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When Bernie Sanders announced a year ago that he was running for president, few of his supporters—and probably not even Sanders himself—expected that he would actually win. It appeared that Sanders, like his hero Eugene Debs—who ran for president five times in the early 1900s on the Socialist Party ticket—was running mainly to inject progressive issues into the national debate and to help build a movement for radical change.
Debs never captured more than 6 percent of the popular vote (in 1912), but his campaigns played an important role in shaping Americans’ views. In the 1912 presidential race, Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson (the eventually winner) and Progressive Party candidate Theodore Roosevelt co-opted many of Debs’s ideas. Congress eventually adopted some of the planks of the Socialist Party’s 1912 platform, including the minimum wage, child labor laws, women’s suffrage, Social Security, unemployment insurance, occupational health and safety laws, and the creation of the Labor Department.
So in “Debsian” terms, Sanders has already won. His attacks on the “billionaire class” have resonated with the American people. Far more than Hillary Clinton, he has tapped and channeled Americans’ anger over rising inequality, declining living standards, and the disproportionate political influence of big business and the super-rich. Although he calls himself a democratic socialist, Sanders is really championing a new New Deal—an American version of European social democracy.
And polls reveal that a majority of Americans agree with his policy agenda for challenging the political and business establishment. One CNN poll found that 71 percent of Americans—including 84 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of independents and 51 percent of Republicans—believe that our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy. Another poll by CBS and The New York Times found that 63 percent of Americans favor increasing taxes on wealthy Americans and large corporations to help reduce income inequality. Indeed, poll after poll has also showed that large majorities of Americans favor a campaign-finance overhaul, stricter Wall Street regulations, government-mandated paid family leave, and a federal minimum wage increase to $15 an hour by 2020.
Bernie Sanders speaks to young people at Creative Visions, an organization founded by former Des Moines School Board member and current State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad.
Sanders has pushed Hillary Clinton—a liberal on domestic social issues, a centrist on taxes and business regulations, a sometime foreign policy hawk, and a less-than-ardent progressive—to the left. Indeed, the Democrats’ presidential primary has largely been fought on Sanders’s terms. His priorities—increasing the minimum wage, toughening Wall Street regulations, expanding Medicare and providing free public higher education, combating unemployment (particularly high among African Americans), paid family leave, and ending the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels—have dominated the debates and pushed Clinton to adopt milder versions of his proposals. (In some areas, such as police racism, our biased criminal justice system, and mass incarceration, Clinton has taken the lead and Sanders has followed suit).
In one year, Sanders has gone from being a relatively invisible senator from a small state—an outsider in the upper chamber and in mainstream politics, not even a registered Democrat—to being a political force to be reckoned with. Along with Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, he now leads the Democratic Party’s progressive wing.
Nevertheless, in the last few weeks it has become clear that Sanders will not be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. In states that have already held primaries, Clinton has gained 12,989,134 (57 percent) of the votes compared with 9,957,889 votes (43 percent) for Sanders. In the delegate count, Clinton is beating Sanders 1,772 (54 percent) to 1,498 (46 percent). Sanders ran a remarkable campaign, but he’s come up short.
Ardent Sanders supporters who still believe that he has a chance to capture the nomination are simply wrong. Even if Sanders beats Clinton in all the remaining primaries (Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, California, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Mexico, and the District of Columbia), he won’t have enough delegates to garner the nomination at the party’s Philadelphia convention. That reality requires Clinton and Sanders to recognize that they—and their supporters—need one another. It also begs the question: What should Sanders do? How can he build on his popularity and success in this year’s campaign to further his goal of transforming American society and politics?
Drawing on the ideas of many people—activists, journalists, scholars, and others, inside and outside Sanders’s camp—I suggest a five-point plan for Sanders and the Sanderistas. This plan gives the many liberals and progressives who have “felt the Bern” a road map to ensure that the 74-year-old Vermont socialist with a Brooklyn accent makes the transition from candidate for president to catalyst for change.
Between now and the convention, Sanders should fight to the end to get as many delegates as possible. Voters in the remaining primaries—all of which save the June 14 Washington, D.C., contest will be held on June 7—have the right to vote for Sanders or Clinton. Americans deserve to see how much support Sanders has for his progressive agenda. Moreover, having a competitive race with a large Democratic turnout is particularly important in California, which follows an unusual system in which the two candidates with the most primary votes, regardless of party, advance to the general election. Democratic registration in California has been surging, so a strong turnout by Sanders supporters could shut out Republicans from the run-offs for U.S. Senate and some tight congressional contests, and help guarantee more Democratic victories in November.
Between now and the June primaries, Sanders should stop criticizing the Democratic National Committee and Hillary personally and return to focusing on policy issues. After those primaries, he should negotiate a truce with Clinton. In exchange for Sanders suspending his campaign and endorsing Clinton before the Democratic convention, the two Democrats should agree on a strategy that gives Sanders and his followers a significant voice at the convention, during the fight against Trump, and in the run-up to the next Clinton administration.
At the convention and through Election Day, Sanders will surely remain on the public stage. He will certainly get a prime-time speaking role at the Democratic convention, where he can reiterate his attacks on the nation’s economic and social injustices, attack Trump, and strongly endorse Clinton.
He should also use his leverage to shape the party’s platform on issues like Wall Street reform, the minimum wage, skyrocketing college tuition, and paid family leave, and insist that Clinton incorporate some of his key policy ideas into her campaign stump speeches. One sign that Clinton and DNC chair Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz are taking heed of Sanders’s insurgency is the appointment this week of a majority of progressives to the party’s platform committee. They include AFSCME’s Paul Booth, former EMILY’s List head Wendy Sherman and Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress. Also on the committee are House Democrats Luis Guttierez, of Illinois, Barbara Lee of California, and Maryland’s Elijah Cummings, along with Ohio State Representative Alicia Reece, all stalwart progressives. They join Sanders’s nominees Cornel West, House Democrat Keith Ellison of Minnesota, environment activist Bill McKibben, Arab American leader James Zogby, and Native American White House aide Deborah Parker. (Unfortunately missing from the committee are any progressive economists.)
Florida Representative and DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Sanders has predicted that the convention could get “messy,” explaining that “that’s what democracy is about.” But Sanders should discourage his supporters from disrupting the convention inside and outside the hall. If his followers want to protest, there are plenty of targets in Philadelphia—big banks, insurance companies, McDonald’s, Walmart stores—where they can rally against the billionaire class. A prime target for protesters would be Verizon, where they could join the picket lines of employees who have been on strike since April.
When the convention is over, Sanders should energetically campaign for Clinton in key swing states and for progressive Democrats running for Congress in close races, in order to increase turnout among his supporters. He should make sure that his key staff members land posts on Clinton’s campaign and those of Democratic candidates in battleground races. These aides can help mobilize Sanders’s volunteers and followers to support Clinton. Also in this window, Sanders should escalate his attacks on Trump and remind his supporters of the damage that a Trump presidency would do to the country and to the progressive agenda.
After Election Day, once Clinton has won the White House and the Democrats have recaptured the Senate, Sanders will be in a strong position to reshape the agenda of both the Democratic Party and the nation. New York Senator Charles Schumer, a liberal on social issues but a strong ally of Wall Street, may well be the Senate’s next majority leader. To balance the party’s leadership, Sanders should push for a progressive to replace Wasserman Schultz as head of the DNC. Strong candidates include such popular legislators as Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon (the only Senate member to endorse Sanders), and Dick Durbin of Illinois, and House members Karen Bass and Xavier Becerra (both of California), Keith Ellison of Minnesota, and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois. The party’s next chair could also come from the ranks of such respected political veterans as Democracy Alliance head Gara LaMarche, Common Cause Director Miles Rapoport, or even billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer. (Full disclosure: Rapoport serves on the Prospect’s board.)
After January, when the new president and Congress take office, Sanders will become chair of the powerful Senate Budget Committee—assuming Democrats retake the upper chamber, as predicted. In that position, Sanders can influence federal budget, tax, and regulatory policy to advance a progressive agenda around financial reform, anti-poverty initiatives, health care, environmental sustainability, affordable housing, Social Security, labor law reform, workplace safety, paid family leave, and even campaign-finance reform, immigration reform, and the military budget.
A young Bernie supporter at a San Diego Convention Center rally on March 22, 2016.
One of his perks in that post will be to fill the committee’s staff with experts from universities and such progressive think tanks as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Center for American Progress, the Economic Policy Institute, the National Employment Law Project, and the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He will also be able to hold public hearings—in Washington, D.C., but also in cities around the country—on a wide range of issues. Hearings provide opportunities for ordinary Americans as well as experts to make their voices heard, gain media attention, and advance a progressive agenda. They can serve as forums that can help support grassroots activists.
Sanders could also work with progressive think tanks and activist groups to create a “shadow cabinet” of experts on the left to parallel Clinton’s cabinet picks. This Sanders circle could issue regular reports on what the major federal executive agencies could be doing to advance an economic and social justice agenda, much as the Heritage Foundation’s Mandate for Leadership reports became the blueprint for the Reagan Revolution.
Through the 2018 midterm elections and beyond, Sanders can help build the “grassroots political revolution” without which, as he has said throughout his campaign, there is little hope for transformational change. Sanders’s campaign success has been fueled by the many grassroots insurgencies that in recent years have challenged the political and economic establishment. These include Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, campus campaigns to divest from fossil fuels and slash student debt, and crusades for women’s health care access, marriage equality, and gun safety. Sanders’s campaign helped give voice to these activists and their issues. They fed his campaign and were fed by it.
Many progressive politicians have promised to transform their electoral campaigns into ongoing movement operations, but few have had the patience or resources to do so. Many of Jessie Jackson’s supporters hoped that his presidential efforts in 1984 and 1988 would evolve into a permanent Rainbow Coalition of progressive activists, but it didn’t happen. After Obama won his brilliantly-executed 2008 campaign—built by an army of seasoned political and community organizers who trained hundreds of thousands of volunteers in the art of activism—he created the nonprofit now known as Organizing for Action (OFA).
Many of the organizers who worked on that campaign went to work for OFA, hoping to build an infrastructure to keep campaign volunteers involved in issue battles in between election cycles. But OFA has not lived up to its early promise, in large part because Obama made it an arm of the DNC in a bid to build support for his legislative agenda.
Occasionally, however, the candidate and the movement forge ahead beyond the campaign. After the writer Upton Sinclair narrowly lost his 1934 bid to become California governor on a radical End Poverty in California (EPIC) platform, his followers built a statewide movement through EPIC clubs that revitalized the state’s Democratic Party into an effective political operation over the next several decades. Similarly, Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, a former political science professor and community organizer, took seriously his responsibility to turn his electoral support into a broad statewide progressive movement. After he died in a tragic plane crash in 2002 while running for a third term, his supporters launched several organizations—including Wellstone Action, the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, and Minnesotans for a Fair Economy—to mobilize Minnesotans around issues and help recruit, train, and elect progressives to office.
Ever since Sanders first announced his plan to run for president, many journalists and activists have looked for signals that he was making plans, once the election was over, to transform his campaign into that “grassroots political revolution” he’s been calling for. Not surprisingly, during the campaign Sanders and his top advisers have focused almost entirely on winning votes and delegates. But early on, some of his key operatives were already thinking about the longer term.
Supporters shout as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign rally Wednesday, May 11, 2016 in Blackwood, New Jersey.
Next month, some progressive leaders inside and outside the Sanders campaign will convene a three-day meeting in Chicago for what they are calling a People’s Summit to strategize about how to build on the Sanders campaign over the long haul. Neither Sanders nor his aides have agreed on what a post-campaign operation would look like. But many understand that Sanders is in a unique position to use his influence and fundraising ability to build an organization or network to mobilize his supporters that, in the short term, can push President Clinton and the Democrats in Congress to the left on key issues like the minimum wage, health-care reform, Supreme Court nominees, and Wall Street regulation, and, in the longer term, can become an ongoing force for progressive change.
Can Sanders sustain the momentum of his campaign into the marshy terrain of movement-building? He has the capacity to raise money from the millions of people who helped him collect more than $200 million for his campaign. He has an unprecedentedly large list of volunteers who could form the basis of an ongoing organization. How many will want to participate in or contribute to a Sanders-led movement is anybody’s guess. How Sanders deploys these lists, and how he will connect with the many existing progressive groups—unions, environmental groups, community organizing networks, and others—is another open question.
Election campaigns have a set of rules, and a predictable beginning, middle, and end, that helps bring people together for a common goal—electing a candidate on a particular date. Movements are more complicated. The American progressive movement is a diverse mosaic with many groups that compete for attention and funding. They work on many different issues. Some are more willing than others to participate in coalitions, agree on a common set of issue priorities, and forge compromises on legislation. Some are reluctant to endorse candidates or get involved in election campaigns. Many of the activists affiliated with these groups came together to support Sanders, but there is no guarantee that they won’t go their own ways after Election Day.
As the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, for eight years (1981-89), Sanders helped build a political coalition that not only adopted progressive laws and helped build progressive institutions but also stayed in power for three decades after he left office to run for Congress. In the House and Senate, however, Sanders been known as more of a gadfly than a coalition-builder.
But even as a figurehead, Sanders can play an important role in strengthening the left. Sanders can select a number of key issues and work closely with unions and other groups that are already working on those causes. He can be their champion and give them more visibility. He can show up at their meetings and rallies and support their causes. He can raise money to support existing local, statewide, and national groups—like National People’s Action, Planned Parenthood, MoveOn, the Center for Popular Democracy, the Sierra Club, Black Lives Matter, United We Dream, and many others—that recruit and train people in the skills of citizen activism and campaign mechanics, and that help elect progressive Democrats to local, state, and national office.
Going into the 2018 midterm elections, and beyond, Sanders can focus attention on helping a select group of progressive Democrats win primary battles and support their campaigns against Republicans running for local and state offices as well as Congress. In that way, he can help groups build and train a “farm team” of progressive candidates to run for myriad offices, laying the groundwork for expanding the progressive caucuses in the House and Senate.
In “Debsian” terms, Bernie Sanders has already won. Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs in 1921.
As part of this inside/outside strategy, Sanders could work with progressive activist groups and his progressive Senate and House colleagues to identify a few key legislative priorities to build multi-year campaigns around these issues. He and his network can convene an annual “Feel the Bern” conference (and some state-level summits as well) to bring together the many strands of the progressive movement, highlight their commonalities, celebrate their victories, showcase their leaders, organizers, and candidates, and identify the key battles on the horizon.
This five-point plan will likely meet with resistance from some Sanders supporters who argue passionately that he can still win the Democratic nomination. Sanders’s string of primary wins has made the notion of a President Sanders begin to seem at least plausible. His favorability ratings have consistently exceeded Clinton’s. He has shown that he can raise significant sums from millions of small-dollar contributors without relying on Wall Street, corporate America, and the super-rich to bankroll his campaign. He has attracted huge crowds and recruited large numbers of volunteers in blue and red states alike. He has surprised many skeptics with his knowledge of policy details and his first-rate performances at Democratic debates.
Indeed, it is remarkable how well Sanders has done despite what he and his supporters have justifiably called a “rigged” system. His backers are correct that some of the party’s rules—regarding the debate schedule, super-delegates, and other matters, many of them mishandled by Wasserman Schultz, the transparently pro-Clinton chair of the Democratic National Committee—put Sanders at a disadvantage.
Sanders’s enthusiasts hope that they can persuade enough super-delegates to switch their loyalties away from Clinton. Their main argument is that Sanders has a better chance than Clinton to beat Trump. In a race once regarded as a coronation for Clinton, recent polls of registered voters show her in a statistical dead heat against Trump. Sanders, by contrast, who enjoys much higher favorability ratings than Clinton, bests Trump, 54 percent to 39 percent, in a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Of course, Sanders has not yet been subjected to the kind of opposition media campaign that he would certainly face were he the nominee. Slate’s Michelle Goldberg noted in February that Republicans were already salivating about how they would excavate the radical speeches and writings from Sanders’s past, seek to discredit him as an unpatriotic Marxist ideologue, and exploit “his youthful opposition to the CIA and his anti-military leanings” if he were to win the nomination. Republicans would not only paint Sanders as an extreme “tax and spend” liberal but also try to transform him, in the public’s imagination, into a supporter of Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, and Mao Tse-tung. This assault may not work with under-40 voters for whom the Cold War is a distant memory and who associate socialism with Scandinavia, not Cuba or China. But such attacks could certainly weaken many undecided voters’ support for Sanders.
By contrast, most Americans already know Clinton’s vulnerabilities since she’s been in the public arena for decades. This accounts for her low favorability ratings, but it also somewhat inoculates her from GOP efforts to further destroy her support. And Clinton is likely to win a surge in Democratic and independent support once she wins the nomination, just as Republicans began rallying behind Trump once he became his party’s presumptive nominee.
And the “Sanders or bust” crowd is playing into Trump’s hands. Some even say they won’t support or vote for Clinton if she wins the Democratic nomination, arguing that she and Trump are equally undesirable—two sides of America’s corrupt corporate-dominated political system. The media have exaggerated the number and ferocity of Sanderistas who hold these views, but if enough Sanders followers refuse to vote for Clinton, it could help Trump win in several key battleground states like Colorado, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Florida, and possibly hand Trump the White House.
Some Clinton supporters—particularly among pundits and journalists—have also turned nasty, taking to the blogosphere and talk shows to trash Sanders’s ideas and to attack his most zealous enthusiasts as sexist, racist, and rude. But Clinton knows she needs Sanders’s supporters to win the White House, which is why she has adopted watered-down versions of Sanders’s agenda and why she has tread lightly in criticizing Sanders—at least publicly.
Sanders himself recognizes that his primary goal of making America a more humane and fair society will be made much more difficult if Trump becomes the nation’s president. Despite his differences with Clinton over policy issues, Sanders—as both a politician and a leader of a social insurgency—knows that his movement’s ability to influence the nation’s political culture and public policy will be much greater with her, rather than Trump, in the White House.
Electing Clinton will not produce the “political revolution” that Bernie has been calling for. Indeed, he acknowledged that even if he won the White House, little would change without a significant grassroots movement to mobilize Americans to challenge corporate America’s disproportionate influence on our political life. Sanders’s supporters don’t want to give up on his election, but they may end up with something more lasting in the end—a generation-long movement. The five-point plan is a good place to start.