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Bernie Sanders crashed, but his revolution will live on — if his supporters get real

Compromising would make the Left a more effective force in American politics.

The crowd cheered during a campaign rally for Senator Bernie Sanders on Boston Common in February.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Bernie Sanders’ “political revolution” was uncompromising.

There were no half-steps on health care and no cloying calls to the Very Important People in Washington, or on Wall Street, to ask for their support.

It was #NeverBiden on Twitter and open disdain for the bougie, suburban “wine mom” voters whom mainstream Democrats were obsessing over.

This was a revolution for the virtuous — a white working class awakened to its true interests, Black and Latino voters coming around to cranky Uncle Bernie, and young people showing up at the polls in record numbers.

Only, they didn’t show up. Not enough of them, anyway. And the revolution sputtered.


That is not to say it died. Those young people — seared by the Great Recession of a decade ago — have already helped force a reckoning with entrenched economic inequality. And as they grow older and vote in larger numbers, they will change American politics even more.

But their full impact will not be felt for some time.

If the left is going to be an effective force in American politics over the next four, or eight, or 12 years, uncompromising won’t work.

The movement will need to reach out to the Chardonnay set. It will have to work with Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. It may even be required to reach out to some Republican senators.

Tactics must change. And they must change quickly.

The coronavirus pandemic, however awful, offers a rare opportunity to build a more just society — to fulfill at least some of the promise of a revolution delayed. But only if its proponents can learn to build alliances.

BERNIE SANDERS, IT should be said, has done something extraordinary.

He can’t take sole credit for the rebirth of the American Left — it was the Great Recession that stirred a dormant movement to life.


Occupy Wall Street had its moment. Black Lives Matter, too.

But Sanders’ 2015 announcement that he would run for president was a signal moment.

He was able to gather up much of the disparate energy on the left and move it into the realm of electoral politics, says Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor of the magazine Dissent.

And starting with that 2016 presidential race, he embedded a strain of democratic socialism in a major American political party.

“That’s a huge accomplishment," says Kazin. “Arguably . . . the left hasn’t had that sort of presence since the New Deal.”

But in retrospect, it’s clear that many progressives over-interpreted his strong showing in that first presidential run.

What they saw as evidence that white, working-class voters in the heartland were warming to a populist, lefty politics was, for many, a simple rejection of Sanders’ opponent.

“Some of his success was basically people who were voting against Hillary Clinton — there’s no question about that,” says Jonathan Tasini, a progressive political strategist who worked as a surrogate for Sanders in 2016.

That became clear two years later, in the mid-term election, when a wave of progressive candidates — many of them backed by a Sanders-aligned group called Our Revolution — lost races in Wisconsin, Iowa, Georgia, and Kentucky.

Meanwhile, moderate Democrats trained their focus on the managerial class in the suburbs, won a bunch of seats, and flipped control of the House of Representatives.


Those results have some on the left saying it’s time for a new approach.

Among the loudest voices is Sean McElwee, the executive director of the polling and policy shop Data for Progress.

He can be a bomb-thrower when he wants; he came up with the “Abolish ICE” slogan that fired up so many progressives a couple of years back. But he’s also a pragmatist.

And he says the left needs to acknowledge its weakness with white working-class voters and turn its attention to the much-derided “wine moms,” who are — no surprise, really — far more liberal than the hard-hat set.

Progressives also need to think carefully about messaging, he says. Campaigns built on paid family leave and child care, climate action, and lowering drug prices are likely to be most potent in the suburbs.

That doesn’t mean giving up on a more confrontational politics altogether. It just means deploying that politics where it can succeed.

Two years ago, in a Bronx and Queens Congressional district that ranks among the most liberal in the country, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran as an “Abolish ICE” democratic socialist and soundly defeated a moderate Democratic incumbent.

Add it all up and you get a carefully calibrated strategy for success: make a hard run at deep-blue urban districts, challenging moderate Democrats where necessary; offer suburban voters a message tailored to their concerns; and when you win, be willing to forge coalitions with moderates in Washington to get things done.


Some of those moderates, after all, are not quite as moderate as they used to be.

JOE BIDEN MADE his name as a backslapping bipartisan.

He opposed school busing as a young senator. And later, he was a key player in the tough-on-crime legislation of the 1990s.

But the Democratic Party has made a sharp turn to the left in the last few years. And Biden has turned with it.

He’s joined the push for a $15 per hour minimum wage. And he has a $4 trillion plan to tax the rich that would amount to one of the largest transfers of wealth in American history.

He’s backed free public college for families making up to $125,000 per year. And he’s calling for $1.7 trillion in clean energy investments and tighter regulation of polluters — all with the aim of reaching zero emissions by 2050.

Sanders is on board. After he dropped out of the race, he endorsed the former vice president.

But his former campaign spokeswoman, Briahna Joy Gray, begged to differ. “With the utmost respect for Bernie Sanders, who is an incredible human being & a genuine inspiration,” she wrote on Twitter, “I don’t endorse Joe Biden.”

In a subsequent interview with The Atlantic, she suggested she wouldn’t be won over easily. “Pretending like the scraps that are being thrown are meaningful concessions is an insult,” she said. “Accepting those scraps without pushing for more is extremely detrimental to the cause.”


Pushing the Democratic nominee is an entirely defensible tactic as long as Sanders voters come around in the end. But if the #NeverBiden faction actually sits out the election, it could be disastrous for the left.

It’s not just that the former vice president is running on an undeniably progressive platform — a platform that would go out the window, of course, if President Trump won four more years. It’s that the pandemic offers a unique opportunity to get it passed.

Biden, if he wins, could take office during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Working out of his lakeside home in Wilmington, Del., he’s been planning for just that possibility in phone calls with his advisers.

And if the economy is that bad for that long, the multi-trillion dollar stopgaps Washington has thrown up so far will not be enough.

The pressure for a big public works program — likely built around green infrastructure — will be real. The same goes for major investments in health care, to prepare for the next pandemic, and education, to retrain millions of unemployed workers.

Of course, Democrats will probably have to seize control of the Senate to make any of this possible. And even then, the filibuster could be a significant obstacle.

But there is at least a sliver of hope that a small group of self-styled nationalist GOP senators, led by Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida, could be occasional allies.

Both have positioned themselves as the worker-friendly heirs to Trump’s more populist Republican Party — taking shots at a “Silicon Valley economy” that favors billionaires over the rest of us (Hawley) and calling out corporations that buy back shares, for the benefit of investors, rather than create new jobs (Rubio).

The pandemic seems to be cementing their approach — and raising their profiles.

Rubio, chairman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, recently promised to use his subpoena power to investigate large companies that have abused a federal loan program designed to help barber shops, restaurants, and other small businesses.

Hawley, not to be outdone, railed against the administration for appearing to favor big banks over small ones in the administration of the program.

This new right seems eager to make its mark. The left could make overtures while it waits for the revolution. It could make overtures to all sorts of people.

But it must be willing to hold its nose.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.