Let me add my voice to the lamentations: This has been a rough week. If that’s a massive understatement, so be it—we’ve drowned ourselves in words of grief, and there is nothing I can say that will give a sharper outline to our pain. It’s sharp enough.
Instead, I want to focus on a peculiar absence I’ve noticed in the aftermath. By and large, I haven’t seen the Clinton wing of the Democratic party piling blame on the Sanders wing. This is not, thank God, a Ralph Nader situation. I’m sure there are isolated incidents—there are too many voices and too many outlets to ever silence a narrative, no matter how misguided—but overall, I’m getting the (shocking) sense that many Democrats are coming to terms with the fact that Hillary Clinton was a fundamentally flawed candidate who did not provide sufficiently compelling reasons to woo the type of voter that elected Donald Trump.
The numbers make this hard to deny—it’s difficult to argue that there was a massive national revolution when Trump secured fewer votes than Mitt Romney in 2012. It’s difficult to pin the whole thing on racism when many of the counties Clinton lost, especially in the critical Rust Belt, had gone to Obama in both 2008 and 2012. Instead, the loss can be attributed to Clinton’s failure as much as Trump’s success, and people seem to be accepting that reality—if only because there are no real alternatives.
After the conclusion of the Democratic primary, when Bernie Sanders endorsed Clinton, many of his supporters felt betrayed. They had given him their money and their time and their hearts, and now it appeared as though he was selling out to the corporate wing of the party he had railed against from the beginning—that had, indeed, formed the backbone of his campaign—in service of the “lesser of two evils” argument that encumbered us with our two despised general election candidates in the first place. What happened to the revolution?
Indeed, I heard this same argument from many Republicans, both at the time of Sanders’ shift and after the election. Anecdotally, two family members of mine—one a Trump voter, and another who may have voted Trump, but definitely did not vote for Clinton—expressed disgust that he had “sold out” his cause in favor of a politician they knew, in their hearts, he despised. Because that’s the interesting part of the Trump coalition in 2016—deep down, they respected Bernie Sanders. As strange as it felt to feel an affinity for a Jewish socialist, they felt it anyway, and it even wounded them a little when he cast his support for someone they detested. It lends credence to the view from hindsight that many are espousing this week—he would have won this election for the Democrats. He would have succeeded where Clinton failed.
However, there is a tendency for both progressive Democrats and sympathetic Republicans to paint Sanders as a pure-white angel who finds himself at sea in the complex world of realpolitik, rather than a savvy politician with decades of experience in Washington. And to do so misses a truth about him that goes beyond his politics—he is also a smart strategist.
So let’s re-consider his decision to back Clinton in light of Tuesday’s result. I won’t claim to believe that Sanders expected Trump to win, even though his own populist movement (and a few of his primary wins…especially Michigan) seemed to point to a shifting national mood. In fact, I take him at his word that his primary concern was to keep Trump out of the oval office for the simple fact that he cares about America.
But let’s talk strategy, too, because there was en enormous tactical element to his support for Clinton. In the first potential outcome, a Democratic general election victory, the benefit is obvious. Sanders knows that, for better or worse, we’re stuck with a two-party system in America. And he knew that if he stubbornly withheld his support from a victorious Clinton, he and his progressive movement would be on the outside looking in, with no influence over a centrist Democrat who had essentially won without them. He would have neutered himself, and his cause, for pride. On the other hand, if he could take some of the credit for her win, he would have firmly established his own credibility for the battles to come—the fight to holder accountable for the progressive promises she made to accommodate his voters over the course of the primary. If she followed through, great, and if she didn’t, he’d be there to call her out and rally his powerful base.
In the second, sadder outcome—the one which actually transpired—his choice to back Clinton was even more important. People in general, but especially people active in American politics today, are loathe to blame themselves for anything. If Sanders had abandoned Clinton, pronounced her brand of governance too corrupt to countenance, and taken his progressive wing with him, angry Democrats would have an easy scapegoat in the wake of the November loss. You can imagine how convenient it would be to dump the blame on Bernie—the defeat was his fault! They would hang the Trump victory on him, pointing to his betrayal, and the takeaway, for many, would be that only a unified (and implicitly centrist) Democratic party could win a general election. Again, progressives would be neutered for the foreseeable future.
Instead, look at what’s happened since Tuesday. If anybody blames Bernie, their arguments are gaining no traction. He may have taken a minor hit in some corners for the perception that he put his deepest held beliefs on hold, temporarily, in service of a lost cause, but broadly, he is perceived as a man of integrity who illuminated a path to victory that the Democrats were too stubborn and corrupt to take. Now, more than anything, he looks like a genius. The progressive cause hasn’t just gained strength—it looks like the only viable way forward. The far left is ascendant, and two years ago, that was unthinkable within the party’s neoliberal framework.
There are battles to come within the Democratic party in the near future. One, for leadership of the DNC, is already shaping up: Keith Ellison vs. Howard Dean. Progressive vs. moderate, grassroots vs. big money. Bernie has cast his lot with Ellison, and the general clamor—at least as I’ve seen it—has been decidedly against Dean, who represents the middle way that has been tainted with the stink of failed compromise and lost elections.
Today, Sanders finds himself in a position of great power within his party. In fact, it’s hard to look across the scorched landscape and see any other Democratic figure with more influence. He has come through this loss with his beliefs vindicated, his integrity barely singed, and his movement ascendant, and none of that would have been possible unless he had swallowed the bitter pill and endorsed Hillary Clinton.