Bernie’s Moment Is Over, but Not His Movement

Bernie’s campaigns for president were able to energize young people in a way that no Democrat – namely Joe Biden – is able to match. That energy is going to have lasting effects long after the end of the Bernie moment.

When Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2020, I was a first-year at the University of Oregon. I was far from politically developed, but I knew I supported Bernie, and like many others on my campus, I was energized by his campaign. Bernie deepened my understanding of politics and led me to support other left-wing struggles and engage in union organizing. To this day, Bernieis the only presidential candidate I have volunteered for, and I doubt I’ll feel the same way about another candidate anytime soon.

The first day I phonebanked for the Bernie campaign, I skipped my afternoon class to call people across the state of Iowa for the upcoming Democratic caucus: the caucus where Bernie would win the most votes and Pete Buttigeig preemptively declared victory. Sitting in a cramped study room in the library, I called 85 people that day while taking notes of my experiences – quotes which are very nostalgic to look back on now.

A few callers were rude and hung up, but most were receptive and listened to my pitch. My favorite interactions were with someone in the middle of a baby shower and a cashier at a grocery store, both of whom enthusiastically told me they’d heard of Bernie and would vote for him. It was a simpler, more optimistic time. My roommate and I attended a campus watch party for one of the primary debates, where the crowd booed every time Bloomberg spoke. Then Bernie won Nevada in a landslide, and the unspoken feeling of “holy shit, this can happen,” became spoken and electric. 

But Bernie lost in 2020 and has already stated he will not run in 2024, instead endorsing President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign. The Left, the youth, and everyone else who wants positive change will thus be voting in an electoral wasteland. There is no candidate in this coming presidential cycle, nor the foreseeable future, that former Bernie supporters will be motivated to volunteer for or even vocally support.

Why the disconnect? What did Bernie have that other candidates don’t? Simply put, Bernie energized people– he had the juice. Biden and the rest of the Democratic Party do not energize because they are not in touch with the material conditions of everyday Americans, most especially younger, working-class people. 

The Bernie campaign hammered on income inequality and economic precarity that most Americans experience and called for universal social policies like Medicare for All and free higher education. Even now, Bernie remains popular because he still fights like hell for higher wages and against billionaires.

Meanwhile, Biden wields executive power, but languishes at a 36% approval among 18-29 year olds, a rating that has only fallen since last year. Even the youth groups that work with the White House admit Biden is a “hard sell” to other young people. Recent reasons for this are Biden’s signing off on the Willow drilling project in Alaska and allowing schools to limit the participation of transgender athletes in sports. Moreover, Biden has labeled himself the most “pro-union president,” but in reality has neglected opportunities to truly align his administration with a resurging labor movement. This is especially salient as union approval is at its highest since the 1950s, and young people work predominantly on the front lines of Starbucks, Amazon, and their college campuses. Instead of supporting workers, Biden is crushing the railroad strikes.

Succinctly, the Democrats are not a serious political party, which is perfectly encapsulated by their Florida representatives doing a bipartisan Cha Cha Slide while the state’s GOP tirelessly works to establish a genuine hell on earth. In the face of these egregious political failings, most former Bernie supporters might do the bare minimum and sometimes vote for Democrats against increasingly reactionary Republicans, but they sure as hell won’t volunteer for Biden the way they did for Bernie. 

In the phonebanking training I was instructed to enunciate the fact that we, young people, will inherit the world – a fact that has not left my mind or my politics. 

The Bernie campaign got me invested in politics. It reoriented my political lens – as I’m sure it did for many others alienated from our political order – and set me up to recognize the importance of engaging in class struggle.

After Bernie’s defeat I only engaged in political struggle more, trying to enact change and push the socialist cause in the ways Bernie was unable to accomplish electorally. I worked closely with my campus’ labor movement from when it began, profiling the grievances of student workers to its recent filing for a legal union via a card check process. As a columnist, I blanketed my university’s newspaper with pro-union and left-wing arguments and went on to write midterm coverage for The Nation magazine. I specifically wrote about the importance of winning the youth vote; profiling student groups on their demands for the Biden administration.

Bernie was the foundation that allowed my political consciousness to develop and become embedded in the actual on-the-ground, grassroots struggles that matter. The coercive popular power in society does not flow from whoever wins the Democratic Primary, but from the bonds between workers. Sweeping, progressive changes will only come from on-the-ground organizing that builds the power to leverage electoral successes. I had to be disengaged from mainstream politics to realize this, but once I did, I became completely invested in labor organizing on my campus. In this way, Bernie made me a better union organizer.

The lack of a Bernie-type candidate going into 2024 is demoralizing, but it forces us to focus on what really advances socialist politics. 

What I told those Iowa voters three years ago is still true: we will inherit this world, but a single politician can only take us so far. It is our task to create the conditions, the coercive power that brings about the better world we know is possible. Our energy will ebb and flow, but it always must stay vested amongst the rank and file of the working class; energy that will be harnessed by future socialist candidates who follow Bernie.