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Bernie Sanders’s Gift to the Democratic Party

The political establishment dismissed him, but his tireless fight for struggling workers has altered the course of American liberalism.

Mark Felix/Getty Images

Hope—sometimes desperate hope—sustains all presidential campaigns. Even when a candidate withdraws in the face of daunting electoral odds, as Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren did more than a month ago, there is always the hope of another White House bid sometime in the future, or a spot on the ticket as vice president.

As a kid in Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders was a die-hard fan of the Dodgers, who rallied their supporters, as they lost season after season, with the slogan “Wait ’til next year.” That defiant cry defined an entire borough, and although Sanders is perhaps the most passionate Brooklyn Dodgers fan left in politics, he knows that for him, a 78-year-old senator with a heart condition, there is no next year. 

In late April 2015, when the Vermont independent announced his first presidential bid, he felt compelled to stress, “I think people should be a little bit careful underestimating me.” 

Sanders was right, of course, and all the politicians and pundits who scoffed at him, myself included, were wrong. Calling yourself a “socialist” is not, as it turns out, a ticket to oblivion, nor is disdaining the backslapping rituals of traditional politics a formula for automatic defeat.

When I first interviewed Sanders in his small mayoral office in Burlington in 1985, I noticed two separate memorials to Eugene Debs, the five-time socialist presidential candidate, on the walls. Even in his mid-forties, Sanders was as irascible then as he is today, snarling, “I am not now, nor have I ever been, a liberal Democrat.”

But Sanders, as a student of history, also knew that Debs needed liberal Democrats to translate his left-wing vision into reality. Although Debs died a despondent and broken man in 1926 (never regaining his health after being imprisoned during World War I), his ideas played a role in the dramatic expansion of governmental protections for the poor, the working class, and labor unions during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Now Sanders—who over his career won about eight times more presidential votes than Debs ever did—is in a similar position with Joe Biden. In a world where the personal is political, it matters that these two ancient mariners like each other from their days in the Senate, despite their differences in temperament and outlook.

There are many Bernie true believers who thought that Sanders should stay in the race through the June primaries, scrapping for every delegate in an effort to put his imprint on the party platform. But bludgeoning the Biden forces into grudging compromises in a likely-to-be-ignored party platform is not shrewd politics in normal times. And these are decidedly not normal times. 

Covid-19 will force a dramatic rethinking of the role of government. The crisis has already scrambled traditional political ideologies to the extent that Mitt Romney was one of the first people in Congress to call for cash payments to help Americans weather the economic collapse. This, in short, is as much a Eugene Debs moment as 1933 was, when FDR took office. 

This does not mean that Biden will automatically adopt the Sanders agenda as if it were holy writ. Details are not Bernie’s strong suit (his campaign never released position papers nearly as detailed as Warren’s). Sanders’s enduring strength was in pointing in a direction, rather than providing a road map.   

If Biden is elected in November (knock wood) with a working congressional majority, they will almost certainly dramatically expand health care protections (though not through Sanders’s cherished Medicare for All). The social safety net—so inadequate in this time of crisis—will also be mended and strengthened. And new attention will be paid to the class divisions that have riven American society. 

That is Sanders’s gift to a Democratic Party that he never deigned to join. 

There will be the inevitable debates over why he lost the nomination fight after winning the New Hampshire primary and sweeping the Nevada caucuses. The simplest explanation is that Sanders never understood that presidential politics is premised on inclusion rather than purity. Disdaining the Democratic Party establishment and failing to attract a promised outpouring of new primary voters, Sanders was always destined for defeat.

In his livestreamed withdrawal statement, Sanders declared, “I cannot in good conscience continue to mount a campaign ... which would interfere with the important work required of all of us in this difficult hour.” It was a gracious and honest acknowledgment that, in the midst of a pandemic, personal ambition must be sacrificed for the larger good.

Part of Sanders’s mission in the months ahead should be to convince his most zealous partisans—the infamous Bernie Bros, if you will—that sometimes pragmatism is required. Donald Trump’s narcissistic ineptitude has already cost America lives and livelihoods. With so much on the line in the November election, tired epithets like “neoliberal” and “corporate Democrat” should not blind anyone to the chasm of competence and compassion between Biden and Donald Trump.

With his acknowledgment of political arithmetic, Sanders guarantees that Biden will have seven months to unify the Democratic Party and work to defeat Trump. And to his credit, Sanders leaves the race without ever having mounted a personal attack on Biden that Republicans could use against the former vice president this fall. 

Sometimes history belongs to the losers. Today, “Dem Bums” of Bernie’s Brooklyn boyhood are still lionized as scrappy underdogs who were the boys of summer. So may history shine on Bernie Sanders, who understood that it was time—to steal a line from another Brooklynite, Spike Lee—to do the right thing.