This is the moment of truth for Bernie Sanders and his supporters. It’s the moment that determines whether everything they’ve accomplished to this point is translated into real power and real change, or fizzles into nothing, leaving behind only bitterness and resentment. And right now, the latter course is looking much more likely.
What happened in Nevada over the weekend was an expression of some key features of the Sanders campaign, even if it involved only a small number of Sanders supporters taking things to an extreme that most of them would never contemplate. It showed just how hard it’s going to be to convert the campaign into a lasting enterprise that has any influence over American politics. And at the moment, Bernie Sanders himself — the one person with the power to shape where this movement goes from here — hasn’t shown that he understands what’s happening or what he ought to do about it.
To briefly catch up: In February, Hillary Clinton won the Nevada caucuses over Bernie Sanders by a margin of 53-47. But because Nevada is one of the states with absurdly arcane procedures involving multiple conventions leading up to the party gathering that took place last weekend which chose the final allocation of delegates, both campaigns did their best to out-organize each other in an attempt to win a few extra delegates. After some arguing and disputes over credentials, the party finally awarded more delegates to Clinton. Sanders supporters basically went nuts, with a lot of yelling and screaming, some tossing of chairs, and eventually a torrent of harassment and threats aimed at the state party chair.
I’m not going to try to adjudicate what happened in Nevada, beyond saying that it looks like Clinton won the caucus, Sanders tried to work the system to grab some extra delegates, but then Clinton worked the system to grab them back, which doesn’t seem particularly unfair in the end. At the very least it was equally unfair to everyone.
That doesn’t mean that Sanders hasn’t had some legitimate process complaints all along. When he says that the leadership of the DNC aren’t neutral but are basically behind Clinton, he’s right. And I get that Sanders is in an awkward position. Telling his supporters to tone down their criticisms lest they damage the nominee would mean acknowledging that he isn’t going to win, and doing that would demobilize his supporters.
We should also appreciate that the Clinton campaign is all too happy to see this kind of meltdown, because it only makes Sanders and his supporters look like desperate dead-enders who can’t accept reality. And if she does become president, she’d probably be happier if she never faced any organized pressure from the left. But at the moment, Sanders has chosen to spend his time suggesting that the Democratic Party is corrupt, and any outcome other than him being the nominee just proves it. That is a recipe for the destruction of everything he’s accomplished up until now.
This is the problem with framing your campaign and everything you want to do as a “revolution.” You can’t have a partial revolution; either you overthrow the old order or the old order survives. And Sanders is encouraging his supporters to believe that if there’s anything of the old order left, then all is lost.
But the reality is that if the Sanders campaign is to become the Sanders movement — a force that has lasting impact on the presidency of Hillary Clinton and American politics more generally — it will only happen because he and his supporters manage to exercise influence through that system they despise. When he goes to visit Clinton in the Oval Office and tells her, “We still need a revolution!”, what is she going to say? Okay Bernie, thanks for coming, it was nice to see you.
If he and his people want to actually exercise some influence, they’ll have to start thinking about mundane things like presidential appointments, executive branch regulations, and the details of complex legislation. Victories in those forums will be partial and sporadic. From our vantage point today, is there anything to suggest that’s an enterprise he and his people will be willing to devote their efforts to? What happens if Clinton offers Sanders something — changes to the party’s platform, or input on her nominees? Will his supporters say, “This may not have been all we wanted, but it’s still meaningful”? No, they won’t. They’ll see it as a compromise with the corrupt system they’ve been fighting, a sellout, thirty pieces of silver that Sanders ought to toss back in her face. That’s because Sanders has told them over and over that the system is irredeemable, and nothing short of its complete dismantling is worthwhile.
This is the danger inherent in a critique that stands apart from substantive policy issues. The Sanders supporters who are now losing their minds certainly want the policy changes Sanders has advocated, like single-payer health care and free college tuition. But that isn’t what’s motivating them most powerfully right now. If it were, they’d be strategizing on how to maximize the chances of achieving those changes given the reality that Bernie Sanders is not going to be the next president of the United States.
Instead, they’re most emotionally invested in the Sanders campaign as a vehicle of rebellion and revolution, a blow against that big amorphous blob of people, institutions, procedures and norms called “the establishment” or “the system.” Because they are convinced that the system is corrupt and only the Sanders campaign is pure, any loss by Sanders can only be evidence that corruption has triumphed. If more Democrats prefer Hillary Clinton to be their nominee, it can only be because the game was rigged.
To be honest, at the moment it looks like there’s no going back. Sanders could come out tomorrow and tell his supporters that even if they don’t get their revolution, it’s still worth working for every bit of positive change they can achieve. But that would mean disavowing everything he’s told them up until now.
There are millions of people who voted for Sanders in the primaries and will happily support Hillary Clinton in the general election — indeed, that describes the vast majority of Sanders supporters. Even most of the core activists who made up his revolutionary vanguard will probably cast the same vote, if for no other reason than to stop Donald Trump. And many of them will take the inspiration they felt and the things they learned working on this campaign and use them in new efforts for change. But the idea of a lasting, effective movement led by Bernie Sanders and built on the ideals and goals of his campaign? That’s just about dead.