Bernie Changed American Politics Forever

Bernie Sanders’ campaign is officially over. But his influence on American politics will be felt for years to come.

The Vermont senator suspended his campaign Wednesday, clearing the way for Joe Biden to face Donald Trump in November’s general election. Thus officially ends almost five years and two full presidential campaigns for Sanders, both of which have left an outsized impression.

Since 2015, Sanders has fought like mad to move the Democratic Party (and the entire country) left. He revived the idea of universal healthcare and mainstreamed Medicare For All, now an immensely popular policy position among both Democrats and Republicans. He pushed progressive policies, from a $15 national minimum wage to criminal justice reform to demilitarization. He completely changed the paradigm of political campaigning, building a dedicated base and funding entirely from small donations while consistently out-raising those funded by megadonors.

Sanders also managed, at least partially, to strip away the American propagandistic view of socialism as an inherent evil. He highlighted the public good and necessity of social programs and benefits. And he spoke about income, class, and wealth inequality like no presidential candidate since Jesse Jackson in 1988. It’s hard to imagine a politician having a larger impact on American politics and discourse without actually winning the presidency.

As the country deals (poorly) with a public health crisis and oncoming economic meltdown, Bernie’s vision is more prevalent and feels more vital than ever. Sanders held frontrunner status for a while, winning (and/or tying) the first three primary states. He faced relentless media and political opposition hellbent on denying him victory narratives, and yet he simply kept winning. The Sanders campaign faltered in a number of ways, from failing to reach older black voters to not significantly expanding its’ 2016 base. But every postmortem of the Sanders campaign should bold and italicize the fact that only an unprecedented consolidation around Biden could ultimately stifle Bernie’s chances.

For Sanders’ supporters, it’s a particularly bitter pill to swallow. It’s not terribly hard to imagine a world in which Sanders carried it through to the end, picked up some key endorsements, won the nomination, and defeated Donald Trump in the general election. It would’ve signaled a leftward shift the likes of which American politics haven’t seen since FDR, and at a time in American history that seems just as desperate for fundamental change. Biden himself admitted he wouldn’t be providing that as the Democratic nominee, and doesn’t seem eager to shift left or court Bernie’s base.

Meanwhile, Sanders will continue campaigning in his own way by pushing the policies that have come to define his political career, specifically universal healthcare. As a senator, he’ll always have a place in the public eye. But each time he appears, it’ll be hard not to wonder if America could have strived for better, reached a little further, expected a little more from and for its people. He may be 78 years old, but Bernie Sanders was ahead of his time. And if America wasn’t ready for him now, in this moment, maybe it doesn’t deserve him.