As he has been for most of the past year, Bernie Sanders is on the road. On Thursday, he was scheduled to hold a town-hall meeting at the Twin Arrows Casino, east of Flagstaff, Arizona. You read that right: the seventy-four-year-old Vermont senator was set to issue his trademark call for a “political revolution” and to demand more income and wealth redistribution at a capitalist mecca in one of the most conservative states in the Union.
That, in itself, says something about Sanders and the historical significance of his campaign. He has cast aside many of the rules and adages of American politics, one of which is that it’s hard for liberals, never mind self-described socialists, to win support in the Sun Belt. And although Sanders now seems unlikely to win the Democratic nomination for President, he has achieved much more than that.
In reaching out to the young, the idealistic, and the disillusioned, he has earned far more votes than virtually anybody in the Democratic Party (or the punditry) expected. He has expanded the political space, bringing controversial issues like rising inequality and political corruption, which had previously been considered the province of leftists and policy wonks, into their rightful place at the center of the discussion. And by refusing to accept corporate money and basing his campaign on individual donations, he has reinvigorated American democracy.
It is obvious that Sanders has, in the process, put a scare into Hillary Clinton’s campaign. What is perhaps less widely acknowledged is how close he came to upending it. Of the twenty-five states that have held Democratic primaries and caucuses, Sanders has won nine and Clinton has won sixteen (plus American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands). But outside the South, where Clinton has won large majorities of black voters, many of Sanders’s losses have been narrow.
Given the way the primary calendar was structured, with many Southern states voting in February and March, Sanders’s route to victory was always going to be precarious. It depended on stunning Clinton early, building up momentum in the Rocky Mountain and Midwest regions, then scoring some big victories in the Northeast and on the West Coast.
The Sanders campaign achieved its initial goal, virtually tying Clinton in Iowa, trouncing her in New Hampshire, and losing by a whisker in Nevada. Had Sanders earned a few thousand more votes in Iowa and Nevada, he would have won all three contests. Given his opponent’s strength among black voters in the South, Super Tuesday was always going to be tricky for him. On election day, Clinton’s victories in the Southern states were even bigger than expected, and they earned her a sizable lead in the delegate count.
Still, Sanders carried Colorado, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Vermont, and in Massachusetts he came within two percentage points of victory. Over the next week, he won three more states—Kansas, Nebraska, and Maine—and then, of course, Michigan. Had Sanders followed up that shocking triumph by carrying Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio, this past Tuesday, his insurgent game plan would have been back on track.
That it didn’t quite work out doesn’t detract from the impact Sanders has had. To gauge his influence, you need only listen to one of Clinton’s campaign speeches. On issues like inequality, trade, the environment, corporate offshoring, and bringing Wall Street miscreants to justice, the former Secretary of State has adopted Sanders’s language—and, in some cases, his policies. Clinton had undoubtedly always intended to run as a center-left progressive in 2016, just as she did in 2008, but Sanders has forced her onto ground she hadn’t originally intended to occupy.
It isn’t just Clinton, either. Even Republicans have been taking up some of Sanders’s themes. “The top one per cent under President Obama, the millionaires and billionaires that he constantly demagogued, earned a higher share for our national income than any year since 1928,” Ted Cruz said earlier this year. Donald Trump has talked about the need to raise taxes on hedge-fund managers and leveraged-buyout tycoons. John Kasich has rebranded himself as a champion for the poor and excluded. Of course, the regressive tax policies that Cruz, Trump, and Kasich are advocating would exacerbate inequality, rather than reduce it, but the fact that Republicans have felt obliged to address these issues at all surely owes something to Sanders and the populist wave that he represents.
Sanders’s other big theme is money in politics. Particularly since the Citizens United ruling, many politicians, Clinton included, have warned of the corrosive effects of big money on our democracy. But nobody has made the argument as passionately or as powerfully as Sanders. “American democracy is not about billionaires being able to buy candidates and elections,” he said in launching his campaign. “It is not about the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and other incredibly wealthy individuals spending billions of dollars to elect candidates who will make the rich richer and everyone else poorer…. This is not democracy. This is oligarchy.”
Since Sanders uttered these words, last May, his message hasn’t changed. Day after day, he has spoken in terms that haven’t been heard from a serious major-party candidate since William Jennings Bryan, the great prairie populist, who famously accused his opponent, William McKinley, and the moneyed interests who supported McKinley, of trying to “crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” (Bryan was referring to the gold standard, which he opposed.) In much the same way that Trump has labelled Sanders a Communist, the Republicans of Bryan’s day called him a fanatic who would wreck the American economy. Even some Democrats depicted Bryan as a dangerous radical with impractical policy proposals.
Bryan never became President, but in attacking the powerful interests that dictated policies in Washington, and calling out the corrupt politicians who were beholden to those interests, he helped to create a popular movement—Progressivism—that would have an enormous impact on American policymaking in the first half of the twentieth century, from Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting to F.D.R.’s New Deal.
It’s too early to say what Sanders’s legacy will be, or whether some of the ideas that he is pushing—such as breaking up the big banks, introducing a single-payer health-care system, and returning tax rates on the rich closer to the levels that F.D.R. introduced—will eventually be adopted. Given the Republicans Party’s grip on Congress and the centrist mindset of Clinton’s advisers, it is hard to see much movement in this direction any time soon.
But it is also evident that, in the past ten months, Sanders has defied the pundits, alarmed the comfortable, and inspired the young. He has turned what looked to be a political coronation into a lively and hard-fought contest, forcing his opponent to modify her positions and raise her game. He has demonstrated that Presidential campaigns don’t have to be beholden to big donors. And he has shown that, surprisingly enough, there is still a place in American politics for an independent-minded speaker of uncomfortable truths. What’s more, he isn’t done yet.
By John Cassidy, The New Yorker