I cared more about Bernie’s 2020 campaign than any political campaign in my lifetime. For months last semester, I canvassed for him in Oregon, and this January, I spent a month knocking on doors in freezing weather for him in Iowa. I spent the next month volunteering for him in Nevada, California and Washington. My sleeping situation alternated between crowded hotel rooms, air mattresses and, at one point, a small cubby on a sailboat. Along the way, I met organizers that will be lifelong friends and voters whose stories will stick with me forever.
I am not disappointed that Bernie, specifically, did not get to be president. I am disappointed because everyone in this country deserves healthcare, a stable wage and a planet that will continue to sustain life. And I am disappointed, because I believe it is by fighting for these rights, not by compromising on them, that we can defeat the right-wing politics that have slowly taken over this country for decades.
What Inspired me in Bernie’s campaign was never the man himself, but the “us” in the “Not Me, Us” slogan defining the campaign. It was the endorsements of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, Councilwoman Kshama Sawant and Author Naomi Klein. It was the satellite caucus in Iowa where majority Muslim, Latinx and multilingual groups voted for Bernie by the hundreds with near unanimity after being ignored by other campaigns. It was the culinary workers in Las Vegas who showed up for Bernie in droves despite their union’s denunciation of Medicare for All. It was the man I talked to who recently immigrated from Afghanistan after translating for the U.S. army who said he supported Bernie because he valued immigrants. It was the woman who had lost her last home because of medical bills, who took my hands in hers and thanked me with tears in her eyes.
These people did not support Bernie just because they wanted Trump out of office, but because they had student loans, families who fear immigration problems and insufficient healthcare. Abandoning the issues of Bernie voters is not abandoning some online fringe, but abandoning some of the issues that should be of the utmost importance for anyone in favor of progressive change.
Bold, progressive ideas were not rejected in this primary. On March 11, Common Dreams reported exit polls in 20 states showed voters in favor of a single-payer healthcare system replacing private health insurance. Washington Post exit polls showed Bernie winning amongst voters who wanted a candidate that agreed with them on major issues, but lost amongst voters who prioritized beating Trump above all else, who Joe Biden won with large majorities. Bernie did not lose because people do not want change. Bernie lost because voters were worried he could not beat Trump. But if Biden is not pushing popular, needed programs, can he really beat Trump?
Democrats’ most resounding win in the last fifty years was the victory of Barack Obama in 2008, who ran on a platform of hope and change. He won an electoral majority of nearly 10 million votes, and he did so with all of the same setbacks that Clinton’s 2016 loss is often attributed to, like divisions in the party and bigotry. Obama won despite defections from his party, with 25% of Clinton primary voters shifting support to John McCain in the general, according to a Duke University study. He won despite competing as the first black president in a tremendously racist country. He could have even lost five million voters to Russian memes and his numbers would still be better than Clinton’s were eight years later. Obama succeeded where Clinton failed because, in a world where things always seem to get worse, competing on a platform of hope and change provides much better footing for winning a general election.
I met several Bernie supporters in Iowa who were not lifelong Democrats. They said they had been Republicans out of habit and switched parties because they had never seen a politician like Bernie who spoke so clearly to the issues in their lives. The woman who I mentioned crying as she held my hands was one such convert. Many of the Trump supporters I talked to who were open to Bernie were former Obama voters. The Democratic party is actively losing working-class voters because it cannot demonstrate that it is going to make people’s lives measurably better. If centrism works so well, why is Trump our president? If compromising with Republicans was the path to reform, why did Obama’s presidency see Democrats lose both houses and nearly one thousand state legislature seats? If this November we are, once again, looking at four more years of Trump, let us consider that our path forward may not be in making concessions to the Republican Party, but that it can come from unabashedly supporting the change that we all wish to see in the world. Bernie’s attempts at the presidency may be over, but the dream of a fundamentally better future cannot be.