Not Him, Them

Who is going to lead Bernie Sanders’s movement now?

Getty Images / The Atlantic

Bernie Sanders will never be president. He won’t be Joe Biden’s pick for vice president. He’s not joining the Cabinet. He’s run his last race—he’ll be 82 when his current Senate term is up in 2024, and people close to him feel sure that will be it for him.

Who will be on the ballot in 2024, trying to continue the movement he sparked? Who will take Sanders’s place in progressives’ hearts and on their T-shirts? Who could connect as viscerally, as widely, with such a force of personality? Look at the people who supported Sanders’s campaign. Could anyone else in American politics have been embraced by Evo Morales and Jack Nicholson; Jesse Jackson and the 37-year-old mayor of Jackson, Mississippi; hipster progressives and blue-collar workers; Ben & Jerry and Cardi B?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York congresswoman and political sensation, gets named the most. Other members of “the squad”—Representatives Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley—also come up, as do more establishment-adjacent figures like Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan, the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. RoseAnn DeMoro, the former nurses’ union head and one of Sanders’s longest-term and most loyal supporters, told me that she considers California Governor Gavin Newsom, a lifelong elected official, to be Sanders’s heir apparent: “They won’t be able to portray Gavin as an outsider in the way they try to do other progressives.” Other people have mentioned Stacey Abrams, the losing candidate in Georgia’s most recent gubernatorial race.

Yesterday afternoon, once Sanders made his exit official, I texted Larry Cohen, Sanders’s friend and the president of the political group the senator founded, Our Revolution, to ask whom he saw as the next leader of the movement.

“Too hard!” Cohen wrote back. He said he’s optimistic about grassroots groups mobilizing to advance Sanders’s agenda. But isn’t the lack of a clear successor a problem? His response: “Not yet.”

This is an odd moment for Sanders-style progressivism. Without the coronavirus pandemic, the past month would have been politically humiliating for the senator. For all the boasting that he did in his exit speech about how many people agreed with him on the issues, he didn’t get the votes. His theory of the race, and of Democratic primary voters, was wrong. He managed to do worse in this campaign, which he came into as a front-runner with huge support and name recognition, than he did as a much lesser-known candidate in 2016. He spent significantly more money than Biden, who’s now the presumptive Democratic nominee. In fact, he spent more money losing the presidential nomination than anyone in history other than Michael Bloomberg.

But you don’t have to be out of a job, or be trying to homeschool your kids, or be thanking minimum-wage workers in face masks for driving the trucks and stocking the grocery shelves while billionaires hole up at their beach compounds with maid service, to know that the world is going to be different now. It is already. Nationalized health care, a Green New Deal, and student-loan forgiveness used to be as hard to imagine happening as the stockpiling of toilet paper. Congress recently passed the biggest relief package in history, and it’s clearly going to do more, soon. Unemployment is headed toward Great Depression levels. Ideas that the supposedly smartest people in Washington, in both major parties, wrote off as too expensive or impractical are getting pulled into the mainstream. (“When we talk about essential people, we’re not talking about hedge-fund managers,” Sanders put it in an interview with the late-night host Stephen Colbert yesterday evening.)

The crisis has prompted the broadest embrace of New Deal–style policies since the New Deal itself, Representative Chuy Garcia of Illinois, a Sanders supporter, told me: “The rest of society is being refocused on issues that working-class people have been talking about for a long time.”

Garcia said he didn’t think that much of what was in the stimulus bill would have been possible without Sanders shifting popular opinion through his campaigns. That’s the kind of optimism Sanders’s allies are holding on to as they try to look ahead.

“It is a movement moment, because basic things are in question,” Cohen said. “Can we wrestle with some things together? Even though we’re isolated socially, we’re all experiencing the same thing. To the extent that I have any optimism, it’s that people are hungry, they want to do something.”

Maybe Sanders’s movement doesn’t need leaders. Some of his supporters maintain an idealistic sense of a movement that continues to create change from the bottom up, the way Sanders says he hopes will happen. Vermont Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman evoked the example of Black Lives Matter, which has a dispersed leadership model. “What I think Bernie’s campaigns have done, and Bernie’s efforts beyond the campaigns have done, is helped create the network that is far stronger than being reliant on one figurehead,” Zuckerman told me.

But Sanders was able to push his ideas into the mainstream and shepherd a new generation of progressives into office because his presidential campaign was so successful. Progressives aren’t going to lead America to a different future without a leader of their own. And that’s stressing them out. The potential successors whose names get tossed around generate doubts: that Ocasio-Cortez is too young and inexperienced to be president, that Newsom is too establishment for the movement at large, that Abrams is too centrist.

Could Sanders’s movement unite without the unifying personality who almost won the Democratic nomination? Might the movement even do better without him?

“It’s going to be a hard lesson that folks need to sit in a room—or sit on Zoom, rather—and have these conversations: ‘What’s more important? My pride? Or the future of the movement?’” says Stacey Walker, a supervisor of Linn County, Iowa, and an avid Sanders supporter. Some of that, Walker says, will be on Sanders himself: “It’s his job then to help empower the existing leaders we have and to help find and recruit other leaders, but also to aid in that coalition-building.“

Quitting, Sanders said in his exit speech, “was a very difficult and painful decision.” He left Nevada after the state’s mid-February caucus in the lead for the Democratic nomination, then watched victory evaporate. He spent the past six weeks not under the delusion that he could turn the race around, but instead thinking about the future of the movement that he’d seemed on the verge of bringing into the Oval Office. Every day the microphone he had got smaller, but every day that microphone remained bigger than it had been for almost his entire political life.

“While the path may be slower now, we will change this nation and, with friends around the globe, change the entire world,” Sanders said, as he wrapped up his exit speech. In the world some Sanders supporters are imagining right now, he’s like Barry Goldwater—an ideological visionary who inspired a generation, even though his career ended back in the Senate.

As it happens, another historical model I heard some progressives looking to hopefully was the man who beat Goldwater in 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson. No one would have thought of Johnson as a big lefty from his time in the Senate, or as vice president. He was a committed Democrat catapulted into the job he’d always wanted but had basically given up on getting, and then responded to the political pressures of the moment to become one of the most progressive presidents in American history. “Everything feels so short-term right now,” the Sunrise Movement’s Stephen O’Hanlon told me, “but a year and a half ago Democrats were saying climate change wasn’t a top priority.”

Though Sanders and Biden finished yesterday expressing the same warmth to each other that was on display throughout the primary race, the now–presumptive nominee hasn’t given much indication that he’s headed leftward. And Sanders supporters are skeptical that Biden is actually committed to the few policy shifts he has made, given his sparse explanations for why he made them.

But even if Biden gets elected and governs from the bring-back-the-status-quo middle, Sanders supporters believe they’re going to win in the end anyway. One day, they note, Biden and Sanders will be retired, and frustrated Millennials could be some of the most conservative Democratic voters, rather than some of the most liberal.

“Progressives need to definitely reflect on the ways that we could have done a better job persuading voters that felt more confidence in a Biden administration and a Biden campaign than in the Sanders campaign,” says Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for the progressive group Justice Democrats—which stayed neutral in the primary until Elizabeth Warren dropped out, and then endorsed Sanders for his last gasp. But “the lessons of the Sanders campaign is that a 78-year-old white man from the whitest state in America won over a diverse coalition of much younger voters. These voters are very ideological. That constituency will continue to play a major role in Democratic Party politics in the future, and will lead it soon.”