Lose the battle, win the war? Sanders’ progressive allies stay optimistic after 2020 exit

Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON — Bernie’s Sanders’ abrupt exit from the presidential race is a moment of deep disappointment for the progressive movement, which only two months ago began to truly believe that the democratic socialist from Vermont could win the Democratic nomination and radically alter the party’s political direction.

But even on a day of mourning, many liberal leaders say they remain steadfastly optimistic about the future.

The failure of Sanders’ campaign, they say, belies a movement that has made great progress in recent years and is poised to seize further control of the Democratic Party, both in future presidential elections, but also in state and local races. Their sunny forecast was echoed Wednesday by Sanders himself, when he argued that his movement had won the “ideological struggle” even as he was ending his 2020 campaign.

“Together, we have transformed the American consciousness as to what kind of nation we can become,” Sanders said, citing a checklist of policies — like raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour — that have moved from the fringe to mainstream within the party.

Progressives’ claim of progress warrants scrutiny, especially after a presidential primary in which Sanders not only lost decisively, but earned far fewer votes when the race whittled down to two candidates against Joe Biden than he did four years earlier in his one-on-one battle against Hillary Clinton.

And many progressives acknowledge that even if they are optimistic about the future, they need to learn from the mistakes of the Sanders campaign to make a better effort in future elections.

But nonetheless, they say they’re encouraged. Even if Sanders’s ideas didn’t win, liberals argue, his unapologetically leftist vision for the country was adopted more swiftly and uniformly than any of them expected — including from Biden himself.

“Joe Biden’s going to be one of the most progressive nominees for president in history, and that’s because the entire Democratic Party has been moved forward on these issues,” said Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of Democracy for America, a grassroots liberal advocacy group.

Biden’s agenda is far less ambitious than Sanders, but still represents a significant shift to the left compared to the party’s previous presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, on issues like health care and climate change.

Just as important for liberals, however, is how many Democrats up and down the ballot have embraced once-controversial elements of Sanders’ agenda. Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, for example, became part of the congressional Democrats official agenda in 2017 on their way to taking control of the House in the midterm elections.

And while not all Democrats have adopted a true single-payer health care plan, even many swing-district members support allowing people to buy into a public insurance plan. If even just center-left members of the party adopt more liberal policies, it shifts the entire party to the left.

“The way we’re winning is we’re just redefining what it means to be a Democrat in a progressive way,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of the liberal group Data for Progress.

Even in defeat, Sanders won large majorities of support among young people. In Michigan, for instance, a state Sanders lost badly overall, he won 61% of voters under age 45, according to exit polls. Among the youngest Democratic voters, his level of support was even higher.

As younger, more liberal voters make up a larger share of the Democratic electorate, progressives predict the party’s overall leftward lurch will continue — and once-extreme ideas will continue to be adopted into the mainstream.

“If you’re (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), 10 years from now, she’ll be 40, which is very young in political years,” McElwee said. “And her mode of thinking will be in the mainstream of the Democratic Party.”

Progressives say that the influx of young, lefty leaders like Ocasio-Cortez, a New York congresswoman, is essential if the movement wants to make further progress. Some of them were blunt in their assessment that, for all Sanders accomplished for their movement, his candidacy was an imperfect vehicle in a highly competitive primary.

“Even though most of the people running in the Democratic Party were older, I think the reality is that Bernie’s age definitely held him back,” Chamberlain said. “If he were 20 years younger, I think he’d be the nominee. So I think that plays a special role in this.”

Progressives didn’t have many alternatives to Sanders in the 2020 primary. The next-most liberal candidate in the race, Elizabeth Warren, was herself in her 70s and considered by some not sufficiently progressive enough for their support.

In part, the lack of options was a function of a thin bench of younger progressive candidates, many of whom only took office at the local and state level during President Donald Trump’s term.

Progressives hope that in the coming years, they’ll move up the electoral ladder and eventually become congressmen, senators, and governors, while retaining their ardently lefty vision for the country.

At that point, they’ll be ready to run for president.

“The higher up the ballot you go, the more expensive elections are, the bigger the role of money is, the more experience is required,” said Joe Dinkin, campaigns director for the Working Families Party. “This new wave of down-ballot progressivism hasn’t been going on very long, so the bench is not that deep. Over time, we’ll get there.”


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