On April 8, Senator Bernie Sanders ended his 2020 presidential campaign. The announcement came almost five years after the start of his 2016 run.
In those five years, despite never ascending to the presidency or even clinching the Democratic nomination, Sanders transformed the American political landscape. He injected a novel form of politics into the electoral process and built a movement that is sure to outlive his campaign.
His uncompromising ideology and perpetual antagonism simultaneously won him adoration and kept him from running a campaign that focused on Trump’s defeat.
There were moments of glimmering hope, particularly after his crushing victory in Nevada. But at some level, defeat was inevitable. Was it ever really possible for a Democratic Socialist to take over the Democratic Party, an institution aligned with wealth and power at nearly every level? It was an audacious strategy from its inception, and eventually, reality stopped it dead in its tracks.
Bernie2020 was never just a campaign to beat Trump. Sanders’ political philosophy has remained, at its core, unchanged since his election to the House of Representatives in 1991. It has driven both of his presidential campaigns and made him the most popular senator in the country.
While Sanders beat the drum of his anti-establishment, pro-working class message, his Democratic rivals were laser focused on messaging against Trump. Ultimately, Sanders’ big picture view of reform failed to win over as many traditional Democratic voters as direct anti-Trump rhetoric did.
Simply put, the Democratic electorate is desperate to beat Trump in November and didn’t think Sanders could do it.
In a debate last June, the candidates were asked what their first priority would be in office. The now-presumptive nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, answered, “defeat Donald Trump.” The answer was clearly a slip up — one of many for Biden — but it was the perfect encapsulation of his campaign. A campaign that, while seemingly lazy, was perfectly tailored to Democrats, a bloc of voters who only have one priority this election.
If Sanders had recognized that fact early on, and led with not only a stronger anti-Trump message, but one which articulated that he was the best candidate to beat Trump, he would have stood a much better chance.
Instead, he centered his campaign around the same message he’s advanced his entire career.
It’s a message that I and millions of others believe in, but one that was suited best for the general election, not the primary. Primary voters wanted Sanders’ bruising blows directed at Trump, not the Democratic establishment.
The moral forces behind the political shift Sanders brought were in the end the same ones that brought his campaign to its knees.
Because Democratic Party machinery and leadership was always actively hostile toward Sanders’ policies and ideology, connecting with the broader Democratic base was vital. Sadly, his campaign was either unable or unwilling to do so, and it cost him the presidency.
Regardless of defeat, Sanders’ explosion onto the national scene in 2016 and his return in 2020 brought a new generation into the political fold. His campaign articulated a vision for the country not seen in decades, and though the powers that be succeeded in their pursuit of his defeat, the movement he built will live on.