Loss of any kind is disappointing. Sanders offered a dream of what the country could look like. Now, it may never be reality. Over the course of his campaign, Sanders sketched out an alternate vision for American society. The voices of everyday people would not be drowned out by wealthy elites in the world imagined by the senator. Every man would stand side by side with women in the fight for equal pay. Health care would be a right, not a privilege. Politicians of every party would act decisively to stop the planet from burning up. The campaign was a promise: All of this might actually be achieved.
Sanders is still making that promise, but he may not be able to for much longer. “Together, we are going to change our national priorities,” the senator told the crowd, a message that was met with loud cheers before he listed off the litany of changes he wants to see. The senator’s agenda could certainly still be put into action, and he will undoubtedly keep fighting for it. But what happens to the political revolution depends, in part, on what the campaign meant to his supporters. Was it mainly about Bernie, or was it about his ideas?
There are limits to what any one person can achieve. The senator is likely to wield far more power and influence when he returns to Congress after the election than he did before. But he has made clear he can’t bring about a political revolution on his own. Adding to that difficulty, it will be harder to sustain enthusiasm once the primary race is over. The American public reviles Congress, an institution consumed by gridlock, where success is often only found in compromise. It’s a place where political dreams go to die. Sanders’s supporters will be sorely disappointed if they expect him to successfully legislate a revolution into being.
In the end, more people sided with Clinton and her vision of the world than with Sanders and his—she won an estimated three million more votes during the primary race. But Sanders proved there is enthusiasm for the agenda he outlined—and far more enthusiasm than many predicted at the start of his campaign. He elevated a critique of unrestrained capitalism above all. If nothing else, his campaign showed that a message of economic fairness wins votes.
There is guaranteed to be at least some spillover effect. Grassroots activism inspired by the campaign is poised to continue. Other candidates may take up the mantle of populist economics. “The awakening has taken place, the genie is out of the bottle, that’s what’s wonderful about it,” Cornel West, a Sanders supporter and academic known for his outspoken criticism of President Obama, told me ahead of the rally. “What form it takes is an open question, but there’s no doubt about it.”
On Thursday, Sanders seemed to be taking part in an unofficial farewell tour. He launched into a recitation of turning points in the history of the United States: the fight to end slavery; the fight for women to vote; the fight for marriage equality. He emphasized that courage, persistence, and effort yield change. “What seemed impossible, what seemed radical, just a few years ago, is now commonplace,” he said. “What seems radical today will seem mainstream tomorrow if we stand together.”