Moving on from Bernie

Growing up, I didn’t take sports losses well. My parents like to tell the story of the first time I saw my favorite team, the Florida Gators, lose. Florida was playing Georgia in Jacksonville, and my parents got me a ticket to the game. Florida was a heavy favorite coming into the game, but they just got blown out. I made my parents stay until the very end of the game, though, and when it finished I cried all the way back to our car. See, I always had a problem with hope—I had too much of it. Even when the Gators (or, much more often, the Jaguars) were down three touchdowns with two minutes to play, I’d imagine a scenario where the other team would fumble twice and my team would come back and win. As I watched more and more football games, though (and as football games crept from 3-hour affairs 4-hour affairs), I began to look for ways to get out early. First came physical limitations: I knew, for example, that it took about 10 seconds to run the length of the field, so if a team is losing by more than one score and there’s only 9 seconds left, I let myself give up hope. Next came limitations in game strategy: if the other team is kneeling down and my team cannot stop the clock, I turned off the TV. Finally, I accepted that some comebacks, though not impossible, were just really, really unlikely. If my team was losing by three scores and there were less than five minutes left, I resigned myself to a loss. Of course, there was a part of me that realized that, technically, my team could score, recover an onside kick, score again, recover another onside kick, and score again, but I’ve watched thousands of football games and can’t remember anything like that happening. When the odds are 1000-to-1 and all you can do is watch, it saves a bit of your sanity to accept the inevitability of things and move onto the next game.

Right now, I’m feeling the same way about Bernie’s campaign. After over a year of hoping he’d run, watching his campaign announcement live, convincing friends, posting on social media, and casting my ballot, I’ve just given up hope. Of course, Sanders could turn things around and win, but there’s just not anything to suggest he’ll get anywhere near the 65% in California he’d need to make things interesting. Hell, Sanders himself seems to have accepted this reality in recent days. Unless Clinton has some crazy, mind-blowing collapse, which looks unlikely, she will win the majority of elected delegates and the nomination.

Now, I don’t begrudge the Sanders supporters that aren’t ready to do that just yet—a lot of you reading this have put in a lot more time and energy into the Sanders campaign than I have, and you’re more than entitled to keep fighting through California. I hope you do just that.

And I know a lot of you really hate Clinton, and don’t want to vote for her. And that’s fine too—you’re entitled to keep your thoughts and feelings about political candidates regardless of where we are in the election season. It’s a good thing that we’ll have people attacking Clinton from the left.

Let’s take a look back at where we’ve come in this campaign. Clinton was the overwhelming favorite coming in, with people like O’Malley seen as a liberal challenger. Sanders was written off for being a self-described socialist, for not being a Democrat, for being too radical, and for having messy hair, and they weren’t wrong in some of those characterizations. I thought myself bullish on Sanders, and I thought he’d top out around 30%. I mean, according to some metrics, Sanders has the most left-wing vote record of any Senator since 1970. That someone so outside the “establishment” mainstream could mount a credible challenge to Clinton seemed highly unlikely.

But that’s exactly what happened. Sanders leapfrogged O’Malley’s candidacy and became the candidate of choice for liberals. His support ballooned to 35% by the time voting started; for the first time, the Clinton camp got a bit nervous. A few months later support crept up to 45%. But Clinton kept getting just enough delegates to remain comfortably ahead, and even as Bernie edged to neck-and-neck with Clinton in national polls, Clinton’s gains in February and March make it unlikely that Sanders will close the gap. Sanders likely come to the Democratic National Convention with about 40% of the elected delegates, which if you think about it is pretty crazy. Getting 40% of the Democratic Party to vote for self-described socialist with platforms like universal health insurance, death penalty opposition, 50% taxes on wealth and income, and a $15 minimum wage is, like, a pretty big accomplishment. It’s not 51%, of course, but it’s close, and it’s enough to give the left wing a pretty big seat at the table, and a great chance to win future elections. Progress, we know, moves in fits and starts, and we do not yet know how consequential Bernie’s close loss might turn out to be.

Given that we’ve come such a long way, what do we do now? There’s, I think, one question that every Sanders supporter will need to ask themselves over the next few months. And that is: Does the revolution stop with Bernie? For some, that answer might be yes, and I have no doubt we’ll be in for a load of articles talking about how the Democratic Party should nominate Sanders anyway, either because he’s the stronger candidate or he’s the real progressive or he’s got the momentum. Those arguments might be right (though they probably aren’t), but critically, they fail to respect a basic tenet of democracy: that the majority should win. No matter how we slice it, a majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning people voted for Clinton this election. To deny a nomination to someone who has won a majority of the vote is just the type of crazy backroom deal we all love to criticize (and rightfully so). More troublingly, arguing for Sanders to win even without the popular vote means the Democratic Party running roughshod over the preferences of black voters, who were the key cog in Clinton’s coalition this election cycle. Let me suggest that denying black folks the ability to have a voice in our political process isn’t a good look for anyone, left-wing or right-wing.

For many others (including myself), I hope, the answer to my question is no, and for us, there’s a lot of work to do. Namely, we need to figure out how to build an organized, lasting faction of elected officials in all levels of government that are committed to the work that Sanders has championed. One of the tragedies of this campaign is that the uptick in Sanders support never really translated into victories in down-ballot races. A judge in Wisconsin who called homosexuals “degenerates” won reëlection. The highest-profile New York State Assembly primary election saw the progressive candidate bounced. Progressive champion Rep. Donna Edwards just lost her Maryland Senate primary to establishment Rep. Chris Van Hollen. As we learned over the past eight years, it’s hard to change things when you’re going up against a slow-moving Senate, a hostile House of Representatives, and insane state governments that think it’s better to let their citizens die because of lack of health coverage than to hand Democrats a political victory. So let’s change the House, the Senate, and state capitols.

There’s a lot of ways to get involved. My personal favorite is the Working Families Party, which has been working tirelessly for Sanders this year. They promote an unabashedly progressive agenda and boast support from a surprisingly diverse set of people. And they basically got Bill De Blasio elected in New York City. I got to coördinate with a New York City Council, Mark Levine, who was endorsed by WFP a couple years back when I was teaching a class on social justice; hearing the work they’ve been able to do on undocumented rights, paid family leave, and minimum wage left me pretty impressed.

There’s more than WFP, though: Democracy for America was an outgrowth of Howard Dean’s 2004 left-wing campaign and has supported Bernie in the primaries. MoveOn has done great work. State and local Democratic Party structures across America are in need of some serious reform. And there are zillions of other issue- or constituency-based organizations out there pushing for good, progressive policies and candidates.

My point here isn’t to say that Sanders supporters need jump behind the Clinton train (they probably should at some point, but that’s certainly a subject for a later post). Instead, I want to emphasize that the goal isn’t to get Sanders elected; rather, the goal is to push progressive policies to make people’s lives better. We tried one way of doing that—getting Sanders the Democratic nomination—and the road got blocked. So now, it’s time to open up some new avenues.


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