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This portrait of Bernard Sanders was adapted from a Creative Commons licensed photo from AFGE's Flickr photostream. (Image: Donkey Hotey/flickr/cc)

Berning Illusions: Why Sanders Can’t Concede to the Clinton Democrats

Christopher D. Cook

With a pitched battle over ideas and policy looming at this July’s convention in Philadelphia, the angry chorus urging Bernie Sanders’ concession and “Democratic unity” grows deafening, even among some who voted for him. But the reality is, Bernie can’t (and shouldn't) concede—he would lose all his leverage to negotiate a more progressive Democratic Party and would be neglecting the very ideas that inspired his remarkable campaign with its 12 million-plus voters.

Even as Bernie intimates that “It doesn’t appear that I’m going to be the nominee," and delivers a "Where we go from here" speech in New York today, the fight for all that his campaign has stood for powers on.  As his Washington Post op-ed makes clear, Bernie isn't backing away from his challenge to the political power structure and the changes so urgently needed. And Bernie's millions of supporters aren't backing away, either.

It’s worth considering why Bernie and so many of his supporters are not “ready for” unity with a party establishment that has spent decades consolidating a centrist corporate-friendly agenda. Why won’t Bernie Sanders’ supporters, particularly the “Bernie Or Bust” folks, fall in line with the presumptive nominee? Don’t they see the terror and blatant awfulness of Trump? Why are they still snarling and yelling as Clinton purports to extend an olive branch their way in the name of unity and victory?

First, the olive branch may be slippery and poisonous, or at least thorn-bedecked. What’s really on offer as Clinton “reaches out” to cultivate Sanders support—concrete policy commitments on core principles, or electoral fear-mongering?

Have the media and politicos conveniently “forgotten” why more than 12 million Americans, and 22 states in a majority, eschewed the pre-anointed Clinton for a once-relatively unknown elderly socialist? Have they forgotten how and why Sanders has gripped these millions with his message of fundamental systemic change, not trickle-down tinkering with our chronically corrupted and inequitable political and economic system?

Although many Berners detest Hillary Clinton and her politics, the potent currents behind Sanders’ mass appeal run deeper than Bernie. Folding up our political tents and subsuming them in a supposedly “Big Tent” Democratic Party run by the Clintons and other corporate centrists would be to ignore and deny the long-brewing and well-informed politics behind Sanders’ phenomenal appeal.

Whether you prefer Clinton or not, or are electorally motivated out of Trump phobia, consider the well-documented reasons why so many Bernie supporters are nowhere near “Ready for Hillary” even if they loathe and fear Trump. Here are just a few of the realities that motivate so many to be so passionate both for Bernie and against (or not for) Clinton:

  • Despite some accomplishments, both the Clinton and Obama administrations presided over the greatest inequality divides in modern U.S. history, with minimal investment in antipoverty programs or living wages (and in Clinton’s case, a radical undermining of poor people’s economic protections).
  • Under (Bill) Clinton, with Hillary’s vocal support, we witnessed the ending of welfare, the central safety net protecting poor Americans from the ravages of poverty and hunger. And NAFTA, which robbed America of hundreds of thousands of jobs, while impoverishing Mexican farmers, millions of whom fled north enduring scapegoating, death, and poverty.
  • Under Clinton, again with Hillary’s vocal support, we got the disastrous crime bill, the further criminalizing of millions of African Americans; we got the legislative pre-cursor to the Patriot Act (which Hillary later supported), in the form of the Anti-Terrorism Act, which paved the way for invasions of privacy and greater police powers at the expense of liberty and privacy; the Telecommunications Act which abetted mega-mergers that have decimated our media democracy.
  • Under Obama, we got 3 million deportations of immigrants—far more than under GW Bush. Likewise, Obama’s drone strikes have far exceeded those under Bush, killing thousands of innocent civilians and maintaining war and tensions.

What Bernie and his supporters have awoken cannot be reduced to Bernie v. Hillary—it’s a fundamentally different politics that demands more than the lesser of evils, a politics of urgency that insists on addressing the power structure that prevents progress on climate change, inequality, and political change.

The larger point is this: are you okay with the current state of affairs on inequality, poverty, hunger, homelessness, US military aggression (and the 51% of the budget behind that), corporate power, invasions of privacy, police militarization and abuses, and the ongoing migration of wealth and profits and resource control into the hands of fewer and fewer corporations and insanely wealthy individuals?

To understand why so many Bernie supporters (still) reject Clinton and her politics, you have to understand not only Hillary’s record, but the corporate centrist Democratic leadership of the past 25 years—a leadership that has never been so starkly and effectively countered as by Sanders. It is a long dispiriting and deflating record of using the specter of the right to justify a triangulating center that strangles the progress urgently needed on poverty, inequality, climate change, campaign finance reform, corporate power, and more.

Berners are still mad, not because “our candidate” lost, but because the country lost a unique chance at a profoundly different leadership in the White House. Berners are mad because the Democratic Party has abided unprecedented levels of inequality in America. We are mad because the Democratic Party has abided, and often outright aided, the deepening centralized corporate power over American politics and economics. We are mad because the Democratic Party has, for decades, taken labor, unions, and workers for granted—failing to push strongly for a $15 minimum wage, for union organizing rights, for real worker health and safety protections instead of public-private partnership regulations that let foxes guard henhouses.

We are mad because the Democratic centrist leadership, for decades, has put corporate compromise at the center of its “pragmatic” (read: defeatist) politics. We are mad not at compromise, per se, but because, empirically, the world desperately needs far more, and now.

We are mad because the Democratic centrist leadership trots out Republican bogeymen to excuse a politics that has not, for decades, challenged extreme wealth and corporate power. As Bernie and his millions have said, over and over—enough IS enough. It’s not just a slogan or a meme: when are more people going to wake up and be fed up by the utterly insane and untenable divides of wealth and power in our country? When are more people going to wake up and be fed up with waffling and tiptoeing (yes, by Clinton and Obama) on climate change? Carbon tax to fund massive renewables initiatives, anyone? Rapid coal phase-out, and outright ban on fracking, anyone? Courage, anyone?

Ultimately, the larger importance of this election is not about whether you “like” or “dislike” Hillary Clinton, whether you fear, despise, or laugh at Trump, or whether you love or loathe Sanders. It’s about the brutal realities of power that undergird our biggest crises today—inequality (propelled by race and class, with its nightmarish corollaries, poverty and hunger and homelessness), and climate change. At the root lies corporate power and the underlying structure and economy of maximizing profits and wealth, and, when the rubber meets the road, the bipartisan centrist support for this power. This is what Bernie has so powerfully challenged, and what Clinton and Trump defend and uphold, with albeit quite different verbiage.

The extent to which one represents real fundamental change is the extent to which one is willing to directly challenge this inequality and power. This challenge and courage is what has fueled Bernie and ignited millions. Finally, a viable presidential candidate has had the guts to say what has needed to be said for decades. You don’t get the change we so urgently need by nibbling at the edges, tinkering and tweaking within a compromised, concessionary, trickle down system.

The next phase of this long-winding elections battle is not about “licking our wounds” and uniting with a corporate Democrat who represents a fundamentally different politics—it’s about uniting behind an urgently needed progressive agenda that challenges corporate power, concentrated wealth, radical inequality, entirely preventable poverty and homelessness and hunger, a deeply corrupt and purchased elections system, an unsustainable energy and food system that imperils the planet, and much more.

The coming platform battle in Philadelphia will decide both very little, and a great deal. On the one hand, party platforms are vague, nonbinding values statements that have little (if any) bearing on a nominee’s policies. But what the platform says or doesn’t say, says a great deal about the party and its leadership. Sanders can (and should) withhold his support for Clinton until the battle plays out, and force Clinton and the party establishment to say “yes” or “no” to things like Medicare-for-all single payer healthcare, a carbon tax to address climate change, and a $15 minimum wage. It’s a fight worth having: Democratic voters have a right to know whether their presumptive nominee is willing—as Clinton so far has not been—to take courageous steps toward justice and equality.

Bernie Sanders has opened a tremendously compelling and vital new space in the American political discourse, one that’s far too important to shut down in the name of partisan “lesser evil” unity. Now is not the time to concede a “political revolution” that is only getting started.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Christopher D. Cook

Christopher D. Cook

Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and author of "Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis" (2006). Cook has written for Harper's, The Economist, Mother Jones, The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams and elsewhere. See more of his work at

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