It’s no secret that I supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primarya choice of pragmatism over populist idealism, of a theory of change oriented around attainable, incremental progress instead of lofty, unrealistic promises. It’s also no secret that much of the INDY‘s readershipand some of its staffersdisagreed, oftentimes vehemently.
I understand that. I understand, too, the restive frustration driving Bernie Sanders’s political revolution, especially among the young and disaffected, those burdened by student-loan debt or worried about socioeconomic stagnation. Sanders offers an unvarnished antidote to a center-left politics that’s often more center than left. He’s also done something objectively incredible: an obscure senator challenged a well-funded machine and came closer than anyone predicted to toppling it.
But he didn’t topple it, not quite. Last week’s primariesin which Clinton racked up big wins in North Carolina, Florida, and Ohioeffectively sealed the deal.
So Sanders won’t prevail. But his revolution did, both in the short and long terms. In the short term, Sanders won by pushing Clinton to the left, eliciting firmer commitments on things like immigration and free trade and environmental policy than Clinton would have made otherwise. And, though it probably wasn’t his intention, he succeeded in making Clinton a stronger general-election candidate.
Sanders’s long-term victory, however, is much more important. The coalition he built will define leftist politics into the foreseeable future. But it will have to do that without its figurehead. This change will come not as one sweeping revolution but as a thousand smaller ones, on school boards and city councils and party committees, in state legislatures and activist groups. It will come, bit by bit, as the energy and enthusiasm galvanized by the Sanders campaign morphs into a next generation of political leaders who slowly take hold of the levers of power.
There’s a playbook to emulate. This is, for example, how movement conservatives took over the Republican Party, then pushed it rightward, then pushed local governments rightward, then states, then Congress and court systems, all the while building up a deep bench and, through gerrymandering, cheating their way to dominance. Their success speaks for itself, in robust congressional majorities and outright supremacy in most statehouses. But it didn’t happen overnight.
And it won’t happen on the left without sustained pressure from the Sanders coalition. To win, progressives need to show upand not just in a presidential election but in the midterms, in county commission races, in congressional primaries, both holding Democrats to account and bolstering the progressive movement at all levels. If Bernie’s people stay engaged, if they keep pressure on from both inside and outside the system, then in timea few years, a decadethe Democratic Party will think a lot more like they do.
When that happens, the Overton windowmeaning the range of acceptable policieswill have shifted, and suddenly, all of Sanders’s lofty, unrealistic promises won’t seem that lofty or unrealistic anymore. And that’s how Bernie really wins.
This article appeared in print with the headline “What Bernie Won by Losing”