The Bernie Sanders Campaign Didn’t Matter

Bernie Sanders is not going to be president.

No, it’s not official yet. Hillary Clinton has the delegate support to clinch the nomination, but the party’s extra-democratic superdelegates won’t formally pledge themselves until next month’s convention. So there still may be some shouting before it’s all over.

But superdelegates are party insiders — avatars of the very establishment that Sanders has been railing against throughout his campaign. They aren’t going to flip, and it would be hard for them to justify doing so. Clinton has won more votes and more states.

So it’s not too early to start assessing what the Sanders campaign meant, and whether it will matter in defeat.

It won’t. And this fact should be very frightening to establishment politicians in both parties. Even when Sanders loses, his source of support will survive.

Sanders is not a great orator. He has not executed extraordinary feats of political organization. He is a (mostly) humorless 74-year-old with a shambolic campaign apparatus. When he threw his hat in the ring for the nomination, he reportedly didn’t even think he had a serious shot at winning. He just wanted to communicate his ideas.

This led to some strategic missteps in a race that would prove to be competitive. Early on, Sanders savored his opportunity to celebrate Denmark and other Scandinavian social democracies. He spent a lot of time at debates explaining to people what exactly he meant by “democratic socialism.” These were all fine things to say. And it was indeed both fun and weird to watch Clinton throw shade at Denmark using Trumpian rhetorical maneuvers. (“I love Denmark. But we are not Denmark.“) But this type of debate is for academics and think-tankers, not politicians who want to win American elections.

Sanders’ chief strength has been his clarity. Contemporary politics, he’s declared, is a struggle between financial capital and everybody else. And Bernie Sanders is on the side of everybody else (including Black Lives Matter, he’ll have you know).

Sanders succeeded in the primary because his analysis is fundamentally compelling. Race and gender continue to shape American politics in profound ways, but the past several years — the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent bailouts and foreclosures, the recession and the grossly inegalitarian recovery — have made it clear who the government really works for. Even amid the so-called recovery, the bottom 99 percent of households have seen their real incomes decline. The racial wealth gap is more severe today than it was in the 1960s. The rich are running the show, and the show is a racist and sexist farce.

Clinton has crushed Sanders with black voters. But the gap is much narrower among younger black voters. Sanders is running even with Clinton among Latino voters in California, and is beating her by a wide margin among young Latinos.

Put simply, Sanders has dominated the youth vote in this race. Barack Obama beat Clinton with young voters 60 percent to 35 percent in 2008. Sanders is winning among young voters with 71 percent to Clinton’s 28 percent. This is much too wide a gap to be chalked up to youthful idealism.

Edgy, hip young people don’t naturally gravitate toward white-haired white guys. What they liked about Sanders wasn’t his renegade persona — it was his message. And they liked his message because young people are getting totally screwed in the current economy. The youth unemployment rate is more than double the national rate. Young people without a college degree have lousy lifetime-earning prospects. Young people with a college degree have unprecedented levels of debt. For years, community bankers have been complaining privately to lawmakers on Capitol Hill that student debt levels are hurting their auto loan and mortgage businesses. Young people are even angrier about that than their would-be bankers are.

Clinton has tried to present herself to voters as the inheritor of Obama’s legacy. And Obama has accomplished many things that matter to young and working-class people. The number of Americans who do not have health insurance has declined by almost 40 percent thanks to the Affordable Care Act. But for many Americans, particularly young people, it’s hard to get excited about the status quo — especially after the current administration converted its foreclosure relief plan into a bank bailout vehicle while executing a student loan reform policy that could be charitably described as ambivalent.

Sanders has not demagogued his way into relevance among the impressionable youth. He has simply stated their legitimate grievances directly and forcefully. Young people have been hit hard by the country’s economic anemia. It’s not surprising that they gravitated to the candidate calling for a major overhaul of the system. An entire generation of people have been politically molded by the Great Recession. They’re not going to forget what they learned in early adulthood.

So what did Sanders’ campaign mean? It meant that when you talk about what people actually care about, it’s politically effective, even when the candidate isn’t ideal and the party establishment isn’t on board with the message. Will the campaign matter in defeat? No. Bernie Sanders did not create the movement that political pundits like to credit him with. He has, instead, spent a year serving, rather effectively, as the voice of people left behind by a broken economy. And until that economy is fixed, the movement will not go away, no matter who rises to lead it.

Unless a fascist takes over. In which case, yikes.

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