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The Left Is Bigger Than Bernie Sanders

Despite his electoral failures, the Vermont senator has wrought incredible political shifts for a future generation to capitalize upon.

Brittany Greeson/Getty Images

In the face of a pandemic that could kill more than a million Americans, overwhelm our health care system, and tank our economy, Democratic leadership in Congress has stood firm in one demand: Let’s not get too crazy with the free stuff, guys. While members of Congress from both parties have proposed immediately stimulating the economy by sending money to Americans, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s staff confirmed that she shot down proposals to send stimulus checks without some manner of means testing getting applied to the process, because such funds “MUST be targeted” based on “need.” Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted his big blue-sky idea: Low-interest loans for small businesses. What better time for business owners staring down the barrel of pandemic precarity to take on additional debt than right now?

These baffling moves are common symptoms of Democrat Brain: Obstinately adhering to an understanding of politics shaped by no events later than 9/11; believing that singing from the right pages of the Republican hymnal, on fiscal responsibility or border security or the magical power of the free market, will earn them points with their opponents; or, worse, genuinely believing those things matter more than the crisis to which they’re meant to be responding. The mewling response from Democratic leaders made the other major political story of the week even more depressing: Another slate of primary wins for Joe Biden, the consummate centrist Democrat, all but assuring that he will be Democratic nominee for president. While Bernie Sanders hasn’t officially dropped out yet, his campaign is over.

Bernie Sanders lost the essential part of his argument: the one in which he, in particular, should be president. Sanders will turn 80 in September of next year; his days as a presidential contender are functionally over. Now his movement must reckon with the mistakes that were made in order to remain on track. There is, nevertheless, some comfort to be taken. Two successive presidential campaigns have wrought some essential changes in the political landscape. Arguments that Democrats had previously treated as either politically impossible to make or simply incorrect are suddenly viable. There’s no reason in the world to reverse course. Indeed, the present crisis suggests that doing so would be unthinkably irresponsible.

When Sanders announced his campaign for president in 2015, it was just five years after the signing of the Affordable Care Act, and only a year after the last of its provisions were implemented. The ACA was meant to provide a permanent and robust fix to health care in America; in fact, it was supposed to provide “universal” health care. This was the Obama administration’s signature achievement, crowned a “big fucking deal” by the then vice president and now presumptive nominee. It shouldn’t have been possible for a Democratic presidential contender to emerge, running on the argument that this success was not enough, that gaping wounds remained.

Sanders nevertheless ran on Medicare for All in direct response to the inadequacies of the ACA, as well as its underlying assumption that market-based health insurance was a workable and just way to provide health care. He railed against the drug and insurance companies who partnered with Obama in the passage of the ACA in order to break off their own sweetheart deals. Sanders shaped his argument outside of Beltway conventions as well. He went to Canada with diabetics who had no other way of purchasing insulin. Often, he simply asked voters what they spend on health care. Sanders helped ordinary people come to learn that they weren’t alone in these struggles. Even in an election cycle that’s run against his electoral ambitions, the fruits of these labors are evident: In every primary state in which exit polls have been conducted, majorities of Democrats consistently affirm their support for Medicare for All.

There are dozens of Sanders policies that are left-wing and bold in scope, from his climate change policies to the plan to put workers in charge of their companies. He took many unpopular-seeming positions, like giving prisoners the right to vote or instituting a moratorium on deportations. But perhaps the most significant and long-term valuable argument Sanders made—and one that seems horribly relevant now—was advocating for generous and universal, not means-tested, government programs. Sanders tells voters that health care is a human right, and his plan proposes to provide the same generous health care plan to all. When Joe Biden expresses the same sentiment, it rings false because his plan pointedly excludes 10 million Americans from its benefits. Biden has not yet ventured an explanation for why such a significant portion of the population will remain uninsured and cut off from the same level of care if he’s elected. He’s not been asked why his plan goes to the lengths it does to ensure the ability of wealthy people to continue to be able to purchase better insurance, or why his plan financially incentivizes them to do so. It is offensive to the ears to hear Biden, or Hillary Clinton, cynically co-opt revolutionary rhetoric to sell these miserly ideas. Perhaps Sanders has made it impossible to do it any other way.

Sanders’s plans to forgive all student debt and all medical debt, and to provide free college for all, regardless of income, directly challenged the Democratic orthodoxy pushed by candidates like Pete Buttigieg, who argued that the children of millionaires’ college education shouldn’t be subsidized by the taxpayer. This was a politically difficult argument to make—it is much easier to pretend that means-tested programs only hurt the megawealthy—but nevertheless, he persisted, knowing full well that the way Washington does business necessarily excludes a sizable portion of the needful population. As we face the maddening spectacle of Democratic leaders proposing to means test relief from the most sudden and damaging economic collapse in a century, Sanders deserves credit for sticking up for universal programs over the past five years.

Sanders has had to contend with his own imperfections, some of which almost certainly impeded his efforts to reach the White House. The Bernie Sanders of 2020 was much more humane and correct on immigration than any of his earlier iterations, where his rhetoric on immigration was far more shaped by concern over the wages of Americans than for the plight of immigrants themselves. On guns, Sanders belatedly supported stronger action in 2020 than he had in the past, when his record was decidedly spotty—he often contended that this was the product of representing a “rural” state. He was behind the curve on the rights of sex workers, at a time when movement on the left is toward liberalizing sex-work laws.

But Sanders proved himself able to be pushed left, even on signature issues. The Medicare for All bill he introduced in the last Congress was better and more generous than his previous one, thanks to his willingness to listen to and respond to the disability rights community, who have long pressured lawmakers to prioritize long-term at-home care for the elderly and disabled. His most recent climate change plan was broader and more ambitious than his 2016 plan: In four years, he went from calling for an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050, to proposing to “fully decarbonize the economy” by 2050 and “100 percent sustainable energy for electricity and transportation” in 2030. After running an unprecedentedly successful campaign as a socialist, his strengthening of the outsider left pushed his own campaign in 2020 even further left. It is a shame that environmental activists will have to expend the effort pressuring the next president to simply get in line with planetary realities when they could have been starting in the right place on day one.

Sanders’s age was often brought up as a criticism of his candidacy, but those decades of consistency made him an authentic and trustworthy advocate for left-wing policies. The current bench of left-wing candidates that will follow in his footsteps won’t be able to say that they defiantly cast a vote against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1993 or signed a Gay Pride Day proclamation in 1983. They won’t be able to take credit for opposing America’s foreign policy misadventures of the 1980s. They won’t be able to point to the way they supported nationalizing utilities in the 1970s. Sad to say, but it’s not likely we’ll ever have a presidential candidate again who was arrested for publicly protesting on behalf of black civil rights in the 1960s. The idea that young people would find his advanced age alienating clearly proved wrong; the fact that he advocated for unpopular causes decades before those positions came to be understood as correct was part of his appeal. Sanders’s history represents a kind of political capital that will be hard for his successors to capture.

But Sanders and his supporters are not the totality of the left; the left will not disappear without his presence on the political scene. And as much as his long history provided him with the bona fides necessary to lead a radical presidential campaign, he was as much shaped by the times in which he emerged as he was a shaper of those times. His unlikely presidential runs might never have been possible without the emergence of movements from the rack and ruin of the economic collapse, such as Occupy Wall Street; they might never have been sustained without other Americans—striking teachers, environmental defenders, and justice-seekers of all stripes—becoming a force in American life. These are the seeds of what will come after Sanders, the proof of his credo: “Not me, us.”