In his two longshot campaigns for president, Bernie Sanders put progressive ideas on the national agenda and changed the future of US politics
In his speech dropping out of the 2020 presidential race, Bernie Sanders quoted Martin Luther King Jr: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The long “fight for justice”, Sanders continued, “is what our movement remains about.”
His use of the present tense stood out. This wasn’t an ordinary concession speech, but this wasn’t an ordinary campaign or candidate, either.
Bernie Sanders began his career in obscurity, first as a member of the Young People’s Socialist League, and then as a minor third-party candidate garnering just 2% of the vote while railing against the “world of the 2%” that controlled America’s wealth.
The Sanders message wasn’t carefully focus-grouped or cobbled together by “experts” – it came from his distinctly socialist understanding of how the world operated: the powerful will always get the better of the weak unless the weak get organized and fight back. With his moral clarity and anger, the Vermont senator seemed like the last specimen of a dying politics. He was stubborn; he refused to change, to “evolve” as the political climate turned.
But at a time when mainstream Democrats were telling everyone that we could bootstrap ourselves to prosperity, America’s brutal class system didn’t evolve, either. With millions in poverty or feeling the pangs of hunger in the richest society in history, with millions more jobless, without health insurance, indebted and treated as expendable, Sanders knew there was an audience for his message.
Since April 2015, Bernie Sanders has managed to conjure that potential audience into an actual one. He didn’t create the anger at an unjust economic system or the decades of disillusionment with liberal politics, but he did create a clear narrative of what’s wrong, build support for a set of policies that could make things better, and identify the agents of change that could bring a sorely needed “political revolution” to fruition.