Will Sanders and his supporters back Clinton?
Bernie Sanders knows he won’t be the Democratic Party’s nominee for US president, but that won’t force him out of the race. Mr Sanders has vowed to vigorously contest the remaining primaries, in which he’d have to win two-thirds of the delegates on offer. The reason he won’t quit is that his campaign was never a personality-driven bid for office. Instead, he has built a movement challenging the corporate-led politics that has gripped the Democrats since the Bill Clinton presidency.
“The ideas we are fighting for are the future of the party and indeed the future of this country,” Mr Sanders said on Sunday.
Unlike Hillary Clinton, who began running for president in 2007, Mr Sanders first sought the nomination barely a year ago. He only joined the party last year, having spent decades as an independent socialist with roots in progressive social movements. And like groups such as Occupy and Black Lives Matter, he has succeeded in forcing the establishment to respond to the issues he’s put on the table.
Mindful of the enthusiasm his campaign has generated, Mrs Clinton has promised to run on a “progressive platform” and hailed Mr Sanders’s “ideas and his supporters’ passion”.
But those ideas can’t be comfortable for Mrs Clinton, because they repudiate the core polices of an establishment she represents. Mr Sanders is taking aim at the party’s capitulation to the Reagan Revolution, which began when Mr Clinton surrendered the welfare-state principle that had been at the core of domestic governance since the New Deal – and instead governed within conservative parameters on taxation, government spending, banking deregulation, welfare reform and criminal justice.
The result has been a steady redistribution of wealth to the elite. The economic pain of millions of ordinary Americans has produced an angry backlash that has seen many take comfort in the empty nationalist demagoguery of Donald Trump. But many others are inspired by Mr Sanders’s message that more equitable prosperity is possible.
Mr Sanders’s campaign is, in fact, an infrastructure project, to build ideas that will transform US politics in the long term. The scale of support he has drawn is evidence of deep enthusiasm for change. It’s a relatively safe bet that the next time the Democrats choose a nominee, the winner’s ideas will be closer to Mr Sanders’s than to Mrs Clinton’s.
The tricky question, though, is if Mr Sanders is not the nominee, would he encourage his supporters to back Mrs Clinton? Mr Sanders certainly believes Mrs Clinton’s ties with Wall Street and appetite for imperial military adventures make her part of the problem, but he has also previously articulated a rationale for getting behind a centrist Democratic nominee: “Do I have confidence that Clinton will stand up for the working people of this country – for children, for the elderly, for the folks who are hurting? No, I do not,” he said.
“But a Clinton victory could give us some time to build a movement, to develop a political infrastructure to ... change the direction of the country.”
That quote was in reference to the 1996 reelection campaign of Mr Clinton. Would the same logic apply to backing Mrs Clinton?
And even if he did, would his supporters follow his lead? “We’re not a movement where I can snap my fingers and say to you or to anybody else what you should do, that you should all listen to me,” he recently told MSNBC.
Many of Mr Sanders’s voters will refuse to vote for a candidate who styles herself a custodian of the Obama status quo. Others will see Mrs Clinton as the lesser evil.
But despite calls by many supporters to run against Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump in a general election, he knows the downside: a third-party run against an already vulnerable Mrs Clinton quite probably hand the White House to Mr Trump. There’s no question that by choosing to campaign inside the Democratic party, Mr Sanders has won unprecedented national attention and reach for his socialist agenda.
If he’d run as a third-party candidate from the get-go, nobody would be talking about Mr Sanders. After all, who has heard of Jill Stein? (She’s the Green Party’s presidential candidate.)
The “political revolution” proclaimed by Mr Sanders was never going to end with the election. It’s a safe bet that whoever wins in November is going to be hearing from his supporters out on the streets and in future elections, and be forced to reckon with his ideas, even when Mr Sanders himself is no longer their focal point.
Tony Karon teaches in the graduate programme at the New School in New York
Updated: May 3, 2016 04:00 AM