his campaign, and yet he ended up with more than forty percent of the pledged delegates. Certainly a lot of it was due to frustrations by Democrats unhappy with Hillary Clinton as a candidate and wanting a different choice. There were other choices (Chafee, Webb and O’Malley) but it soon became clear that only Sanders was a real alternative. Put a wig and a tight dress on the others and they might have passed for Hillary; their policies were basically the same.
However, Bernie was something different and fresh. Mostly, he was authentic in a way few candidates can be today. This was part luck and part wisdom. The lucky part was he was a senator from Vermont, a state with a tiny population. Languishing in the far northeast the state was unseen by the rest of the country. Its small size and insular location made it ideal for a progressive candidate who didn’t want to deal with the usual bullshit of campaigning: the rubber chicken dinner circuit, dialing for donors and needing to compromise principle. The wisdom was knowing that by being an independent he could speak authentically. He joined the Democratic Party very late, and primarily just to have the ability to have a realistic shot at running for president.
Authenticity made him singular among politicians and gave him a real Mr. Smith Goes to Washington feel. It opened up doors to being heard that others did not have. For all her speeches, we basically know what Hillary is going to say, and thus for many of us she feels fake, inauthentic and calculating. With authenticity Sanders could be heard, and we heard a new message that reflected the obvious truth around us: that wealth had purchased the transfer of more wealth from the lower and middle classes to the rich. From any other politician it would have sounded calculating. From Sanders, it was obviously sincere and heartfelt.
While Sanders may have lost the nomination, his ideas are now mainstream and won’t go back in the closet. There are now few Americans that haven’t heard of democratic socialism, know exactly what it means and its potential. It doesn’t surprise me that his message resonated so well with whites. Middle and lower class whites have been getting the shaft, just like everyone else. Both Sanders and Trump appealed to these whites, but Sanders did it in a way that was free of racism. As a result he pulled Hillary Clinton substantially to the left because she had to compete to win these voters. He energized people, but mostly he energized younger voters. He has changed the path for our future. As millennials gain power and displace us older voters, his vision will guide these new leaders. I just hope Sanders lives long enough to see it happen. I think it will.
In a way, he wins by losing. Had he been elected president, his ability to get his agenda done would have been no better than Hillary’s, unless Trump’s candidacy so implodes the Republican Party that Democrats retake both houses of Congress. He doesn’t have to take the fall when Congress discards much of the agenda. But he has lit a fuse that will go off sometime in the future. He has given us a picture of what our country can look like and we can taste it.
Sanders mistakes were many but largely due to naivety. His biggest one was simply not reaching out to minorities. It’s not that women and minorities are that enthused by Hillary; remember that she lost to Barack Obama eight years ago. Sanders hadn’t paid his dues. Yes, he was often marching with civil rights protesters but he didn’t make the connections, mainly because he abstracted their problems into a larger agenda, rather than make an emotional case although he is white he was one of them. As a result he was seen as new and thus dubious to women and minorities. He probably hadn’t planned to run for president. Had he, he might have spent years cultivating this network.
He was to some extent a victim of forces outside of his control. Women in particular are anxious to see a woman president. There was no obvious candidate other than Hillary. While not burdened with the hassle of moneyed connections, not having them left him not agile enough to create them quickly when he started his campaign. Everything had to be built from the ground up. It helped give him authenticity, but the process took too long to reach the necessary critical mass.
In short, the lab dish was just partially cultured for Sanders to grow to a critical mass. But because he was part of this campaign it will be in the future for someone with the skills and was drawn to his message. Then it will be obvious to most that he birthed real change. However, his baby is still en utero.