In the final act of the Democratic presidential primary, it is easy to believe the US has gone through a battle unparalleled in modern history. A liberal outsider candidate, expected to remain in the margin of error at the outset of the race, has mounted a massively successful campaign against the overwhelming establishment choice. Bernie Sanders has regularly shattered ceilings imposed by media pundits and conventional wisdom, taking his populist message and urgent desire for change straight to the banks by running a remarkably powerful campaign against Hillary Clinton. Bolstered by victories in 23 of the previous primary contests, it is difficult not to believe Sanders is something special, a phenomena unique to the current season and the mood of an unusually angry electorate.
But by playing the progressive insurgent, Sanders finds himself filling well-worn shoes, previously occupied by candidates such as Gary Hart in 1984 and 1988, Jerry Brown in 1992,Bill Bradley in 2000, and Howard Dean in 2004. The success of Sanders in relation to the aforementioned can be debated, but there is precedent for being a well-liked progressive candidate and losing the nomination, as all recent accounts show Sanders is likely to do. It is possible to look at these former candidates as an indication of where Sanders is going to go from here, and what he can do to ensure his movement will remain in the conversation and have a lasting impact on US politics.
Hero of the Senate
Barring a highly improbable twist in the following days, or at the Democratic National Convention in July, Sanders will be returning to the Senate. What must not be forgotten is that he will return as the most well-known sitting senator in the US, and a hero of progressives everywhere — even more so than frequent ally Elizabeth Warren. He will have a larger profile than he has ever had in his long political career, and a level of significance and respect among his colleagues that will provide him ample opportunity to pursue legislation important to his political revolution. In the event that Democrats retake the Senate in November, expect to see Sanders champion bills related to his key issues of economic inequality and health care reform. His newfound fame will allow him to publicize these bills and shift the Democratic Party to the left in the face of an informed and passionate party base. Assuming that Clinton wins the presidency, Sanders may be incredibly effective in changing the country through the Senate, succeeding in achieving many of his goals even in failure.
There have been calls throughout the primary for Sanders to put his money where his mouth is, and support progressive candidates across the nation running for House and Senate positions. It seems he has warmed to this idea, splitting donations to his campaign between himself and a group of progressive House candidates, and recently fundraising for former Sen. Russ Feingold’s attempt to retake his Senate seat in Wisconsin. After a withdrawal from the presidential race, it is highly likely the US will see Sanders supporting a plurality of liberal candidates, speaking on their behalf and supporting their fundraising drives with his cult of personality and immense popularity among progressives. The success of these candidates would play momentously into his own desires to create a stronger liberal presence in government, and would only give him allies in his attempts to move the country forward.
After his failed presidential campaign in 2004, Howard Dean decided to use his support among young progressives to build a grassroots political organization, dedicated to uniting liberal Americans and fundraising for candidates who champion forward-thinking positions. It is known as Democracy for America, and it has been incredibly influential in the last decade, raising money for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Jeff Merkley and even Sanders’ presidential run. Considering the massive amount of money Sanders has raised from small campaign contributions, the impact he could have as the face of a similar organization dedicated to progressive politics could be indescribable. By mobilizing this organization with the email addresses and cell phone numbers his campaign has from donors and support lists, Sanders could feasibly create the greatest small-donor super PAC in US history, and be a turning point in the battle of money in politics, creating a liberal answer to donors such as the Koch brothers.
All Eyes Ahead
Regardless of the outcome of the Democratic National Convention, it is important to recognize that Bernie Sanders is anything but a loser. He has mobilized an entire generation of voters, started a national dialogue about issues that had previously never been discussed in the mainstream corporate media and given progressives a figurehead that can lead them into battle in the coming years. Coming off of the most successful loss in primary history, Sanders has the power to fundamentally tip the scales in favor of equality, progressivism and hope for a new era of politics. It’s all in his hands.