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Now that he has conceded the Democratic nomination to Hillary and mopped his brow, the mainstream media can stop posing the question, “When will Bernie get out of the way?” Beltway reporters and pundits can focus more intently on their second-favorite topic: “Will Bernie’s supporters vote for Hillary?”
But the Sanders campaign has achieved more than being a thorn in Hillary’s side or a conduit to her campaign.
Sanders energized a generation of supporters, winning more states and bringing out more voters than anyone—Sanders included—thought possible. Despite being discounted and ridiculed from the beginning, he won twenty-two primaries and caucuses, kept pace with the candidate of the party establishment and Wall Street by with contributions that averaged $27, attracted record-breaking crowds to giant arenas with his message about taking back our democracy and addressing Gilded Age levels of inequality, and came nearer to the nomination than any second-place finisher since 1972.
So powerful was the movement behind Bernie, Hillary was forced to tack to the left to try to capture the votes she needs to win—reversing herself on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the minimum wage, bank regulation, and college tuition—and attempting to co-opt the very word “progressive”.
In recent weeks, Sanders held off his endorsement until the progressives he put on the platform committee had finished their work, helping to create what many are calling the most progressive Democratic platform in history (the party has now embraced a $15 an hour minimum wage, free tuition at state universities for families that earn up to $125,000 per year, a Social Security expansion, and higher standards for trade deals (although not the hoped-for renunciation of the TPP).
“He opened up space so the millennial generation could show themselves and everybody, ‘Hey, we’re big, bad, powerful, and smart,’” says Steve Cobble co-founder of Progressive Democrats of America, the group that started the “Draft Bernie” effort.
Cobble, who served as national delegate coordinator for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1988 and later as political director for Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH coalition, calls Bernie’s candidacy in 2016 “a gift to the progressive movement.”
He sees the Sanders campaign as carrying the torch lit by Jackson and carried to the White House by Barack Obama, propelled by a coalition of young people, African Americans, Latinos, union members, LGBT voters and single women.
That was Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in 1988. It became Obama’s Rising American Electorate in 2008. And in 2016, with a bigger group of millennials behind it, it grew into the formidable political force that coalesced around Bernie Sanders.
“In a presidential year, that coalition is formidable,” says Cobble. “If Hillary can bring it out, she’ll win.”
But building a progressive political movement is about more than the next election. And taking the long view, as Cobble does, makes Bernie’s concession to Hillary look like less of a defeat for the progressive values he championed.
“Jesse is to Obama as Goldwater is to Reagan,” Cobble explains. “And Bernie is now filling that role for President Elizabeth Warren II or Tammy Baldwin Jr. or whoever picks up the banner.”
Bernie asked more of young voters than Obama did, and he got more of them more engaged and active than Obama did, Cobble points out. “If they don’t turn away in cynicism and disgust, that’s a big deal,” he says.
Voting for Hillary against the explicitly racist and misogynist campaign of Donald Trump is a no-brainer in Cobble’s view.
His advice to disappointed Bernie fans: “You gotta figure when you vote, you check the box and move on. And it doesn’t end there.”
Ruth Conniff is editor in chief of The Progressive Magazine.