Analysis | What’s next for Bernie Sanders’s ‘revolution’?

He may have dropped out of the race to win the Democratic nomination but continues to shape politics

April 09, 2020 01:28 pm | Updated December 03, 2021 06:53 am IST - Chennai

Bernie Sanders. | File

Bernie Sanders. | File

Bernie Sanders, the insurgent American politician who pushed the Democratic Party to the Left on several issues, on Wednesday dropped out of the race for party nomination after a series of defeats in primaries, leaving it to Joe Biden, the Centrist former Vice-President, to take on Donald Trump in the November presidential election.

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This was the second straight election Mr. Sanders is ending up as a runner up in the Democratic nomination contest. The 78-year-old Senator from Vermont, a self-declared “democratic socialist”, may not get another chance to bid for the White House, but the movement he launched, which he calls a political revolution, has already shaken up the Democratic Party.

Historical parallels

There were a few politicians in the U.S. who left lasting imprints on the political system despite their failure to win the top office. Historian Michael Kazin has compared Mr. Sanders to the late 19th Century Democratic insurgent William Jennings Bryan and the 1972 Democratic candidate George McGovern. Bryan, who first won the Democratic party nomination in 1896, was a critic of the gold standard, a champion of inflationary policies and a consistent critic of “American imperialism”. Bryan lost all three White House bids — in 1896, 1900 and 1908. Despite these failures, writes Mr. Kazin, author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan , the Democratic Party “embraced the pro-regulation, anti-monopoly, pro-union stand of this eloquent politician called ‘the Great Commoner’.” When the Democrats eventually captured power in 1912, Woodrow Wilson appointed Bryan as Secretary of State.

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In 1972, McGovern defeated the establishment favourites to win the nomination, but lost to incumbent Richard Nixon in the presidential election. If Bryan was seen as a doyen of the “progressive era” of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, McGovern was one of the champions of “modern American liberalism”, which was marked by anti-war movements, calls for expanded civil rights and economic equity. When McGovern was running a high-spirited liberal campaign, he was called by critics, both inside and outside the Democratic Party, a “Communist apologist”. Despite his massive loss to Nixon, his anti-war positions (‘Come Home America’) would resonate through the American populace in the years that followed. President Nixon himself would end the Vietnam war that had been lost for years.

Political legacy

Like Bryan and McGovern, Mr. Sanders also built a movement at the grassroots level and took it to the national political realm. While the former two made it to the presidential race, Mr. Sanders could not reach that milestone, partly because he failed to broaden his support base through the diverse Democratic voters. He also faced a combative party establishment, which threw its weight behind its favourites, Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Mr. Biden this year. When Mr. Biden, who was trailing behind Mr. Sanders, managed to get most establishment Democrat candidates’ endorsement before Super Tuesday (March 3), which dramatically overhauled his prospects, Mr. Sanders failed to get support even from Left-liberal Elizabeth Warren. His fate was sealed on Super Tuesday .

But the impact of the Sanders campaign on the Democratic politics is already visible. Most Democrats who joined the 2020 race supported restructuring America’s healthcare system, making accessible and affordable for “all Americans”. They also supported doubling the minimum wage, fighting climate change more vigorously and taxing the rich more. Support for Medicare for all, one of Mr. Sanders’s top promises, is also rising in the U.S. across party lines.

According to a WSJ/NBC poll, the support for the proposal among all registered voters stood at 43% in March. About 73% support an option to buy into a Medicare system. Among the Democratic voters, 67% voters supported Mr. Sanders’ proposal, while the support for the public option stood at 81%. And at a time when the U.S. is facing an unprecedented healthcare crisis in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak and its economic impact, the focus of the political debate could further shift to healthcare and inflationary policies. The Democratic Party also has a host of young leaders, including New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are taking forward the Sanders-style Leftist politics. In the 2018 congressional elections, 10 of the 32 seats endorsed by Mr. Sanders’s movement, Our Revolution, were elected.

Unsurprisingly, in a statement issued after Mr. Sanders announced his decision to drop out, Mr. Biden has tried to reach out to the Leftist leader’s base with a promise that, “I hear you, and I understand the urgency of what it is we have to get done in this country.” “We will confront income inequality in our nation. We will make sure healthcare is affordable and accessible to every American. We will make education at our public colleges and universities free. We will ease the burden of student debt. And, most important of all, we will defeat Donald Trump,” said Mr. Biden. As it suggests, Mr. Sanders may have dropped out of the race to win the Democratic nomination, but he continues to shape the Democratic politics.

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