The End of a Political Revolution, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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A reader, Robert Eller, writes:

Dear Ms. Foran: “The End of a Political Revolution” was an unfortunate and uncharacteristically poor title for an Atlantic article, particularly one which otherwise was quite correct. Even Senator Sanders knew, and said as much repeatedly, that his election would not be “the revolution” he has been urging, and which he’ll likely continue to argue and work for. Thus his losing the nomination augers nothing about “the revolution.” Whether the revolution has ended is yet to be seen—and will be determined not by Sanders, but by the preponderance of Millennials who responded to him.

By contrast, President Obama’s first election heralded the end, not the beginning, of the revolution many anticipated with his victory. This was because Obama unwisely demobilized his troops—his active supporters—as soon as he was elected, as if he had won a victory rather than just a battle.

Sanders recognized and articulated Obama’s unforced error. And Sanders troops do not have to disband, just because Sanders lost. I suspect they can even continue be funded by the same Sanders supporters who donated to his campaign.

“The revolution” was always about what happened in the Congress and in state and local governments. So we have yet to see if it’s alive or dead.

Bernie Sanders certainly made clear that the political revolution was never solely about himor any single candidate. And yet, when Sanders declared that Clinton had won the Democratic nominating process, a certain vision of how the revolution might have played out effectively died.

By running for president on a platform of political revolution, Sanders was, whether explicit or not, suggesting that he could help to lead that revolution, or at the very least work to make it a reality by serving as president. Now, the revolution that might have been if Sanders had won the White House won’t come to pass.

As our reader notes, that doesn’t mean there won’t still be revolution. At its heart, the political revolution that Sanders promoted aspires to wrest power away from wealthy elites and restore it to ordinary Americans. Whether that can be achieved may very well hinge on what supporters of the campaign do next, and if they succeed in organizing to elect populist progressive candidates across the country.

Efforts to ensure that the revolution won’t fade away have already started to unfold. Bernie has endorsed a crop of candidates running for Congress and state legislature seats. He has promised to shortly announce “the creation of successor organizations to carry on the struggle.” Sanders supporters are also actively working to carry on the revolution. Brand New Congress is one example.

Still, all this points to a central tension of the Sanders campaign. Sure, Bernie said it wasn’t about him. But for so many of his loyal followers, he has been the source of inspiration for political engagement. Sanders is poised to continue agitating for a revolution. But it remains to be seen how much the so-called revolution’s energy and enthusiasm can be sustained once the campaign has reached an end.