BernieBros, SanderSistas and the Future of Progressivism

Politics Features Bernie Sanders
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BernieBros, SanderSistas and the Future of Progressivism

It seems hard to believe that only a year ago, on April 30th, 2015, Senator Bernie Sanders issued a statement announcing he was running for President. Eschewing a rally, and conventional politics, he made his case in an email sent out to supporters. Several hours later, he stood before a group of 20 or so reporters on a patch of idyllically green grass at Capitol Hill known as “the Swamp”—to little fanfare, the septuagenarian Independent’s campaign began, quietly and assuredly. He told reporters, “Let me just make a brief comment…we don’t have an endless amount of time. I’ve got to get back.”

It was no-nonsense. It was issue-centric. And, amazingly, it was the beginning of a more than year-long campaign that astounded many and mobilized many more, particularly throngs of progressive millennial voters who, somewhat improbably, saw Sanders, little-known before last year, as the Zen master of progressive politics—the face of a movement defined by a revolutionary fervor and an underdog-like tenacity. These were voters who felt alienated by the political process, or revolted by it, or, in other cases, wholly uninterested in partaking in it. To Republicans, they were a cohort of uber-liberal naïfs. To moderate Democrats, they were the idealists, the pestilential millennials hell-bent on obstructing what looked to be a clear path to a Clinton White House. To Bernie, though, they were the inspired henchmen girding their loins for a fight he’d been waging for decades, and they attended rallies in droves, feeling the Bern the whole time. What began as a hashtag soon became a crusade.

Now, as the curtains close on the Sanders campaign, their allegiance is up for grabs, their movement decelerated. Many of them will rally behind Hillary Clinton. Some will vote Green or Libertarian. The most obstinate of the bunch will sit out of the General Election. But the more interesting question is not for whom these BernieBros and SanderSistas will cast their votes, but, rather, where the veritable energy of the movement will be redirected. Do these voters see a home in the Democratic Party, or are their ambitions more revolutionary, more insurgent? And what about the first-time voters, the heretofore politically disinclined—was this a flash-in-the-pan, or the beginning of something far bigger than a Brooklyn-born Democratic Socialist? As the country gears up for the most unfathomable general election in recent history, are feelers of the Bern enthusiastic, contemptuous, motivated, unscathed, down-and-out, or something else entirely?

As an observer of the movement, one whose friends are vocal Bernie fans, the Sanders phenomenon has fascinated me for the past year. There’s a kind of energy to it that is perhaps only matched by the acolytes of Donald Trump—the main difference being that I am mortally terrified of the Trumpees and not so of the former. And though I’ve had my choice words for many a BernieBro, I set out to understand, with what I hope is genuine curiosity, what the Sanders movement was and where it goes from here.

“I wasn’t political, per se, before this year’s primary,” said Priya, a 26 year-old Sanders supporter I met when trying to jostle my way around his notoriously large Washington Square Park rally in April. “Politicians are usually shitty and, most of the time, if you’ve been at it a while, you’re owned by some special interest group or lobbying group or organization. But Bernie wasn’t like that.”

This is a stump point for some of his supporters, though the idea that Bernie Sanders differs in some demonstrable way from most politicians has always confused me. In fact, for the past year, I’ve seen him as distinctly political, a consummate orator whose words teem with authenticity and smarts and magnetism in much the same way as Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, the doyens of modern-day campaigning. It was this perceived authenticity, the grandfather-like puritanism and urgency with which Sanders spoke, that so captivated his admirers and so effectively drew a contrast with the less comfortable, less endearing Hillary Clinton.

But Americans are drawn to the types of politicians that are able to master our country’s peculiar political paradox: we want our Presidents to be superheroes but layman, professorial but conversational, larger-than-life but boy-next-door, capable of understanding the minutiae of American life but also capable of solving the problems of all 300 million Americans. Big but small; broad but specific. Sanders—and Obama, Bill Clinton and even Trump—understand this tightrope and are amazingly adept at walking it. Someone like Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, appears to the public neither like a super(wo)man nor a lay(wo)man but instead like someone who has tried too hard to be both. And she’s been open about this discomfort.

“Bernie’s points were easier to understand, less wonky, and more targeted towards youth: free college, legalized pot, and universal health care are popular positions among young people,” said Jonathan, a Bernie supporter who recently graduated from NYU, where he studied media and cultural change. “If you’re relatively uninformed and all your friends are sharing a 30 second clip on Facebook with those positions from a guy that looks like he could be your crass but charming grandpa, what’s not to like?”

If anything explains Bernie’s magnetic charisma, it is exactly this, his foolproof mixture of authoritative charisma and narrative simplicity: our economy, and, really, our democracy, is rigged, catered towards the “billyunairs”, and a vote for the political establishment, that inner-circle of dynastic families like the Clinton’s, is a vote of complicity, a vote for legislative inertia. What Bernie wanted, rather, was change, immediate and seismic.

“The point of the ‘political revolution’ was more than just a Presidential victory,” Jonathan explained. “The aim was to activate and organize a population of young people to vote year after year at every level.”

Given how overwhelmingly these young people came out in support of Sanders, one might predict that his voters, equipped with their righteous indignation towards social injustices, economic disparities, bad trade deals and plutocratic sleaze, are the future of the Democratic Party. But our youngest civilians have always been, and will continue to be, more liberal than our oldest—the general demographic split of this year’s election has largely fallen in line with this country’s long-running political narrative, dating back almost 50 years to George McGovern, who in his radical opposition to the Vietnam War and his war on hunger, provided a template for modern-day liberalism. Hillary Clinton is the Party’s presumptive nominee, but could it be said that Sanders’ brand of far-left politics, in its appeal to young people, will soon become the Party’s gold standard, seen less as an insurgent agenda than one that’s part and parcel of the left? Or do these same millennial liberals become more moderate as they confront the difficulties of policy implementation and bipartisanism?

“We, as a demographic, have learned that we have to participate in politics, that we enjoy participating, and most importantly, that there is a demographic we identify with in the first place,” said Juliette, a student in New York City. “The one concern I have is that after getting a taste of what representation feels like, Bernie supporters will be discouraged if they no longer have a figure like him to represent them.”

Most voters I spoke to echoed this sentiment: whether or not they were politically active before, many of them are now. The extent to which they feel their vote matters, though, especially after a hard-fought campaign that ended with Bernie’s endorsement of Clinton in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is more dubious. Their enthusiasm is tempered; they feel trapped in the almost two-century long binary—Republicans and Democrats—that is American politics. As one Facebook commenter put it, “Haven’t quite decided who is the lesser of two evils, and I’m really sick of feeling like I have to vote like that.” Another corroborated: “The Democratic Party is not running a progressive platform and wasn’t until Bernie spoke up.”

That claim, however disagreeable it may be, illustrates the sort of frustration had by many American voters, both on the left and the right, who feel the former is not progressive enough and the latter too extreme. “Now that Hillary is the nominee, I’m not sure I can call myself a Democrat anymore,” said Carly, who works for a New York City-based radio station. “I’ve always said that I believed this election would create a new political party…or, if not, there will be a mass exodus to the Green Party.”

I pressed her, saying one might equate a Third Party vote to a voluntary abstinence from the political process. After all, Ross Perot has been the most successful Third Party candidate of the last 100 years, yet he earned just nineteen percent of the popular vote in 1992. Is Trump not a grave enough threat, I asked, that Democrats ought to unite out of sheer prevention?

“More people in this election than any other before are looking for a way out, making a third party candidate more viable than ever before,” Carly explained. “For me personally, this is why I’m not immediately backing Clinton. If Jill Stein or any other third party candidate looks like they can win, which I think can happen, I will most likely vote for them.”

“I think that progressive politics stays as an insurgency until down ballot progressive politicians, especially those outside of the two party duality, are elected and enacting change,” added Javon, an elementary school music teacher in Baltimore. “I plan on voting Dr. Jill Stein because that is where I see a truly progressive party with progressive leadership, even though I know that my vote is essentially going to be wasted.”

Nakaya, a singer-songwriter living in Manhattan, became interested in politics through Barack Obama, but now said the onus is on the Democratic Party to open its doors to Bernie supporters. “As a young black woman, it was such a huge deal to even think that we had a presidential candidate that could advocate for the black community,” she said. “I went to an incredibly leftist high school, so I was always greatly aware of the Green Party and agreed with so many of their views but felt like it was an impossibility for them to ever find a seat at the table.” Now, a third-party ascendancy seems more plausible. “I think Bernie supporters could find a home in the Democratic Party or the Green Party.”

Sanders voters reject the two-party infrastructure of American politics almost as much as they do the rhetoric propagated by Trump. This is one of the biggest effects of the Vermont Senator’s campaign—whether or not his legislation is implemented in a Clinton presidency, he’s cultivated a utopian vision of Democracy that hasn’t been present in American politics for quite some time. He’s taken his brand of Democratic Socialism mainstream, ridding the word, at least in some factions of the left, of its prior contagion.

Mike Gisondi, a poll worker for Sanders in California and a staunch supporter of his campaign, lived in the Czech Republic for 21 years. He grew tired of defending America’s foreign policy abroad and moved back to the States to help elect Sanders. “I’ve defended the Bushes, the Clinton’s, the Obama’s,” he said, “and it’s not been fun. What Bernie taught me is that if it’s rotten within, it’s rotten without. He taught me to care about the country I’m actually from.” He continued, “I’ve lived in a Democratic Socialist country now for over twenty years. Of course single-payer health care is possible! If the Czech Republic can make it work, I don’t see why the richest country in the world can’t.”

Mike enthusiastically recalled the many rallies he’s attended, the shirts and buttons and hats he’s worn, the doors he’s knocked on, and the hours he’s spent canvassing for Sanders. “I can recite his stump speech verbatim,” he told me. When we spoke, he was readying himself for an event with Jill Stein, who he believes will poll well enough to make the debate stage and, ultimately, assume the far-left mantle in this year’s election. “The idea that Sanders supporters are not going to vote is ridiculous,” he said. “This is just the beginning. 60,000 people in Oakland. Of course we’re going to vote.”

The Bernie Sanders campaign, it seems, was as much a symbolic gesture as it was a political agenda, and in vouching for change not from within D.C. but from outside it, many Sanders voters believed it was possible to elect Bernie and topple the system. These two goals were not mutually exclusive; as the first one fades, they maintain that the second is not yet out of reach. “We have a ‘bottom-up’ strategy for getting people elected at all levels of government, local and regional,” Mike said. “It is about the issues and the platform. It is not about Bernie Sanders.”

But, as statistics show, most far-left liberals believe a vote for Hillary Clinton is the unambitious prerequisite to their later, loftier goals; Tony, a 29 year-old manager at a Manhattan sports bar, said he’ll vote for the Secretary, but with the sort of resignation he feels when he gets his yearly flu shot. The anarchist underbelly of the Sanders movement, though, feels differently: they want their change now, and seem unperturbed by the immense collateral damage it could bring about. Christopher Ketcham, a self-proclaimed Sanders voter, wrote the following for The Daily Beast:

What’s needed now in American politics is consternation, confusion, dissension, disorder, chaos — and crisis, with possible resolution — and a Trump presidency is the best chance for this true progress. This is a politics of arson. I’d rather see the empire burn to the ground under Trump, opening up at least the possibility of radical change, than cruise on autopilot under Clinton.

This blow-it-all-to-bits mentality, as woefully misguided as it may be, illustrates just how intractable the country’s two-party dichotomy has become. And the staunchest of Sanders supporters, the renegades mobilizing in various enclaves of the Internet to share their thoughts on Bernie, Marxism, Black Lives Matter or Pokemon Go, seem to believe that the destruction of the Democratic Party is the sine qua non of their cause. In a Reddit forum called, “The Best Way to Save Bernie’s Campaign,” BernieCanuck writes:

We need to scare the living shit out of the DNC. We need to show them that we mean business and that we won’t fall in line! WE NEED TO BE THE REVOLUTION! Unless you are a Bernie delegate, I think the best way to do this is to flock in droves to Jill Stein before the convention. Donate money, push her on Social Media, subscribe to her reddit, tell any pollsters who ask that without Bernie, your backing Jill.

In many conversations with Bernie Sanders supporters, it appeared that the majority of the far-left is not as crestfallen, not as idealistic, as it’s portrayed—BernieCanuck, in other words, is an outlier. Many of them may be “falling in line,” but that doesn’t mean their passion has been lost, even if Hillary Clinton fails to ignite it. To them, Sanders was a lovable poster boy, a fierce advocate, but he embodied their beliefs rather than aroused them. Ultimately, revolutions, whether they’re of the Napoleanic or Sandersian ilk, begin with ordinary people. Ideologies will inevitably be superimposed on some sort of torchbearer—a Bernie Sanders or an Elizabeth Warren, for example—but these ideologies do not wilt and die as the candidates’ campaigns do.

“I think the #FeelTheBern corpus has since resigned some of its limbs to other movements: Anti-Trump, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ, Women’s Rights and Identity politics in general are now the space where the Bernie base is mobilizing more independently,” said Leah, who lives in Brooklyn. “But I don’t think the energy is in any way thinning out just because it is spreading out.”

Keri, who is self-employed and a mother of three, is looking ahead. “The movement needs to continue moving forward, separate from the election. But we need to make sure to utilize those votes for Hillary Clinton.” She continued, “The danger is that people who are disillusioned by this election won’t vote. But we need to separate our emotions from business. Ideals turn into practical movements, and sometimes they need time. The Sanders movement needs time.”

I asked Keri how much time it might need, and she was gleeful at the prospect of a Cory Booker presidency, even as soon as the 2020 election. Ryan, who studies politics at the University of Colorado, also believes that Bernie’s vision for America is not too far off. “His message is alive and well. I only think, perhaps, that this campaign was maybe two elections too soon.”

Idealism in politics can be seen as a pejorative, a way to differentiate the pragmatists from the pipe-dreamers. But idealism that remains unscathed in the face of defeat might be better categorized as hope, an earnest, dignified expectation for a better day, a belief that all that campaigning and lobbying and Facebook-posting is, ultimately, worth it. And Sanders supporters have hope in spades. “I can almost guarantee that Sanders’ form of liberalism, his hope for the Democratic Party, is one of tomorrow,” Ryan added. “We will reach it, one day.”