The Bernie movement: An assessment

Though his faction lost, Bernie pushed the Dems to the left and made socialism cool again.

In early 2016, I was walking around Berkeley at night, when I passed three college girls. One of them swerved toward me and screamed in my face: “BERNIE SANDERS!!!”, then veered off and went on her way. That was really the first time that I realized that the Bernie movement was something unusual and special — not just the latest in a long line of progressive candidates who attracted a burst of attention and fizzled out.

Five years later, the progressive movement in America is unrecognizable, and it sure seems like Bernie Sanders is a big part of the reason. “Socialism” isn’t a dirty word anymore — instead, edgy online lefties are calling themselves Marxist-Leninists again. Politics occupies a cultural space among the youth once reserved for rock bands; Chapo is the new Nirvana. The DSA’s membership is swelling, and it has some people in Congress now. Though Biden’s economic plans aren’t quite what leftists would hope for, they’re certainly more boldly progressive than anything we’ve seen since LBJ; COVID probably had a lot to do with that, and it was generally just time for a leftward shift, but Bernie’s relentless tugging of the Overton Window probably made a difference. It’s now generally recognized among Democrats that Obamacare, regarded as a generational achievement just a few years ago, needs to be replaced with some sort of national health insurance system; that was definitely Bernie’s doing.

That said, 2021 feels like something of an ending. Bernie is a 79-year-old man; he won’t be running for President again. Though he changed the Democratic party, his “political revolution” fell short — he garnered only 26% of the primary vote in 2020, way down from 43% in 2016, and only modestly better than Bill Bradley did in 2000. Biden’s defeat of Trump felt epochal, titanic, historic; Bernie was left sitting alone, dozing in his chair. The outpouring of memes celebrating the grand old man of the American Left seemed almost like a sending-off. If the Berkeley girl screaming in my face in 2016 told me the Bernie Era had begun, then this tweet is what told me it was over:

So I thought I’d write a retrospective on the Bernie movement, and offer my thoughts on what it did and didn’t manage to do, and where it might go from here.


Bernie really was fairly radical

You often see Bernie supporters say that he wasn’t really radical at all — that in Europe he’d be considered a centrist, or even on the right. This line always felt a bit disingenuous — a calculated bit of soothing to reassure normie Dems that Bernie wasn’t a wild-eyed commie, while at the same time they were telling their fired-up foot soldiers that Bernie was The Revolution. But also, it happens not to be true. Bernie’s 2016 platform might have been pretty incrementalist stuff, but by the time he got to 2020 he was proposing some ideas that would be pretty far left even by European standards. For example:

  1. Bernie’s Medicare for All plan was substantially more lavish than European national health insurance systems. Effectively banning private insurance, eliminating copays, offering more generous benefits, etc. are all things that European systems just don’t do. Only Britain’s NHS, which actually provides health services in addition to insuring the populace, is to the left of M4A.

  2. Bernie proposed a wealth tax that would start at 1% and go up to 8% for the biggest fortunes. The base level is higher than almost any wealth tax currently used in Europe, with the exception of Spain’s 3.75% top bracket (The Netherlands has something similar to a wealth tax that would be about 1.2%). So Bernie was considerably to the left of Europe here as well, especially because it was on top of a bunch of other very large tax hike proposals.

  3. Bernie proposed mandatory 20% worker ownership of large corporations. This is very different from co-determination, in which workers elect a portion of the company’s board (Bernie also proposed that). Mandatory worker ownership doesn’t currently exist in European countries. Bernie’s plan was similar to a part of the Meidner Plan that was discussed but never implemented in Sweden.

  4. Bernie’s Green New Deal was much more transformational than anything any European country is doing to fight climate change.

In other words, Bernie was not simply a European centrist or center-leftist; he would be a true leftist in Europe too. As American politics goes, that makes him quite a radical! That’s not a negative judgement, just an observation concerning what Bernie was trying to do.

Radical plans don’t tend to get implemented in democracies (with a few exceptions, like Clement Attlee’s program of nationalizations in postwar Britain). Status quo bias is strong, which is just a way of saying that people tend to be cautious. If you come seeking political revolution, you should expect to get political evolution instead.

Which is exactly what Bernie got.

Bernie shifted the Democrats to the left on policy

Bernie’s influence on the shape of Democratic policy ideas seems clear.

  • On health care, if Bernie weren’t in the picture, it seems reasonable to assume that Biden would be pushing a restoration of the Obamacare system he helped create. Instead he’s pushing for the creation of a public option, a step that’s explicitly billed (and would in fact be) a way of transitioning to a national health insurance system.

  • Biden’s environmental plan is clearly influenced by the Green New Deal, proposing trillions of dollars of new investment spending on clean energy.

  • Biden is strongly pushing for a $15 minimum wage — a longtime staple of Sandersian rhetoric and legislative efforts.

  • Biden’s “Buy American” policies are clearly influenced not just by a need to triangulate Trump’s rhetorical (fake) support for American industry, but also by Bernie’s (real) skepticism that free trade helps American workers.

  • On tax hikes and free college, Biden is moving less strongly in the direction of Bernie-dom, but he is moving a bit. He wants to cancel large amounts of student debt and raise taxes on capital gains substantially.

Of course, it would be remiss not to mention Elizabeth Warren, who pushed for many similar policies during the primary campaign — in fact, Bernie’s 2020 shift toward radicalism may have been in part to outflank Warren from the left. But it was a Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force, not a Biden-Warren Unity Task Force, that came up with many of these policies.

Also, it’s important to realize that many of Biden’s policy priorities won’t get implemented, even if the filibuster does get nuked; moderate Dems like Joe Manchin exist, and political capital is limited.

But the era when centrist Dems actively suppressed leftist policies seems over, at least for now. Democrats are true progressives once again; if progressivism is halted it will be the GOP that does it, not the Dems themselves. And that is a huge ideological victory for Bernie and his movement.

Bernie’s faction failed to gain power

But if Bernie won on ideology, he failed utterly in his factional struggle to overthrow and replace the Democratic establishment.

Both of Bernie’s campaigns were intensely factional affairs. In 2016 he refused to concede the nomination to Hillary Clinton long after it was clear she had eked out a victory, and his angry supporters disrupted the convention. In 2020, Bernie famously declared himself in opposition to the Democratic establishment:

Bernie gathered around himself a coterie of political outsiders. His supporters often seemed less united by ideological conformity than by their conviction that the Democratic party was corrupt and beholden to corporate interests — a swamp in need of cleaning. The canon of Bernie-ism was always less about theories of socialism than about theories of political power. The conviction that billionaires can buy policy in America was far more core to the movement than any ideas about the proletariat or the means of production (despite resting on very shaky evidence if any). The terms “theory of change” and “theory of power” were central to the Bernie movement’s worldview; at its core, it was an ideology about how to gain and seize power within the Democratic party.

Bernie’s Theory of Change might have been right (see previous section). But his Theory of Power was wrong. This was proven in dramatic fashion on March 3rd, 2020, when Biden crushed Bernie in the Super Tuesday primaries and went on to cruise to a victory infinitely more decisive than Hillary Clinton’s. Bernie believed that only his brand of politics could drive a turnout surge; instead, the turnout surge was all for Biden. Bernie believed that he would be able to unite the White working class and the Black working class; instead, the two united in their support for Biden. Bernie bet on a big surge in youth turnout; it just didn’t happen. America’s young people were willing to pour into the streets to fight racist cops, but they couldn’t be persuaded to pour into the voting booths for single-payer health insurance. And online activism turned out to be less potent of a weapon than some had allowed themselves to believe.

Bernie supporters banked on him being able to win against a divided centrist field:

But whereas that worked for Trump in 2016 because of the winner-take-all nature of Republican primaries, Democrats’ proportional delegate award system meant that a Bernie plurality-but-not-near-majority would have resulted in a brokered convention. So when Bernie failed to break into the 40% range, his supporters were reduced to a strategy of planning for a convention battle.

Of course, that didn’t happen. Seeing that they didn’t have a chance, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropped out of the race, followed later by Elizabeth Warren and Mike Bloomberg. Pretty much all of their support flowed to Biden, not Bernie. And that was that.

Many Bernie supporters saw this as a sort of political coup — an Establishment move, carried out behind the scenes in the proverbial smoky room. And indeed, establishment Dems did call Buttigieg and Klobuchar and the rest and urge them to drop out. But no smoky backroom power brokers forced their support to flow to Biden. If the second choice of Buttigieg voters and Klobuchar voters and Warren voters and Bloomberg voters really had been Bernie — as Bernie’s supporters insisted over and over and over that it was — then they would have voted for him. They didn’t. No establishment Dem twisted their arm and made them vote for Biden. They simply chose the candidate they wanted, and that was that. It’s a testament to hardcore Bernie supporters’ fixation on “theories of power”, and their conviction that The People supported their movement, that they were unable to see this. And it’s precisely because of this misguided focus that many Bernie supporters turned their ire on Elizabeth Warren, even though her campaign was ultimately inconsequential to the outcome:

Bernie, to his great credit, did see that his theory of power had failed. Unlike in 2016, he quickly conceded, and got to work supporting the Biden campaign. He abandoned the factional struggle, and focused on pushing on the ideological front instead — which so far it seems like he has been effective in doing. Bernie, in the parlance of our ancestors, is a mensch.

So Bernie won the ideological battle (more or less), but lost the factional one. He changed the Democratic Party but failed to conquer it. But then that leaves one question: Where do his supporters go from here?

What happens after “political revolution” fails?

The thing about political revolutions, it seems to me, is that they have to succeed quickly or not at all. The dream of a democratic wave that seizes the machinery of party and government is a powerful one but an ephemeral one — if it doesn’t work, if The People turn out not to be ready, then the would-be revolutionaries face a long hard uncertain slog to convince them. And unless something big changes, that long slog seems destined to fail; populist movements tend to arise at the zenith of desire for change, meaning they really just get one shot. That’s vividly illustrated by Bernie’s collapse from 43% in 2016 to 26% in 2020.

After the nostalgia for the Bernie campaign fades and all the memes have been memed, the ex-Bernie people are going to have to face the fact that political revolution isn’t happening soon. And I predict they will start filtering off in various different directions.

The DSA and its handful of elected officials will continue the factional struggle, at least for a while, continuing to propose bolder policies than whatever Biden and the Dems are willing to push, and using anger at the Dems’ supposed half-measures to try to rally popular support. I predict that effort will rally increasingly tepid support and ultimately fade out, but who knows? Perhaps it will build slowly over time.

Others will become frustrated with the Democratic party as an entity. Some will turn toward third parties — a useless and ultimately destructive adventure. Others will withdraw from politics, becoming leftist media figures making good money off of Patreon, Substack, and so on. At some point they’ll probably tell their followers to also withdraw from politics and embrace punk rock, or whatever the 2027 equivalent is.

As for the fired-up kids, I predict they’ll go in two major directions. One group, realizing that Political Revolution was a mirage, will turn toward the even more fantastic mirage of Actual Revolution. Some will become anarchists, fighting cops and smashing windows. Some will become tankies, shilling online for the Chinese communist party and nursing their mad fantasies of communist conquest.

Others, however, will embrace political evolution. Pleased but not satisfied with Bernie’s success in moving the Dems to the left, they’ll push for more, dreaming up new Meidner plans and settling in for the long haul of multi-decade electoral politics. These are the social democrats, or “socdems”, and as they grow up and work their way into positions of power I predict they will have modest but real success over the next three decades. If I had to guess, I’d say that this is the direction AOC will go in as well.

So I think that’s the landscape. The Bernie movement is over, and will scatter to the four winds. But something is different in America — we have a real Left now, for the first time in a long time. Let history record that Bernie Sanders, the last fading ember of the socialist movements of yesteryear, was the one who rekindled the flame.