On the day of the Iowa caucuses in February, the now disgraced and retired MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews made a remark about Bernie Sanders’s chances of winning the general election that unintentionally captured the significance of both his campaign and his rise in American politics. “I’ve dealt with these guys most of my adult life,” Matthews said. “They’re usually the guys at the card table at an anti-war rally. There’d be some old guy with some old literature from this socialist party or that.”
“There’s always guys like that,” he concluded.
He was right. For over half a century—at small magazines and small organizations, on campuses and at town halls, in a handful of city council and state legislative seats, and even, once in a blue moon, in the halls of Congress—there have been people like Bernie Sanders hanging around. Before his campaign in 2016, we’d become accustomed to them grumbling or shouting from the sidelines of American politics. These were the rumpled, earnest figures that filled time on Air America or Democracy Now! and manned the Dennis Kucinich or Ralph Nader campaigns. They were gadflies and polemicists on the outside looking in, rendering judgments about a world that might be theirs to change someday, pending some breakthrough in mass consciousness, a final systemic collapse, and a revolution just over the horizon.
What Matthews didn’t say was that these judgments were typically correct. People like Bernie Sanders have been right about virtually every major question facing this country since the end of World War II. This is one of the great tragedies of the Sanders campaign—for a brief, bright moment, it was entirely conceivable that a “guy like that” might finally become the leader of the free world. But it was not to be. And for an entire generation of the American left—a generation that watched postwar prosperity give way to the precarity and inequality of the neoliberal economy; that was shaped by the movement against the war in Vietnam and reinvigorated by the movement against the war on terror; that brought the stridency of its opposition to late Cold War interventionism in South America and the Middle East to bear against torture, extrajudicial assassination, indefinite detention, and the erosion of civil liberties in this new century; that witnessed the end of the old civil rights era and the birth of a new era determined to see through what the last left unfinished; that sparked an environmental movement that is now civilization’s last best hope; that prompted consequential marches on Seattle and on Wall Street; and that can claim figures like Michael Harrington, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Noam Chomsky as not only inspirations but true contemporaries—this is where the road ends.
Much will be written, in the weeks, months, and years ahead, about how much Sanders was able to achieve in the road’s final stretch. Many will argue that socialism has been significantly destigmatized across an important share of the American electorate. We will hear reminders that a $15 minimum wage, free college, and other ideas deemed radical and unrealistic just a few short years ago, are now central to mainstream policy conversation. Some will point out that self-styled moderates and figures in the Democratic establishment, even while rejecting Sanders’s Medicare for All plan, have been pushed by the discourse surrounding it into support for dramatically expanding public health insurance in America through schemes that resemble the universal health care regimes in place across Europe. And so on.
The reply from Sanders will be that none of it is enough. And this, more than anything else about him and his movement that has been scrutinized—the behavior of some of his supporters, his clumsiness navigating some of the precepts of contemporary identity politics, his personal and political stubbornness, his impatience for questions about pay-fors and particulars that the last few hectic weeks in American policymaking have rendered laughable—lies at the heart of the antipathy his Democratic critics have for him. The thing that rankles the most is the insistence that liberal self-satisfaction is a critical obstacle to progress, which, at this point in the country’s trajectory, should be made in a sprint rather than a shuffle. His most dedicated and vocal backers are those unwilling to believe we’ll make our way out of our current political situation with grateful deference toward established leadership and complacency; those with the temerity to suggest American liberals have wasted time and political capital confusing the mere appearance of nuance and complexity for intelligence and moral rectitude.
The last Democratic president urged his party to embrace the audacity of hope. For him, hope was an airy thing: a feeling rooted in the faith that our future can be built on reason and goodwill alone. But offering real hope to the American people is a material project. Hope depends upon the deconstruction of an economic system that leaves too many Americans wondering if they have the resources and capacity to make it through today and a privileged few free to build themselves a better tomorrow. Sanders has carried many to this realization, but a new generation of progressives enraged and heartbroken by the last administration and the last 20 years of American life have also carried him, and it is impossible to imagine his campaign would have been as successful without the support of activists and organizers who will fight on long after this election ends.
Nevertheless, for all of his accomplishments and victories, Sanders did ultimately come up short. His efforts were undergirded by a familiar theory: the notion that the working class, the politically disaffected, and the reliably left-wing could be galvanized by a progressive agenda in such great numbers that they would sweep away the existing political order. But the barriers to participation for Americans at the margins of politics are significant and not entirely structural. Most people, even in the best of times, want to vote for a candidate they believe can succeed. For the majority of the Democratic electorate—justifiably preoccupied with the task of defeating President Trump in November—that candidate was Joe Biden, and his campaign was backed by a coalition of voters that included not only suburbanites but a broad swath of working-class Democrats.
Biden’s victory has been credited mostly to granular missteps from the Sanders campaign and the last-minute moderate rally around Biden after his victory in South Carolina. But the reality is that progressive electoral victories have been rare for generations. Sanders’s campaigns have offered evidence that the challenge for the left now isn’t winning broad support for its policy program—much of Sanders’s platform was popular among the general electorate, and among Democratic voters, the fight over the substance of proposals like Medicare for All has essentially been won. But the model for progressive electoral success is plainly broken somewhere, and solutions probably lie in questions of political affect—in making wary voters believe progressivism is truly viable at the ballot box and within our sclerotic political institutions.
There’s a temptation to believe progressives will inherit the Democratic Party naturally in due time. Sanders, after all, performed well not only with the youngest Democrats but also a significant share of voters around middle age, while the heart of Biden’s coalition was older voters who aren’t too long for this world. But as demographically inevitable as progressive ascendancy might seem, the country and the world can’t wait for the Democratic Party to ease itself into reality. We have perilously little time to get a handle on the climate crisis before it becomes a civilization-upending catastrophe, and the Republican Party has spent the last decade erecting an impregnable wall around our institutions that is nearly complete.
We are entirely out of somedays and eventuallys. Progressives need to find the missing pieces to the electoral puzzle now. But no matter whether Sanders won or lost, progress was always going to rest upon our ability to come together, press our demands, and fight for people we don’t know at our workplaces and in the streets. “Not me. Us.” Those words are his legacy and the way forward.