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The Bernie Sanders Movement Without Bernie Sanders

The urgency of majoritarian working-class politics is bigger than a single presidential campaign.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

For Bernie Sanders’s supporters, one source of frustration in the recent round of primaries is the peculiar fact that his campaign’s agenda seems to be doing better than the candidate himself. On Tuesday, Bernie lost the Mississippi primary by over 65 points; yet, as NBC News reported on the same night, six in 10 Mississippi voters said they supported replacing private health care with a single-payer system.

Right now, it’s difficult to say exactly what explains this gap. After the double blow of Super Tuesday and this week’s primary, the growing consensus is that Bernie’s coalition failed to materialize at the polls, or perhaps never existed at all. I think it’s mostly true, as my colleague Walter Shapiro wrote on Wednesday, that there are no “hidden armies of would-be Democratic voters” waiting to usher Bernie to the presidency (and by extension, the country to social democracy). But I also think that the campaign’s strategy wasn’t so much “predicated on a gauzy myth” as it was an always ambitious gamble to expand the electorate, particularly by bringing in more young and working-class voters. That speaks to a different tendency that still may prove useful in the long term, at least for those whose politics fall to the left of Joe Biden’s.

Even though the campaign is now on the back foot, the simultaneous (and often unexpected) popularity of Sanders’s platform despite the wane of its messenger isn’t entirely a surprise. A cornerstone of Sanders’s project—perhaps most clearly distilled in his campaign slogan, “Not me, us”—has been to reanimate the concept of a mass politics by and for the working class, even if that sort of majoritarian politics has yet to fully cohere. As the economist Thomas Piketty noted earlier this week, voter turnout in the United States is low compared to places like France and the United Kingdom, and particularly among the poor. The maddening Catch 22 is that it would likely be higher if key pieces of Sanders’s platform—including overturning Citizens United, instituting automatic voter registration, and ending pernicious voter-ID laws and gerrymandering—were already policy. “This electoral alienation of the American working classes is so long-standing that it will certainly not be reversed in one day,” Piketty wrote. Sanders’s is a style of politics that, in the end, won’t rest on the electoral success of one figurehead alone, as demoralizing as it will be if his campaign shutters in the coming months.

As even his critics have conceded, Sanders’s back-to-back bids for the presidency unleashed an unprecedented wave of public support for policies like Medicare for All, higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and raising the minimum wage. While these policies continue to face various strains of vitriol from Biden and other Democratic Party leaders, on the whole, Sanders shifted the Democratic Party so significantly that at the start of the 2020 primaries, almost every Democrat in the presidential race had signaled support for Medicare for All (even if that support later wavered or disappeared).

“These ideas are not radical,” Sanders often says on the stump, and, as it turns out, he’s pretty much right. Both the exit polls from the Democratic primaries and more general surveys of the American public have consistently shown that people are concerned about the prohibitive cost of health care and education, persistent economic inequality, and the disproportionate influence of the wealthy on politics. According to one estimate from Reuters, 70 percent of Americans—including 85 percent of Democrats and a surprising 52 percent of Republicans—say they support Medicare for All. Sanders has even proven capable of rousing a Fox News town hall—with an audience that its conservative moderators described as “ideologically diverse”—to cheers at the prospect of single-payer health insurance. He did this without changing his position, diluting any of his talking points, or resorting to the dog whistles that distinguish the more right-wing style of anti-establishment politics that usually appears on Fox.

Since the 1970s, the gutting of the American labor movement and the steady rightward slide of the Democratic Party on economic policy has had the effect of consigning much of the left to niche activist spaces and the academy; the inevitable result of years of decline, in other words, has been a left that has no clear model of what electoral success even looks like. The real hurdle for the still-weakened left at this time, then, isn’t necessarily the cultural battle of attempting to make radical ideas palatable. Rather, the challenge is to find a way of developing and honing a raft of strategies—electoral and otherwise—that can translate any existing public goodwill toward the expansion of public resources into winning policy.

On Sanders’s signature issue in particular, the work will likely continue without much of a hitch. Campaigns for single-payer health care in the U.S. have had a number of fits and starts since at least the New Deal era, but Sanders’s 2016 run threw fuel on a growing wave of state and national-level organizing for Medicare for All. That includes the ongoing advocacy by networks of health care professionals, such as the formidable National Nurses United and the 20,000-strong organization Physicians for a National Health Program, in addition to the essential, if often unglamorous, work of phone calls and door-knocking to turn out voters for candidates and ballot initiatives that move single-payer forward. A Sanders loss will sting because it was always the best, most direct shot at Medicare for All. But by design, it was never the only one.

And there’s another reason, beyond the immediate, incomprehensible cruelty of a health care system that withholds medical care from those who can’t afford it or forces them into debt, that Bernie Sanders has championed Medicare for All for as long as he’s held any kind of office. According to a report last week from the Economic Policy Institute, Medicare for All has the potential to boost wages; lessen the strain of unemployment; and reduce job lock, the phenomenon where workers stay in bad jobs in order to keep their employer-sponsored health care. That’s another way of saying that Medicare for All would shift some power from a small number of employers to the great majority of workers.

If the Sanders campaign ultimately ends with the primaries, then holding fast to that majoritarian spirit, rather than slipping into despair or retreating to the comforting familiarity of obscurity, will be the most valuable exercise for the left. “Our big task now is to maintain the bread-and-butter demands as leading political ideas while we fill in the capacity to actually win them,” Dustin Guastella, a Medicare for All organizer in Philadelphia recently wrote. “Regardless of who is president, American workers like single-payer insurance, and our health care woes are not going anywhere.”