Bernie Sanders Lost. But He Won.

The greatest accomplishment of the Sanders campaign has less to do with moving good ideas out of the “radical” category and into the mainstream and more to do with inspiring the people who will carry those ideas forward.

Bernie Sanders supporters in Chicago in March 2020.
CHANG W. LEE / The New York Time​s / Redux

Bernie Sanders has transformed American politics. In his message yesterday to supporters, in which he announced the suspension of his 2020 Democratic presidential campaign, he argued that a “new vision for America is what our campaign has been about and what, in fact, we have accomplished.” The senator explained that: “Few would deny that over the course of the past five years, our movement has won the ideological struggle. In so-called red states and blue states and purple states, a majority of the American people now understand that we must raise the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour, that we must guarantee health care as a right to all of our people, that we must transform our energy system away from fossil fuel, and that higher education must be available to all, regardless of income.”

Many ideological battles have already been won—and others are likely to be won in the months and years to come, as policy makers wrestle with the reality that ideas once considered radical are now necessary responses to the coronavirus pandemic and the economic chaos it has spawned. But the greatest accomplishment of the Sanders campaign has less to do with moving good ideas out of the “radical” category and into the mainstream and more to do with inspiring the people who will carry those ideas forward. I am not alone in this faith. Just last week, when we spoke at length about the campaign he was then “assessing,” Sanders told me that “the future of this country does not rest with people who are 75 or 80 years of age. It rests with the young people. In terms of ideology, we are winning young people overwhelmingly. Overwhelmingly. I’m not just talking about my campaign. I’m talking about where the young people of this country are coming from. They are coming from a very, very different place, a very deep, different place than is the Democratic establishment.”

Inspiring the next generation of radical campaigners—whether they identify as democratic socialists, as Sanders does, or simply as advocates for transformative change—matters now. And it will matter for decades to come.

The most valuable political movements are about ideas, not personalities. But candidates help us to recognize the power of ideas in a political context; they spark our imagination. Even when they do not win, they suggest a possibility that change will come. Conservatives, inspired by Barry Goldwater’s 1964 bid, elected Ronald Reagan in 1980. Progressives, inspired by Jesse Jackson’s 1988 “Rainbow Coalition” campaign, and Howard Dean’s run in 2004, dared to dream that Barack Obama could go all the way in 2008.

I’ve covered politics for a long time. Whenever I meet a new candidate, a new elected official, I ask them where they got started politically. Years ago, for Democrats, the standard reference point was John F. Kennedy’s “A Time for Greatness” presidential campaign of 1960. Then it was the “Get Clean for Gene” McCarthy campaign of 1968, and Bobby Kennedy’s run of the same year, and George McGovern’s of 1972. Eventually, it was Gary Hart’s 1984 campaign and Jackson’s run in 1988.

More recently, when my colleague Sophia Steinert-Evoy and I produced a podcast, Next Left, for The Nation, we focused on the rising stars of American politics—newly elected city-council members in Chicago and Austin, legislators in Pennsylvania and North Dakota, judges and prosecutors in Houston and San Francisco. We were struck by how frequently the officials we spoke with referenced the 2016 Sanders campaign as a personal and political touchstone. When I asked Chicago City Council member Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez about running and winning in 2019 as a democratic socialist, she immediately credited Sanders for popularizing the ideology that had for so long been dismissed by political and media elites. “I think that Bernie was successful in putting that out there, and then that opened the path for many of us to be able to run for office.” So many of the people we talked with said similar things that Sophia and I decided to finish the series with Sanders himself.

That interview took place in November of last year. The senator and I began by discussing the enthusiastic endorsements he had just received from a trio of Democratic U.S. representatives who had all been elected in 2018: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. Then I mentioned that like those members of Congress, the young elected officials we had talked with spoke of the inspiration they took from his first presidential bid.

“During 2016,” he responded, “I think there was not a speech that I gave which did not say to the young people, to the people who were there, to working people who were there: Get involved in the political process; run for office, whether it is school board, legislature, city council, Congress, whatever it may be.”

Sanders, who ran plenty of losing campaigns before he finally was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1981, and who ran a few more losing campaigns before he was elected to Congress in 1990, explained:

We have to break down this psychological barrier where people think, I don’t have a PhD in economics or in health care. I just don’t know everything. We have got to break that down and make people understand that if you have a heart full of compassion, if you understand what’s going on in the world, if you believe in justice, you can run, you should run, and you can win. And if you don’t know everything about everything, well, join the club. Nobody does. But it is terribly important to break down that barrier where people think, Oh, the only people who could run for office are people who are politically connected, people whose daddy or mommy was a big political fundraiser or politician. We got to break that down and I think, as you’ve indicated, we are making real progress. I get all over the country and I get tremendous satisfaction out of going to some rally and somebody comes up and says, “Bernie, I ran for school board and I won.” “I’m on the city council and I won.” That is fantastic. That is part of the political revolution, absolutely.

That is the political revolution, absolutely.

I always remind people that if Ocasio-Cortez waits 40 years to run for president, she will still be younger than Sanders is today—or Joe Biden. And, if and when she runs, and wins, I have no doubt that she will be one of the many leaders of the future who give a nod to the senator from Vermont who showed us all that another politics is possible.