As it turns out, many progressive Democratic voters are more desperate to evict President Trump from the White House than they are to stage a political revolution. But one other reason voters didn’t support Sanders in the same numbers 2020 as they did in 2016? They likely didn’t feel they needed to do so.
Sanders, an independent, pushed for free public college and forgiveness for student loan debt. Today, Biden’s higher-education plan calls for tuition-free community college and a simplified, more generous income-based student loan repayment program. Sanders, along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), turned Social Security expansion into a mainstream issue. Now Biden, who proposed Social Security cutbacks as a senator, wants to increase benefits. Sanders has been the fiercest champion of Medicare-for-all. And while Biden most certainly does not support Medicare-for-all, he is pushing for a public option and more financial support for people purchasing insurance through the Affordable Care Act exchanges. The Democratic Party of 2020 is not the Democratic Party of 2016. It leans more to the left in many significant ways.
If you’re on the left, it’s easy to criticize Biden’s positions as milquetoast, business as usual. (And I have!) But it’s also true that they represent a major advance. Sanders expanded the conversation of what is politically possible and palatable, shifting the party’s center. As a result, candidates running in the moderate lane in 2020 needed to co-opt at least part of the wish list put forward by the progressive wing of the party. This is a change that occurred even as the party needed to reach out and appeal to moderate Republicans revolted by the corruption and personal grotesqueness of Trump. No one should lose sight of that achievement.
None of this is to say the work of Sanders or other left-leaning Democrats is over — it most certainly is not. The default setting of many elected Democrats is still a center-right, corporate status quo. Just this past Monday, Axios reported the Biden campaign was considering appointing JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon as treasury secretary if Biden wins the election in November.
The progressive wing of the Democratic Party needs to keep the pressure on. But thanks to Sanders and how he changed the political discourse, they are in position to do that. That’s also why Sanders is making the right call by staying in the primary, and debating Biden on Sunday night. He’s not playing a spoiler, and he’s not making it more difficult for a Democrat to win come November. Instead, by challenging Biden to talk about health care, climate change, and how he plans to address income and wealth inequality, Sanders can push Biden not to revert to the previous status quo — the one voters firmly rejected when they elected Trump president.
It’s understandable that Sanders’s supporters are upset with how the primaries are playing out. But they do not need to feel defeated. If they don’t get the candidate they want, they still succeeded in moving the party further in their direction than anyone thought possible a mere four years ago, and increasing their own power within it. That’s a win — and a big one. Don’t let disappointment obscure it.