Hillary Clinton’s sweep of all five states last Tuesday seemed to signal the end of Bernie Sanders’ insurgent “socialist” Presidential campaign. While Sanders is far from being mathematically eliminated, Clinton has taken a commanding lead in the march toward the White House.
The mainstream media has all but pronounced the Sanders campaign fatally wounded, if not an example of the walking dead. Even for those who are less dismissive, there appears to be unifying logic coalescing around the urgent need for Democrats to now unify in the name of defeating the larger threat of Trump in November. These sentiments were supposedly echoed, though much more privately, by no less than President Obama to donors.
In the wake of these defeats, his supporters and progressives have sought to keep his dream of political revolution alive. They point to the fact that the rest of the election map is highly favorable to Sanders. Fundamentally, they suggest that this dramatic setback could be an opportunity for him to more fully articulate and promote his socialist message.
Yet perhaps the important question is not if Sanders should remain in the race but rather why and for what ultimate ends. There is significantly more than just the presidency at stake—there is a progressive movement to build. The success of Sanders campaign will historically judged not by his own victory but the degree he ushered in an era for the progressive victory of others.
Why Keep Fighting?
According to mainstream Democrats and pundits, Sanders’ demise is imminent. His downfall and Clinton’s triumph is now an inevitability. It is a matter of if not when. Sanders has called these political obituaries “absurd” and has vowed to keep fighting all the way to the convention.
Hanging over this debate are the historical shadows of Nader’s failed 2000 campaign and the looming worry of a Trump presidency. Just as Nader supposedly handed the election to Bush with his independent campaign so too will Sanders with his refusal to surrender from within the Party.
Such a threat is not something to take lightly. However, there is also a greater danger that must not be ignored. Without continuing the struggle, the racism and authoritarianism that Trump represents may be temporarily dampened but be far from extinguished. To do so he needs to draw on his surprising success to invest in a progressive movement from the ground up. In this way, to quote one recent commentator, “Bernie Sanders can still lead a political revolution—even if he loses”.
Winning more than the War on Ideas
Sanders has been praised, even in prospective defeat, for moving the public discourse in a more progressive direction. The very fact that inequality, unfair trade, the global race to the bottom, the injustice of the War on Drugs, and the need to end perpetual war around the world are now accepted mainstream Democratic positions reveals how much he has helped to achieve in such a short time.
Still, his campaign going forward must be about more than just words. Rhetoric without concrete demands may inspire the “poetry” of campaigning but too often loses in the “prose” of real governance. Sanders has largely won the war of ideas, it is now time for him to turn his attention to fundamentally transforming first the Democratic Party and with it American democracy.
Specifically, this involves forcing the Party to change how it operates both financially and politically. It means urging it to disavow all corporate money and Super PACs. To renounce its reliance on vested special interests such as in Wall Street and the arms industry. Such a strategy may sound far-fetched; however, it has already been shown to be not only feasible but also quite viable in this very Democratic primary. The uproar over Clinton’s acceptance of money from the private prison lobby led her to join with Sanders in calling for a blanket rejection of all future contributions from this industry.
Additionally, it means promoting progressive candidates at all levels and in every state. Sanders should take the lead of the so-called “Bernie’s Army,” using his media platform as a Presidential candidate to publicly advocate for all those running who share his values. Simmering beneath the hotly contested race between Clinton and Sanders is a brewing Party-wide civil war pitting progressives against the Democratic establishment.
Sanders has already used this strategy effectively on a smaller scale in the recent Illinois primary. His attacks against Clinton's support of Rahm Emmanuel were arguably a key part of his exceeding expectations in Chicago and almost winning the state as a whole. It is crucial that he takes these efforts nationally, creating with each stop of his campaign a platform for promoting a more progressive Democratic Party not just today but tomorrow.
Building a Movement All the Way to the Convention
Yet Sanders does not need to stop at the limits of the Democratic Party. Part of his appeal and his legislative success has always been his independence. His new found embrace of the Democratic Party could become a catalyst for expanding its horizons to include alliances with alternative left wing parties and protest movements.
The recent presentation of the Greens as a “Plan B” for Sanders voters offers just such a possibility. Many predictably bemoaned the foolishness of his supporters accepting the false purity of embracing a destined for defeat independent. Yet what they miss is the potential of Sanders himself using such a coalition to make the Democratic Party independent. It is a move that makes all the more tactical sense given the fact that Trump’s appeal lies in him doing largely the same to the Republican Party but from the Right.
Further, his outreach to black and latino voters would be greatly enhanced if he moved from the niceties of campaign promises to the realities of actually helping progressive candidates in these communities and in their associated movements actually get elected.
The Sanders campaign has come farther than anyone could originally have imagined. Given his financial and grassroots resources, Sanders is in a unique position to help build a forceful populist movement committed to principles of economic, social, and racial justice. It is far from the moment to surrender. He must build a progressive movement all the way to the Convention and beyond.