Last summer, when most pundits didn't give him any kind of chance of making a race out of the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders freely and frequently gave voice to what you might call the new consensus among liberal voters about the state of the U.S. economy. "The basic issue of an American society which is fair, which is providing opportunity for all," he said in an interview, "is now being replaced by the correct perception that we’re living in a rigged economy."
The key word there is "rigged." It's the idea that the economy has stopped delivering the sort of broadly shared gains that Americans expect — and not by accident or natural evolution, but because of choices that someone made on purpose. Rich people rigged the system, and big corporations, and especially Wall Street, and the only way to un-rig it is to wrest power away from those groups.
"Un-rig America" doesn't have the ring of making the country great again, but as a rallying cry for Democratic voters, it was powerful. Sanders began the campaign as an underfunded, septuagenarian, avowed democratic socialist, who was best known in Washington for decades of rants against free trade deals. He will end it a few million votes short of the nomination of a party in which he remains an outsider, a surprisingly close runner-up to arguably the most heavily favored non-incumbent candidate for a party nod in recent memory, Hillary Clinton.
Perhaps most importantly for his supporters, the Democratic Party has over the last year swung very much toward Sanders's diagnosis of what ails America, even if it has not wholeheartedly embraced his complete set of policy prescriptions.
It's hard to say how much of that shift has been driven by Sanders and how much of it he simply harnessed in his campaign against Clinton. It is fair to say that the party was already moving toward more anger at Wall Street, more suspicion of trade deals, more focus on the divide between the very rich and everyone else, when this election season began.
It is also fair to say Sanders elevated those issues and, in a few instances such as trade and the minimum wage, pushed Clinton — and even President Obama — toward his view on them.
"Senator Sanders’s hard-fought campaign helped elevate issues that are so important to working Americans," said Carmel Martin, executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, "like income inequality and stagnant wages — and it’s to the benefit of the Democratic Party and the race going forward that these issues will continue to reverberate."
Democrats, said Jared Bernstein, a liberal economist and former adviser to Obama and Vice President Biden, have moved away from talk of deficit reduction and "grand bargains" on safety net spending, and toward "a much more truly progressive agenda."
"Bernie very effectively tapped a progressive energy that's been building for a long time," Bernstein added. "Could that energy have coalesced behind someone else, like Sen. [Elizabeth] Warren? Probably. But Bernie's been an extremely effective and disciplined messenger."
Sanders also explicitly courted Democratic voters with the pitch that the party has failed in the Obama era by not thinking bigger — on Social Security expansion, on the size of minimum wage hikes, on federal regulations meant to speed the transition to low-carbon energy sources such as wind and solar and, especially, on government-paid health care for all.
Clinton won the nomination with a more incremental approach to many of those issues, but it's a safe bet that future Democratic candidates could feel pressure to go big on their policy proposals — especially if doing so delivers them the sort of fundraising prowess that Sanders developed during the campaign, thanks to his appeals to millions of donors who each wrote relatively modest checks.
"Bernie's established that it's viable politically to offer large scale structural reforms and to create rights to particularly important items such as health and higher education," said Lawrence Mishel, the president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute think tank, who like Bernstein did not endorse a candidate in the Democratic primary. He added: "His ability to raise substantial funds from small donors may be the biggest and most important game changer, opening up future possible runs from less conventional candidates."
All that money, of course, was not enough to lift Sanders to the nomination. Future Democrats in his mold will likely need to win more support with nonwhite Democrats, particularly African Americans, if they hope to win a presidential nomination.
Sanders always said he was trying to win that nomination, but in his early interviews in the race, what stood out was his passion for his ideas. “What my job is," he told The Washington Post in July, "is to help bring people together. You know, we’re not going to change the world overnight.”