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?
Read: Progressives warn of a great deflation
“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.”