A Requiem for Bernie Sanders’ Presidential Campaign

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a news conference outside his campaign headquarters in Washington, Tuesday, June 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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By endorsing Hillary Clinton for president, Bernie Sanders will finally and officially end his campaign for the presidency – and fittingly so. Was it all worth it? Political history is littered with dissident campaigns that made a splash but didn’t have much impact after they were over – Brown in ’92, McCain in 2000, and Huckabee and Edwards in 2008 – as well as those that did – Reagan in 1976, Hart in 1984, and Dean in 2004. It’s too early to tell about Sanders’ campaign, but here are several aspects in which Sanders either reinforced a trend or, perhaps, began one.

Since Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992, younger voters 18-29 years old have been trending Democratic. There was a big spurt in the 2004 election and again in 2008. The initial surge was probably for what political scientists call post-material concerns about women’s rights, civil rights, the environment. Then, of course, came the Iraq War that contributed to the shifts from 2004-2008. Finally, what we are seeing today, I believe, is an additional reaction to the Great Recession and to the post-industrial transformation of the American economy.

There was the fear of joblessness created by the recession that began under George W. Bush’s watch, the huge accumulation of student debt, and the increasingly perilous prospects for young people in an economy where there is no promise anymore of lifetime, or even decade-long, employment. The American economy is becoming a niche economy, part-time, schedule C’ed, and non-tenured. Information technology is constantly shifting job requirements. My theory – and it is only a theory – is that regardless of the outward employment numbers, young people have become increasingly anxious about their future.

Amazingly, the 74-year-old Sanders spoke to this anxiety in a way that none of the other candidates did – and it showed in polling results for both Clinton and Trump. Clinton, of course, had a complicated program for reducing college costs, but Sanders’s approach was capsulized in the simple slogan, “It’s time to make college tuition free and debt free.” And his argument for this made sense as well – that in the future a college education will be seen as an absolute prerequisite for getting a job the same way that a high school education became several generations ago. Sanders’ appeal to the young wasn’t limited to that. It was also his approach to politics, which attracted other voters besides the young. It had to do with the kind of proposals or demands he made.

There are two kinds of political demands that one finds during campaigns. One kind are complicated, incremental, and subject to whatever the current standards of governmental viability are. Hillary Clinton’s demands were of this kind; so were John Kasich’s or Jeb Bush’s. One can easily imagine them as part of the budget request of a new president. Call them governmental demands. The other kind of demands are political. They establish a framework, a vision, in which to make governmental demands. They are usually not immediately viable. Think of Ronald Reagan’s tax cut plans in ’80 (which the commentariat scorned and which had already been rejected by Congress), Donald Trump on “the wall” or on blocking American corporations from moving overseas, and, finally, Sanders’ demands for Medicare for all and free college tuition.

As Clinton’s supporters noted repeatedly, Sanders’ demands could not possibly get through a Republican Congress and in the case of Medicare for all, would require another overhaul of the healthcare industry and meet great resistance from Aetna and CareFirst. It remained unclear whether they could be paid for or whether, once the costs were made clear, Americans would be willing to pay for them. But unlike Clinton’s complex, incremental programs, they put forth an ideal that many voters embraced; they created a direction in which many voters, particularly among Democrats, wanted to go. Reagan did very much the same for Republicans in 1980, and lo and behold, he got enough votes and so did Republican congressional candidates, for him to get some of what he wanted.

There is, of course, an argument to be made about the specific political demands that Sanders made. I was less crazy myself about restoring Glass-Steagall, and I continue to suspect that some of the furor over the Trans-Pacific Partnership is displaced from anger at past Democratic support for NAFTA. But the demands he made – unlike, say, the demand to build a railroad to the North Pole or ban the use of automobiles – were not inconceivable to meet – as he noted, many other advanced capitalist countries have a version of Medicare for all and free college – and would create (I and others believe) a much better situation that we have now.

I know there are people too young to be worried about being bankrupt by illness, or too secure in salaried jobs with great benefits, but for many people, our healthcare system, even after the Affordable Care Act, remains a nightmarish web of complications, loopholes, and copayments and deductibles to avaricious insurance companies. What Sanders was advocating — beyond the specifics — was strengthening and broadening social security in the broadest sense of the word so that even as Americans are tossed to and fro in the information economy, they can feel a certain sense of security — one that is currently lacking for many, many people in this country.

Sanders’ support for these kind of political demands may set the Democrats eventually on a more visionary and inspiring course – one that isn’t bounded by the shadow of Republican congressional dominance and the business campaign funding that has narrowed the Democratic vision for thirty years or more. That’s really the message behind Sanders’ call for a “political revolution.”

I know some sophisticates find this call laughable, but I think many young voters understood what Sanders was saying: that the only way to overcome the oligarchic, plutocratic tilt of our political system is by the massive, determined participation in politics of those determined to change it. Sanders’ campaign may, of course, become a footnote in political histories, a curiosity in a trivia question like Fred Harris’s 1972 campaign, but I have a feeling it will survive his defeat. At least I hope it will.

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