Bernie Sanders' Legacy After 2016 Is In Your Hands
The candidacy of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has been dismissed as a long shot since he first challenged former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination a year ago. Whatever happens next — and most media outlets are predicting a near-certain Democratic nomination for Clinton — Sanders’ campaign has already far exceeded expectations. It's apparent Sanders and his supporters have pushed Clinton to the left on a number of issues, especially economic ones. But what will the ultimate impact of his campaign be — and has it been as historically significant as it feels to supporters, like me?
Before answering this question, it's worth considering how Sanders even reached the point of becoming a viable threat to Clinton, who was presumed to be the Democratic Party's nominee even before she officially announced her candidacy.
When I pose this question to Barbara Perry, who serves as the director of Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, she credits Sanders' rise with his ability to inspire “[male and female] millennials and women who are not taken with Hillary Clinton.” More specifically, he is “tapping into millennial anger over student debt, lack of jobs, and fear that they won’t be able to equal their parents’ lifestyle, let alone have a better life.”
Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, points out that it's not just millennials who are connecting with Sanders. While a USA Today/Rock The Vote poll from March has millennials backing Sanders over Clinton 54 to 37 percent, Dittmar says she thinks Sanders has been able to tap into general voters' dissatisfaction with the political status quo. She tells me in an email: “Sanders has obviously run a successful campaign that has energized supporters — including many who may not have otherwise been as engaged — around a few key issues: Combating Wall Street corruption and calling for campaign finance reform." She adds that his "message has struck a chord with many voters who feel that the political system is broken and … there are clear and unfair power differentials in this country.”
And while there have certainly been anti-establishment candidates in past elections, rarely have they enjoyed such high levels of support. Considered as a protest candidate, Sanders is one of the most successful in modern political history. As I write this, Sanders has won 42 percent of the Democratic popular vote. Compare that to the 2.7 percent of the popular vote public safety crusader and long-shot presidential candidate Ralph Nader won in the 2000 general election.
“Sanders has ignited a challenge to corporate-backed candidates in a way other candidates have not, [and he has done so] as a Democrat. That is an important point," Green Party of New York State co-chair Gloria Mattera tells me in an email. "Ralph Nader in 2000 was a candidate who raised similar populist ideas [but] rejected the two-party system."
Many political experts I spoke with cited liberal South Dakota Sen. George McGovern’s successful 1972 bid for the Democratic nomination as the most similar to the Sanders' campaign in recent history. "The historical parallel closest to the Sanders campaign is the McGovern campaign in 1972," David Hopkins, a professor in the political science department at Boston College, tells me. Though McGovern was later creamed in the general election by his crooked Republican adversary, presidential incumbent Richard Nixon, McGovern’s victory in the primary stunned pundits of that era.
When I ask Chicago-based independent journalist and public policy researcher Kathleen Geier if she can recall a protest candidate who has been as successful as Sen. Sanders, she says in an email that the only other candidate who has had an impact comparable to Sanders’ is civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who ran for president in 1984 and 1988. In fact, she thinks Jackson laid some groundwork for Sanders: "Jackson is an important predecessor to Bernie who often gets unfairly overlooked. But he pushed an agenda of economic populism that was not unlike Bernie's, and he helped register millions of voters — voters who were crucial to later Democratic victories.”
Meanwhile, Perry compares Sanders to Ross Perot, an American businessman who ran as an independent presidential candidate in 1992 and was “one of the more recent highly successful candidates running an insurgent campaign from the outside,” she tells me. Perot won nearly 19 percent of the popular vote that year, reflecting his national appeal and demonstrating why his candidacy proceeded to have a bipartisan effect.
Perry explains that Perot's ideas seriously influenced both Republicans and Democrats in the immediate aftermath of the 1992 election: “Both parties picked up Perot’s theme [of balancing the budget] and thought ‘We’d better pay attention to that message, since that’s what 19 percent of voters want.’” Any Democrat will tell you Bill Clinton balanced the budget by signing the Deficit Reduction Act of 1993 into law in his first term, and many political scientists will say he made this a priority due to pressure exerted by Ross Perot.
As with Perot, Sanders' enormous success with independent voters suggests that the policies and values he is promoting will live on — even if his candidacy doesn't.
Fait Muedini, Frances Shera Fessler professor of international studies at Butler University, tells me in an email that he believes Sanders will ultimately have a significant effect not just on Clinton, but on the Democratic party and the country. “Bernie Sanders' campaign is very important for the Democratic party and the United States because it is getting at what many Americans feel: A frustration with corruption, concerns about poverty, human rights abuses, etc.," Muedini says. "Whether he wins the nomination or not, his campaign has mobilized millions who feel that the issues they care about are finally represented by a presidential candidate.”
Admittedly, with only 16 primaries and caucuses to go, Sanders’ chances of securing the nomination are slim. So, where can he and his millions of supporters go from here?
Rebecca Deen, who chairs the political science department at the University of Texas at Arlington, says Sanders’ next move and his ultimate stamp on politics “depends on whether or not [he] wants to help the Democrats unify in hopes of getting half a loaf or continue to agitate for the things he cares about outside of the political system.”
The Sanders campaign did not respond to my request for comment on the Vermont senator's future plans for himself or his team of supporters.
While no one may be able to predict what Sanders or his supporters will do next, I wonder what they should do next if they want to achieve the goals and values he's promoted throughout his campaign.
When I ask Geier her advice for Sanders supporters, she says she would urge them to “keep the pressure on the Democratic party” and invest in “important social movements for change, such as the Fight for 15 (a group that fights for a $15 federal minimum wage) and Black Lives Matter.” She also counsels his supporters to demand “better candidates who support better policies” and support “progressive Bernie-esque Congressional candidates like Zephyr Teachout [running for New York's 19th District], Lucy Flores [running for Nevada's 4th District], and Tim Canova [running for Florida's 23rd District].”
Geier also makes a point of cautioning Sanders' supporters against adopting a Bernie-Or-Bust attitude. She believes it's important for Sanders supporters to support Clinton if she wins the nomination: “For all her faults, she's a Democrat, and these days, any Democrat is light years better than any Republican.” However, says Geier, Sanders supporters “should also be pushing [Clinton] very hard.”
Perry says she hopes that Sanders will cooperate enough with the Democratic establishment that his supporters won't turn away from politics altogether if he doesn't get the nomination.
“It will be really sad to me as a political scientist if there are people who were so inspired by Bernie that they will feel permanently disengaged and retreat from the system entirely if he loses,” Perry says. “I hope he is able to say, ‘Please don’t become a cynic, I’ve spent my whole life in political activism and public service, from mayor to senator … I hope he will make the case to millennials to keep fighting. Even if he can't say 'Vote for Hillary,' I hope he'll say ... 'I do believe in working for justice and making things better, and I hope you'll continue that work with me."