The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats are booing Bernie Sanders. But his movement is succeeding.

(AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Politico reports that Bernie Sanders was booed by House Democrats in a private meeting today on Capitol Hill. Apparently they were irked with Sanders for withholding his endorsement of Clinton, and reacted badly after he said this: “The goal isn’t to win elections. The goal is to transform America.” One Dem even accused Sanders of “squandering” his movement.

But if Sanders is squandering his movement, it is odd that he continues to rack up meaningful victories in the battle to transform the Democratic agenda, if not the country.

Today Hillary Clinton announced that she was moving dramatically in the direction of one of the most important pillars of Bernie’s agenda. She substantially expanded her proposal for improving access to a college education so it ensures that families below a certain income level will not pay tuition at in-state public colleges and universities.

This, taken with other recent Sanders victories, basically means that Sanders’s movement is succeeding. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it will continue to succeed. We don’t know whether it will meaningfully impact Clinton’s presidency, should she win. We don’t know if it will transform itself into a vehicle that can successfully advance its causes in Congress or on the level of the states, or produce any major policy victories down the road. That remains to be seen. But right now, it actually is succeeding, in a way that bears some preliminary parallels to previous progressive movements throughout American history.

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Clinton’s new college plan is actually a meaningful concession in the direction of Sanders’s broader ideological vision. As Libby Nelson explains, it moves from making tuition affordable to making tuition free, which represents a more expansive view of government’s role in creating opportunity:

Until very recently, the consensus in the Democratic Party was that students should pay for part of their own education, even if they needed loans to do so, because they’d reap the lifelong benefits of earning a college degree. The role of the federal government was to help them afford it, through grants to the poorest students and loans to everyone else.
Sanders upended that consensus. Instead of viewing a college degree as something that ultimately benefits individuals, and that the federal government should help to finance, he saw higher education as something that should be free and accessible to everyone — just as K-12 education is today.

Read Nelson’s piece for the details, but the bottom line is this: Sanders “offered a simple but bold idea: that college should be free. The fact that Clinton has embraced it shows just how far the party has moved.”

In other words, Clinton, and the Democratic Party overall, have moved substantially towards Sanders’ vision that higher education — and the opportunities it affords — should be a matter of right. As Sanders himself put it in hailing her decision: “The dream of higher education will become a reality for all, regardless of the economic circumstances of their family.”

In an interview with C-SPAN, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said in the strongest terms yet that he will not be the Democratic nominee for president. (Video: C-SPAN)

This comes after the party has moved in Sanders’s direction on a number of other fronts. Thus far, the party platform contains commitments to general goals such as a $15-per-hour minimum wage; expanding Social Security; making universal health care available as a right through expanding Medicare or a public option; breaking up too-big-to-fail institutions; and a host of other, smaller goals designed to regulate Wall Street, make banking services available to lower income people, and spend more on infrastructure and job creation.

It is often argued that party platforms are meaningless, because they are not binding on a nominee and don’t command public attention. That’s true, but as Jeff Stein argues, the platform acts as a blueprint for the party’s broader values, and as such, could influence individual lawmakers and the party’s philosophical direction over time. As Stein concludes, what we’re seeing now is “a good sign that even if Sanders lost the nomination to Clinton, his candidacy will have a lasting legacy on the party.”

Again, it’s too early to say what all this will yield. But these stirrings are meaningful. Michael Kazin, the historian of the American left and co-editor of Dissent Magazine, suggested in an interview that the Sanders movement is showing nascent success at incorporating itself into Democratic establishment politics in ways reminiscent of lefty movements (populists, progressives, socialists, early organized labor) at the turn of the last century and the Civil Rights movement in the mid-20th century.

Kazin pointed out that early progressive goals such as a humanely regulated workplace, the income tax, and a federal safety net including unemployment insurance and social insurance for the elderly — as well as some of the big civil rights achievements of the 1960s — were realized by the Democratic Party only after long outside agitation.

“What happened in the 1890s was a precursor to the 1930s,” Kazin said. “The Civil Rights movement was really growing during World War II. At the 1948 convention, Democrats passed a pretty strong Civil Rights plank. But they didn’t do much about it until later on.”

Kazin noted it’s still uncertain whether the Sanders movement would prove more akin to Democratic insurgencies such as that of Howard Dean, which didn’t produce lasting gains, or whether he’d have a broader transformative impact on the party’s economic philosophy. As Ryan Cooper has explained, Sanders argues in a way Clinton does not that our economic and political systems are deeply riddled with profound structural problems and injustices — an argument that has particular appeal for a new generation whose worldview has been shaped by the Great Recession and escalating global environmental threats. Whether or not most Democrats agree with such a stark rendering, the party could conceivably end up standing more firmly for societal guarantees of a college education, health care, and a retirement with dignity, and for far more robust efforts to fight climate change and boost the economy.

“It’s a bit early,” Kazin said. “On the one hand, his movement is more inchoate than some of these other movements before. There’s still a question whether he got votes because he wasn’t Hillary and to what degree this was a fairly conscious vote to pull the party to the left.”

But the party does seem to be trying to incorporate some of Sanders’s ideas in a genuine effort to appropriate the energy animating his voters. And in the end, Kazin said, “social movements succeed when they get some portion of the political elites on their side.”