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The Profound Simplicity of Bernie Sanders’s Vision

As the elegies for the campaign roll in, its most lasting legacy may be the most basic.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders was always demanding too much, the argument went. “What he’s proposing is very much pie in the sky,” Joe Biden, now the unopposed Democratic nominee, said at the start of March. “If you promise the moon and you can’t deliver the moon, then that’s going to be one more indicator of how we just can’t trust each other,” Sanders’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, told Ellen DeGeneres this February. The refrain of How will you pay for it?—when discussing health care, free tuition, green jobs—became so familiar during debates and nightly news hits that it bordered on absurd.

At best, that contention—that Sanders’s vision of a less apocalyptic future for everyone required to work for a living was so far-fetched that Democrats shouldn’t pursue it—was a profound failure of imagination and a cowardly preemptive compromise in a political landscape already defined by so much senseless inequality and despair. At worst, it was the logical rejoinder of the same wing of the Democratic Party that engineered ugly schemes like welfare reform and rushed to deregulate Wall Street in the 1990s. Though neither of Sanders’s bids for the presidency succeeded, they exposed in their course the smallness and callousness of that Democratic elite, and broke their chokehold on the party, even if only for fleeting moments.

As he fell further and further behind in the race in the weeks after Super Tuesday, Sanders and his supporters often said that the campaign had nevertheless won the ideological battle. While right now that is a thin consolation prize, it also happens to be true: In primary exit polls and other surveys, large blocs of the public have said they support Medicare for All, labor unions, a $15 minimum wage, and other major tenets of Sanders’s campaign. And even beyond policy specifics, one of the most moving aspects of Sanders’s presidential run, at least to me, was its unwavering commitment to demanding far more than the ruling class has said that working people deserve. Underlying every one of the Vermont senator’s purportedly pie-in-the-sky ideas was the simple belief—somehow simultaneously humble and utopian—that every single person is owed a living.

The concept of entitlement has been cast about as a pejorative for some time. It’s been used as racist rhetorical poison against “welfare queens,” and more recently on a wide-scale level to disparage a generation who entered adulthood during a ruinous recession, with unprecedented levels of student debt and miserable job prospects, and occasionally dared to question their lot. (It’s also no coincidence that “entitlement program” is a policy term for all the social safety net measures that the Democratic Party, save Sanders, was consistently willing to send to the chopping block.) Entitled people, we’re told, assume that certain comforts are automatically due to them even before they prove their worth, and the Sanders campaign seized that idea with gusto for the working class. The belief that every person is entitled to the components of a decent life, including housing, health care, education, and civic inclusion, galvanized more than 13 million primary voters in 2016 and 7 million this year. As Jacobin’s Shawn Gude wrote in 2015, “The discourse of entitlement is a discourse of rights, of human agents claiming what’s theirs instead of asking permission from the powerful.”

In his Wednesday speech announcing the suspension of his campaign, Sanders said as much. “If we don’t believe that we are entitled to health care as a human right, we will never achieve universal health care,” he said. “If we don’t believe that we are entitled to decent wages and working conditions, millions of us will continue to live in poverty.” We’re also, I would argue, entitled now and in the future to politicians who run their campaigns as honorably as Sanders—who don’t implore us to settle for less than what we’re owed, or rationalize their fealty to Wall Street and the rich as simply the way things are done. Sanders’s two presidential campaigns were unprecedented in that they were financed almost exclusively through individual small donations, which came primarily from fast food workers, teachers, nurses, and service sector employees, or the very people who see, as The New York Times put it, “no evidence of a booming economy” in their lives.

Unsurprisingly, Sanders used his speech announcing the end of his campaign on Wednesday—much like the days after his heart attack last year—as another opportunity to press for our collective entitlement to health care. To remind us of what we are owed. “This horrific crisis that we are now in has exposed how absurd our current employer-based health insurance system is,” he said. “The current economic downturn we are experiencing has not only led to a massive loss of jobs but has also resulted in millions of Americans losing their health insurance.” The destruction wrought by the coronavirus has introduced an immediate, urgent literalism to what it means to survive in this country, but the question of whether people are owed a dignified life existed before the pandemic and will continue to haunt politics in this country well afterward. Bernie Sanders, for his part, never hesitated to answer in the affirmative.