It's easy to forget how historic and insane the Bernie Sanders campaign was.
Elections in America these days basically never end. Our feeds are flooded with the latest trivial details of a constant slog. Small squabbles get blown out of proportion. (Remember the heated debate about what it meant to be a “progressive”? Me either!)
After a while, the extraordinary just becomes ordinary to us. But the Democratic race that finally ended on Tuesday, when Sanders unequivocally endorsed Hillary Clinton, has been anything but ordinary. It has been, in fact, pretty friggin’ crazy.
Take a look at the launch of Sanders’ campaign, in April 2015, at a makeshift press conference right outside the Capitol, attended by a handful of reporters:
Now take a look at the crowd he drew eight months later in Iowa:
And that was before anybody voted for him. Before more than 12 million people did.
Consider that we’ve gotten used to a viable candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who openly calls himself a socialist. In America! It used to be that if you called someone a socialist in America you were all but saying they supported Stalin's gulags.
Bernie Sanders stood for the principles that Democrats have advocated for decades—a decent standard of living for everyone, expanded access to higher education and good health care, a leveler economic playing field at a time when the rich are richer than ever. But his policy proposals, especially universal, government-paid health care and free tuition at public colleges and universities, went further than those of any major presidential candidate in memory toward achieving those goals.
Still, back when Sanders announced his campaign, the conventional wisdom was that the “socialist” thing was going to be his downfall. That turned out to be flatly wrong. In fact, a YouGov poll found that Democrats rated socialism and capitalism equally. The same poll found that people under 30 rated socialism higher than capitalism.
That didn’t stop the political press from explaining to us that this Bernie Sanders was dead before the first ballot was cast. I mean, how could he not be? He was a 74-year-old socialist with zero institutional backing challenging Hillary Clinton, the most favored non-incumbent ever.
Sure, they would say, Bernie Sanders had some “nice ideas,” but he had no chance. He was just too “out there” to be elected president. But as Jon Stewart pointed out—yeah, he still had a show back then!—Sanders was authentic, and, in our warped political theater/horror show, a candidate who “honestly represented himself and his beliefs, rather than playing a cynical political game” was seen as a “lunatic”.
But then Sanders started getting huge crowds at his rallies. That caught everyone off guard. Seasoned campaign reporters, who had grown accustomed to Sanders’ diatribes against powerful interests after years of covering him in Congress, underestimated how his message would resonate with a mass of voters who had never heard of him.
In hindsight, this shouldn’t have surprised anyone. We are living in a time when the gap between the rich and the poor is the widest on record.
Everyone was waiting to see what would happen in Iowa and New Hampshire. That was the real test. Sure, Bernie was getting big crowds, but how would that translate into actual votes? How would Bernie’s shabby campaign operation navigate the tricky task of getting Iowans to caucus for him?
Well, Iowa turned out to be a virtual tie, and then he crushed Hillary Clinton by a historic margin in New Hampshire.
So now this thing got real. It was at this point that the media decided, “OK, enough with the amused condescension: We’re going to cover this guy seriously!” And so we entered the wonk phase of the Campaign.
Very Serious Wonks™ like Vox’s Ezra Klein and The New York Times’ Paul Krugman stepped into the saloon and said that they were going to Break Down Sanders’ Policy Plans. Their verdict was conclusive: Klein said that Sanders’ health care plan wasn’t a plan at all but “puppies and rainbows.” Krugman called Sanders’ economic policies “deep voodoo.”
Of course these arguments were carefully rebutted by people on the left like Ryan Cooper and Seth Ackerman. Ugh, but policy debates are so boooooring. It’s much easier for everyone involved in covering the campaign to talk about anything but a proposed tax plan relative to the gross domestic product. (I’m falling asleep just typing it.)
Enter the big bad Bernie Bro, the star of the Democratic primaries.
Thousands of years from now, when the anthropologists of the future study this campaign, they will trace the origins of the term Bernie Bro to a single post by Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic. That a scorching hot take based on evidence from a Facebook feed would help shape the whole narrative of a presidential campaign is inspiring to all of us who work in the media. But that’s a conversation for another time.
The Bernie Bro meme caught on in media circles. And it was only the beginning. Pretty soon the media was painting Sanders as the candidate for disaffected white men. Wait, it was worse: Sanders was the “messiah of an angry white male cult.”
Of course the evidence showed that this caricature was preposterous. Bernie Sanders has been the most popular candidate ever with young people. This current generation of young people happens to be the most diverse in American history. In California, the state with the largest Latino population, Latinos under 50 overwhelmingly support Sanders. There’s a similar generational divide among black voters. Arab Americans have supported him over Clinton (and it’s not hard to guess why). Didn’t all those dumb kids realize Bernie Sanders was just some white nationalist? Maybe if they did their research.
In the end it wasn’t enough to defeat the candidate who promises to incrementally improve on the status quo. The Associated Press called the race for Clinton when there hadn’t been a big primary in weeks. As Glenn Greenwald put it, it was the perfect symbolic end to the race: “The nomination is consecrated by a media organization, on a day when nobody voted, based on secret discussions with anonymous establishment insiders and donors whose identities the media organization—incredibly—conceals.”
Sanders stayed in the race, even though it's been obvious for a long time that he didn't have the delegates to win. This annoyed many liberal pundits. The reason for staying in was obvious, though: he needed to use his last bit of leverage to make the party platform as progressive as possible. And it worked! The platform fight was bitter, but it looks like Sanders got a huge amount of concessions from Clinton. Just last week Clinton embraced most of Sanders' free tuition plan for in-state colleges. It wasn't long ago that Hillary was mocking his free-in-state-tuition plan.
The Bernie Sanders campaign is over, but the factors that fueled his rise are unlikely to change under President Clinton (let alone President Trump). We live in a society that is fundamentally unequal, in which people rightly feel like they have no say in policy, and in which young people face a future that is frighteningly precarious. The hope now is that when President Clinton cuts a deal with Republicans to cut Social Security, or decides to invade Libya, Sanders will be there to mobilize his supporters in opposition.
The Democratic primary voters got their choice—though legions remain unhappy with how the voters were allowed to choose. Ultimately the Democratic establishment got their choice, too. But after Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Party will never be the same.
Nando Vila is Vice President of Programming at Fusion and a correspondent for America with Jorge Ramos.