Bernie Sanders officially suspended his 2020 presidential campaign on Wednesday, choosing not to contest the Democratic primaries all the way to the end of the calendar as he had done in 2016. It may seem in retrospect as if Sanders's second campaign was less successful than his first, since his support fell below its 2016 level in every state that voted after Super Tuesday and he dropped out of the race much sooner this time around. Yet Sanders achieved something important in 2020 that he never did four years ago: a temporary status as the favorite for the nomination during the two-and-a-half weeks between the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, before Joe Biden's sudden resurgence blocked his path. It's likely that Sanders's two presidential bids, taken together, represent an important milestone in American politics. But it's impossible to know right now how important they will turn out to be.
After each of his candidacies, some analysts confidently declared that Sanders—despite his present-day defeats—nevertheless represents the future of the Democratic Party. This blog has consistently been skeptical of that argument, and it remains so today. Even if Sanders had managed to win the 2020 race, it would have been a testament to the complexities and contingencies of multi-candidate nomination politics more than the expression of a fundamental shift in the preferences of Democratic voters. And if Sanders had gone on to lose the general election to Donald Trump, there would have been substantial backlash within the party against his brand of politics.
Sanders found more success running for president than many people anticipated—and more success than any left-wing candidate achieved since Jesse Jackson, if not George McGovern. But as these historical parallels suggest, temporary breakthroughs do not inevitably lead to long-term transformations. Sanders has given leftism (a word I use in a non-pejorative sense to distinguish Sanders-style politics from the conventional Obama-Biden liberalism now prevailing within the Democratic mainstream) its best opportunity in at least a generation to establish itself as a persistently influential force in American politics, even if it remains unlikely to succeed in remaking the entire Democratic Party in its own image. But opportunities can be squandered, and they often have been before.
Sanders's most obvious contribution to the leftist cause is demonstrating that millions of Americans can be mobilized to support—and support passionately, with generous financial contributions—a political candidate who identifies himself as a socialist and who advocates a comprehensively left-wing set of issue positions that would, especially in the economic realm, represent a break from the thrust of American policy-making over at least the past 40 years. He diverted the attention of activists on the left who have often remained aloof from electoral politics to the potential benefits of seeking power through that means. And he (very sensibly) used the vehicle of a major party to do so, illustrating the self-defeating pointlessness of leftism's previous third-party dalliances by winning nearly four times as many total votes in one-and-a-half nomination contests as the Green Party has won over the past six general elections.
Sanders also introduced new or long-absent policy positions into the realm of public debate. Whether or not student debt forgiveness, a federal jobs guarantee, or six months of paid family leave are ever implemented in the United States, the necessary first step toward enactment is for a candidate to build a campaign around them. A political journalistic class that does not naturally welcome discussions of economic inequality and fairness has been compelled by Sanders's campaigns to acknowledge these subjects to a much greater degree than it did in preceding decades.
But Sanders also exposed some of the continued political weakness of American leftism even in a moment of relative triumph, so it's worth considering what else would need to happen for his candidacies to become the start of a larger revolution (as it were). Simply pointing at the age distribution of Sanders's support and claiming that the left wing can just wait to inherit the Democratic Party from its more moderate elders isn't very convincing. At any given historical moment, lefties can be prone to assuming that the enthusiasm of youthful activists for their cause is a sign that popular victory is just around the generational corner, but it's worth considering how many baby boomers who were marching in the streets in the 1960s and 1970s aged to become supporters of Joe Biden—or, for that matter, of Donald Trump.
While Sanders did much to promote the idea that left-wing politics could be productively advanced within the institutional framework of the Democratic Party, he did not entirely resolve—and, in some ways, even exacerbated—the tension between corners of the activist left and the party as it now exists. Sanders's refusal to officially become a Democrat himself, combined with his rhetorical attacks on the "Democratic establishment," meant that he couldn't speak of the party as a "we" rather than a "they," which contrasted with other leaders (such as Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) whose policy views overlap with Sanders but who present themselves as heirs to the left's lineage within the Democratic Party rather than outside it.
For those on the left who disdain the Democratic name, this separation was a major reason why Sanders was preferable to alternatives like Warren. In both 2016 and 2020, Sanders ran better among political independents than among self-identified Democrats. Some of his most prominent and devoted public supporters, and even campaign staff members, have histories of open antagonism to Democratic leaders and organizations. But increasing the appeal of leftist politics within the Democratic electoral base in the future will require courting citizens who are loyal to the party and proud of its history—such as the black voters whose lack of support for Sanders proved decisive in both of the last two elections. The modern conservative movement gained control of the Republican Party not by dismissing the GOP's heritage but by claiming it for itself. Yet analogous actors on the left have been much more likely to criticize the Democratic leadership from outside the tent, limiting their persuasive power over those inside.
Another question still unanswered at this stage is whether momentum on the left will survive the end of Sanders's own national candidacy. Sanders is famous for his lack of interest in promoting or even talking about himself, but insurgent or upstart presidential campaigns often wind up presenting their candidates as political saviors who have arrived on the scene to personally cure the nation's ills, and—as with Obama and Trump before him—Sanders has indeed become such a figure, treated by some admirers as the only honest man in politics. Both Sanders campaigns styled themselves as a "movement," but can this movement extend beyond Sanders, his current activist supporters, and a handful of backbench allies in the House of Representatives?
One might be tempted to compare Sanders to Barry Goldwater, whose own unsuccessful presidential candidacy laid the groundwork for later transformational change, but the modern conservative movement was already much larger than one candidate or campaign by the time of Goldwater's 1964 nomination, and only two years after his general election defeat it elected its ultimate embodiment, Ronald Reagan, to be governor of the nation's largest state. Sanders has been a very effective spokesperson for his cause, but he does not seem to be a natural institution-builder, and an enduring political movement or party faction needs renewable capacity beyond the intermittent mobilization of quadrennial presidential campaigns. Here, as elsewhere, the conservative movement's ability to draw steady financial and structural support from business interests and wealthy patrons has given it an advantage that is difficult to replicate on the left.
The Sanders campaign was also ultimately hampered by another common impediment of left-wing politics: strategic and tactical deficiencies. Lefties can easily fall into the habit of waging campaigns in the political world as they wish it to be, not in the world as it is. They may also avoid practices that they consider unseemly, even if they might be effective. Post-mortem accounts of the Sanders operation describe flawed or absent polling, considerable strategic rigidity, and a candidate disinclined to reach out to other political figures who would have been in position to help him win. (The Warren campaign also seems to have been organized around the idea that relying on pollsters and professional consultants to make major decisions was somehow beneath its dignity and therefore to be resisted.) Romanticizing the noble defeat is a long-standing tradition on the American left, but it has undeniable practical drawbacks if the goal is to gain and hold political power.
Sanders has already left a mark on aspects of the Democratic policy platform, and he will almost certainly be credited in coming years with drawing a generation of activists into the political arena. Rather than exerting a transformative effect on the party as a whole, a more invigorated left wing is—if it can sustain its energy over the long term—more likely to act as one among many constituencies tugging on Democratic leaders to prioritize its particular concerns. Though such a development would fall well short of some supporters' revolutionary ambitions, it would be still a fairly impressive legacy for a second-place campaign to leave behind.