Bernie Offered Us the Future. Why Did He Fail—and What Did We Forfeit? | Opinion

As many Americans look sullenly towards the November election (assuming these elections ever take place) and the prospect of choosing between the degradingly grotesque Donald Trump and the depressingly unexciting Joe Biden, it is worth pausing to reflect on the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, and what his dropping out of the race means for the United States, and for the rest of the world.

For his many millions of supporters, in the United States and around the world, Sanders was not just a candidate; he was a rare opportunity. More than any other major presidential candidate in at least half a century, he represented the possibility of a drastic, and welcome, break from longstanding American orthodoxies and priorities in both domestic and foreign policy. Although many of his proposals—especially his signal demand for universal health care to replace America's absurdly dysfunctional, wildly expensive, and criminally unequal profit-based system—are popular, older primary voters (those over the age of 50) roundly rejected him in favor of Biden, either because they were convinced by the media that Sanders was "unelectable" (this despite the fact that Sanders has bested Trump in every national poll since 2016, including in crucial swing states), or because they disliked Sanders himself.

And so, in the face of an unprecedented crisis, with a global epidemic that is killing thousands of Americans and devastating the economy, and with a President seemingly determined, with the help of his collaborators in Congress and the Supreme Court, to destroy whatever is left of American democracy, the Democratic Party has settled—at least for now—on Biden: a weak candidate in many ways, clearly past his prime, with an incoherent or platitude-laden message, a tendency to disappear from the public eye for extended periods, a flawed voting record, not much grassroots support, a base that seems to consist largely of septuagenarians, an appeal based on his connection to Barack Obama, and funding that comes mostly from millionaires and billionaires.

The apparatchiks and donors propping up Biden's candidacy are gambling that Americans, exhausted by the avarice of the current president, want to return to the supposed "normalcy" of the Obama era, when Biden was the likeable Vice President. The problem is that some of the worst problems America faces today—including Trump's presidency itself—are in many ways the products of the Obama years, during which inequality grew worse and average life expectancy dropped. Obama's vice president hardly seems like the leader that Americans need to tackle them. Political operatives may not know this, but historians do: time moves forward, never backward. There can be no return to the past, "normal" or otherwise.

Beyond his control

Why, then, did Sanders lose? Since he dropped out, there has been a lot of focus on his campaign strategy and mistakes he and his team supposedly made. It is true that Sanders could have tried to secure more endorsements and perhaps sharpened his economic message in Michigan, a state he needed to win but lost badly. But these were not the main reasons. If anything, probably his biggest mistake was being too soft on his rival. Implored by his advisors to directly attack Biden's record and many peccadillos, Sanders refused. Instead, he constantly referred to Biden as "Joe, my good friend", a "decent man", insisted that Biden could defeat Trump, promised to campaign on Biden's behalf if Biden was the candidate, and even scolded his own surrogates when they criticized Biden harshly (but fairly). This approach did not reflect the passion of his own supporters, did not gain him additional votes or any goodwill from the media, which continued to cover him harshly, and also made him look like a candidate not willing to do what it takes to win.

In the end, though, Sanders was defeated by circumstances beyond his control. As in 2016, he faced unrelenting hostility and derision from much of the media, especially cable news networks such as CNN and MSNBC, the channels beloved by the boomers who voted overwhelmingly for Biden. On those networks it is practically impossible to hear anyone remotely friendly to Sanders. He was smeared as sexist and racist and breezily compared to Trump, or the Nazis, or the coronavirus. Financial elites despised him, warning incessantly that a Sanders presidency would "destroy the economy", when what they really meant was that he would try to make the economy more equitable by forcing billionaires and corporations to pay taxes.

Over it all hung the stench of anti-Semitic tropes: Sanders "yelled too much", was "angry all the time", wasn't "a team player", "waved his arms" or "pointed his finger", was "hiding his taxes", harbored secret wealth. One wealthy MSNBC pundit, without offering an explanation, stated that Sanders is "sort of not pro-woman" and "makes my skin crawl" (while another pundit vigorously nodded). The ugly media narrative about so-called Bernie Bros served to erase the fact that his supporters are disproportionately poor, working class, and women, from communities of color, working at Amazon, Wal-Mart, public schools, and the postal service, unable to buy a home or get out of debt, donating what little they could to the Sanders campaign.

Despite all this, Sanders rose steadily in the polls during the race and was the front-runner after the first three state primaries; no other candidate had ever won the first three states and gone on to lose the nomination. It took an extraordinary political consolidation, organized by a panicked Democratic leadership to stop him (reportedly, Barack Obama himself was involved, far ahead of his endorsement of the presumptive nominee earlier today.) Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, who had both done much better than Joe Biden in Iowa and New Hampshire, dropped out after Biden's victory in South Carolina and right before Super Tuesday, and endorsed him. Other prominent Democratic candidates quickly lined up behind Biden, including Michael Bloomberg, Beto O'Rourke, Cory Booker, Andrew Yang, Kamala Harris, and Tulsi Gabbard. This helped lead to Biden's strong showings on Super Tuesday and subsequent primaries, essentially ending Sanders's chances.

In spite of its ultimate failure, the Sanders campaign was successful in several ways. It has forced the other candidates to address long-neglected matters that Sanders singlehandedly brought to the fore. Medicare-for-All and the proposed Green New Deal are now nearly mainstream positions. Sanders won the primary in the largest, richest, and most diverse state in the country, California. He was one of two men left standing after besting many candidates that started with high hopes and strong support from party insiders and donors. He went further, and came closest to real power, than any leftwing political leader in his lifetime. He helped build a political movement that will remain a force in American life and will keep trying to win. Because his support is so concentrated among the young, and because the problems he vowed to fight will only get worse whether Trump or Biden wins, this movement is only likely to grow, and its next leaders might eventually succeed where he failed.

Sanders was a historic candidate. He would have been first Jewish President, the first non-Christian, and only the second non-Protestant (John F. Kennedy was a Catholic, as is Biden). He would have been the first to identify as a Democratic Socialist, in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Helen Keller. He also would have been the oldest (Sanders is 78; Biden will be 78 in November.) He alone, among all the candidates, shunned all forms of corporate and billionaire campaign financing, and raised more money, from more people, than any other candidate in electoral history—an unmatched display of grassroots energy. But where Sanders stood out most of all was in his platform. In both the domestic and global domains, many his ideas were unprecedented in presidential politics.

Others will enter the promised land

While much has been said about his domestic agenda, which mostly resembles mainstream European social democracy, it is on the global stage that a Sanders nomination would have had the most impact and where his voice was most exceptional. Going back to the 2016 campaign, he was the only candidate to assert the basic humanity of the Palestinian people (a low bar, to be sure, but American politicians, Republicans and Democrats, rarely even acknowledge their existence, except when talking about "terrorists" and Israeli security needs). Sanders denounced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (a friend of Donald Trump's who has been meddling in US politics for years and was invited by Republicans to address Congress) as corrupt and racist (both true), and stated his support both for Israeli freedoms and security and the right of Palestinians to those same things.

Sanders was one of only a handful of lawmakers battling the Trump administration's bloody proxy war in Yemen, insisting on the prerogative of Congress to stop American intervention on behalf of the murderous regime in Saudi Arabia (against another horrific regime, Iran's). He refused to support Trump's astronomical military budget (while other supposedly progressive Democrats voted in favor of it). He took a principled stand against the authoritarianism and fascism sweeping much of the world today; when India's nationalistic Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his campaign to legally discriminate against India's hundreds of millions of Muslim citizens, Sanders was the only major American political leader to denounce him (by contrast, Biden's "Muslim outreach coordinator" was revealed to be a Modi supporter, while Trump and Modi have been openly celebratory of each other.)

During his 2016 campaign, Sanders was criticized for not having a real foreign policy platform, although even then he memorably responded to Hillary Clinton's bragging about her friendship with Henry Kissinger that "I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is no friend of mine". Since then, Sanders put together a sophisticated foreign policy team and addressed global issues in detail, even penning op eds about his plans to combat global authoritarianism and to mobilize the international community to fight a common enemy, climate change. In challenging longstanding shibboleths such as the unquestioning support of Israel and Saudi Arabia, the selective support for dictatorial regimes, and the primacy of the military-industrial complex, the prospect of a Sanders presidency worried the foreign policy establishment as much as it did Wall Street, and no one is more relieved that he won't be president than two groups: members of the so-called foreign policy Blob, and the motley assortment of rightwing wannabe-autocrats currently in power in Brazil, India, Israel, and elsewhere. Whether Trump or Biden is elected in November, they will be able to pursue their xenophobic and corrupt policies unperturbed, and will probably even be rewarded by the American administration.

Meanwhile those who will most likely lose out from the end of the dream of a Sanders presidency are not just his supporters in the United States, who were hoping for a president who would finally get serious about the real problems facing the American people, but countless people around the world—marginalized, vulnerable, imprisoned, under occupation—who dared to hold out hope for a different America, one that would have a positive impact on their lives: an end to the endless War on Terror, pressure on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and blockade on Gaza, a demand that American allies, irrespective of their role in global financial markets, adhere to basic human rights and commit to tackling climate change. Those things might still happen someday; the demand for justice and a better, fairer, more livable world will not go anywhere. But it will not be Sanders who enters the Promised Land; someone else will have to do that.

Moshik Temkin is a historian who currently teaches about leadership in history at Harvard Kennedy School. You can find his less serious thoughts on Twitter at @moshik_temkin

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.