The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘We have come a very long way’: Bernie Sanders hails a liberal movement in transition

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Capitol Hill in March.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Capitol Hill in March. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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Few people saw the beginning of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s journey in presidential politics as a major moment — including Sanders himself.

“Let me just make a brief comment,” the Vermont independent said as he spoke to a small group of reporters outside the Capitol in April 2015. “We don’t have an endless amount of time.”

Since then, everything and nothing has changed.

“We have come a very long way in five years,” Sanders said in an interview Sunday, chuckling as he recalled his modest start, which focused on the power of the “billionaire class.”

Sanders’s address at the Democratic National Convention on Monday night effectively closed an improbable odyssey — two bids for the White House that together formed the backbone of a new, insurgent liberal movement.

Sanders nodded to his success in lifting his previously fringe calls for Medicare-for-all, free college tuition and a chastening of the nation’s financial elite to the fore of a Democratic Party that had been drifting toward more-centrist views.

“Many of the ideas we fought for, that just a few years ago were considered radical, are now mainstream,” Sanders said in his address, speaking from Burlington, Vt.

He cast President Trump as a historic failure — a “threat to our democracy” who is “leading us down the path of authoritarianism.”

“Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” Sanders said. “Trump golfs. His actions fanned this pandemic, resulting in over 170,000 deaths and a nation still unprepared to protect its people.”

Any bitterness about his defeat in the primary to presumptive nominee Joe Biden was absent. This phase of his revolution was televised and unified, with Sanders urging his supporters to back Biden.

“My friends, I say to you, to everyone who supported other candidates in the primary and to those who may have voted for Donald Trump in the last election: The future of our democracy is at stake,” Sanders said Monday night. “The price of failure is just too great to imagine.”

It was also a subtle handoff for the 78-year-old senator. Several rising Democratic stars, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), see themselves as his political heirs and would surely pressure a President Biden from the left.

Sanders, who suspended his campaign on April 8, told The Washington Post in May that “next time around you’re going to see another candidate carrying the progressive banner.”

Sanders-style left-wing populism is gaining power throughout Europe and the Americas, at times replacing an older guard of liberals who embraced globalization. Across Western democracies, campaigns rooted in passionate emotion and grievance have won mass followings.

“I’m very proud. I am very proud of the movement that we have built,” Sanders said in the interview Sunday. “The younger generation is overwhelmingly progressive, and they want to see their government function in a different way than in the past.”

Sanders pointed in the interview to Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), two allies who recently won congressional primaries, as evidence of a healthy and competitive left flank inside the Democratic Party.

He then rattled off a list of races at the federal, state and city level that allies of his campaigns have won, including “six members of the [Democratic Socialists of America] on the board of aldermen” in Chicago. And he applauded activist Cori Bush, one of his surrogates who tapped into the energy of the movement for racial justice, for defeating longtime Missouri congressman William Lacy Clay in a Democratic primary this month.

There have been disappointments, too. Charles Booker, a Kentucky state legislator who won endorsements from Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, narrowly lost a Senate primary in June to a favorite of national Democratic leaders.

In the eyes of his core backers, Sanders came agonizingly close to seizing control of the Democratic Party with his strong showings in the initial contests of the 2016 and 2020 campaigns. There were days when they thought he would be unstoppable.

But it didn’t pan out four years ago, as Hillary Clinton scooped up victories and support from superdelegates — and as Sanders grew furious with the Democratic National Committee. Nor did it work out earlier this year when former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg muddied Sanders’s plans for a clean-cut victory in the Iowa caucuses and a politically hobbled Biden suddenly revived his campaign in South Carolina, in part because of alarm in corners of the party about a Sanders nomination.

Sanders and his supporters are trying to learn from his success during the 2020 primary campaign in courting young voters in Iowa and Latino voters in Nevada — and from his stumbles, particularly with Black voters who rallied around Biden in March.

Exit polls showed that the struggles Sanders experienced among Black voters four years ago against Clinton largely continued. Sanders’s fervent push to broaden the electorate with new voters was never realized.

Sanders’s supporters argue that campaigns come and go but that ideas move glacially. And history has precedent for movement campaigns having a long-term impact. In 1964, conservative Barry Goldwater lost the presidential election in a landslide. But his campaign laid the ideological groundwork for his supporter Ronald Reagan to win the White House 16 years later.

If the United States eventually moves toward democratic socialism in the coming years, Sanders will deserve significant credit for mounting campaigns that pulled the Democrats to the left, said Abdul El-Sayed, a Michigan-based liberal organizer.

“He didn’t only take on the establishment but the governing consensus in America that markets are the answer,” El-Sayed said. “He drove the conversation that we are all having. He lost two elections, but he won the future in the sense that the party is now a lot browner, blacker and younger and sounds like Bernie Sanders.”

Faiz Shakir, who served as Sanders’s campaign manager in 2020, said the defeats were not rejections of the senator’s ideas but a product of a “party in transition.”

“There is no question the kinetic energy and dynamism in the Democratic Party is with progressives. But the party is in transition,” generationally and politically, Shakir said, “and you’re going to have fits and starts.”

Unlike four years ago, when Sanders delegates clashed with Clinton delegates on the convention floor in Philadelphia, Sanders and his bloc arrived at this year’s virtual gathering more at ease.

Sanders has praised Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Biden’s running mate, as an “asset” to the campaign, and some Sanders allies have noted approvingly that she has, at times, touted Medicare-for-all, although she adjusted her position during the early months of the 2020 race.

The looming threat of a second Trump term has also helped to smooth out any lingering acrimony and at least somewhat shelved distaste for Biden’s record and Harris’s past work as a prosecutor.

“The overwhelming majority of progressives understand that it is absolutely imperative that Donald Trump be defeated,” Sanders said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “We have a president who is trying to undermine American democracy.”

Former president Barack Obama played a role in bringing the Sanders and Biden camps together. In the spring, before Sanders formally suspended his bid, Obama had conversations with Sanders and Biden about the need to beat Trump, according to a person with knowledge of the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.

Sanders has forged a bond with Biden, too — more than he ever did with Clinton, associates of both men said. Ocasio-Cortez and others close to Sanders have been welcomed into the Biden campaign’s platform talks as part of “unity task forces,” producing a 110-page document that offers guidance on issues such as climate change and immigration.

On health care, long Sanders’s signature issue, Biden has not endorsed Medicare-for-all or a single-payer insurance program. But the Democrats’ platform, as it did in 2016, is proposing a “public option,” or a government insurance plan to be added to existing private insurance markets.

“While Joe and I disagree on the best path to get to universal coverage, he has a plan that will greatly expand health care and cut the cost of prescription drugs,” Sanders said in his speech Monday night. “Further, he will lower the eligibility age of Medicare from 65 to 60.”

And Biden, who once fashioned his candidacy as a vessel to restore political norms and bolster institutions, has started sketching out a more transformational-style presidency that would seek to marshal a sweeping response to the coronavirus pandemic, a severe economic crisis and racial upheaval.

“What we’re seeing is more than lip service,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who served as a national co-chair of the Sanders campaign. “The Biden team has been very intentional about listening to not just Bernie Sanders but a lot of his key policy advisers.”

Some Sanders activists have refused to join with the senator in offering the former vice president their unequivocal support, underscoring the importance of Sanders’s pitch for unity on the convention’s opening night.

In a column for the socialist magazine Jacobin, former Sanders adviser David Sirota mocked the task-force rollout as “an SNL skit.”

“They are a mix of party dinosaurs, corporate zombies and some terrific progressive voices,” Sirota wrote of the group members.

Over the weekend, Tlaib said she voted against the Democrats’ platform and cast her delegate ballot for Sanders, expressing outrage about her party’s refusal to upend what she called a “for-profit system that is leaving people to suffer and die just because they cannot afford health care.”

The Sanders political operation has labored to keep things calm, asking some supporters he picked to represent him at the convention to sign agreements barring attacks on other candidates or party leaders, combative confrontations on social media or talking to reporters without approval.

The move, which carried a threat of being removed as a delegate, has the effect of blunting one of the most powerful if divisive tools of the Sanders support network — its unrestrained online presence and tendency to stoke controversy through social media, which has at times spiraled into abuse of his opponents.

Speaking Sunday with The Washington Post, Sanders resisted saying much about what his prominent role at the convention meant for him — the son of Jewish immigrants who was arrested at a civil rights protest in 1963 and wandered in Vermont politics for years before winning office.

“Obviously it is a sense of personal gratification, but I don’t look at things like that,” Sanders said. “I didn’t do this alone. I did it with extraordinary people. When I get up on that stage, it’s not about me. I’m representing the dreams, the aspirations of millions and millions of people who really want to create a government that works for all and not the few.”

He paused when asked about whether he ever thought back in 2015 that it could end like this — two presidential campaigns and a truce with Biden amid political war with Trump.

He said he did not.

“It’s not about looking back,” he said. “It’s about looking forward.”

David Weigel contributed to this report.