There is no Bernie Sanders movement.

There Is No Bernie Sanders Movement

There Is No Bernie Sanders Movement

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April 17 2016 8:00 PM

There Is No Bernie Sanders Movement

Almost every modern Democratic primary has had a progressive insurgency. Bernie’s isn’t anything new. But it can be.


Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images, Matthew Wilkinson/Flickr CC.

He’d just been declared the winner in the Wisconsin Democratic primary, and now Bernie Sanders, speaking from a stage in Laramie, Wyoming, was thundering into a favorite refrain. He was talking about money, about the small donations—$27 on average!—that have come pouring in from millions of Americans across the country. “To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg,” he said, breathing new life into an old line, “this is a campaign of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

And this campaign of the people, he believed, had legs. It had momentum. “What momentum is about is my belief that if we wake up the American people, and if working people and middle-class people and senior citizens and young people begin to stand up, fight back, and come out and vote in large numbers, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish.”


It was Sanders’ theme, the idea driving his campaign. “All over this country,” he said a little later, “young people are standing up and they’re saying, ‘You know what? We want to help determine the future of this country.’ ”

The crowd was with him. They whooped at the applause lines. They responded when he called. They were with him not only because this was good rhetoric—inspirational and aspirational language that evokes a better, more just world—but because it felt true. This time last year, Bernie Sanders was announcing his campaign for president from the corners of national obscurity—a self-described “democratic socialist” throwing in his lot from one of the most homogenous and idiosyncratic states in the Union. Now, he’s built the gold standard for insurgent campaigns in a Democratic presidential primary, second only to Barack Obama’s effort in 2008. He has an incredible following with young liberals, who are swept away by his optimism, his decency, his seeming authenticity. And incredibly, he’s raised tens of millions of dollars through small donations from millions of people, funding his campaign without recourse to corporate or financial interests, in a way we’ve never seen before.

It feels true that Bernie Sanders has sparked a new movement of the left—a flowering of youthful energy that will transform American politics, or at least pull the Democratic Party to the social democratic left where it belongs.

But it’s not. There’s no question the Vermont senator has performed in a way—and at a level—that no one anticipated, giving Hillary Clinton a serious challenge in a primary that was originally billed as a coronation. He has beaten expectations. But far from building a coalition of new voters and expanding left-wing politics to groups who have traditionally eschewed or avoided it, Sanders has simply reconstituted the usual liberal coalition that backs insurgents in a Democratic primary. He has done so with incredible success. But a movement? There never was a Bernie Sanders movement.


* * *

That there’s precedent for Bernie Sanders isn’t trivia or a means to dismiss him. Far from it. Instead, it tells us something significant about the roots of Sanders’ support in the Democratic Party, why he’s struggled to break through with certain groups, and about the likely fate of his coalition as constituted, in the unlikely event that he wins the nomination. It’s not hard to list the ways in which Sanders departs from the typical politician, much less the typical presidential candidate. At 74, he’s older than most of the men and women who have run for the Democratic nomination (and president) in the modern era. He’s Jewish, a major change from the cadre of Protestants and Catholics who typically run for president. And he brings a unique persona to national politics: a disheveled, irascible, sometimes grumpy man who carries a trace of Brooklyn in his accent and his blunt habits of communication. There’s also his politics, or rather, his political labeling. Sanders identifies as a “democratic socialist” and has been at an official remove from the Democratic Party for the whole of his congressional career.

But as just a glance at his record shows, this is more cosmetic than anything else. There’s no doubt that in his pre-political career, Sanders was devoted to socialist politics, such as they existed in the United States. But as a legislator, he has caucused with Democrats, voted with Democrats, fundraised for Democrats, and he’s now in line to run a Senate committee under Democrats.

Remove his “socialist” branding, which even he defines as little more than an updated form of New Deal liberalism, and you’re left with a candidate who strongly resembles other insurgent candidates going back to the beginning of the modern primary process, from George McGovern to Jerry Brown to Bill Bradley to Howard Dean. He relies on “authenticity” as contrasted with the “calculated” positioning of mainstream candidates. He stands on the ideological left, a factional figure who seeks to pull the party in his direction, or pry concessions from a reluctant establishment. And his support comes from the usual places: Young people (especially college students), white liberals, and the most ideological actors within the Democratic Party.


Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Brian Snyder/Reuters, Lord Jim/Flickr CC.


Just look at the rhetoric. Sanders has a consistent message: Using their wealth, powerful interests have rigged the game against you. “What the American people are saying—and, by the way, I hear this not just from progressives, but from conservatives and from moderates—is that we can no longer continue to have a campaign finance system in which Wall Street and the billionaire class are able to buy elections,” Sanders said in his New Hampshire victory speech this February. “Americans, no matter what their political view may be, understand that that is not what democracy is about.”

In the same way, his predecessors also framed their campaigns as movements—grassroots efforts to challenge the establishment and grab the reins of the Democratic Party from monied interests and other villains. “This is a campaign to unite and empower people,” said Howard Dean in Burlington, Vermont, where he announced his bid for the Democratic nomination in June 2003. “It is a call to every American, regardless of party, to join together in common purpose, for the common good, and for the common good to save and restore all that it means to be an American.” He transitioned into a familiar message about the threats to American democracy: “Companies leaving the country to avoid paying taxes, or avoid paying people a livable wage. And corporations doing this with the support of our own government and a political process in Washington that they rent—if not own. This, this is the fear of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson—the fear that economic power would one day try to seize political power.”

“You have a choice to make in the coming days, and you need to know where the two Democratic candidates stand on the issues that are important to you,” declared former Sen. Bill Bradley in his well-worn stump speech during the 2000 presidential primary. “I’m challenging a sitting vice president of the United States for the nomination of my party for president. I’m going up against the party favorite, the choice of the political establishment, a man whose name and face are known by every American.” He went on to position himself as a champion of ordinary people against a powerful ruling class: “We have to sweep away the old politics of distortion and special interest money and special interests in Washington and create a new politics of honesty and conviction.”

Or, to reach back to an insurgent politician who faced a (different) Clinton, there was California’s Jerry Brown, running in the 1992 Democratic primary. “Our democratic system has been the object of a hostile takeover engineered by a confederacy of corruption, careerism, and campaign consulting,” said Brown in his announcement speech. “And money has been the lubricant greasing the deal. Incredible sums—literally hundreds of millions of dollars—from political action committees, lobbyists, and wealthy patrons have flooded into the campaign war chests of Washington’s entrenched political elite—Democrats and Republicans alike.”


Like Sanders, these candidates brought unapologetically liberal positions to the table. Jerry Brown touted living-wage laws and opposed free-trade agreements like NAFTA; Bill Bradley called for universal health insurance and attacked Al Gore for backing the 1996 welfare-reform law; and Howard Dean rooted his campaign in his opposition to the Iraq War, running as a dovish alternative to John Kerry. But those substantive positions were often subordinate to a process critique; before anything else, they seemed to argue, we had to reform campaign finance and “get money out of politics,” to borrow a now-common phrase. They weren’t “men of the left” per se—Brown, in particular, had a testy relationship with the left—but in the context of the Democratic Party, that’s the space they held.

And within that space, they appealed to a narrow slice of the Democratic electorate. Predominantly white and disproportionately college-educated, these voters formed (and still form) the core of ideological liberalism within mainstream politics. Take the Dean campaign. In a 2005 survey, the Pew Research Center compared the demographics of Dean’s effort with those of the Democratic Party at large. The results don’t surprise. Just 25 percent of Democrats nationwide held college or postgraduate degrees, compared with 79 percent of Dean activists. And 92 percent were white, compared with 68 percent of all Democrats.

Thanks in part to the fact that 2016 is a two-person race, the Sanders coalition isn’t this starkly white and college-educated. But it’s still disproportionate, a fact illustrated by the primary results. The single easiest way to predict a Sanders win in the Democratic contest is to look at the state’s demographics. Where blacks make up a large share of the Democratic electorate—industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, Southern states like North and South Carolina—Hillary Clinton wins. Where whites are the largest share, Bernie Sanders prevails.

Which is to say that, like Dean or Bradley before for him, Sanders is a factional candidate of ideological liberal Democrats, who are largely white Democrats. The difference between now and then, however, is that, with the collapse of conservative white Democrats in the South and elsewhere, those liberal whites make up a larger share of the party. They provide more fuel for an insurgency. But they’re still not enough to overcome the influence of moderates and stalwart black voters, who form a majority of the party. That, in fact, was the fate of previous insurgencies, which crashed on the rocks of math. Ideological liberals are among the loudest Democrats, but they are a minority within the entire party. And while that minority is larger and stronger than it’s been in a generation, it’s still not strong enough to steer the party alone. It still has to play coalition politics.


* * *

The simple fact is that there aren’t enough liberals to elect politicians outside of bastions in California and in the Northeast, and there never have been. It’s part of why, in the middle of the 20th century, Democratic liberals from the North were sharing space with segregationists in the South—the only way any Democrat could win the presidency is through alliance with groups that shared different, often opposing goals. The divides aren’t as stark as they were in the ’50s and ’60s—even the most conservative Democrat today is far from a segregationist—but the dynamic remains. To have any hope of White House influence, liberals need votes from progressive Massachusetts as well as moderate Colorado and conservative Florida.

But coalitions are tricky things. Working with other groups doesn’t guarantee you will achieve your goals, or even come close. Like its predecessors, the Sanders insurgency is an attempt to force the question, to declare “we deserve a louder say” to the moderate stalwarts, corporate interests, unions, and activist groups that constitute the Democratic Party. But they have a say, too, with backers and voters who support their positions. And they may not be swayed by arguments over policies and ideology. Groups and voters come to political parties with a variety of different interests that reflect their identities and livelihoods as much as their beliefs and values. Some of this is tribalism or “identity politics,” but those are real forces that have to be negotiated. It is possible. The one upset in the 2016 contest was in Michigan, where Sanders beat expectations by enlarging the electorate—bringing more young people into the process—and improving with black voters. And he did this by reaching out, early and often. Not just with talk of a “political revolution,” but by connecting to voters with a common message rooted in trade and labor, an effective move in a state with a long history of unionism. The broad point is that a “political revolution” can’t rest on a call for clean government and ideological rigor—the crux of Sanders’ general argument. The Democratic Party isn’t yet an ideological party, and many of its voters don’t put ideology or good-government reform at the top of their lists.

You see this in how insurgent candidates, Sanders included, tend to flail when faced with black voters, one of the largest constituencies in the Democratic Party. Beginning with the South Carolina primary—and continuing in every Southern contest—Sanders has flopped in his efforts to win over black voters, losing them by huge margins. He’s responded by discounting the significance of Southern primaries, describing the region—and by extension, the voters—as “conservative.”


Sanders is wrong. The people voting in Southern primaries aren’t “conservatives” in any meaningful sense. They aren’t electing conservative or Republican lawmakers, and they aren’t driving the conservative politics in those states. They are moderate to liberal Democrats who back moderate to liberal politicians. And they’re black, which is significant. Black voters aren’t just palette-swapped white ones; they have interests and concerns that are specific to themselves and their communities. They are experienced and sophisticated voters. Some support Sanders’ ideological pitch, but others don’t and are looking for something else—from ties to the black community to experience to support for Barack Obama—that they don’t see in Sanders.


Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images, Tom Woodward/Flickr CC.

What’s key is that this isn’t a failure of will from Bernie Sanders, who worked to reach out to these groups. But it reflects the degree to which presidential campaigns are not the right place to change the overall dynamics of a political party. To win over black voters, Sanders and his supporters needed to spend time in black communities, becoming a part of their politics—a trusted partner. It’s how Jesse Jackson won black voters in the 1988 campaign, and it’s partly how Barack Obama persuaded them to join his campaign, an unprecedented effort that merged ideological liberals with black voters and other Democratic stalwarts to win. Obama is a unique case. Whereas Jackson had a whole career of civil rights activism behind him before he entered politics, the then–Illinois senator was still fresh-faced, a relative newcomer. But he connected with black audiences on a symbolic level—the first black American with a strong chance at the nomination and the White House—and with a message centered on the economy and other material concerns as much as anything else. He knew where and how to speak to black voters—in churches, on black radio—and it paid off.

But then, Obama was a mainstream Democratic politician. He was accustomed to this kind of coalition-building. For most of his congressional career, Sanders has been a gadfly—an ideologue pressing his colleagues from the left, with a base in one of the least diverse states in the union. The same qualities that make him exciting to so many Americans—his passion, his bluntness, his uncompromising views—make him ill-suited for the transactional politicking that you need to pull off a coup against an establishment figure like Hillary Clinton. And the absence of rigid racial politics in Vermont meant he didn’t have to learn those politics, at least not to the same degree as other left-leaning politicians. (On the one issue of real disagreement in Vermont, guns, Sanders was an eager compromiser.)

* * *

There are signs, however, that the future holds promise for candidates who want to take up Sanders’ mantle. If there is a major difference between Sanders and previous insurgent candidacies, it’s that his supporters are young. Madison, Wisconsin, is a college town, but at an event there before the state’s primary, I was surprised to talk to several kids—not college students, but high schoolers—who at 16 or 17 couldn’t vote but were thrilled to see Sanders and participate in the process. “This is my fourth time seeing Bernie Sanders at one of his rallies,” said Jason, a high school student in Madison. “I’m here just because I really like the energy. I’m not here to hear anything new—I already like what he has to say—but I like the energy.”

In New Hampshire, Sanders won 83 percent of voters under 29 and 66 percent of voters between 30 and 44, as well as 56 percent of college graduates—who formed most of the electorate in the state. In Ohio, he did the same, winning 81 percent of voters under 29, 54 percent of voters between 30 and 44, and earning greater support from white Democrats than from black ones. In Wisconsin, Sanders won an even larger share of the 18-to-44 vote (73 percent), a large majority of college graduates, and a large majority of white voters. The percentages will vary, but we should expect something similar in the upcoming New York primary. Whether he wins or loses, he’ll take his greatest support from those younger voters.

The sheer youth of the Sanders coalition is novel. And it has much to do with the ways Sanders is different from past insurgent candidates. He doesn't end with a reformist message against a “rigged system”—an argument for liberals that falls flat with other groups. He moves to a larger narrative tied to class, explaining how this rigged system is the enemy of working- and middle-class people, how ending it is the necessary step to unleashing the power of government to improve people’s lives. When meshed with proposals like free public college, it speaks deeply to young voters whose political coming of age was the Great Recession and its aftermath.

Still, we should be careful not to overplay Sanders’ youth support. For starters, while Sanders wins a huge share of the youth vote, young voters (18 to 29) are still a modest share of the primary electorate. In the 2008 New Hampshire primary, they were 18 percent of all voters. This year, they were 19 percent. In South Carolina in 2008, young people were 14 percent of all voters. This year, they were 15 percent. And in Ohio in 2008, they were 16 percent of all voters. This year, they were just 15 percent. If the Sanders revolution is supposed to drive greater turnout, it hasn’t happened—Democratic turnout overall is far below its 2008 high, and on par with turnout in the 2004 nomination race.

The same goes for fundraising. There’s no denying that Sanders has done something unprecedented in raising huge sums—upward of $140 million—almost exclusively through small donations. It’s a sign that presidential candidates can be competitive without recourse to Wall Street or other centers of financial power and privilege. At the same time, we can’t divorce this from its context. In building this remarkable fundraising apparatus, Sanders has drawn on the lessons of Obama and Dean, utilizing the rapid growth and reach of smartphones and social media to enhance the approach, without fundamentally changing it.

The truth is, Sanders is less an innovator than a beneficiary of favorable political and technological trends. And for as much as he has pressured Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment—forcing both to account for past policies, pulling their positions to the left, and denying them a chance to move to the center for a general election—there’s no indication that his influence will last beyond the campaign. History suggests it won’t: The energy generated by the most remarkable election-year movement in recent memory—the 2008 Obama campaign—dissipated in the aftermath of his victory.

That wasn’t completely inevitable—and Obama supporters tried to turn his campaign into something that could last—but it was close. In the broad scheme of politics, electing a president is a narrow goal that involves well-defined steps. All things considered, it is easy to get people invested in tackling that goal. It’s much harder to find people excited about the hard, difficult work of party building. But for people who want to make fundamental change to American politics, it’s vital.

Conservative Republicans, for example, didn’t quit in the aftermath of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater’s defeat in the 1964 presidential election. They used their experience—the connections they made, the networks they built—to establish a conservative beachhead in the Republican Party. The next GOP presidential nominee might not be Goldwater, the thinking went, but he’ll sound like him. Over the next generation, these conservatives—and those who followed—worked from the ground up. They took over local and state Republican Party organizations; they challenged moderate Republicans in congressional and state races; and they made their presence known in presidential primaries, pushing back against the “establishment” choice whenever possible. They tilled and seeded the ground so that, when a viable conservative candidate finally came in the form of Ronald Reagan, he had a coalition flowering behind him. And once in the White House, Reagan entrenched their brand of conservatism in the Republican Party, making it the dominant faction among many.

You can’t draw a direct analogy between the GOP of the 1960s and 1970s and the Democratic Party of today. Conservatives had institutions and forces on their side—powerful businesses, influential religious groups, wealthy elites—that aided their drive to dominate the GOP. Leftists will likely be in opposition to the traditional interest groups of the Democratic Party, including its high-dollar donors. Still, there are lessons liberals and leftists can draw from the conservative experience—lessons that Sanders supporters can use.

All the enthusiasm is there; it just needs to be cultivated and channeled into something durable. But that requires a sacrifice, of sorts. For as much as Sanders and his most vocal supporters identify themselves as outside the party system, the only way a real Sanders movement can make change is to take an active role within that system. Voting is too imprecise to send a message or make a statement, and withholding a vote does nothing to persuade or build influence. (Who in the Democratic Party solicits Ralph Nader for advice and aid?) Sanders supporters who want to move the Democratic Party to the ideological left need to become Sanders Democrats, political actors who participate in the system as it exists. To win a lasting victory—to define the ideological terms of Democratic Party politics—the people inspired by Sanders need to do more than beat the establishment; they need to become it.

Liberals and leftists will have to work with an eye toward the long-term, operating from the ground up to make ideological liberals a key power-broker in the party. If the Bernie Sanders effort shows anything, it’s that the odds are in their favor. The youngest, most active Democrats are more liberal than their older counterparts, and technology has advanced to the point where they can organize and raise money without relying on established power centers. Even if Bernie Sanders is just the inheritor of friendly demographic and technological trends, his success suggests a real opportunity for the liberals and leftists who back his campaign. They have the chance, if they want it, to channel their energy into a move to make the Democratic Party theirs, in the same way that conservatives—until the rise of Donald Trump, at least—took hold of the Republican Party.

The energy of the Sanders campaign will almost certainly fade away. But if the voters inspired by Sanders can gather their energy and become a part of the Democratic Party, they can win the influence they need to shift its direction in the long-term. And with their youth, they can play the long game, if they choose to.

The same goes for the now. In the context of coalition politics—where different groups negotiate for their interests—withdrawal is a poor strategy. For any chance at victory, you have to play the game. But within that, you can build leverage. It’s why, for instance, Bernie Sanders is right to begin to fundraise for other candidates, using his valuable list to raise cash for like-minded politicians around the country. It’s not just a way to further his beliefs—if those candidates win, it’s a signal to other politicians from other corners of the party that the Sanders message has wings. That it’s something to imitate. And he should do more. Not only should the Sanders campaign look for as many local and congressional candidates to support as it can, but it should encourage its supporters to engage politics at that level, perhaps even to run for office. Likewise, Sanders should devote real time to raising money for the Democratic National Committee and affiliated groups. Yes, this is the establishment. But if the goal is pulling that establishment to the left, fundraising is one way to win a seat at the table.

This isn’t fun. It’s routine. It’s boring. It requires Sanders and supporters to play a game they’ve decried for the past year. But in the American system—where everyone gets a vote, and the most votes win—you have to pick one party or the other as a vehicle for your views. For liberals, historically, that’s been the Democratic Party.

Bernie Sanders isn’t leading a new movement, and he doesn’t represent the dawning of liberal ideology. To the extent that there is a movement at all, it is simply a movement to get Sanders elected president. Nothing more and nothing less. This is a classic insurgency, updated for 2016. But that doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. This year, the insurgency is larger than it’s ever been, and that in itself is an opportunity. A chance for the insurgents to play the long game, to co-opt the institutions that have held them back and to emerge as the leaders of a new Democratic Party. Sanders may not be the Democratic nominee, or the president of the United States, but if his supporters take the opportunity, they’ll accomplish what past insurgent candidacies couldn’t, and he’ll stand as a key figure in the origin story of a new, new left.

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Jamelle Bouie is Slates former chief political correspondent.