Election 2020

How the World Got Berned

Bernie Sanders left the stage just as much of the U.S. government—and the world—was turning to his socialist ideas in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders arrives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on March.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders arrives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on March.

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Cantankerous, uncompromising, and utterly convinced of his righteousness, Sen. Bernie Sanders was like a socialist Moses who never got to see the promised land—even as both parties, the U.S. government, and much of the world were shifting in his direction, especially in the face of a pandemic that has brought about unprecedented federal intervention.

That is perhaps the ultimate legacy left by the Vermont senator, who ended his historic campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on Wednesday—coincidentally, on the eve of Passover. At 78, Sanders has seen his hopes to become the first Jewish American president almost certainly end for good. But even his political opponents acknowledge that Sanders changed politics for a long time to come, and not just within the Democratic Party. The biggest socialist program ever embraced by the Republican Party and a Republican president—a fiscal rescue plan worth more than $2 trillion, with more likely to come—is wending its way through the American economy. And politicians on both sides of the aisle are talking about universal health care—all emblematic of the Sanders agenda. They will no doubt continue to do so after the pandemic has passed, with U.S. President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi mulling a major government-led infrastructure program.

The torch now passes to former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, who in a gracious statement acknowledged that “Sanders and his supporters have changed the dialogue in America. Issues which had been given little attention—or little hope of ever passing—are now at the center of the political debate. Income inequality, universal health care, climate change, free college, relieving students from the crushing debt of student loans. These are just a few of the issues Bernie and his supporters have given life to.”

In a statement to his supporters, Sanders indicated that he views his own legacy the same way. “Few would deny that over the course of the past five years our movement has won the ideological struggle,” he said in a livestream video. “It was not long ago that people considered these ideas radical and fringe. Today they are mainstream ideas, and many of them are already being implemented in cities and states across the country. That is what we have accomplished together.”

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Recent polling suggests that in the aftermath of the pandemic more Americans are warming in particular to universal health care, the centerpiece of Sanders’s campaign,

Democratic Party activists now hope that Sanders will do for Biden what they believe he didn’t do for Hillary Clinton in 2016—rally his passionately left-wing supporters to back the party’s nominee. And some of the establishment figures who at times contended with Sanders’s angry base, such as Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, are seeking to avoid alienating that base as Clinton did in 2016. “He expanded the horizons of policy discourse, focused on real existential threats like climate change and inequality, and brought millions into the political process,” Tanden told Foreign Policy in an email. “And by helping defeat Trump in the fall, he can cement a legacy of substantial achievement in progressive politics for decades to come.”

The ongoing pandemic apparently played a part in Sanders’s decision, which came as something of a surprise with a number of major primaries yet to be held, even as his campaign acknowledged that Biden had an all but insurmountable lead. The senator said he could not “in good conscience continue to mount a campaign that cannot win and would interfere with the important work required of all of us in this difficult hour” as the coronavirus infects the nation, with over 14,000 fatalities so far.

The suspension of Sanders’s campaign marks a devastating turnaround for a Democratic insurgent who less than two months ago was bidding to run away with the nomination with big vote margins over Biden in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, after which Biden’s campaign seemed for a time on life support. But election analysts say it was precisely Sanders’s greatest strength and appeal as a candidate that may have sunk him: his uncompromising adherence to what he called a “revolution” in American society that would take on the “billionaires” and redistribute wealth. At a time when mainstream Democrats desperately needed to be assured that he was not too radical, Sanders refused to disavow the socialist label or to relent in his insistence that the nation needed his Medicare for All plan in place of private insurance.

The end of Sanders’s second insurgent presidential campaign puts a finish to one of the most remarkable political ascents in modern U.S. history. Sanders, who served 16 years in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2006, was for decades regarded as an extremist of the left and largely ignored. But after income and social inequality became a major issue in the aftermath of the Great Recession, his ideas began to resonate with the base of a party that felt its leaders had grown too friendly with Wall Street and big business, fecklessly embracing economic globalization even as millions of middle-class, traditionally Democratic households were devastated.

Biden, who takes a more progressive line than some mainstream Democrats, is unlikely to duplicate the mistake that Clinton made in 2016, when after narrowly defeating Sanders in the primaries she largely ignored his political views and reverted back to the party’s post-Cold War centrism. That cost the Democrats’ their so-called “blue wall” in industrialized states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—and handed the election to Trump. 

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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